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Friday, 16 January 2009

Downstairs (1932)

Director: Monta Bell
Stars: John Gilbert and Paul Lukas

Life at the von Burgen castle seems to be pretty happy, so much so that 'blissful' would appear to be a better word. We open with Albert and Anna getting married, a wedding thrown by the Baron and Baroness for their servants. Albert is their butler and head servant, his family has served succeeding barons for generations and the von Burgens are obviously very thankful. Anna also works for the family, serving the Baroness. Everyone seems to be happy and what's more everyone seems to trust everyone, the servants downstairs following a code and the family upstairs treating them well. Even the actors playing these characters are reliable names: Paul Lukas as Albert, Reginald Owen and Olga Baclanova as the Baron and Baroness, Virginia Bruce as Anna.

And into this bliss comes a new chauffeur, Karl Schneider, to turn everything upside down. He's played by John Gilbert and this is unmistakably his film, not just because he's the lead character and the catalyst for everything that happens but because he wrote the story too. While it's no spectacular success, none of it is bad but the strange thing is that this is 1932 and it's hard to see the motivations of the studio. Why would the biggest studio of them all, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, whose chief, Louis B Mayer, the most important man in Hollywood, was apparently bent on destroying Gilbert's career, allow him to star in a pretty decent film that he wrote? It doesn't add up but then there are a lot of contradictions in the John Gilbert story.

Gilbert was the most obvious casualty of the sound age and history hasn't treated him well, but now that we have the luxury of seeing these old films we can see how unfair that was. He was no small talent, taking over the heartthrob slot left vacant by the death of Rudolph Valentino and running with it, becoming one of the biggest names of the silent era and was commanding a quarter of a million dollars a film by the end of the twenties. Yet his last picture came as early as 1934 and two years after that he was dead, of a heart attack brought on by serious alcoholism.

Many stories have circulated with reasons for this massive decline, but the one that rings truest speaks to sabotage. Gilbert had almost married frequent co-star Greta Garbo but she left him standing at the altar and when Mayer made an unwelcome comment at that event Gilbert knocked him down, effectively committing career suicide in an era where everyone was stuck inside a contract. In return for such an affront Mayer had his stories sabotaged, his films re-edited and the pitch of his voice altered so that audiences would laugh when he spoke to young ladies of love. They laughed at him in His Glorious Night, which is rarely seen today except in the take on it in Singin' in the Rain. The more Gilbert films I see, the more I want to see this one.

By 1932 he was so desperate to have this film made that he sold his script to MGM for a single dollar and for some reason they let him make it. Maybe they felt that it would go precisely nowhere, given the circumstances. After all, it's a period piece set in an undisclosed European country at the height of the precode era when audiences were happy watching gangsters, gold diggers and prostitutes in the modern day. It also sees Gilbert playing very much against type: he's no great lover here, he's the slimeball that tries to screw everything he can out of everyone he can.

That he sounds fine and does a solid job, both as an actor and a writer, is hardly surprising, as I've seen a number of his sound films and fully realise that he was a talented man. Maybe this was just so much the wrong thing at the wrong time that it became simply another nail in his career coffin. He only had three more films in him, and even the superb Queen Christina couldn't reverse the decline. At least he got one thing out of this film: wife number four. His character may not have stolen away Virginia Bruce's in the film but they were married shortly after shooting wrapped, though the marriage only lasted two of the four years he had left.

1 comment:

Juanita's Journal said...

Why would the biggest studio of them all, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, whose chief, Louis B Mayer, the most important man in Hollywood, was apparently bent on destroying Gilbert's career, allow him to star in a pretty decent film that he wrote?


Because Irving Thalberg, Vice-President of Production at MGM, allowed Gilbert to make the movie. And both men were close friends.