by Steve Starr
Everyone was mesmerized by the silent film star with intense black eyes and sensational magnetism that made him, next to Valentino, the greatest romantic icon of silent films. Yet he is remembered as the man whose career was ruined when audiences heard him speak.
John Cecil Pringle was born July 10, 1899 in Logan, Utah. Four years earlier, motion pictures had made their commercial debut in America, and, soon, little John, nicknamed Jack, longed to direct them. Jack's father, a third-rate producer and comic who owned the Pringle Stock Company, met his wife Ida when she joined one of his shows.
Ida had felt her pregnancy was a careless mistake, and did not even look at her child for the first twenty-four hours after he was born. After John divorced her, She often left little Jack in the care of anyone who would take him in, which included a New York seamstress and her prostitute daughter, then taking him back for a while at age eight when she married comedian Walter Gilbert with his Latter Day Saints relatives who sent Jack off with ten dollars and Ida's makeup case to San Francisco on his own to find work at age14 when his mother died of tuberculosis.
Jack Gilbert found his way to Hollywood where he lied about his age, adding four years, hoping to direct films, and obtained extra work at the Thomas Ince Studios for $15 a week. He later wrote scripts and directed a few movies. In 1917, eighteen-year-old Jack married one Olivia Burwell. In 1919, he appeared opposite famed star Mary Pickford in Heart O' The Hills.
In 1921, Jack Gilbert signed a three-year-contract with Fox Films. Now billed as John Gilbert, his dark, Latin good looks, deep expressive eyes, slight hint of vulnerability, flashing smile, fluid movements, and sensational lithe build suited the silent, exotic, romantic film, The Count of Monte Cristo (1922), which helped propel him to stardom. That same year he divorced Burwell and married successful actress Leatrice Joy, and they produced a daughter, Leatrice.
Their union lasted two years, with Leatrice proclaiming that John was a hopeless philanderer. In 1924, he moved to MGM Studios, and appeared in The Merry Widow (1925) opposite the haughty, beautiful Mae Murray, and directed by the extravagant Erich Von Stroheim. When Rudolph Valentino died in 1926, John Gilbert became the screen's most popular leading man.
By 1927, Gilbert was the highest paid star in films. Now known as "The Great Lover," his film The Big Parade (1927), was the most successful movie of the silent era, of which Gilbert declared, "That was worth doing. All the rest was balderdash." Still, John was a true movie-struck star who believed in and adored the glamour, living his life through his films, and submerging himself and his soul in the exotic characters he represented.
If John were playing a Cossack prince in a new film, he would have his magnificent Hollywood home filled with the finest Beluga caviar to serve his guests, and hire balalaika orchestras to entertain them.
Cinema Magazine proclaimed, "John Gilbert stands alone at the top-most pinnacle of film fame. There is no one that can approach him." John was making $10,000 a week and romancing star Greta Garbo, with whom he made several highly successful, lust-filled films that included Flesh and the Devil (1927), Love (1927), and Woman of Affairs (1928).
On the day of Gilbert and Garbo’s elaborate wedding, September 8, 1927, at the fantastic Hearst mansion hosted by Hearst’s paramour, star Marion Davies, Greta changed her mind, did not appear, and left John alone at the altar. During the party, John had a terrible row with studio boss Louis B. Mayer after Mayer stated to John, "What do you have to marry her for? Why don't you just screw her and forget about it?" John flew into a rage, attacked and punched the magnate. Mayer shouted up from the floor, "You're finished, Gilbert. I'll destroy you if it costs me a million dollars."
Mayer kept his word, and did his best to harm John, putting him into films of inferior quality, hurting his reputation, and warning other studios not to hire him. It is rumored that Mayer himself or his chief sound engineer manipulated the knobs of Gilbert's first talkies so that the sound of his naturally higher pitched voice came out shrill, a "white noise," and when Gilbert's declarations of love, "I love you, I love you, I love you," were first heard in His Glorious Night (1929), audiences throughout the country were sent into uncontrolled snickers and howls of laughter. It was the beginning of the end of the career of the screen's highest paid matinee idol, who was earning $250,000 per film. That same year, John married actress Ina Claire, and they divorced in 1931.
John's career continued to decline, not really because his voice was actually high-pitched, as is legend, but, perhaps, because his refined and cultured manner of speech seemed at odds with his visual image. His was not the voice which audiences had heard in their minds. Depressed and insecure, the handsome actor, always a heavy drinker, increased his consumption.
John starred in a well-received film he wrote himself, Downstairs (1932) and married his co-star Virginia Bruce in 1933. They divorced a year later. John's contract at MGM ran out after he made Fast Workers (1933), but John and Greta had remained friends, and she insisted that her one time lover return to MGM and star opposite her in Queen Christina (1934).
This time, however, Greta Garbo's name appeared above the title and John Gilbert's name appeared below the title. His confidence and bravura seemed to be gone. Then, he was hired at a low salary by Colombia Pictures to make what would be his final film, The Captain Hates the Sea (1934), in which he played an alcoholic.
Gilbert received third billing, and was not able to regain his reputation. Alcoholism severely damaged his health, and on January 9, 1936, one of the screen's most magnetic personalities who acted in ninety-nine movies and played himself in seven others, died of a massive heart attack in Los Angeles. He was only 36 years old.
The Illustrated Who's Who of the Cinema edited by Ann Lloyd and Graham Fuller
The Movie Makers by Sol Chaneles and Albert Wolsky
The Movie Stars Story by Robyn Karney
The Stars by Richard Schickel
Dark Star by Leatrice Gilbert Fountain
John Gilbert Websites
Steve Starr is the author of "Picture Perfect-Art Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946" published by Rizzoli International Publications. A photographer, designer, and writer, he is the owner of Steve Starrr Studios, specializing in original Art Deco artifacts and photo frames, and celebrating its 39th anniversary in 2006. Starr's personal collection of over 950 magnificent Art Deco photo frames is filled with images of Hollywood's most elegant stars.
Steve Starr's column, STARRLIGHT, about movie stars of the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's appears in various publications, including Entertainment Magazine Online, The Windy City Times, and the Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine.
STARRGAZERS-Radiant Photography by Steve Starr is available privately and for events, and at particular locations in Chicago including the beautiful Rumba Restaurant and Nightclub, the Seneca Hotels Chestnut Grill, the Kit Kat Lounge and Supper Club, Cornelia's Restaurant, Katerina's Nightclub, The Cabaret Cocktail Boutique, and the Whitehall Hotels Fornetto Mei where Starr will personally photograph you and your friends, print, sign, frame and deliver your picture to you on the premises for just $10. For further information and current schedule call 773-463-8017.
Visit the Steve Starr Satellite Studio at the Ravenswood Antique Mart, 4727 North Damen Avenue in Chicago, and www.SteveStarrStudios.com where you can see a portion of his collection, read Starrlight stories, and enjoy photos, autographs and letters he has received from some of his favorite luminaries.
Photo of Steve Starr January 28, 2006 at the Whitehall Hotel, taken by NBC New director Harold "Sandy" Whiteley.
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