John Gilbert was an American actor who became one of the first great stars of the silent film era, appearing opposite the top actresses of the time such as Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo.
His rise to fame was meteoric and he became known as The Great Lover of the Silver Screen, but his decline was even more dramatic. Although undoubtedly talented, he became a victim of the vicious politics of Hollywood when he fell out with the head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer.
BiographyHe was born John Cecil Pringle on July 10th, 1899 in Logan, Utah into a show-business family. His parents were stock company actors and young Jack, as he was known, was often separated from them and suffered a lonely, neglected childhood.
After several showbusiness moves, his family finally settled in California and Gilbert received the later part of his education at the Hitchcock Military Academy in San Rafael.
Hollywood 1915He became fascinated by the new world of movie making and whilst still a teenager, in 1915, he moved to Hollywood, finding walk-on work with the Thomas Ince Studios. He was noticed by French director Maurice Tourneur, who hired him to act and also write and direct several pictures. It was a very concentrated learning process and by 1917 he had graduated to playing leads and he soon started to become extremely well known.
Movie Star 1919In 1919 he starred opposite Mary Pickford in 'Heart of the Hills' and in 1921, with his reputation as a romantic leading man soaring, John signed a three year contract with the Fox Film Corporation where his celebrity increased with swashbuckling movies such as the 1922 hit 'Monte Cristo'. He continued his rapid rise in 1924 when he moved to MGM and appeared with many of the top stars of the Silent Age including Renee Adoree, Barbara La Marr, Lon Chaney Jr. and Mae Murray.
He made some extremely popular films including 'The Merry Widow' and 'His Hour' and, in 1925, 'The Big Parade' which became one of the most successful silent movies ever. In 1926 he was chosen by Lillian Gish to co-star with her in 'La Bohème' and when, in the same year, Rudolph Valentino, his only serious competitor as a romantic leading man, died, John was left on top of the movie world, the highest paid actor in Hollywood.
Hollywood SuperstarHis reputation and fame were further enhanced by a series of films he made with superstar Greta Garbo who starred with him in 'Flesh and the Devil' in 1926, 'Love', the following year and 'A Woman of Affairs' in 1928. The two had a torrid and highly public affair which the studio publicity department seized on and used diligently, resulting in a skyrocketing of audience figures, profits and of each star's popularity.
Gilbert planned to marry Garbo and is supposed to have proposed three times and been rebuffed each time. In September, 1926 a ceremony was arranged for a double wedding - Gilbert with Garbo and director King Vidor with his fiancee, actress Eleanor Boardman. Garbo did not turn up and studio chief Louis B. Mayer allegedly made a crude remark about her, causing Gilbert to lose his temper and strike Mayer. This seems to have been the start of Gilbert's fall from grace. Louis Mayer was not a man to cross.
Career DeclineFrom the late 1920's onwards, Gilbert's career fizzled out. His performances were devoid of the sparkle that he once had and his heavy drinking began to affect him. The whole industry was moving toward sound and MGM did little to help John adjust to the new medium. There have been persistent rumors that his voice was not suitable sound movies, and even that audiences laughed when he spoke because his voice was too high pitched. His voice in fact was well modulated and quite suited for Talkies. He first spoke in movies in 1929 in 'His Glorious Night', in which his voice was allegedly recorded in a high-pitched tone but he made several sound films, including Queen Christina in 1933, in which his voice was fine. It does seem highly likely that his earlier break up with the vindictive Louis B Mayer cost him his movie career.
The roles he was given in such films as 'Redemption' and 'Way for a Sailor', both in 1930, changed, and he now became the instigator of bad events, rather than the victim. In 1932, he made the film 'Downstairs', playing an unpleasant scheming, blackmailer. Although critically praised, the film did nothing to restore his popularity.
His lucrative contract with the studio ran out in 1933 after he appeared in 'Fast Workers' as a riveter. He starred in the same year in 'Queen Christiana' with Garbo once more, but again the movie failed to kick start his career. His next film, 'The Captain Hates the Sea' was his last. Alcoholism was severely damaging his health and his looks.
PersonalGilbert was married four times. His first wife was Olivia Burwell whom he met when he was just starting out in movies. It was a lonely period of his life and he married her on impulse but it quickly became apparent that they were not well suited. They divorced in 1922 after he had already proposed to his second wife, Leatrice Joy.
Leatrice was already a well known actress, starring in DeMille's 'Manslaughter' in 1922, and in his first version of 'The Ten Commandments' in 1923. She and Gilbert had a daughter, Leatrice Joy Fountain and divorced in 1924, just when he started his relationship with Greta Garbo.
In the spaces between his frequent marriages, rumors of Gilbert's love life were rampant. In the winter of 1927 Hollywood was thrown into a frenzy by reports that he and the eternally elusive Greta Garbo had eloped and married. The rumors were,of course, proved false.
His third wife,Ina Clair was a major Broadway star before she starred in her first Hollywood film, 'The Awful Truth', in 1929. She and Gilbert married only six weeks after meeting but the marriage foundered on her conviction that she was a bigger star than her husband.
Gilbert had another daughter, Susan Ann, with his fourth wife, Virginia Bruce. Virginia was also an actress, who married Gilbert in 1932 when his career was in serious decline. They divorced in 1934. On his death, it was Virginia Bruce who received the bulk of his estate.
DeathGilbert made no films in 1935 and his drinking intensified.
John Gilbert died on January 9, 1936 of a massive heart attack aged just 36. He was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
John Gilbert Academy AwardsNo Nominations:
John Gilbert Filmography
The Coward (uncredited)
Matrimony (short) (uncredited)
Aloha Oe (uncredited)
The Corner (uncredited)
Bullets and Brown Eyes (as Jack Gilbert)
The Last Act (uncredited)
Rowdy Townsman (uncredited)
Hell's Hinges (uncredited)
The Aryan (uncredited)
The Apostle of Vengeance (as Jack Gilbert)
The Phantom (as Jack Gilbert)
Eye of the Night (uncredited)
Shell 43 (as Jack Gilbert)
The Sin Ye Do (as Jack Gilbert)
The Weaker Sex
The Bride of Hate (as Jack Gilbert)
Princess of the Dark (as Jack Gilbert)
The Road to Honour (as Jack Gilbert)
Happiness (as Jack Gilbert)
The Millionaire Vagrant (as Jack Gilbert)
The Hater of Men (as Jack Gilbert)
The Mother Instinct (as Jack Gilbert)
Golden Rule Kate
The Devil Dodger (as Jack Gilbert)
Up or Down? (as Jack Gilbert)
Nancy Comes Home (as Jack Gilbert)
Shackled (as Jack Gilbert)
More Trouble (as Jack Gilbert)
One Dollar Bid (as Jack Gilbert)
Wedlock (as Jack Gilbert)
Doing Their Bit (as Jack Gilbert)
The Mask (as Jack Gilbert)
Three X Gordon (as Jack Gilbert)
The Dawn of Understanding (as Jack Gilbert)
The White Heather (as Jack Gilbert)
The Busher (as Jack Gilbert)
The Man Beneath (as Jack Gilbert)
A Little Brother of the Rich
The Red Viper (as Jack Gilbert)
For a Woman's Honor
Widow by Proxy (as Jack Gilbert)
Heart o' the Hills (as Jack Gilbert)
Should a Woman Tell? (as Jack Gilbert)
The White Circle (as Jack Gilbert)
The Great Redeemer (uncredited)
Deep Waters (as Jack Gilbert)
The Servant in the House (as Jack Gilbert)
Ladies Must Live (as Jack Gilbert)
The Yellow Stain
Calvert's Folly (as Jack Gilbert)
The Love Gambler
A California Romance
While Paris Sleeps
Madness of Youth
I St. Elmo
Just Off Broadway
The Wolf Man
A Man's Mate
The Lone Chance
He Who Gets Slapped
The Wife of the Centaur