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Tuesday 9 December 2008

Gentleman's Fate (1931)

John Gilbert was one of the highest profile failures of the transition to sound, but while most failed because of pretty good reasons: most were great actors physically but couldn't act with their voices. Gilbert's co-star here, Louis Wolheim, had the best of all reasons: he died in 1931. But John Gilbert was a special case: he failed because Louis B Mayer wanted him to fail and Mayer could make it happen.

Mayer, of course, was all-powerful, the head of the biggest studio of them all and he had Gilbert under contract, which in those days meant that he effectively owned him. The problem was that Gilbert had literally hit him, knocking him down in public, in response to a snide remark that Mayer made at Gilbert's wedding to Greta Garbo, which in the end didn't happen because she got cold feet and didn't show up. Mayer never forgot and vindictively ruined Gilbert's career, most notoriously having the pitch of his voice raised to a ridiculous level for His Glorious Night.

The truth was that there was nothing wrong with his voice. Film historians have often mentioned that it didn't match what the public expected and that his career was mostly crippled by the choice of films Mayer put him in, but I'm not sure I buy that quite as given. His voice never surprised me, admittedly from the perspective of three quarters of a century on, and there are plenty of actors who did consistently superb work in films not worthy of them. So the more I see of Gilbert's sound work the more I wonder about a third possibility: maybe his time had simply come.

I wasn't there so I can't know what it felt like to be a moviegoer during the transition to sound, but I wonder if the upheavals in the industry along with the upheavals in real life just hastened the death of a type of film and the actors who were most closely related to it died along with it. Gilbert was a romantic matinee idol, along with people like Valentino, Novarro and Garbo. I think they were so massively associated with that type of role that audiences couldn't see them in anything else. Valentino was already dead; Garbo continued on for a while but retired within a decade; Novarro lasted longest but as a shadow of what he was to the silent screen. Gilbert tried (or was forced into) a number of different types of roles. To my 21st century eyes he does fine. To the eyes of his fans, he was someone else.

This is not a great film, with only a couple of great scenes that stand out above the rest (the best by far is the peace banquet), but it's a pretty good part for Gilbert and he does pretty well with it. He thinks he's a gentleman called Jack Thomas because he always has been, and as the film opens he's prancing around like a giddy schoolboy because he's in love with Marjorie Channing, who is about to marry him. He tells Marjorie that his parents are dead, because he didn't know any different. But as he quickly finds out, he's really Giacomo Tomasulo, son of a notorious racketeer working mostly in bootlegged liquor who is on his deathbed and wants to see him. He has a brother too, Frank, and a whole new life dragging him in, one that doesn't seem to be compatible in the least with his life as a gentleman.

Gilbert wasn't going to win any Oscars here, but he does a good job with the material he's given. He has a good drunk scene, though the lines are terrible, as is much of the dialogue in this film. Louis Wolheim is fine too as Frank, though he's a little slower and more deliberate than he probably should have been. I like Wolheim: he didn't look like a movie star and he didn't act like one, but he was a powerful force on the screen. I've seen a number of his silents as well as his most famous film, All Quiet on the Western Front, and I'm a confirmed fan. People like John Miljan, Ralph Ince and Paul Porcasi can't match them from their supporting roles. I preferred George Cooper as a stooge called Mike.

The real supporting actors here are women and there are three whose names made their way onto the screen with the title. Leila Hyams is Marjorie, the woman who Jack loves, who naturally leaves as soon as she finds out what's going on. Her place is eventually taken by Anita Page, as Ruth Corrigan, who comes into the story as part of a subplot between the Tomasulo gang and their rivals, the Florio gang. Best of all is Marie Prevost in a smaller role as a Tomasulo gang moll called Mabel. She played a lot of memorable small roles throughout the thirties and this is no exception.

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