John Gilbert was an American actor and a major star of the silent film era.
Known as “the great lover”, he rivaled even Rudolph Valentino as a box office draw. Though he was often cited as one of the high profile examples of an actor who was unsuccessful in making the transition to talkies, his decline as a star in fact had to do with studio politics and money and not the sound of his screen voice. According to the actress Eleanor Boardman and others, a fight between Louis B. Mayer and Gilbert erupted at what was to be his marriage to Greta Garbo, for which she failed to turn up, when Mayer made a snide remark. Gilbert promptly knocked his boss down, for which Mayer swore he’d get even. Gilbert’s daughter has alleged that Mayer then proceeded to sabotage the recording of his voice by increasing the treble; giving direction of his films to an inexperienced director who was on narcotic pain medication; refusing him good scripts, such as 1930’s The Dawn Patrol which directors wanted to star him in; and editing his projects to ruin his films.
Born John Cecil Pringle in Logan, Utah to stock company actor parents, he struggled through a childhood of abuse and neglect before moving to Hollywood as a teenager. He first found work as an extra with the Thomas Ince Studios, and soon became a favorite of Maurice Tourneur, who also hired him to write and direct several pictures. He quickly rose through the ranks, building his reputation as an actor in such films as Heart o’ the Hills with Mary Pickford. In 1921, Gilbert signed a three year contract with Fox Film Corporation, where he was cast as a romantic leading man. Some of his films for Fox include Monte Cristo, an adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo; St. Elmo, an adaptation of a popular book of the period; ‘The Wolf Man‘, not a horror film, the story of a man who believes he murdered his fiancee’s brother while drunk and many others. At the time, Gilbert did not sport his famous mustache, which made his features more uneven and a little less handsome, and Fox plainly did not realize what huge potential he had.
In 1924, he moved to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he became a full-fledged star with such high-profile films as His Hour directed by King Vidor and written by Elinor Glyn; He Who Gets Slapped, co-starring Lon Chaney, Sr. and Norma Shearer, and directed by Victor Sjöström; and The Merry Widow directed by Erich von Stroheim and co-starring Mae Murray. In 1925, Gilbert was once again directed by Vidor in the war epic The Big Parade, which became the second highest grossing silent film. His performance in this film made him a major star. The following year, Vidor reunited Gilbert with two of his co-stars from that picture, Renée Adorée and Karl Dane, for the film La Bohème which also starred Lillian Gish.