John Gilbert Soldiers On
John Gilbert was so much the broken idol throughout his talkie career as to make difficult viewing even for admirers. Several JG fans of long acquaintance admit never having seen/heard him talk. Alone was Gilbert, I think, for swapping chips of super-silent stardom for venture down ever-darkening character tunnels. Case to point: His 1931 West Of Broadway. Jack has drunkenly wed a stranger (Lois Moran) to spite another who's given him air. The morn-after finds Gilbert wanting off the hook. He shuffles in from a separate bedroom, heebie-jeebies in evidence, offering a check to forget the whole thing. After a fashion of romantic leading men (not!), JG fights a losing battle with alcoholic shakes and palsied hands, as authentic a glimpse of addict suffering as you'd see in mainstream H'wood of the day. Too real, I'd venture, for dream purchasers discomfited by a once romantic paragon Big Parading troubled offscreen life, patrons wise to that thanks to merciless press coverage of Gilbert's decline.
Jack had dropped to studio label of Grossly Overpaid. Contract renewal with Loew's during Broadway's forever-run of The Big Parade by-passed negotiation with Mayer and minions in favor of direct pledge to bigger chief Nicholas Schenck. No one then pictured Gilbert as a star at risk, thus was commitment of $250K per pic with no options (that is, escape clause for Leo). Four years rich grazing was Jack's, plus what seemed an emerald bridge over his segueing to sound, failure of which came among an industry's bigger shocks. By 1931 and West Of Broadway, fan press made no secret of MGM paying money for nothing, all of JG's since His Glorious Night in a revenue dive. I never bought that Mayer rigged equipment to queer the Gilbert voice, too much cash involved to indulge even LB's animus toward a star plunging fast enough on his own. Gilbert hated weak pictures assigned to him, but told West Of Broadway support Ralph Bellamy he'd clean spittoons for stipends now regretted at Loew's leisure.
So maybe he could relax and focus on the acting. Trouble (among much) was Jack not able to sleep, for days at a time. He'd drag in dispirited from this and a hundred causes from which hindsight can pick: bleeding ulcers, alcohol abuse, probable manic depression ... that latter suggested by sometimes wildly up/down temperament. There's a moment in West Of Broadway where someone recommends Jack get rest, to which he gives new meaning to despaired one-word line reading: Sleep! --- that avenue foreclosed to both Gilbert and the character he was playing. I'm satisfied that the best "personality" players got their immortality letting private life bleed into roles. A lot of West Of Broadway is Jack doing demolition duty on his silent lover image, a process disturbed/diminishing fans wouldn't sit for.
Critics were oblivious as well to Gilbert's progression (and it was progress --- he really soars in these '31-32 talkers). One said "a galloping, romantic picture" would restore him, but Jack's self-awareness, and talent matured thanks to that, would not accommodate going back. Besides, talkies wouldn't accommodate a silent Gilbert sort of vehicle. I'd say he was more than equipped to make the precode jump --- in fact, he did --- just not in product audiences embraced or MGM put best effort toward selling. Promised-to-him Grand Hotel or Red Dust were the stuff of comebacks, if not romantic galloping. Jack might have played Grand's Barrymore part better than Barrymore (I'd rather have him in it), and chances are he'd have brought more irony and life experience to the eventual Gable role in Red Dust. It's finally pointless to ponder what-ifs --- I limit mine to Gilbert and like cases that should have had a different outcome, and almost surely would have, if not for a wrong choice here or broken pledge there.
West Of Broadway almost answers the Whatever Happened To ... of Gilbert's character in The Big Parade. Back from the Great War, wounded Jack has comic sidekick El Brendel, "picked up in the
1931 reviews for West Of Broadway seem unreasonably savage. Precode's public had it so good then as to cull much that was fine from litters, and overexposure could be an issue for players collecting high weekly checks. Gilbert had three features out that year, negating chance any one of them could excel. Product had to stand completely on what he brought to it. By later work (including West Of Broadway) and a greater public's perception of burnout, JG had no chance left. WOB captures all the moods he must have felt, throws off welcome vibe of Jack being Jack, and never mind a script more effort could have improved. If the early 30's had reality shows, West Of Broadway was one. My suggest would be to read Leatrice Gilbert Fountain's splendid book about her father, then watch. West Of Broadway is recently out from Warner Archive, a more than welcome DVD and highly recommended.
More John Gilbert at Greenbriar Archives: Desert Nights, His Glorious Night, and The Grand Hotel That Might Have Been.