Friday, August 30, 2013

Part 3 - Exclusive Interview with biographer Eve Golden on John Gilbert

Part 3 – Gilbert’s Demise
The perfect storm of awfulness

Lynn Dougherty: Personally I never used to look at silent films; I was always in the sound world, but Kevin Brownlow’s documentary “Hollywood” changed that for me. Did you also have a hard time originally getting into the world of silent film?

Eve Golden: It’s a whole different world. You have to really sit still and pay attention, and its best with the lights out and it really takes you into another world, the way the talkies don’t. It’s funny because one of the things I liked about writing in the book was that whole change over from silent to sound that culturally never happened before or since. In a period of just three years, an entire art form died and an entirely new art form was born, which is why you have films like Sunset Boulevard. When you watch Sunset Boulevard, you realize that Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond is still a young woman; she’s not even 50 and she’s talking about a period that’s only 30 years ago, it’s like us talking about the 1990’s. As if, the silent era was like talking about the age of Louis the sixteenth.
LD: Besides the lack of a studio system, what would you say is the biggest difference between today’s Hollywood and yesteryear, specifically the silent era?

EG: Right there, you said it, the lack of a studio system. I think that is such a huge thing because, the stars today are just as talented and just as attractive as they ever were, but they don’t have that backing; they don’t have the publicists backing them up; they don’t have people telling them what to do, they don’t have people forcing them to take small roles and build them up in a stock company like they used to.Lillian Gish and Bette Davis both said that if they had come around 50 years later, they never would have become stars. I also think television and video have really changed the star system. It’s a whole different world; it’s a lot more difficult for young people coming up nowadays than it used to be.
The unions also have made it a closed company. It’s almost impossible to become an actor now because you have to be a member of SAG or Actors Equity and it’s the old story of you can’t get a job if you don’t have a union card and you can’t get a union card unless you’ve got a job. And everybody is their own Louis B. Mayer now. You see people like Johnny Depp making horrible, horrible career choices. He doesn’t have the studio telling him no, don’t do that crap, you need to do this.
Gilbert holding a sound disk.
Gilbert with sound disk
LD: There seemed to be a different type of star rising up at the time of the transition from silent to sound films. King Vidor said that Valentino would have probably suffered the same fate as Gilbert because his “type” didn’t transition to sound. Do you agree?

EG: Yes, death was a very good career move for Valentino. He was starting to gain a little weight, and he was losing his hair and he had that accent. He probably would have gone like a lot of the Latin lovers and just become a character actor, he would have been playing Ricardo Cortez roles.
John Gilbert had a very modern personality and I’m so glad that I was able to find those unpublished interview notes by Gladys Hallbecause you really got his voice in there which is so important to get his personality. He had a great sense of humor, he did not take himself seriously and he really did not cut himself any breaks; he was on to himself. He knew he was his own worst enemy and he knew all the mistakes he made and he admitted them and I really loved that about him.
LD: Did they have agents, managers and publicists in the silent era like they do today?

EG: They did, but they didn’t all have good ones. John Gilbert was lucky to have a very good business manager who invested in real estate. He lost some in the stock market crash but not much. He spent a lot of money on cars and houses and jewels, but because he had a good business manager, he could have survived financially for years and never had to work, but he would have been bored stiff. He said he couldn’t just sit there in his backyard and look out on Los Angeles for the rest of his life, he wanted to do something.
John Gilbert relaxing at him home in the Hollywood hills.
Gilbert at home
So, at least when he died it was in a beautiful house with lots of money and a gorgeous blonde nurse. I’m glad they gave him a gorgeous blonde nurse, too.
LD: What I enjoyed most about your book was it helped me to finally understand Gilbert’s downfall. It was the result of a combination of things, right?

EG: It was a perfect storm of awfulness. Right down to his health. If he hadn’t drunk himself into a heart attack or an ulcer, he could have had another twenty years as a character actor. And, he was aging very well, you see that in his last couple of films, he is an attractive middle aged man and you could see that he was going to continue to be very good looking as he aged. And, with Marlene Dietrich’s help at Paramount he could have gone on like Adolphe Menjou for another twenty years.
LD: One of Gilbert’s contemporaries, Ronald Colman wasn’t as successful in silent films, but he transitioned very successfully when Gilbert didn’t. Besides Colman’s fabulous voice, which of course was a big advantage for him, why do you think Colman was more successful in sound films?

EG: Well, he was more of a team player, he didn’t complain about everything. He had a couple of terrible talkies, too. If you look at the early talkies, you will see that many of the biggest stars had just as many stinkers as they had hits. Even Norma ShearerJoan Crawford and Marion Davies, they all had some really terrible early talkies, but Colman’s looks and his voice and his talent carried him through and he aged well.
And, that voice. I’m sure if John Gilbert could have arranged a voice transplant, he would have. John Gilbert had a good voice, not a great voice, but it was passable. His voice did sound a bit strained but he had a lower voice than Clark Gable or Douglas Fairbanks. A lot of them didn’t have great voices; it was really what you did with it. Not everybody could sound like Ronald Colman.
LD: I know I keep coming back to the same question, but Gilbert didn’t have that many flops, and had MGM groomed him a little or fostered him a bit I think he could have been good, so why didn’t they help him?

EG: They didn’t want him by that time; they wanted him out. They had all these new up and coming stars, and they had Clark Gable. Gilbert was taking so much money from MGM through his salary that they didn’t put into his films and promote him to make his films a hit; they just wanted him to work off his contract and get the hell out at that point.
He had to force them to take him in Downstairs, which is his best sound film and they didn’t promote it.Downstairs could have been a hit had it been really promoted, but it wasn’t. It was as good a film as Red Headed Woman and Baby Face and all those other scandalous pre-code films. It’s like a male version ofRed Headed Woman. It’s a great film, and he gives a great performance.
Here’s a clip from Gilbert’s sound film, “Downstairs”

LD: MGM did everything in their power for Garbo when she transitioned to sound to insure her success and they did nothing for Gilbert. It was probably because she was making them oodles of money at that point and he wasn’t, would you agree?

EG: Oh yes, and he had $250,000 per film contract, so it always boiled down to the money. They didn’t like Garbo much either, she was troublesome and a perfectionist also, but she was making them big money.
King Vidor and Eleanor Boardman wedding
LD: Do you believe the story about Louis B. Mayer and Gilbert on the night of Vidor’s wedding? Or, do you think it was made up? I’ve also heard that Adela Rogers St. Johns blew that out of proportion, is that true?

EG: I don’t know if you can use the phrase, “lying sack of “sh*t, or not?,” but Adela Rogers St. Johns was one of these people who was very entertaining and would never tell the truth if a lie was more interesting. My grandmother was like that so, I really appreciate this. She just told such stories. If she loved you, you were the greatest person in the world and if she hated you she would say anything about you she could and she just said things which were demonstrably not true. So every time I quote her, I have to say, OK, this is what she said, this may or may not have happened or, this definitely did not happen.
The fist fight stories, one from Eleanor Boardman, and one from Sam Marks, two separate stories, again I don’t say they didn’t happen, I say why they are debatable because when you look at them and take them apart, logically they kind of fall apart.
What was Eleanor Boardman doing in the men’s room? Somebody must have told her the story. And several things in her story didn’t make sense. Several people who were also there said it “flat out did not happen.” And, if John Gilbert had hit Mayer so hard that he fell and hit his head on the tile floor and was bleeding, I think he would have needed medical attention.That’s a hell of an injury.
Also, Louis B. Mayer could have fired him for that and would have loved to have had an excuse to fire him, and didn’t. Louis B. Mayer supposedly said, “Your career is over; I’ll end your career, you’re through Gilbert.” This is in September of 1926 and John Gilbert’s career was not through. He had lots and lots of years ahead of him and lots and lots of huge films. He was considered of and spoken by Mayer, in the press after this, as one of their greatest stars and with the great films they were giving him, if Mayer was intending to ruin his career, he was really bad at it.
LD: So, in your opinion Louis B. Mayer was not out to destroy Gilbert?

EG: They hated each other, but I’m saying that the fist fight didn’t happen. As long as Gilbert was bringing in money Mayer was willing to put up with him, but when he started losing more money than he was taking in, he was not going to put his hand out to help him and nobody else was either. Thalberg was a businessman and he wasn’t going to help if it wasn’t making the studio money.
LD: So, do you think Thalberg was Gilbert’s friend?
EG: Thalberg was MGM’s friend. Thalberg would have cut off his own wife [Norma Shearer] if she wasn’t making the studio money. He was a businessman; a very good businessman, so business came first.
Mayer really knew what he was doing and was a very good head of the studio. He wasn’t an easy person to get along with, but, for example, I spoke to Ann Miller and she really loved him, so it depends on who you talk to.
Mayer and Gilbert hated each other and John Gilbert loved poking him with a stick and annoying him.
LD: Then, couldn’t you argue that part of the reason Gilbert failed was because he refused to give up his contract with MGM? Had he gone to another studio, he might have survived, right?

EG: He was his own worst enemy; he really was. [In the book,] I liked when I pointed out the difference between him and Joan Crawford because Joan Crawford was a smart cookie and a team player and she knew that you have to take two or three crap films to get a good one and you had to play the game. He was not good at playing the game, he was a perfectionist and every film had to be another, “The Big Parade,” and anything less than “The Big Parade” and he would pitch a fit, and you just can’t do that.
LD: Could he have gone into Directing?”

EG: He was really scared of that, plus you had to be there every day and have to be on top of your game every day. He had that one really bad experience in the early 1920’s with directing and I think that scared him off and the same with writing. He always said, “I want to write, I want to write,” but he never wrote. He might have been a good assistant director because he worked well with actors on a one to one basis, but a director also has to work with producers and cameramen and lighting people and prop people, and I don’t know if he could do that. He would have been a good acting coach but being a director is more than just working with actors. I don’t know if he had the kind of personality that would have dealt well with that. You have to be really professional and deal well with people, and he was not good at that.
LD: He was a generous actor, don’t you think?
EG: Oh yea, but he wanted to be a director, so he was very good to work with because he was a director’s actor. And, the director of “Love” said that he basically directed all of Garbo’s scenes.
LD: If his health had been better and he had been given the support, do you think he would have made it in sound films?

EG: Oh definitely. If he had gotten that contract with Paramount that Marlene Dietrich was arranging, he could have had another 25 or 30 years as a character actor, and he would have loved that. By that time, he was more interested in doing fun interesting roles. He loved playing the villain, he just adored that, so he would have been great as the evil middle aged roué and the awful uncle and that sort of role, even monster roles, the Boris Karloff type, evil mad scientist roles. He would have had a great time and would have loved that. And, he aged beautifully. You can see in some of his later films, he’s looking distinctly middle aged and you could see he was aging really well.
This interview with Eve is a long and a rewarding one that I have divided into four parts.

Click on the links below to read each section:

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