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M.J. Daugherty Written by M.J. Daugherty
Sep. 28, 2005 | 6:54 PM

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by M.J. Daugherty

2005 marks the 100th anniversary of Greta Garbo?s birth, and everyone is jumping on the bandwagon to celebrate her work.  I however want to turn the spotlight on someone whose name is at the top of the list of underappreciated figures in cinema history ? John Gilbert, who stared with Garbo in four films, and helped to launch her into cinema superstardom.   

If you?ve never seen a John Gilbert film, you aren?t alone.  Until recently, his movies have been relegated to off-hours broadcasts on TCM and dusty VHS copies in specialty video stores.  To many he has become merely another sad example of a silent era star whose career was ruined by the coming of sound, a figure not unlike Gene Kelly?s character in Singin? in the Rain, a ham actor with a supposedly lousy speaking voice.  Fortunately, this may be about to change.   

Warner Home Video?s recently released DVD set of Garbo?s work features both the first and last films she made with Gilbert, Flesh and the Devil and Queen Christina (their only talkie together).  Image Entertainment also just released a DVD featuring Heart O? the Hills, one of Gilbert?s early films, in which he played a supporting role opposite Mary Pickford.  In addition to these new DVD releases, the past year has seen a resurgence of live screenings of John Gilbert?s films at venues such as LACMA, UCLA, the San Francisco Silent Festival, and Hollywood Heritage?s summer screening series.  Gilbert?s work has finally been positioned to reach a wide audience, and it?s about time too.

John Gilbert fully deserved his status as one of the silent era?s biggest stars.  At the height of his fame, Gilbert rivaled Rudolph Valentino as the audience?s favorite sex symbol, but Gilbert?s talent went far beyond being a pretty face.  He was charismatic, charming, intelligent, and a darn good actor who could handle just about any role that came his way, from light comedy to high drama with a decidedly modern subtlety and ease.  He had a perfectly lovely voice, too, as proven by the several talkies he made after the coming of sound. 

Perhaps most importantly, Gilbert had good taste in material, and he made terrific movies with the best in the business.  By the time MGM cast him opposite a young unknown named Greta Garbo for Flesh and the Devil, Gilbert was already an established star, having already made a string of classics such as the silent era blockbuster The Big Parade, He Who Gets Slapped, and The Merry Widow (none of which are currently available on DVD).  Flesh and the Devil marked a turning point in Gilbert and Garbo?s careers, launching them both into the realm of icons.  Audiences couldn?t get enough of their brand of smoldering sexiness, and MGM capitalized on their success with two other films, Love (a modern adaptation of Anna Karenina) and A Woman of Affairs

So what went wrong?  Unfortunately, a lot of things.  For all his talent, John Gilbert had a massive self-destructive streak, and he drank himself to death at the age of 36, after four failed marriages and much-publicized broken engagement to Garbo at the height of his fame.  He also frequently clashed with MGM studio head Louis B. Meyer, to the point that they allegedly came to blows on more than one occasion, which many people believe was the biggest factor in his downfall.  Some feel that the fault lay with his voice, which didn?t quite match his aristocratic image. Still others claim that changing tastes of the audience were responsible for the waning of his career.  The truth is that a combination of these factors led to John Gilbert?s fall from fame, and once it started, no one was able to stop it.  Garbo tried, demanding that he be cast as her co-star in Queen Christina, but it was no use.  John Gilbert died without regaining his fame, and his memory began a slow fade into obscurity. 

Still, despite his tragic end, Gilbert?s talent was without compare.  His movies are among the best in film history, and thanks to these new DVDs, audiences will be able to see at least a few of them for some time to come.  It may not be much, but for Gilbert fans, it?s a welcome start.  So as you browse through Netflix or Amazon, be sure to check out these new DVDs (I recommend Flesh and the Devil, available on the Garbo silents DVD, as the best place to start), and don?t forget to look for those night showings of his films on TCM, many of which are not yet available on DVD and some not even on VHS.  If you are lucky enough to be in a city where a Gilbert film is shown on the big screen, make sure to get a good seat.  I promise that you?ll come away, like I did, wondering how anyone could overlook a talent like John Gilbert?s.


If you would like to know more information on John Gilbert, please visit the homepage of The John Gilbert Appreciation Society at, which has a regular newsletter for its members on Gilbert-related happenings. 

There is also an excellent biography of John Gilbert, “Dark Star”, written by his daughter Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, which is out of print but can often be found on ebay or at your local library. 

And if that still isn?t enough, you can read a more detailed biographical article with links to other sites featuring information on John Gilbert at Wikipedia (and I know it?s a good one, because I wrote it myself!). 



  1. Anna-Do you get Turner Classic Movies in the UK?  If so, they are showing 3 of his early talkies on TCM in March along with his silent classic THE MERRY WIDOW.  I don’t have cable myself, but I’m going to have someone tape these for me.

    Posted by Karie (site owner) on 02/25 at 03:14 PM