John Gilbert died 80 years ago this month (Jan. 9, 1936, to be exact), and we suspect few are in mourning.

Nothing against Gilbert, mind you, who was a hugely popular workhorse during the silent film era of the 1920s.

As a recent article by critic David Mermelstein in The Wall Street Journal points out, the actor was at home as a villain or virtuous leading man in costume dramas as well as contemporary pieces.

His popularity was such that when the U.S. Post Office issued in 1994 a series of stamps toasting the biggest silent screen stars, Gilbert’s image was included with those of Charlie Chaplin, Lon Chaney and Rudolph Valentino.

Today Gilbert is remembered for two things:  his steamy eroticism onscreen (and off) with Greta Garbo (check out 1926’s Flesh and the Devil); and as the biggest-name silent movie star to flop resoundingly when the sound films (“the talkies”) were introduced in the late 20’s.

As British critic David Thomson wrote, Gilbert, who made 10 “talkies,” seems now like a dinosaur in film history, an extravagant creature hobbled by evolution. Gilbert’s high-pitched voice undermined both the stalwart characters he was required to play as well as the dashing and manly screen image the actor had successfully conveyed in the silents.

In other words, his squeaky voice did him in.

But is that true?

Critics Mermelstein and Thomson agree that Gilbert in sound had a drawback — his voice was prim…inappropriate to his handsomeness, writes the latter. Thomson also derogates Gilbert’s worth as an actor — it is hard to see how his playing (in sound and talkies) can have ever been thought other than it seems now — blatant, monotonous  and unappealing. In other words the guy was a ham.

However, Mermelstein is a bit more ambiguous on the “voice” issue.  After peering at nine of 10 Gilbert “talkies,” including those issued last year by Warner Archive via four manufactured-on-demand discs, Mermelstein concludes that given the right roles Gilbert could have shined no matter the technological platform.

Crediting Gilbert with undeniable magnetism, Mermelstein writes: Sound pictures did not on their face doom his prospects as an actor. Only poor films and inferior roles could do that. 

Historians sympathetic to the actor note that MGM management, especially studio boss Louis B. Mayer, was highly antagonistic to Gilbert over a range of issues including his offscreen romance with Garbo and his high salary.

Thus, when consternation about the actor’s vocal qualities erupted, the studio did nothing to calm the waters.  In other words, Gilbert was hung out to dry.  (The actor wound up hitting the bottle heavily, and died of a heart attack at age 40.)

So, at least two schools of thought: a) that Gilbert was a ham from the getgo, and how he sounded in ‘talkies’ compounded his inadequacy; and b) Gilbert was a talented, deserving actor largely done in by lousy parts and studio politics.

What do YOU think.  Drop us an e-mail and let us know.

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