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Wednesday, March 11, 2015


With his career in a tailspin, former silent film idol John Gilbert tried a Hail-Mary pass playing a sexed-up, blackmailing louse of a chauffeur in this randy Upstairs/Downstairs tale from his own original story treatment. Racing thru the household like a virulent virus, he beds the old cook for her life’s savings; steals into the heart of an innocent newlywed and gives her a first orgasm; then blackmails the unfaithful Baroness to keep his position in the household when he’s caught with his hands in the . . . till. And with impeccable references, God knows what he’s been up to before! A real bastard, you say. Indeed, a real bastard, with a titled father who never acknowledged him. The film certainly has spunk & spirit to it. Sort of a male companion piece to Jean Harlow’s scandalous doings in RED-HEADED WOMAN/’32 out two months earlier.* Gilbert underplays well, for once, but director Monta Bell, in a late assignment, never did get the rhythm of the Talkies and too many scenes just sit there. Though not two infamous set pieces. In one, Gilbert tells off the old hag of a cook while trimming his nose hairs, picking at it, digging out a bit of ear wax, wiping it off on his shirt front, grabbing her savings, then burping. Yikes! And the second, a blistering verbal attack from newlywed Virginia Bruce browbeating the boring sex technique of stuffy husband Paul Lucas. Double yikes! But the best moment comes when Gilbert breaks a symbolic glass dome and replaces it with a cheesy counterpart.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: John Gilbert & Gloria Swanson have long been the Poster Boy & Girl for silent film stars ‘done in’ by the Talkies. But their tales need to be taken with a big grain of salt. Swanson lost a couple of years in a disastrous partnership with Joe Kennedy and, in spite of complete vocal ease and a lovely trained, light soprano of some distinction, never quite got momentum back before her style started to go out of fashion. But poor maligned Jack Gilbert!; the Great Silent Screen Lover with the effeminate voice and popping eyes. Tossing away scripted dialogue in his Talkie debut to mouth ‘I love you, I love you, I love you,’ just as he had in the pre-sound era. The real story is that almost all silent film stars quickly lost their box-office mojo after earning big, unrepeatable returns on a Talkie debut. Here’s the list of M-G-M’s top stars from their own 1926-27 publicity roster: Lillian Gish; Marion Davies; Ramon Novarro; Norma Shearer; Lon Chaney; Buster Keaton; Mae Murray; & John Gilbert.

Of the eight, only Norma Shearer retained her position after the early ‘30s. It’s hard to think of any full-fledged stars (not counting rising Leading Players like Gary Cooper or Joan Crawford) who fully transitioned, or indeed became even bigger stars in the Talkies other than Shearer; Ronald Colman; Marie Dressler (with a career lacunae in there, same for Will Rogers); Greta Garbo & Wallace Beery. That’s about it. While rumors stick like urban legend to Gilbert’s rapid decline, the true cause was far more mundane: Generation Shift. Goodbye, Roaring ‘Twenties; Hello, New Stars for a New Deal.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Watch what Jean Harlow gets away with (and with what charm) in RED-HEADED WOMAN. And note a debuting Charles Boyer as her chauffeur in the tag ending. (Boyer blows everyone off the screen with a moment’s footage.) Fun Fact: Both these films were shot by Harold Rosson who went on to marry Harlow whereas this film’s ravaged Virginia Bruce would soon marry Gilbert.

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