There has been much myth, legend and speculation about why John Gilbert, one of the silent screen’s greatest stars, stumbled so badly in the talkies. Some claim that his voice didn’t record well, or even that MGM’s Louis B. Mayer deliberately sabotaged his career, never mind how much money was invested in him. In fact, Gilbert still had a solid hit when he teamed with Greta Garbo for Queen Christina. Ephraim Katz opines in The Film Encyclopedia that Gilbert’s persona and the melodramas in which he shined were out of step with the era, and he wasn’t a good enough actor to carry off the new material.
Now that his talkies are becoming available on demand from Warner Archive, we can judge for ourselves. The plots aren’t great, but they’re not unusual for melodramas of the period. The directors are also good, though they can only do so much with these talky stories. For example, director John S. Robertson’s great achievements, such as John Barrymore’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, also belong to the silent era, but he hasn’t forgotten how to point a camera in the highly fanciful The Phantom of Paris, an almost gloriously far-fetched bit of flummery based on a novel by Gaston Leroux, who’s most famous for a different phantom, of the operatic variety.