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.
The opening is very entertaining, as Gilbert plays a famous Houdini-like magician and escapologist called Cheri-Bibi, who works himself free of chains while submerged underwater. Then, at the home of his foolish girlfriend (Leila Hyams), her fuddy-duddy wheelchaired father (C. Aubrey Smith) is murdered after an argument with Cheri-Bibi. Although this takes place at a party crawling with suspects, and a witness testifies that the old boy was alive when our hero left the man to mingle with others, this is apparently all the evidence needed by the police commissioner (Lewis Stone) to condemn him to execution!
If you can swallow that and overlook the obvious guilt of another party, you’ll welcome a ludicrous twist involving plastic surgery. With supporting roles by Jean Hersholt and Natalie Moorhead, this is the definition of Hollywood nonsense: nice to look at but dumb.
In retrospect, we can see that it’s a dated project, but we should remember that many dated projects were being made, and this is the kind of thing that flew just fine in the silent era — and often in the talkies too. This same cast and director could have made a silent version that would have held up better, but it’s not bad.
A more up-to-the-minute project is Gentleman’s Fate, a Prohibition gangster tale directed by Mervyn LeRoy in the same year he made Little Caesar. It’s a commercial proposition, and LeRoy directs very well, combining his understanding of actors with Merritt B. Gerstad’s unobtrusively smooth photography. Even the dialogue scenes, which are the bulk of Leonard Praskins’ script (from a story by romance novelist Ursula Parrott), are staged in ways that catch the interest.
Gentleman’s Fate (1931)
The actors, including Gilbert, are excellent, often balancing reactions and bits of business within a shot. This intelligence of detail, along with the lack of background music (typical of an era that could record sound before it could mix it), gives a sense of credibility that the story lacks.
A lot happens, as Gilbert’s protagonist goes from being a New York playboy and trust fund baby to finding out he’s really part of a family of Italian bootleggers whose father (Paul Porcasi) has just been fatally shot, and whose pug-faced big brother (Louis Solheim) takes him into the business after some more far-fetched bits about a stolen necklace and a fickle girlfriend (Hyams again). As with the other gangster films of its era, we learn that crime doesn’t pay, even with the decorative support of Anita Page and Marie Prevost.
Gilbert aquits himself well and receives good support in these projects. It’s just that they are finally inessential, second-class projects. The prints look good on these on-demand discs, with no more than standard wear and tear.