John Gilbert (July 10, 1897 – January 9, 1936)
The ‘Great Lover’ of the silent screen (he even rivaled silent sex symbol Rudolph Valentino) died 79 years ago today. He was only 38 years old.
John Gilbert is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Greta Garbo, the Swedish MGM star who retired while her career was still in full swing. They first stared together in Flesh and the Devil (1926). Their genuine on-screen chemistry was a studio’s dream–because they could milk it for all it was worth, and they did. They later appeared together in the cleverly named 1927 film “Love“. The cleverness in the name comes from the fact that MGM could bill the film as ‘John Gilbert, Greta Garbo in Love‘ like such:
In 1927 he set to marry Garbo but she never showed to the ceremony. MGM head Louis B Mayer was not happy (might be an understatement) that Gilbert tried to marry his big up-and-coming star Garbo, and said: “What do you have to marry her for? Why don’t you just screw her and forget about it?”. Gilbert proceeds to start beating up on Mayer. Not one to take being somebody’s punching bag lightly, Mayer reportedly said from the floor: “You’re finished John Gilbert, I’ll destroy you if it cost me a million dollars.” And, that’s what ended up happening. His career dwindled and never recovered. He died of a heart attack, but his health was already in decline from years of alcoholism.
In real life, John Gilbert was a tragic figure. But in film, he was magnetic and intense. It’s easy to see how his image became to be known as the Great Lover. Some of his best talkie films are Downstairs (1932) and Queen Christina (1933). Seeing those, it’s hard to imagine that his career was more or less over but it was. To remember him, I think I’ll try to track down a copy of Eve Golden’s biography on John Gilbert. She did one on Theda Bara that I’m dying to read, and she will for sure be an entry sometime in the future.
Thank you (as always) for reading and happy watching 🙂