The first film tonight is the 1927 The Show. I thought this would be an interesting contrast with tonight’s Gilbert talkie, as both his characters are similar, yet their outcome is different. Just to mention a few things: Renée Adorée and John Gilbert enjoyed working together and made a number of films during the Silent era. Sadly, Adorée died of tuberculosis a few days after her 35th birthday on October 5, 1933. I thought that the dance that Renée Adorée does is pretty sexy although it’s interesting to note that the idea of what a sexy female body is has somewhat changed over the years. I also thought I detected some rather “bad” language coming out of John Gilbert’s mouth when he gives Salome a dressing down. The best parts are the rather unusual carny characters, the make up is also great, and this film shows us that Tod Browning was very interested in these ideas as he was from the circus before entering films. These ideas all culminated into his most famous film, Freaks. I don’t know too much about Tod Browning and would like to read a bio about him if one exists. From the viewing of some of his films recently, and knowing he was originally an acrobat and circus performer, it’s now more obvious to me why he liked to direct films about magic and all the things that were related–carnivals, magician acts in clubs, the underground elements that could be related to this life. I get the feeling that part of his message could be that if you like to trick people then maybe there’s more to you then just wanting to entertain. Just recently, I watched the last film he directed, Miracles for Sale, 1939. In this film, the hero, Robert Young, is a very above-board magician, yet of course, gets involved in the shady side of the business which leads to murder. Browning was obviously able at times to choose this type of film that he was most interested in working on when he was in the studio’s good graces. I tend to think of Browning as a young man making these films, but he was actually 47 when he made The Show and 53 when he was punished the following year after making Freaks when given Fast Workers, along with the equally reprimanded John Gilbert. Interestingly, this film also brings to mind the Pen and Teller shows, where we get to see how the “special effects” are done. I hope you enjoy The Show! Caren
November 16, 2013
The Show (1927)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Directed by Tod Browning. From the novel titled “The Day of Souls” by Charles Tenney Jackson. Screenplay by Waldemar Young. Titles by Joseph Farnham. Cinematography by John Arnold. Set Direction by Richard Day and Cedric Gibbons. Film editor by Errol Taggart. Released: January 22, 1927. 76 minutes.
John Gilbert…………………………………………………………… Cock Robin
Renée Adorée…………………………………………………………….. Salome
Lionel Barrymore……………………………………………………… The Greek
Edward Connelly…………………………………………………….. The Soldier
Gertrude Short……………………………………………………………….. Lena
Andy MacLennan…………………………………………………….. The Ferret
Polly Moran………………………………………………… Sideshow Spectator
Dorothy Sebastian…………………………………….. Salvation Army Worker
Although The Show has never enjoyed a major reputation, one’s curiosity in it has always been piqued because those who have endorsed the film–for example, James Card of Eastman House–have invariably been historians whose opinions are worthy of respect. Its recent erroneous inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition and book on “lost” films merely added to this tantalising aura.
Alas, it must be sadly admitted that while it is a good and healthy thing when any film resurfaces after years of obscurity, there are sometimes very good reasons for that obscurity, and The Show is a case in point. It’s the kind of film that tends to reinforce the opinions of the unknowing that the silent film was usually turgid, slow and over-wrought. If there were ever a wise and critically astute yet neutral filmic Deity, one would hope that he would contrive to keep films like this in the depths, while bringing out plenty of Tourneurs and Borzages into the sunlight. (And of course, one would also hope that those Depths would at least be accessible to film students!)
Even admitting any own rather strong anti-Browning bias (Freaks always excepted), The Show does seem to contain all of the Brown vices and few of his virtues. A compelling and attention-getting opening–a Browning trademark–isn’t necessarily a virtue when the film slackens off and the pace spirals downwards after that opening. Here all the bizarre sideshow attractions seem to promise much in rich and colorful melodrama, but that promise is just never fulfilled. The plot too, consists of the standard Browning mechanics. I would agree with the point made in a recent “Films in Review” letter (though not with the enthusiasm with which it was expressed) that irony was an essential ingredient of Browning plotting; but it soon became merely a gimmick, just as the shock tragedy of so many early Ince films was an artificial device. I know nothing of the original novel from which The Show was adapted, but it seems to have been reshaped to the standard Browning formula; Barrymore in fact seems to have exactly the same role (and the same modus operandi) as Chaney in The Unknown–except that Barrymore’s role is smaller and less bizarre. Another major liability of The Show is that its camera speed demands silent speed projection most of the time–making its thin and already too drawn-out plot even longer. Still, there are compensations: the occasionally interesting sets, Alton’s always interesting lighting, and Gilbert’s performance, which do a lot to offset the absurdity of plot and the tedium of pace. It’s good to have so many Brownings back with us–either to re-establish his legend, or to demolish it–and either here or at the NewSchool, we’ll be getting to a lot of the silent Brownings over the next six months.
The Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society by William K. Everson, October 5, 1970
Very few of the great directors of the silent era were American. Even when the films were made in the States, the directors were still usually emigrees from Europe, like Victor Sjöström, Fritz Lang or even Charlie Chaplin. But there were a few homegrown American directors who made their presence very well known, and the one that I find consistently most fascinating is Tod Browning, who really made genre films from before there ever were such things. They’re full of horror, mystery and weird fantasy and I revel in that. Browning had run away young to join the circus and so knew of what he spoke when it came to such material. That’s why Freaks rang so true and so honest and why it was so completely beyond the pale in 1932.
I’d never seen The Show before, mostly because it’s one of those many silent films that languished for years without a musical score, having been played with live accompaniment on original release. Now with its use as material for the TCM Young Composer of the Year competition, it now has a score and a pretty good one too, by newcomer Darrell Raby. Quite apart from being happy to see anything new to me from the silent era, an unseen Tod Browning is high on the list, especially one set at the carnival. This one has the added benefit of also being a Lionel Barrymore and a John Gilbert film too, both names I’ve come to enjoy hugely.
John Gilbert is Cock Robin, a lively and dynamic carny who rings very true in Gilbert’s portrayal. He plays the character like a coiled spring, oozing arrogant charisma and ready to either kill or blow with the wind at a whim. He’s half hero but when he strikes a woman we’re not surprised in the slightest. He presents the freak show, fake this time unlike the awesome reality of Freaks, which is unfortunate. I’d loved to have seen real freaks that approximate to Zela the half lady, Arachnida the human spider and Neptuna, the queen of the mermaids, let alone the Living Hand of Cleopatra who handles the tickets! Robin also appears in his show’s chief attraction, as John the Baptist, here called Jokanaan, in a scene depicting his beheading at the request of Salome after her dance for Herod. Here Browning shows us how the fakery works, and yet it’s still done very believably indeed.
There’s a plot in here somewhere too, having to do with the money of Konrad Driskai, a sheep farmer who has just sold his flock in Budapest and then been murdered for the take. Maybe the surname means unlucky thirteen in some Eastern European language or other. Lionel Barrymore plays the man behind the theft, a character called the Greek who will stop at nothing to get the money. However his timing was far less effective than that of Robin on stage, as Driskai’s daughter Lena had the bankroll at the time and it quickly ends up with Robin who has been courting her on the sly.
The story doesn’t matter too much, nor the acting which is certainly exaggerated, though not to the degree that silent films often were. It’s the atmosphere that Browning works at here and he excels himself. The film feels dangerous, pure and simple, seething menace. It almost made me check for my wallet, even though I was watching from the privacy of my own home! Sound films were never this creepy, at least with a few notable exceptions in the precode era like Svengali, Freaks or Island of Lost Souls, and I almost didn’t miss the presence of Lon Chaney, Browning’s muse and almost constant collaborator. I hope this gets released on DVD soon as it would play with Browning’s next film, The Unknown, as a great double act.
http://www.apocalypselaterfilm.com/2007/02/show-1927-tod-browning.html, by Hal C.F. Astell, February 2, 2007
At the end of 1926 Jack was awarded Photoplay’s annual best-acting medal, one of the highest honors in those pre-Oscars years, for The Big Parade. Riding high on his success, he traveled to New York, where he was reported to be in talks with Famous Players-Lasky, which “is more than keen to annex Gilbert at the expiration of his Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract, but that of course might be said with equal truth of all the producing companies,” as the Los Angeles Times wrote. “The role of Clyde Griffiths in An American Tragedy has been promised Gilbert if he will but sign….He said in several published interviews that he would like nothing better than to play the Dreiser role on the screen and furthermore, as it seems definitely certain that Monta Bell will direct it when the time comes, the sympathetic relations existing between Gilbert and Bell are adduced as evidence of what is in the wind.”
But the talks with Famous Player-Lasky fell through; dejected from losing his shot at An American Tragedy, Jack had to make do with a dark carnival tale, The Show. He promisingly told the Los Angels Times, “I am a low-down bum of a sideshow barker in a traveling show, a mean little whelp who treats women shamefully and I beat up Renée Adorée.” But by the end of filming he was disenchanted: “We had to get some reclamation in the end,” he complained. “Apart from that, it is honest, all right.”
The Show was Jack’s first project with the eccentric director Tod Browning. A former actor (and circus clown and acrobat), Browning took up directing in the late 1910s. At Universal and later with MGM, he specialized in dark, quirky projects, including nine starring vehicles for Lon Chaney. Browning is best known today for his terrifying early-1930s classics Freaks and Dracula, and he brought some of this toughness and creepiness to The Show. Browning was also a prickly character. “He was very difficult to work with,” recalled film editor Basil Wrangell. “Very sarcastic, very unappreciative of any effort, and very demanding.”
Jack had wanted to appear in a film version of the Ferenc Molnar play Liliom, about an abusive, tragic carnival barker who commits suicide and comes back to earth to look after his daughter. The play was, of course, reincarnated as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel in 1945 (as Liliom, it had been shot in 1919 and would be again in 1930 and ’34). Instead, the 1910 Tenney Jackson novel The Day of Souls was optioned and this movie was ostensibly based on it–but The Show had nothing whatsoever to do with Jackson’s novel about the denizens of pre-earthquake San Francisco.
Perhaps to placate Jack, bits of Liliom were indeed used: Jack portrayed Cock Robin (!), a womanizing, thieving barker at a Hungarian carnival. A romantic triangle simmers between Cock Robin, hoochie-coochie dancer Salome (Renée Adorée), and “the Greek” (Lionel Barrymore). Browning incorporated a corking revenge death plot (the Greek uses both a sword and a venomous lizard to try to kill off his rival, with predictable results–Browning was to lift this subplot the following year for the deadly Lon Chaney-Joan Crawford-Norman Kerry circus love triangle in The Unknown).
Cock Robin is an enjoyably dastardly character and Jack obviously had great fun with him: he romances and robs innocent country girls, consorts with streetwalkers, even knocks Salome around when she interferes with his schemes. But that “reclamation” he complained about was indeed written in: Cock Robin is drawn into Salome’s tragic family drama and falls to his knees before her, proclaiming, “God, you’re a real dame–right straight through to the core.”
Despite this, The Show is a hugely entertaining, fast-moving film, with plenty of Browning’s dark, bizarre touches, some lewd humor, suspense, and a bit of melodramatic tear jerking. Credit must also be given to costume designer Lucia Coulter (who also had worked on Bardelys). Inspired by the striped sweater, neckerchief, and black pants worn by Joseph Schildkraut in the 1921 Broadway production of Liliom, she sexed it up and created what would become Billy Bigelow’s iconic outfit for Carousel: skin-tight, closely striped sweater, scarf knotted at the neck, and tight, cinch-wasted black pants. John Raitt and Gordon MacRae wore it with great panache in the Broadway and film Carousels, as did Charles Farrell and Charles Boyer in the 1930s version of Liliom. And the outfit made Jack–not Renée Adorée–the sex object in The Show. The camera lingers over his form, and when some female bit players gossip about Salome hiding Cock Robin in her room for weeks, one gives him the once-over and purrs, “Who wouldn’t?”
Reviews were generally favorable: “Any one who is tired of drawing room dramas that are intensely unreal despite the fact that nothing particularly remarkable happens in them will have a wonderful time at The Show,” wrote the New York Evening Post. Richard Watts Jr. of the New York Herald Tribune compared Browning to Edgar Allan Poe, and another critic wrote that Jack “Takes his character and regenerates him…without a trace of implausibility–this is what marks Gilbert as one of the supreme actors of the screen.” Jack himself bitterly called The Show “nothing whatever to be proud of. I wanted to do Lilliom, but was denied the privilege of making the fine story. The Show was its illegitimate spew. I was rotten in it.” The Show–released in January 1927–cost $187,000, and made a profit of $178,000.
John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars by Eve Golden (2013)
Jack began his next picture, The Show, less than a month after the Vidor wedding. He also had a brief rebound affair with the lovely Renée Adorée, his co-star in this and several other movies, including The Big Parade. Renée, as I later learned from her sister, knew full well that Jack was desperately in love with Garbo. When the affair ended, they remained affectionate friends until Renée’s untimely death in 1933.
As for The Show, Jack had little enthusiasm for the project, but not because of Garbo. Months earlier, he’d seen a Los Angels production of Ferenc Molnár’s Liliom, and begged the studio to buy it for him. The story of Liliom, a merry-go-round barker with a Hungarian carnival, is widely known today as the basis for the 1944 musical Carousel. Jack wanted to play Liliom and Thalberg agreed, but Mayer overruled him. Instead Mayer had the writers’ department concoct another Hungarian carnival story, tenuously based on another property MGM owned, in which Gilbert would play a character named Cock Robin, who in turn played John the Baptist in the carnival show (Renée played Salome), all the time being menaced by a fiendish Greek (Lionel Barrymore) who comes to a bad end when he is bitten to death by a gila monster. Jack`s character, Cock Robin, was “a conceited scalawag of low morals.”
It was a terrible, silly, cheaply made picture, which used cheap painted sets such as those Jack remembered from his days at Fox. Few critics had anything good to say about it, although most admired Jack’s performance. Variety wondered in print why a romantic star like John Gilbert would be cast in such a picture: “A sordid role, the type which tends to degrade. It will undoubtedly hurt his general popularity with women. Still, he does it to perfection.”
Variety had a point. The Show was notable only for the fact that the studio put Jack in it at all. He was the top male star at MGM, with three pictures playing at the same time to sold-out houses on Broadway. Flesh and the Devil was setting house records around the world and inspiring millions of printed words about the art of making love. Yet MGM cast Jack in a forgettable piece of trash and in a role that closely matched Mayer’s personal opinion of John Gilbert.
Jack, of course, hated the picture, which he dismissed as an “illegitimate spew.” He now began to suspect that Mayer was deliberately trying to wreck his career. In fact, The Show did mark a turning point. Form His Hour through Flesh and the Devil, his career had climbed steadily, each picture adding to his reputation. Jack’s public and private comments about his treatment at MGM were almost entirely positive. Beginning with The Show, however, his movies fluctuated between good and poor. He was never again given a blockbuster like The Big Parade or La Bohème. All were, or were intended to be, low-budget movies.
Dark Star: The Untold Story of the Meteoric Rise and Fall of the Legendary John Gilbert by Leatrice Gilbert Fountain with John R. Maxim, (1985)
We showed this film at GEH in 1988. I wasn’t going to Rochester at that time, so until pre-screening this film only a few weeks ago, this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to see it. I have heard and read a lot about it, and if you haven’t ever seen it, it won’t disappoint. Jack Gilbert strikes me more and more as a rather dark person. He wrote this story and wanted to play the main character who is anything but likeable. Yes, he can be charming and sexually appealing, but the core of the character is a nasty fellow and it certainly doesn’t take us very long to discover this. One of the scenes that I found moving was the one where Albert finds Anna sleeping on the divan when he comes into their room. She looks so lovely and he lifts and carries her over to the bed where he gently lies her down and covers her up. He looks at her for a moment and then walks away to sit down on the divan where he buries his head in hands with worry. Anna, though, has opened her eyes just as he turns away and with a little, quick frown of disappointment on her mouth, let’s us know that she had devised this little scene in the hopes that it would stir her husband’s passion and she would happily have submitted to him.
I think I found some good articles about the film and John Gilbert that you should find interesting reading after you finish watching the movie. At the moment I am reading Eve Golden’s book on John Gilbert where excerpts for both films are from. Another couple of excerpts are from John Gilbert’s daughter’s book, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain who attended a TFS Silent screening on November 4, 1987 to talk about her famous parents. I don’t remember what film we showed except that I think it was one of her mother’s, Leatrice Joy’s. She was selling her book at that time and I have a signed copy that my parents purchased. And, in case you don’t know, you’ll find it interesting to note that Gilbert and Virginia Bruce fell in love during the filming of Downstairs and were married sometime afterward. She was 21 to his 33. Caren
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Directed by Monta Bell. Story by John Gilbert. Screenplay by Lenore Coffee and Melville Baker. Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons. Cinematography by Harold Rosson. Film Editing by Conrad A. Nervig. 77 minutes.
John Gilbert………………………………………………………. Karl Schneider
Paul Lukas…………………………………………… Albert, the Baron’s Butler
Virginia Bruce……………………………………………….. Anna, Albert’s Wife
Hedda Hopper……………………………………………. Countess De Marnac
Reginald Owen……………………………………… Baron ‘Nicky’ von Burgen
Olga Baclanova…………………………………. Baroness Eloise von Burgen
Bodil Rosing………………………………………………….. Sophie, the Cook
Otto Hoffman………………………………… Otto, the Wine Cellar Caretaker
Lucien Littlefield……………………………….. François, a Drunken Servant
Marion Lessing……………………………. Antoinette, Maid to the Countess
Karen Morley…………………………………………….. Karl’s New Employer
With movies about opportunists in vogue by 1932, John Gilbert’s starring in Downstairs (1932) must have seemed like a reasonable career move. Pictures had become increasingly cynical by 1932, and they would get even more cynical before the Code intruded in mid-1934. Yet nothing could have prepared audiences for Downstairs, a movie that had the misfortune of being ahead of its time by about forty years.
Leading up to Downstairs, Gilbert’s talkie history had been a series of disappointments and humiliations. Howard Hawks had hoped to cast him in The Dawn Patrol in 1930, a movie that could have helped him, but MGM’s Louis B. Mayer refused to lend him out to Warners. Meanwhile, at MGM, Gilbert watched helplessly as roles originally intended for him went to other people. Nature, hating a vacuum, had seen fit to bestow upon MGM Clark Gable, who emerged to replace Gilbert as the studio’s alpha male. In what might have been the worst blow, Gilbert was given the lead in Red Dust (1932), only to see it yanked from him and handed to Gable.
In 1932, Irving Thalberg–perhaps feeling guilty for doing exactly squat to stop his supposed friend’s slide into oblivion–agreed to let Gilbert make a movie from his own scenario. It was one Gilbert had been carrying around since the silent days. Set in Central Europe, Downstairs was the story of a chauffeur who moves into a wealthy household and proceeds to seduce, blackmail, and steal from everybody. It was the story of a black-hearted scoundrel, a smiling, irredeemable rogue who lies and calculates every waking minute. On the few occasions when he lets loose with a real emotion, it’s made of nothing but sneers and bile.
One can only wonder at the psychological implications of Gilbert’s writing such a story for himself at the height of his silent glory. Had the notoriously self-destructive Gilbert harbored a dark impulse to kill his career–or at least his heroic image? In the 1920s, such a movie would have seemed to arrive from Pluto. By 1932, the presence of unpleasant protagonists in film suggested that maybe the times had caught up with the story.
For his director, Gilbert was given Monta Bell, with whom he had collaborated on a number of silents, including Man, Woman and Sin (1927). Bell, with his caustic irony, was ideal for Downstairs. He had a particular affinity for class issues, and virtually all his extant films demonstrate an anger toward the oblivious cruelties of privilege. In Bell’s hands, Gilbert’s despicable chauffeur was bound to emerge full strength.
Warner Bros. movies had a warmth, a swift pace, and a gallows humor–an overall style that, in itself, expressed a kind of philosophy and gave its most anarchic subject matter an understandable, crazy-world context. But Downstairs was an MGM film. As such, it expressed its mad reality within a reasonably paced, naturalistic framework, which only made the film’s perversity stand out in greater relief. This was no heightened reality, but human nature in action, according to Gilbert and Bell.
Karl (Gilbert) starts his new job and quickly gets the lay of the land. The master of the house (Reginald Owen) is a selfish hypochondriac; his wife is an adulteress. Karl embarks on a three-pronged quest for power. He blackmails the mistress, seduces the pretty young maid (Virginia Bruce), who is married to the butler, and plots to steal the life savings of the fat old cook, who keeps her money rolled up in her stocking.
With the maid, he’s self-effacing and sneaky, overstepping himself and retreating, waiting for his moment, his eyes dark and his smile steady, pouring the wine and pouring the wine until she’s drunk and ready for anything. Gilbert is the perfect villain. His thoughts are always clear. Because his eyes never lie to us, it’s fun to watch him lying.
His scenes with the cook are a hoot for the opposite reason. With her, he worries less about letting his personality slip through, and that personality is appalling. Apparently, they’ve been sleeping with each other. He calls her “grandma” and tells her, “With a face like yours, you oughta pay plenty.” In a scene that makes viewers wonder if they’re actually seeing what they’re seeing, Gilbert talks to her as he picks his nose and his ears with his pinkie, then wipes it on his shirt. Such was Gilbert’s plan for getting back in the public’s good graces. Good plan, wrong century.
Today, we can see the humor of Downstairs as expressing dark truths about human lust and avarice. But in its time, the picture–which was just a bit weirder and nastier than anything else the era produced–was hated by critics, who saw it as a needless wallow in unpleasantness. It would take another world war to make people jaded enough to embrace Downstairs, and by then, the movie would be forgotten.
Indeed, it was forgotten almost as soon as it came out. In 1932, it came and went, just one more nail in Gilbert’s coffin. Not until the nineties did a widespread audience get to discover it on television (thanks to Turner Classic Movies) and see the dark little masterpiece that Gilbert and Bell had made.
For Bell, Downstairs was the last important film, expressing a bleak vision of Depression economics as seen through the veneer of Austrian society. For Gilbert it was even more–a personal statement about his own stardom and a real parting shot. Through the protagonist, Gilbert got to present his own seductive power as something calculated, joyless, and dangerous–and to show the people who fell for it as gullible and ridiculous. Perhaps that’s why the film failed: Audiences and critics registered the insult without quite grasping it.
Gilbert would go on to make a few more pictures, including Queen Christina, the Garbo classic. But this was his last, best chance to transform himself from an old-style great lover to a new-style roguish lover, and it didn’t work. Perhaps nothing would have worked.
At least this once, Gilbert got to thumb his nose on the way down.
Dangerous Men by Mick LaSalle (2002)
Monta Bell’s delightfully perverse Downstairs was released in 1932, but its cynicism was too much even for Depression audiences. John Gilbert, who wrote the story, played a chauffeur who swindles and seduces an entire household. In one scene, a husband (Paul Lukas) angrily confronts his innocent young wife, played by Virginia Bruce, with his knowledge that she has spent the night with that horrible chauffeur. In reply, she offers the sort of apology that could send a husband into therapy. “There’s a kind of way of making love that drives you mad and crazy,” she says. “Are you going to throw me out into the street because I didn’t know this before?”
It gets worse. Next thing, she’s blaming him:
Whatever’s happened, some of it’s your fault, some of it. You believe you can make love in the same frozen way you do everything else. And you think that’s all I should have any wish for. Well, I tell you plain and straight right now, it’s nothing of the kind. I meant no harm. I don’t want anything but you in my home But if you’re going to be so good and so perfect and so unforgiving that I can’t have that, then I thank heaven that I found something else–something that makes you so dizzy you don’t know what’s happened and you don’t care!
Complicated Women by Mick LaSalle (2000)
Irving Thalberg was deeply saddened at Jack’s condition, worried about him, and bone-tired of his own escalating conflicts with Mayer. Thalberg decided he’d try to give Jack a present.
He called Lenore Coffee into his office and said he’d dusted off an old story that Jack had written four years earlier in hopes of getting Erich von Stroheim to make a picture from it. Nothing had come of the project at the time because the part Jack had written for himself was thought to be too unsympathetic. The story was a black comedy called Downstairs, about the going-on of servants and nobility in an aristocratic Viennese household. Jack’s part was that of a cheerfully immoral and lecherous chauffeur. The story’s theme was similar to that of the modern classic television series Upstairs, Downstairs, and is thought by some to have been the latter’s inspiration. Thalberg told Lenore Coffee that now he’d like to assign the picture to Jack if she would work with him to write the necessary dialogue. Lenore agreed with pleasure.
Thalberg seemed determined to do this one right. Erich von Stroheim was out of the question as director–in fact, he was never allowed to complete a sound picture–but Monta Bell could be counted upon to do it justice. He cast the venerable Reginald Owen and Olga Baclanova as the baron and baroness. Paul Lukas was carefully chosen as the butler and Bodil Rosing, a gifted Austrian actress, was to be Sophie the cook. The female lead, that of a young maid named Ana, was given to a delicate blonde newcomer named Virginia Bruce.
When told all of this, Jack was at first disbelieving. Then, as it sank in, he suddenly leaped at Irving Thalberg, hugging the smaller man and picking him up off his feet. His mood soared from its depths and stayed there. He told a reporter, “I am happier than I have been in years,” and then enthusiastically described the project. “It’s a psychological study, a cross-section view of two strata of life….The part [of Karl, the chauffeur] is a swaggering Don Juan who makes up in audacity what he lacks in conscience. He is an outright villain but nevertheless a fascinating chap. He will be hated for his villainy but he’s bound to be interesting.”
The plot, in bare bones and without the witty dialouge that makes it a comedy, has Jack arriving at the baron’s house on the day the butler, Albert, marries the young maid, Anna. Being a lecher, Karl flirts openly with the maid. Being a cad, he blackmails the baroness upon learning she has a lover and he extorts money from the cook. He eventually seduces Anna while her husband is off with the baron and baroness on a fishing trip. Albert finds out and tries to have him fired. But the baroness can’t fire him, because he knows her secret. It comes to a head when Jack tries to get the maid to run off with him on Sophie’s money. When she refuses, he tries to take her by force. Albert comes to the aid of his repentant wife and ends up drowning Karl in a wine vat during a violent fight in the wine cellar.
Jack thought the wine-vat drowning was a nice touch and was very pleased with himself for writing it. But upon the picture’s release, a few theater managers insisted on a new ending that would leave this engaging rogue alive to work other mischief. In the alternative ending, Karl escapes the wine vat and goes off to a job in another household where the cycle begins again.
Except for the alternative ending, the picture was everything Jack hoped it would be. He got to play an anti-hero, his favorite type of role. Monta Bell, a great admirer of Erich von Stroheim, made a picture that was filled with suggestions of the gifted Viennese director. Von Stoheim’s meticulous realism is all there, as well as his attention to detail and his favorite sub-theme of the gentle decadence of the nobility versus the stalwart plodding virtue of the working classes. Time magazine raved about the picture’s style and sophistication, going so far as to pronounce that “Downstairs has brought Gilbert back to the top of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer stable of stars.”
Modern audiences agree. Kenneth Anger, writing in 1975, said “Jack’s [voice] was in truth not bad….Proof is to be found in the brilliant 1932 comedy Downstairs, written by Gilbert himself, in which his delivery is excellent. The harm had already been done, however, and columnists and fan magazines spread the word that Gilbert was finished. His fine performance in Downstairs encourages one to lend some credence to the rumor that the sound engineers at MGM, at the order of Louis B. Mayer who at that point wanted to smash Gilbert’s career and get rid of him, played havoc with the trebles and deliberately gelded Gilbert’s voice.”
Some of those fan magazines, by the way, went back into action after the release of Downstairs. One said: “Downstairs may be said to give what remains of Mr. Gilbert’s popularity a push downward. Not because of any glaring deficiency in his performance, but rather because he has written for himself a part that antagonizes and alienates the fan. Why did the studio permit it?”
Whether innocently or not, such reviews missed the point. Throughout Jack’s career he had gone out of his way to play varied and unstereotyped roles involving interesting character studies. “That,” he said, “is clearly what acting is about.”
There’s a scene near the end of the picture in which Jack tries to get the naïve, beautiful Virginia Bruce to run away with him. He admits to her that he’s been a liar and a cheat and deserving of every terrible thing she thinks about him, but, “Listen, Anna. I never had much of a chance. I never had anyone tell me the right thing to do. I’ve had to fight my way through life alone. Bad men, bad women. I’ve never been in love with anyone good like you before. I don’t know how to treat you.”
Lenore Coffee said, “You often hear about actors living their parts or staying partly immersed in a role after the cameras have stopped. All the good ones did that. Jack was by no means an exception. Neither was Virginia. That girl just opened those big blue eyes, and Jack was ready to fall in. It was inevitable. She was so fresh and young and so astonishingly beautiful. She was not by any means a Hollywood regular. She was innocent. She was nothing from the past. And Jack fell madly in love. They both did.”
Dark Star: The Untold Story of the Meteoric Rise and Fall of the Legendary John Gilbert by Leatrice Gilbert Fountain with John R. Maxim, (1985)
In early 1932 Jack met the woman–still a girl, really–who would become the fourth and final Mrs. John Gilbert. Virginia Bruce was twenty-one when they met, a delicate-looking Dresden-doll blonde. But her looks were deceiving: Bruce was smart, tough, and strong minded enough to assure that this marriage was doomed from the start.
A talented singer and pianist, Bruce was expelled from her North Dakota high school for mouthing off to her teachers; she moved to Los Angeles in 1928 not to break into the movies but to attend UCLA as a piano student. But her blonde good looks guaranteed money in the movies: “I had never given motion pictures a thought,” Bruce said in 1928, “but it is the chance of a lifetime. I had planned to continue my vocal and piano lessons…but I think I shall like the screen.” The sensible young lady did not become a star right away, but she earned a respectable living doing extra and bit parts for the next three years (she can be spotted in the background of such hits as The Love Parade, Raffles, and Whoopee!).
As talkies took off, so did Bruce’s career, with slightly larger roles in Safety in Numbers, The Miracle Man, Sky Bride (all at Paramount), and Winner Take All (Warner Bros.). In early 1932 she and fellow blonde Jean Harlow were signed by Irving Thalberg as MGM contract players (both were tested for Red-Headed Woman, which helped make Harlow a star.) Bruce had been on the MGM lot for several months and of course had noticed the great John Gilbert. Sometimes while lunching in the commissary, “I’d happen to look up and I’d catch his eye, you know what flashing black eyes he has. And every time I met his eyes, a shock would go through me. I couldn’t look at him. I’d never felt anything like it before.”
According to Bruce, the two met formally after she had tested for his first 1932 film, Downstairs; he sent for her to come to his dressing-room bungalow so he could tell her how much he liked her test footage. He invited her to his house to play tennis–when she declined, he asked about the next day. Bruce said yes. “That first night, too, I found a big box of red roses waiting for me when I got home.” Frankly, she was a little scared by Jack, and probably rightly so. “When he looked at me, I felt all funny inside,” she recalled. “I’ve never seen eyes so intense and penetrating. I couldn’t imagine anyone feeling easy and natural with Mr. Gilbert, and I was sure I wouldn’t like him.”
Desperate after the failure of his three 1931 releases, Jack had convinced Irving Thalberg to okay his story Downstairs, which he had been shopping around since 1927. Budgeted at a respectable $494,000, Downstairs was directed by Monta Bell and had an impressive A-list crew: screenwriter Lenore Coffe, cinematographer Hal Rosson, art direction by Jack’s friend Cedric Gibbons (who came up with some looming, atmospheric Old Country House sets). The cast, though, was cut rate: inexpensive nonstellar contract players such as Bruce, Paul Lukas, Hedda Hopper, and Karen Morley.
Downstairs was the lurid story of chauffeur Karl Schneider, who happily sleeps, thieves, and blackmails his way through life (he smiles insinuatingly at previous employer Hedda Hopper, “I thought I had given madam complete satisfaction“). Obtaining a position with the Baron and Baroness von Burgen, he proceeds to seduce and steal from their cook (Bodil Rosing, in a heartrending performance), blackmail the adulterous baroness (Olga Baclanova), and bed Anna, the innocent young maid (Virginia Bruce), who has just married the older, stuffy butler (Paul Lukas). Karl is coarse and oversexed and remorseless–and he commits all his sins with a wide-eyes shrug and childlike glee. After being found out by Anna’s husband, Karl is run out of town with a beating–but lands happily in the final scene with a sexy new boss (a cameo appearance by rising star Karen Morley).
“I am happier than I’ve been in years,” Jack enthused during filming. “It’s a psychological study, a cross-section view of two strata in life….The chauffeur is a swaggering Don Juan who makes up in audacity what he lacks in conscience. He is an outright villain, but nevertheless, a fascinating chap. He will be hated for his villainy, but he’s bound to be interesting.”
Story editor Sam Marx suggested to the writers’ and readers’ department during shooting that the working title Downstairs had to go: “We do not want a title that is particularly indicative of the servant’s quarters, but rather one with an implication of sex. The usual award of fifty dollars will be given the winning title. We will appreciate your sending your suggestions to this office soon.” Penciled in at the top of his notes are a few suggestions: The Servant and His Mistress, Indiscretion, Ladies Man, Servants Secrets. In the end, Downstairs it remained.
On July 2, 1932, in the midst of filming Downstairs, Jack and Virginia Bruce attended the wedding of his old friend Paul Bern to rising MGM star Jean Harlow. The romance was a shocker to fans–gorgeous sexpot Harlow marrying the balding, middle-aged producer–but to his friends it was an old story. Bern had previously fallen madly in love with actresses Barbara La Marr, Mabel Normand, and Joan Crawford; the naïve, unsure-of-herself Harlow was charmed and flattered that this intellectual older man took her seriously. What Harlow didn’t know (and it’s unclear whether Jack and his other friends knew) was that Paul Bern had a common-law wife, Dorothy Millette. A former actress, Millette had emotional problems, made worse after reading that her husband had just married the nation’s leading new sex symbol. It all came to a head on the night of September 4–just two months after the wedding–when Paul Bern was found dead in his Benedict Canyon home, a bullet in his head and a gun in his hand. He left a very vague suicide note, which was addressed to “Dearest Dear”–Harlow? Millette? No one knows.
Jack had a great time filming Downstairs: director Monta Bell let him write some of his own dialogue, his character was dark and roguish, he was even able to throw in some vulgar touches (belching; nonchalantly digging his finger in his ear and his nose, then wiping it on his shirt) that he knew would infuriate Mayer–nonetheless, they were left in (though we don’t know what else might have been cut). Besides having a good script and accommodating director, Jack also had a beautiful, unmarried leading lady to fall in love with, which always cheered him: Jack was on her like a lion on a wildebeest. His campaign was one that even a strong-minded young woman could not withstand: flowers, jewelry, flirtation, burning glances, every weapon in his impressive armory.
After Downstairs wrapped, Jack continued showering his leading lady with gifts: a blue Packard roadster, “one of the biggest diamond rings in Hollywood, and a diamond and platinum wristwatch. “Our courtship has been one of whirlwind nature,” Bruce understated to wire service reporter Wallace Rawles in May. They had only known each other a week, she said when Jack first proposed. They were sitting by his pool one Saturday afternoon when he said, seemingly out of the blue, “I want you to marry me, Virginia. I want you to be my wife.” You could have knocked me over with a ping pong ball,” said Bruce, who up till then was not sure whether or not to take Jack’s professions of love (and wildly expensive gifts) seriously. “I became so confused I stammered, ‘ye-es, Mr. Gilbert’–I was still calling him that.”
The Syracuse Herald called Downstairs a “flimsy yarn” and added a bit of etymology: “there are far too many of those things which popular with periodicals have named ‘burps,'” complained the prim reviewer. The New York Times didn’t get around to reviewing Downstairs till October, and then Mordaunt Hall was lukewarm: (see review below).
It’s hard today to understand the lukewarm reception Downstairs received; it is by far Jack’s best talkie and a hugely enjoyable pre-Code film. Jack is gleefully evil, grinning and skulking and seducing right and left; he even throws some autobiographical touches in, with the help of screenwriters Lenore Coffee and Melville Baker (“I never had much of a chance,” he insincerely tells Bruce’s character. “I never had anyone tell me the right thing to do. I had to fight my way alone”). His Karl is also the most hateful character he ever played, and Jack makes a delightful villain, dismissing the poor cook and pushing her away after stealing her life savings: “With a face like that, you oughta pay plenty–goodbye, grandma!”
Virginia Bruce acquits herself well, too; indeed, the most searing scene belongs to her, and she runs with it. Her husband finds out that Karl has seduced her, and Bruce does not deny it–instead, she lets him know that now she’s had John Gilbert, Paul Lukas will no longer do: “There’s a kind of way of making love that drives you mad and crazy, so that you don’t know what you’re doing,” she tells him. “You think you make love in the same frozen way you do everything else–and you think that all I should have any wish for…I thank heaven I found there is something else–something that makes you so dizzy you don’t know what’s happened and you don’t care!” It’s a stunning scene, and Bruce shows a talent that would never be rewarded with stardom.
Downstairs is a funny, sexy, morally dubious little film, typical of the best of the pre-Code lot. It had sharp dialogue, a good cast, strong production values. The only misstep was placing it in a mittel-European setting–American audiences in 1932 (and today) would have found it much more accessible had it taken place in a medium-sized American town. But Downstairs lost $286,000.
It had a lot of impressive competition; it was made and released in what may have been the most delicious year in movie history. While 1939 is often called Hollywood’s Golden Year, it barely holds a candle to the racy, exciting pre-Code fare of 1932. Talkies were still new enough to have a fresh excitement to them, but the kinks of the earliest experiments had been worked out. The censorship that clamped down in mid-1934 and sucked much of the sex and off-the-cuff freshness out of scripts had not yet arrived. MGM released a number of remarkable films that year in addition to Downstairs: the all-star Grand Hotel, the raunchy Red Dust and Red-Headed Woman, the still-shocking Freaks. Even the studio’s low-budget fare that year was impressive: the B film Skyscraper Souls, Night Court, and Are You Listening? feature some terrific acting and screenwriting.
John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars by Eve Golden (2013)
Imogen highly recommended Downstairs, which Gilbert conceived and co-wrote as well as starred in–but it isn’t on DVD. Damnit. (Although Fast Workers is.) A little bit of digging, and the Siren had it (gone now, alas).
Downstairs, directed by Monta Bell and set in what Lubitsch might have called Vienna, Hollywood, is a comedy of manners about the servants and their employer problem. Confession: The Siren’s addicted to Downton Abbey, despite some things that bother her no end, such as when Bates, the butler, decides he must nobly protect the good name of his lordship. Thomas, the scheming footman, he’s got the logical attitude–take these ludicrously over privileged layabouts for all you can get. If that thought has crossed your mind while watching Downton Abbey, rejoice; here’s John Gilbert as Karl the chauffeur.
Karl is the anti-est of antiheros, so amoral he could take Thomas down to his shirt studs, and the movie knows it shouldn’t be on his side, and yet it is. Just watch dependably stolid Paul Lukas, as Albert the butler, sternly warn Karl not to betray the lady of the house (Olga Baclanova) after she’s been diddling some schmo in town. Karl can barely conceal his contempt as he agrees to maintain the family secrets. Gilbert keeps eye contact and almost imperceptibly shakes off the butler’s honorable handclasp. Then, again in a tiny gesture, he wipes the bridge of his nose, as though Albert’s crawled up there.
Ah, the Gilbert nose. By rights it should be as immortal as John Barrymore’s, and the nose gets a major workout in Downstairs. He’s peering down it at whoever he’s conning, he’s tilting it slightly skyward as he contemplates his next scheme. Baclanova seals her doom when she goes to meet her lover and almost shuts the door on the nose; you don’t do that to the Gilbert profile. His look as he pulls back is not fury, resentment or humiliation; it’s cool, deliberate vengefulness.
Karl calibrates his behavior to the desires of every mark, and they’re all marks to Karl. Seducing the cook, for example, he doesn’t bother with subtlety. Told he has flour on his ass (“your whatchamacallit,” the cook says coyly), Karl sticks it out at her and says, “Get it off, will you?”
But Karl’s real target is Albert’s wife Anna (Virginia Bruce). He takes her to a nearby inn for a spot of seduction; off-duty and sure of his goal, Karl rattles the dishes when he stubs out a cigarette. Legs splayed and chair tilted back, Karl looks at Anna like a cat wondering if the mouse should be the main course or saved for later, like a chocolate with coffee.
Gilbert wrote himself a complicated, nasty, but undeniably sexy part. Downstairs forces us to admit that sexy counts far more than most people like to admit. It’s deliciously clear that upright Albert is hopeless in bed, and if showing Anna the real facts of life were Karl’s only sin, he could take the “anti” off hero. Alas, Karl really is a louse, shown by his brutal cruelty to the dimwitted, lovestruck cook. But he’s also probably the one taste of good lovemaking she’ll ever get; Downstairs is cynical enough to suggest maybe the cook didn’t do so badly by the bargain.
Gilbert was proud of Downstairs, and it got him a few good reviews as well as the hand of Virginia Bruce, whom he married after filming. But any reprieve was temporary. Soon he was losing the lead in Red Dust to Clark Gable and seething through the making of Fast Workers.
Fountain’s book tries to solve the puzzle of why her father became sound’s most notorious casualty. She goes through Gilbert’s feud with Mayer and the question of whether MGM deliberately sank its troublesome, expensive star. Fountain believes the story that Gilbert, left at the altar by love of his life Greta Garbo, knocked Mayer flat when the mogul quipped gallantly, “Why don’t you just fuck her and forget about it?” She quotes His Glorious Night reviews and notes that no one mentions the voice; she smacks down an old yarn about Gilbert attending the premiere and leaving in shame before the lights came up. (There was no big premiere, and he was in Europe when the film came out.)
Fountain tracks the voice sniping to about 1930, when it took off in the press–whether fueled by the MGM brass, or just gossips smelling blood, she can’t say. Such was the power of the legend that one of the most poignant quotes comes from Clarence Brown, who directed Gilbert in the gorgeous Flesh and the Devil: “As time went by, I’d hear occasional mentions of Jack’s high piping voice, and the way audiences roared at the sound of it, and damned if I didn’t find myself repeating them one day. Can you believe that? Me, of all people, repeating those stories. And I knew better, Leatrice, I knew better.”
Dark Star is a touching book, a loving daughter’s attempt at resurrection, and while Fountain doesn’t excise Gilbert’s drinking, she’s reluctant to attribute much to it. But colleagues were blunt: Gilbert was an alcoholic, one who “became more argumentative and belligerent with each drink,” wrote Colleen Moore. (Moore spoke from experience; her first husband was an alcoholic.) The Siren told Robert Avrech, who holds a special love for silents and early talkies, that she was writing about Gilbert. Robert wrote back:
The more I read about him the more I’m convinced that he was an emotional child, impulsive, impossibly romantic, and tragically self-destructive. Going to war against L.B. Mayer is sheer madness. I admire Downstairs tremendously. His playing against type was courageous, but certainly not what his audience wanted.
And of course his voice was fine.
History comes with hard-set myths, and more than once the Siren’s hit her head on some Hollywood cement. At least the lie about Jack Gilbert’s squeak is all but dead. When the Siren took to Twitter, after seeing Fast Workers, to say that Gilbert sounded good, nearly a dozen people instantly tweeted back that of course he did.
Thank goodness. The canard diminishes even Gilbert’s silent performances, if new audiences look at him–so graceful, varied and heartbreakingly sincere in The Big Parade, to cite only one–and imagine the intertitles spoken in an incongruous high tenor. If the voice myth gets a stake through its heart, perhaps Gilbert’s good talkies can get more attention, too, putting paid to the idea espoused by David Thomson, that “Gilbert had always been a coarse actor,” and sound simply emphasized that.
Some silent stars survived to see their fame renewed. Louise Brooks wrote about Pabst for the New Yorker, Buster Keaton became a hero to cinephiles worldwide. It makes the stories of the ones who didn’t live that long all the sadder. Gilbert died in 1936, his talkies already enshrined as the thing that did him in, turned him into a man who didn’t sound manly.
On a now-defunct chatboard some dreamy-eyed chatter once started a thread thus: “If you could go back in time and give an artist one present–and one only–who would you pick, and what would you give the person?” The Siren answered that she’d bring Franz Schubert some penicillin. But suppose she had to go back empty-handed, and could deliver only a line. She could do a lot worse than, “Mr. Gilbert, Fast Workers is a good movie.”
http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.ca/ The Siren, Tuesday, July 10, 2012
I’ve written about Rudolph Valentino for this site once before, and I guess it’s my turn with the other silent film romance king, John Gilbert. I won’t lie and pretend that I’m intimately familiar with Gilbert (I’ve seen bits of The Flesh and The Devil but never the whole thing), but his importance as a matinee idol is striking compared to his role in Downstairs, even moreso once you realize he wrote the story the film is based on.
This is remarkable in some ways because Gilbert plays the film’s horrendously unappealing and thoroughly contemptible scoundrel, Karl. He shows up in time for the wedding of the head butler, Albert, and the head maid, Anna, and with just enough time to make some nice little eyes at the bride.
Downstairs reminds me a lot of Gosford Park, Robert Altman’s film from earlier this century about a murder mystery set in a divided English manor. Both movies take more interest in the servants than the bumbling barons and baronesses, and both contain a kernel of resentful sadness about the world all of these characters are most assuredly trapped in.
Not that I can blame them for that feeling.
Karl’s arrival throws things out of sync, though. What murder is to GosfordPark, seduction is for Downstairs. Karl’s affairs, which take him from the baroness to the old cook to Anna, leave nothing but an emotional wake of anger and sadness. The baroness does hers on a whim, and soon finds herself blackmailed, while the cook is cheated out of her money, and the blushing bride finds yet another reason to blush.
The main meat of the movie is between Albert and Anna, as Anna resists Karl forcefully until a bottle of wine changes her mind. Albert is furious, but, in a welcome move, the movie let’s her have her own side. She angrily explains to him that there’s two types of making love, and Albert isn’t exactly the fiery, passionate type she’s always heard so much about.
Anna comes to her senses pretty soon, and Karl’s enough to put anyone off after a bit. Karl’s not the type who takes no for an answer, and he and Albert are soon led to blows. This leads to one of the more telling scenes in the film, as Albert begins to strangle Karl when the house’s comes down the stairs and tells him to stop. The baron knows nothing of what’s going on, he simply tells them to stop and Albert must comply.
There’s some interesting class conflicts demonstrated, but Downstairs doesn’t have much else going for it. My main beef (and/or beefs) with Downstairs comes from the utter lack of tension. The ‘sleeping their way to the top’ story is told with more relish and sauce in Red Headed Woman (which came out the same year) and here it never really goes anywhere deeper or more pointed, outside of Anna’s brief explanation of the degrees of passion.
It often plays like the serious version of a Lubitsch flick, and, in the end, no one really seems to learn anything except poor Anna, who realizes not to trust the snakes of the world. It’s too bad it doesn’t take a deeper look at its situation.
Gilbert playing so completely against type and by his own choice is a defiant and telling one; the man died three years later of alcoholism. Seeing him here going from a great lover to a rapist madman can either be seen as a sign of daring or the last desperate hope for artistic glory. He’s great in the film, it’s just too bad that his life is much more interesting than much of anything here.
www.pre-code.com by Danny, April 14, 2011
In “Downstairs,” the current film attraction at the Capitol, John Gilbert plays a chauffeur and Paul Lukas appears as his superior, a butler, in the household of an Austrian nobleman named Baron von Bergen. Mr. Gilbert is the author of this story, which he sold to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for no less than $1. The chief points of interest in it are Mr. Gilbert’s somewhat ingenuous attempt to impersonate a rascally automobile driver and Virginia Bruce’s charming presence.
Any one might sit through this production without suspecting that Monta Bell directed it; but Mr. Bell was evidently hampered by the strange tale. Mr. Gilbert’s rôle is that of Karl Schneider, who believes thoroughly in his winning personality when it comes to women. It is no wonder that he is attracted by Anna (Miss Bruce), the wife of Albert, the butler. And the story-teller makes it plain that Anna does not dislike the flattering remarks and kisses that come her way from the chauffeur. The author also sees to it that Albert is taken on a fishing trip by the Baron and one wonders why the Baroness, who accompanies her husband, does not insist upon Anna’s presence. The maid remains behind, however, so that Karl can carry on a flirtation, which rather delights Anna.
There is more than a hint of scandal upstairs in the tale, for the Baroness goes to a small house where she, it is presumed, meets her lover. Karl, supposedly quick-witted, drives his mistress there and subsequently he threatens to broadcast her secret. It was evidently Author Gilbert’s intention to show parallel doings above and below stairs and it looks as though he meant to have himself as Karl drowned in wine, for during a struggle with Anna, something like 200 bottles of the best wines are broken when the shelves collapse. But Karl does not suffer much. He gets away with a severe thrashing from Albert and in the last glimpse he has regained his smile and is offering his services as chauffeur to a rather attractive woman.
The New York Times by Mordaunt Hall, October 8, 1932