Sunday, April 11, 2010

John Gilbert: "The Great Lover".

John Gilbert, actor and a major star of the silent film era. Known as "the great lover", he rivaled even Rudolph Valentino as a box office draw. Though he was unsuccessful in making the transition to talkies, his decline as a star in fact had to do with studio politics and money and not the sound of his screen voice.

He first found work as an extra with the Thomas Ince Studios, and soon became a favorite of Maurice Tourneur, who hired him to write and direct several pictures. He quickly began building his career as an actor in films as Heart o' the Hills with Mary Pickford. In 1921, Gilbert signed a contract with Fox Film Corporation, where he was cast as a romantic leading man. Some of his films for Fox include Monte Cristo, an adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo; St. Elmo, an adaptation of book The Wolf Man, the story of a man who believes he murdered his fiance's brother while drunk.

In 1924, he moved to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he became a star in films, His Hour directed by King Vidor, He Who Gets Slapped (1924), co-starring Lon Chaney, Sr. and Norma Shearer, and directed by Victor Sjöström; and The Merry Widow (1925) directed by Erich von Stroheim and co-starring Mae Murray. In 1925, Gilbert was once again directed by Vidor in, The Big Parade, which became the second highest grossing silent film. His performance in this film made him a major star. The following year, Vidor reunited Gilbert with two of his co-stars, Renée Adorée and Karl Dane, for the film La Bohème which also starred Lillian Gish.

In 1926, Gilbert made Flesh and the Devil, his first film with Greta Garbo. They soon began a relationship. Gilbert planned to marry her, but Garbo changed her mind and never showed up for the ceremony. Despite their rocky off-screen relationship, they continued to generate box-office revenue for the studio, and MGM paired them in two more silents Love (1927), a modern adaptation of Anna Karenina, and A Woman of Affairs (1928). The former film was advertised by MGM as "Garbo and Gilbert in Love."

Fun Fact:
Pictured on one of ten 29¢ US commemorative postage stamps celebrating stars of the silent screen, issued 27 April 1994. Designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, this set of stamps also honored Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Charles Chaplin, Lon Chaney, Zasu Pitts, Harold Lloyd, Theda Bara, Buster Keaton, and the Keystone Kops.


  1. If TCM shows it again, you should watch Rediscovering John Gilbert. It was done by his daughter Leatrice Gilbert Fountain. She decided to become her father's historian in order to set the record straight about her father & his legacy. It was very insightful -- I burned it to DVD. How could I not be a John Gilbert fan with my last name?! True and ironic, my grandma Gilbert's favorite actor before she married my grandfather was John Gilbert!

  2. Gilby, I will keep my eye open for the Rediscovering John Gilbert, program. It sounds very interesting. I have only seen a couple of his movies. But.. I have enjoyed the few that I have seen.

    That is a neat story about your grandmother marrying a man of the same name...


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