It’s only in recent years that I’ve developed an appreciation for silent film, much less for the people who made up of the world of early Hollywood.
John (“Jack”) Gilbert was one of silent film’s success stories but also one of Hollywood’s great cautionary tales. He was a real star. But not the kind affixed in the firmament. Gilbert was more like a shooting star; a man who toiled unnoticed for years, slowly climbing his way up, until he flashed brilliantly across the screen for a handful of years before experiencing a sad descent.
about the subject
“He was always an enigma…Jack Gilbert was mercury, you’d touch him and he’d vanish.” Leatrice Joy
John Gilbert’s life was one of tragedy, both by circumstance and of the self-destructive variety. He was the only son of John Pringle and Ida Apperly, both actors. His parents divorced when he was young and his mother was at best neglectful, before dying while Jack was still a teenager. With the help of his stepfather, whose last name he adopted, he headed to Hollywood.
Jack grew up to become an easily hurt, thin-skinned young man who needed badly to be loved and accepted. He used his tough luck to educate himself, to mold himself into the person he wanted to be: smart, funny, accomplished, devil-may-care. pg 4
He worked for years in uncredited and small parts in films, starting first at Triangle Films working under the talented Thomas Ince and even Maurice Tourneur. Tourneur gave him the opportunity to both write and direct, but that film path was short lived for Jack. He then moved to Fox Films where his experience began to pay off. He finally began to be cast in leading roles, although none of these were to bring him true stardom. But he continued to develop his talent in films with John Ford, Lon Chaney and Norma Shearer (who became a good friend he nicknamed, “Auntie”).
John Gilbert was a naive perfectionist who wanted to make Great Art, play Great Parts to the best of his ability. pg 156
But it wasn’t until Jack’s move to MGM that he shot to fame after ten years of toiling away. His working partnership and friendship with director King Vidor, especially in his breakout hit The Big Parade in 1925, was definitely a part of his success, as were his pictures with other MGM talents like Erich von Stroheim, Lillian Gish and a genius pairing with Swedish import Greta Garbo.
“He was emotionally unstable. Gilbert was the type of man who would turn to the bottle at any disappointment.” Eleanor Boardman
Sadly within five years, he would find himself scrambling and failing to maintain his career. A large part of this was due to a mutual hatred between he and studio boss Louis B Mayer, with whom he had an ongoing feud. Jack was known to be very opinionated and often bad mouthed his own films, biting the hand that fed him. This did not endear him to Mayer. He was often temperamental, mercurial and the author suggests he could have been considered bi-polar. Of course, his drinking didn’t help and it only got worse as his career began to spiral. In the last years of his career he became a rather desperate and pathetic character, grateful for any opportunity, no matter how small, groveling to those willing to give him a a chance and decrying publicly how he felt deprived of the basic human need to work.
“Jack is terribly sensitive…easily hurt. But instead of lashing back like most of us do…he goes in for bravado…That’s why his troubles are always headlined…the reason he seems to be in difficulties constantly.” Mae Murray
This same lack of self-control also contributed to his many failed relationships. He had a tendency to fall in love quickly, but was unable to maintain a relationship for long. All four of his marriages were quickly made and fairly brief. He had two daughters, neither of which he had much involvement with, claiming he wasn’t the paternal type. Even his much hyped romance with Greta Garbo didn’t last long, only a matter of months, although their onscreen partnership continued for a while. For a man nicknamed “the Great Lover” onscreen, he was more the love ’em and leave’ em type or sometimes the love ’em and then run them off type off screen.
Within ten years of his great breakthrough in The Big Parade, John Gilbert was gone at 38, dying a broken man, his career and legacy in ruins.
” He was the best screen actor in the business and the most serious minded of them all. Gilbert wants to get at the heart of a character and once you can convince him that the part he’s playing is sincere and real, he’ll work for you until the cows come home.” Clarence Brown
Author Eve Golden does an absolutely brilliant job painting the picture of the life of this great star. Her book John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars is very well researched and necessarily so, as Gilbert has no living contemporaries. She manages to pack a lot of detail in under three hundred pages, which may seem short for a biography of such a great star, but then so was his life span.”
Golden’s book excels in a few areas. The first of which is separating myth from fact. She takes on the legends surrounding Jack’s relationship with Garbo as well as the apocryphal stories about his fights with Mayer. Golden presents the facts, the statements made by those who were present and also the holes in some of those statements and then leaves it up to the reader what to believe.
One thing that is true, despite the questionable validity of some of Jack and Mayer’s interactions, is that Mayer had a hand in the destruction of Jack’s career. He may not have deliberately sabotaged it, as it would have affected MGM’s profit margins, but Mayer definitely took advantage of the onset of sound films to have Jack cast in mediocre pictures. Of course, it could also be argued that Jack’s paycheck of $250,000 per film ended up being detrimental too as it disallowed the use of other big names for romantic co-stars in an attempt to manage the budget of Jack’s pictures. Then of course, Jack’s belligerence towards his bosses in the press and unpredictability on set didn’t help his cause. Mayer really showed his spite when Jack returned to make Queen Christina with Garbo , who insisted on Jack being cast opposite her in an attempt to rescue his career. Despite his past experience with MGM, Jack signed a new contract which Mayer then used it against him, in a means to demoralize Jack by forcing him either to accept terrible roles or not work at all. It also kept him from working anywhere else.
“The day I left MGM for the last time…I felt like a man must feel who is leaving the walls of a prison where the faces of his keeper have been mocking and unkind…and like a man who is leaving the home of his birth, where he has known both great happiness and bitter defeat.”
As for his relationship with Garbo, it is true that there was one. But whether or not they were actually engaged as well as the story of her standing him up at the altar and the subsequent fist fight with Mayer is hearsay. It could be true, then again it might not. Garbo did hold great respect for Jack during her time with him and often relied on his advice. He even directed many of her scenes, some on pictures he wasn’t even a part of.
“We were not suited to be together, Greta and I. She is a solitary Person, very shy, fearful of intrusion, shrinking from people. I like people around me; life, good talk, excitement.”
Other aspects of Golden’s writing I really enjoyed is her surprising insights into other big names of the silent film era such as Tourneur (like Jack, an artistic perfectionist), Ince, Mayer, Irving Thalberg (“a major part of his job was calming down actors and playing diplomat), Garbo, Shearer and Vidor among others. This book may be about Jack, but Golden doesn’t mind sharing the spotlight with other titans of the silent film era.
Not to mention, she shares a lot of historical detail of the industry during this period providing background and context to the stories of the people who were part of creating this lost art. As I have also been reading other books about Hollywood during this time, Golden’s contribution ads to my overall understanding.
Golden’s biography of John Gilbert is one of the better film biographies I’ve read. She presents a clear-eyed picture of her subject, sharing details that contribute to a better understanding of Jack without letting her own bias color the reader’s perception. I was left feeling both frustrated by his weaknesses and simultaneously heart-broken by the way he was treated, both by his studio and his public. There were no wasted pages full of unnecessary or boring information. In fact, I had a difficult time putting this book down and was sad once it was finished. As a fan of Hollywood history I am happy to have learned more about its’ more formative years. And as a human I can only feel compassion for the life of John Gilbert.
“The screen was his life. But the screen turned him down…He was a person whose energy burned him up. His natural outlet for this energy was the motion picture, but this, for reasons he nor any other man could fathom, was denied him.” Jim Tully
This is one of several classic film book reviews I am posting for the 2021 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel at Out of the Past.