A Crash Course in John Gilbert's Talkies

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Brooksie
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A Crash Course in John Gilbert's Talkies

Unread post by Brooksie » Thu Jul 11, 2013 1:27 pm

I wonder if anyone else caught the series of John Gilbert talkies on TCM yesterday? I had seen a couple of them before, but viewing them one after the other was an interesting exercise.

I can only imagine that the dark, somewhat intellectual subject matter of Redemption (1930) is what held MGM back from releasing it ahead of His Glorious Night, because Gilbert's performance is terrific. Here's something I never thought I'd say about Gilbert: in some cases, he was a little too naturalistic. Some of the earlier scenes are heavy on the silent technique, but his breakdown in the court scene later in the picture - you go from "Wow, that' guy's really putting his all into it!" to "Wow ... is that guy OK?" It's not to everyone's tastes, and Renee Adoree is a little under-utilised, but I found it quite compelling.

I noticed a definite change in his voice between The Phantom of Paris (1931) and Redemption (and in Way For A Sailor (1930) too, but that seemed more of a 'character' voice). It had a slightly oboe-ish quality to it, which was not unpleasant but disappeared in the later films. I doubt I would have noticed it had I not known to look for it. The film itself is fine, quite offbeat, a little far-fetched in places, but Gilbert is well-cast as a suave magician. I wouldn't say MGM were placing him in bad vehicles, but they certainly weren't obvious ones.

West of Broadway (1931) was equally interesting for Lois Moran's final feature appearance; despite a rather frizzy hairdo, she looked and sounded terrific as the plucky girl Gilbert marries during a bender. It seemed they were striving for a Lubitsch-style lightness, but the subject matter was so Pre-Codey that it made for an odd tone overall. There seemed to be an almost masochistic level of reference to Gilbert's personal problems - the sort of thing you see in John Barrymore's later pictures. Was the public expected to understand the reference? Again, I don't know, but it's disconcerting to see him with violent DT, being constantly told he'll 'never beat the booze', and so forth. If the public didn't understand, Gilbert himself sure would have.

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Re: A Crash Course in John Gilbert's Talkies

Unread post by drednm » Thu Jul 11, 2013 1:39 pm

Judging Gilbert's talkies all these years after his superstardom in silent films, I believe we are left with a series of films that show he would have had a great future in talkies if....
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Re: A Crash Course in John Gilbert's Talkies

Unread post by entredeuxguerres » Thu Jul 11, 2013 6:13 pm

Didn't see them yesterday, but have previously (except Sailor, which I regret missing).

Virtually all I remember of Phantom is that it was a picture I didn't care to view again (though I have it on DVD). Redemption I found riveting...except for some difficulty in accepting his wife's boundless love & tolerance even for such a Great Lover. Dark, most certainly, but such a portrayal of irresponsible, self-destructive behavior seems not so very far out of the movie-mainstream to me.

West of Broadway simply is my favorite Gilbert picture...though I might not be saying that without lovely Lois; "terrific," absolutely; incredible that such a fabulous performance was her last. His so-called DTs didn't seem so very violent to me: no hallucinations or mental disorientation at all, no extreme physical agitation save for those mild shakes, which could pass for Parkinson's. Unless movie mags of the time disclosed problems with alcohol (which I doubt--didn't everybody who could get it drink?), how would general audiences have learned of his alcoholism?

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Re: A Crash Course in John Gilbert's Talkies

Unread post by Wm. Charles Morrow » Thu Jul 11, 2013 8:14 pm

The Captain Hates the Sea has eluded me for years, but I finally caught up with it yesterday. The TCM print looked great. The movie itself was better than I’d expected -- going in with low expectations always helps -- and quite odd. Hard to guess where it was heading from one scene to the next, but I enjoyed that. It was refreshing to find Victor McLaglen playing a character with brains, and there were lots of other favorites on hand: Helen Vinson, Alison Skipworth, Walter Catlett, etc. On the debit side, I guess someone thought it would be funny to put an Amish-style beard on Donald Meek and have him exclaim “Gosh!” at regular intervals, but the humor was lost on me. And I thought Fred Keating was colorless in the central crook role, which I kept re-casting in my head (George Raft, Jack La Rue, or Leslie Fenton, just for starters, would have brought more to the party). And, wonder of wonders, The Three Stooges were reduced to set decoration!

But the main reason I tuned in was to see John Gilbert, and he was terrific. It was poignant to watch him knock back drinks in scene after scene, and teeter a bit as he walked, and deliver his lines with a touch of a lilt, as if ever so slightly tipsy. Was he acting? Maybe, but who knows? It was hard to forget the famous SO IS THE CAST telegram anecdote while watching the film. But Gilbert had that aura that only the real stars possess, regardless of the material. I enjoyed watching him, and listening to him (his voice was fine, of course), and I found his final scene genuinely moving. I do wish he could’ve pulled himself together.
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Re: A Crash Course in John Gilbert's Talkies

Unread post by Brooksie » Fri Jul 12, 2013 11:08 am

I didn't watch The Captain Hates The Sea too closely this time as it's been on before, but one observation I did make - it's often compared to Grand Hotel, but in some ways it feels more like Dinner at Eight. Perhaps it's Alison Skipworth's role, which you could so easily imagine Marie Dressler playing.

It does have the feel of a troubled production, in the sense that it doesn't quite hang together in places, but I agree, it's certainly better than its reputation suggests.

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Re: A Crash Course in John Gilbert's Talkies

Unread post by drednm » Fri Jul 12, 2013 11:22 am

Once shed of his "lover" image (which he despised), Gilbert could easily have had an entire career in William Powell type roles.....
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Re: A Crash Course in John Gilbert's Talkies

Unread post by FrankFay » Fri Jul 12, 2013 12:46 pm

He's an excellent scoundrel in BACKSTAIRS
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Re: A Crash Course in John Gilbert's Talkies

Unread post by entredeuxguerres » Fri Jul 12, 2013 2:44 pm

FrankFay wrote:He's an excellent scoundrel in BACKSTAIRS
Worse than a mere scoundrel--a thoroughgoing knave; but his knavishness I found more satisfying than his blind, blundering self-destructiveness in Redemption.

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Re: A Crash Course in John Gilbert's Talkies

Unread post by entredeuxguerres » Fri Jul 12, 2013 8:47 pm

Memory, thy name is frailty. Watching Phantom again to refresh my memory, & I find I had none. Gilbert is superb, mesmerizing, & the picture fascinating; dark?...makes Redemption seem rather bright, I think. But even if I'd forgotten all that, how could I forget that it afforded a (rare) substantial role for Natalie Moorhead? Sour mash may not be entirely compatible with clear recall.

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Re: A Crash Course in John Gilbert's Talkies

Unread post by JLNeibaur » Fri Jul 12, 2013 9:36 pm

I watched West of Broadway and The Captain Hates the Sea, both for the first time, and thought both were good. I had never before seen any John Gilbert talkies.

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Re: A Crash Course in John Gilbert's Talkies

Unread post by smokey15 » Fri Jul 12, 2013 9:49 pm

I agree with drednm that Gilbert would have been great in the roles William Powell took on at MGM.
Gilbert would have been awesome as the Thin Man and in sophisticated comedy. I can just imagine him
with a martini in his hand and some witty dialogue coming out of his mouth.
And he was certainly a lot better looking than Powell.
What a shame!

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Re: A Crash Course in John Gilbert's Talkies

Unread post by FrankFay » Sat Jul 13, 2013 2:19 am

I will agree that considered objectively William Powell had peculiar features - but somehow once he snaps into character I don't notice or care. He could ACT.
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Re: A Crash Course in John Gilbert's Talkies

Unread post by drednm » Sat Jul 13, 2013 5:23 am

Wasn't criticizing William Powell... he certainly ranks as a favorite and is always watchable. But it's easy to see John Gilbert in those kinds of suave roles Powell is famous for. But then Gilbert also had the acting range to play other parts. He's quite good teamed with Robert Armstrong in Fast Workers as construction workers. But woulda coulda shoulda.....
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Re: A Crash Course in John Gilbert's Talkies

Unread post by entredeuxguerres » Sat Jul 13, 2013 5:51 am

What's remarkable about Powell's "rise to stardom" is his start in pictures as casting's first choice for the role of miserable, sniveling, cowardly worm...as in Sherlock Holmes, Beau Geste, others.

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Re: A Crash Course in John Gilbert's Talkies

Unread post by Wm. Charles Morrow » Sat Jul 13, 2013 12:04 pm

Gilbert was superb in unsympathetic roles, as in Downstairs and Fast Workers. The more perceptive critics of the time recognized that he was demonstrating his range, and trying to get past the restrictive “Great Lover” parts, but some of the other contemporary reviews make dismaying reading today. Both films prompted comments that Gilbert’s already dwindling fan base was sure to shrink still further as a result of the unappealing characters he was playing. It appears that Gilbert’s silent era fan base held him back. Times were changing, and he couldn’t keep on doing lightweight romantic roles, but they wouldn’t accept him in darker character parts, either. More roles like the one in The Captain Hates the Sea could have put him on the right path, but time ran out.

Yes indeed, unfortunately: woulda coulda shoulda . . .
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Re: A Crash Course in John Gilbert's Talkies

Unread post by Brooksie » Sun Jul 14, 2013 11:10 am

One thing I forgot to mention in relation to Redemption - there seemed to be a brief visual reference to the boat sequence from Bardelys the Magnificent (1926). Same kind of boat, same kind of foliage, same leading lady in Eleanor Boardman. If that sequence was well known enough to be referenced, then I'm very glad - it knocked me out when I first saw Bardelys; the idea that it was almost lost to us altogether was horrifying.

That's an interesting point about Gilbert's shifting fan base - I did a brief survey of the reviews and advertising for these films, and it did look like they were trying to have it both ways, putting Gilbert in these intellectual roles but continuing to market him as the Great Lover. No doubt that alienated his regular fans and ensured that new ones had no interest in seeing pictures that might have been more suited to their tastes.

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Re: A Crash Course in John Gilbert's Talkies

Unread post by entredeuxguerres » Sun Jul 14, 2013 11:10 am

Last night watched Gilbert's last silent, Desert Nights. How I missed his raspy voice! (And regret Thalberg's backward attitude toward sound.) Though this picture is a great favorite of mine (thanks to irresistible Mary Nolan), I actually sat through it with a vague sense of dissatisfaction, after so recently hearing him speak. This picture gained nothing whatever for being made as a silent, & lost much: not only Gilbert's distinctive rasp, but Mary's pretty chirp, & Ernest Torrence's unique accent.

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Re: A Crash Course in John Gilbert's Talkies

Unread post by drednm » Sun Jul 14, 2013 2:31 pm

After watching Olga Baclanova's wretched talkie debut in A Dangerous Woman, a performance that matched inept acting with nearly undecipherable speech, John Gilbert's early talkie performances were golden indeed.
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Re: A Crash Course in John Gilbert's Talkies

Unread post by The Blackbird » Thu Jul 25, 2013 4:10 pm

Like most people today, I've never seen HIS GLORIOUS NIGHT, so I have no idea if it's an underappreciated classic or complete disaster, through judging from the clips I have seen and the knowledge that Catherine Dale Owen is the leading lady, the latter is a distinct possibility. Regardless, it was the following trio of turkeys that derailed Gilbert's career, not his voice. By the time he started making good movies like THE PHANTOM OF PARIS and DOWNSTAIRS, he never regained his momentum.
Between its dreary story, its gloomy production and Fred Niblo relentlessly keeping his camera posted at least twelve feet away from the actors at all times, REDEMPTION is very dull, despite Gilbert's best efforts and even given the problems you find in pretty much all early talkies. None of the other actors are able to do anything with their parts, and just when you think the movie can't get any worse, Mack Swain shows up. Perhaps the movie's chief interest now lies in it being one of only two chances (the other being CALL OF THE FLESH) to catch Renee Adoree in a talkie, even if she's pretty much wasted here. Actually, she's pretty much wasted in the other movie too, sadly.
WAY FOR A SAILOR is distinguished only by its astonishingly cheap visual effects, and while I wouldn't have though it possible for a film starring Gilbert, Anita Page and Louis Wolheim could be so thoroughly unwatchable, but A GENTLEMAN'S FATE manages. Lois Moran is a revelation in WEST OF BROADWAY: I couldn't believe this stunning bombshell was the same bland woman who played Lon Chaney's daughter in THE ROAD TO MANDALAY. Lois is so phenomenally attractive here that every time John tries to get rid of her I kept wondering if he'd gone completely insane. I've never seen FAST WORKERS but I have read much about how awful it is. THE CAPTAIN HATES TEH SEA reminds me not so much of GRAND HOTEL or DINNER AT EIGHT as much as it does the much later SHIP OF FOOLS, though it's funny now that neither Gilbert's character nor anybody else's ever asks why the Three Stooges are sitting in with the ship's band.
I'm hoping one of these days TCM will get around to running MAN, WOMAN AND SIN, which features what is for me one of John's finest performances, or the restored TWELVE MILES OUT. It would be nice if FOUR WALLS and MASKS OF THE DEVIL would turn up, too.....

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Re: A Crash Course in John Gilbert's Talkies

Unread post by entredeuxguerres » Thu Jul 25, 2013 6:41 pm

The Blackbird wrote: Lois is so phenomenally attractive here that every time John tries to get rid of her I kept wondering if he'd gone completely insane.
Or left his manhood on the battlefields of France. Even if he did, in the beginning, cruelly dismiss her as a gold-digging tart, well, isn't that better company than El Brendel?

After seeing this picture first, Lois seemed a bit of a letdown in the atrociously directed & scripted Behind That Curtain, made 5 yrs earlier. She had a smaller role, but better lines & direction, in Transatlantic, and the one I long to see is Words and Music, made with another sweetheart, Helen Twelvetrees.

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Re: A Crash Course in John Gilbert's Talkies

Unread post by The Blackbird » Sun Jul 28, 2013 4:17 pm

entredeuxguerres wrote:
The Blackbird wrote: Lois is so phenomenally attractive here that every time John tries to get rid of her I kept wondering if he'd gone completely insane.
Or left his manhood on the battlefields of France. Even if he did, in the beginning, cruelly dismiss her as a gold-digging tart, well, isn't that better company than El Brendel?

After seeing this picture first, Lois seemed a bit of a letdown in the atrociously directed & scripted Behind That Curtain, made 5 yrs earlier. She had a smaller role, but better lines & direction, in Transatlantic, and the one I long to see is Words and Music, made with another sweetheart, Helen Twelvetrees.
Yeah, had I been in John's shoes, I wouldn't have been in a hurry to kick Lois out for eating crackers, as the saying goes. He doesn't even ask her to just hang around for the weekend. I had forgotten all about BEHIND THAT CURTAIN, or perhaps I had just blocked it out...

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