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Actor John Gilbert's struggle to gain a foothold in the new world of talking pictures may have hung on movies such as Gentleman's Fate (1931). On paper, as this underworld story went into production, the elements of a much-needed hit for the star of such silent blockbusters as The Big Parade (1925) and Flesh and the Devil (1926) may have appeared to be present. M-G-M studio, which had been slow to respond to the need to adapt to the new sound technology, seemed to be making up for lost time. They hired the hottest young director in movies, 30-year-old Mervyn LeRoy, fresh from his critical and popular triumph directing Little Caesar (1931) for Warner Brothers-First National. That electrifying movie rocketing Edward G. Robinson to stardom had helped to kick the burgeoning gangster cycle into high gear in Hollywood. Perhaps LeRoy could bring a similar jolt of energy to a John Gilbert film.
M-G-M then chose a script for their most expensive star that was based on a gangster tale dashed off by novelist Ursula Parrott. The scenarist of Gentleman's Fate, (with Leonard Praskins on board for continuity), may have seemed a good choice for a fresh approach to salvaging Gilbert's career, since Parrott had written an edgy novel of sexual adventurism, Ex-Wife, that had been the basis for Norma Shearer's Oscar®-winning recent hit, The Divorcee (1930). The thinking around the studio appears to have reflected confidence that the female-oriented writer could easily dip her pen into the same subject matter as more hard-boiled writers such as W.R. Burnett, providing just the shot of adrenalin needed for John Gilbert's flagging and dated screen persona.
Reeling from a series of personal and professional blows--some of them self-inflicted--the actor had suffered from repeated misfires on screen. After his appearance playing himself as Romeo to Norma Shearer's Juliet in a Technicolor sequence of The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929), John Gilbert's first sound movie, Redemption (1930), had been shelved for a time at his request. The public's reaction to his next film, His Glorious Night (1929) suggested that hearing Gilbert speak had somehow diminished his talent. Not only did some critics mention his voice was "too high-pitched and squeaky", but Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times mentioned in his devastating review of the movie that the grandiloquent Gilbert's repeated utterances of "I love you" on screen had caused "a large female contingent in the theatre yesterday afternoon to giggle and laugh."
Proving he could act in a more natural style and that his light baritone voice could be recorded adequately must have seemed paramount to the actor when he was handed the Gentleman's Fate assignment. There has long been speculation that antagonism between the freewheeling Gilbert and M-G-M mogul Louis B. Mayer, stemming in part from the actor's involvement with Greta Garbo, may have led to his career being "sabotaged" by the mogul. Their enmity was real, but so was the genuine concern of Gilbert's longtime friend and studio power broker, Irving Thalberg, who proceeded to assign the actor to three films in 1931. The relationship between the actor and Thalberg had cooled as Gilbert became increasingly dissatisfied with his movies and his personal life became more chaotic. The frail Thalberg, engaged in a protracted struggle with Mayer for studio power, and a losing battle to sustain his health, may have hoped that Gentleman's Fate would help Gilbert and bring in the kind of box office revenues Warner Brothers saw from the programmers they had produced with LeRoy at the helm. Depression-ravaged audiences seemed to find such gritty urban fare more palatable than the emotionalism of romantic adventure that the silent era had proffered, especially when the story could be told with considerable verve.
Gentleman's Fate opens as a refined man of leisure, Jack Thomas (John Gilbert), exulting in his coming marriage to socialite Marjorie Channing (Leila Hyams), is informed that he is not the orphan of a deceased wealthy and respectable man, as he had always believed himself to be. He learns that he is actually the son of a dying gangster, Papa Francesco Tomasulo (Frank Reicher), whose bootlegging operations have financed his younger son's education as a sophisticated gentleman.
Visiting his fading father at the gang's hangout, the seedy Hotel Ritzi in Jersey City, Jack also learns that his real name is Giacomo Tomasulo and that he has a previously unknown and resentful elder brother (Louis Wolheim in his penultimate screen performance). Moved and a bit overwhelmed by his meeting with his unexpected family members in this setting, Jack/Giacomo responds to his violent, coarse surroundings with considerable poise, under the circumstances.
In a situation that The Godfather's Michael Corleone might empathize with, the educated man is inexorably sucked deeper into the family's rum-running business, even after his father's death. He adapts rather well to his new surroundings, hardening a bit after he endures a 10 day stay in the pokey on a bum rap and his outraged, lady-like fiance (Hyams) calls it quits. Increasingly bitter, but finding that he has a certain knack for the family business, Jack eventually kills a rival gang's member and finds himself drawn to a nicely enacted pre-code girl of easy virtue (Anita Page), who responds sympathetically to his gentle manner and deepening despair. The film, filled with what today may be regarded as clichs, ends with the inevitable implicit message that "crime does not pay," though it is certainly a novel way to meet new people. Gentleman's Fate did seem to be a step in the right direction since it demonstrated that John Gilbert could still exhibit considerable charisma on screen, even when a film was clearly filmed on a small budget and dealt with sordid but contemporary themes.
When the movie premiered even positive reviews gave the effort left-handed compliments. Louella Parsons seemed to feel obligated to call this "a comeback vehicle," while others also mentioned Gilbert's "previous flops," and "disastrous attempts with talkers," along with the actor's "million dollar contract" and his "surprisingly pleasant-sounding voice." Variety acknowledged the film's structural problems, but pointedly noted that Gilbert "talks in a strong tone and plenty." Their reviewer also verified that MGM had not presented this Gilbert picture in one of their flagship theaters, but had presented it in outlying movie houses and even in Warner's own theaters.
One critic went so far as stating that the actor was "doing pretty good work for a change." Generally Gentleman's Fate was praised for the acting of most of the cast, even if they thought that the "frantic...already dated story" had probably been "written in a hurry" by an inexperienced screenwriter. Dan Thomas, reporting for the NEA service, went off the deep end with acclaim for the picture, declaring that "worry [over Gilbert's career] is in the past. The sun is shining again on the M-G-M lot and in Gilbert's heart. He is a success in talking pictures with every indication pointing toward a rapid rise to the position he held during his silent film days."
Reviewers, noting the versatility demonstrated by Gilbert in the emotional and tragic role, also acknowledged that the effete mannerisms that had plagued earlier sound movies with Gilbert were not on display in Gentleman's Fate. They even hailed the fist fight scene between Louis Wolheim and John Gilbert, though Mervyn LeRoy later wrote that "John was no fighter. He didn't even know the right way to hold his hands. To make the brawl look realistic, I had to resort to trickery. I had my cameraman overspeed the camera and took a close-up of Gilbert's fist coming right at the lens. Then I cut, quickly, to a shot of his opponent, Wolheim, getting hit and falling down." LeRoy, at the beginning of one of the studio era's most protean careers, would crank out a remarkable seven films in 1931 alone and go on to make the landmark I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) the following year. The young man seemed to have little time for nurturing John Gilbert, whom he described as "a very intuitive actor, but he was terribly unhappy and he was drinking too much for his own good." LeRoy believed Gentleman's Fate was "the only successful talking picture Gilbert made."
Others in the cast were more impressed with their co-star. Anita Page described him as "a fantastic actor," noting his ability to play a scene that required him to weep "like a baby...I thought, gosh, how can you do this?" He explained to her that "'if a scene plays true, I can do it every time. If there's one false moment and I don't believe it, I can't.'" Leila Hyams remembered him as a serious actor "who cared so much about any picture he was in." From Hyams' view, neither the actor's troubles with the studio nor the fact that he was going through a troubling divorce after a brief marriage to actress Ina Claire seemed to effect Gilbert on the set at the time of this production. "He never mentioned [personal or professional problems] to me," she recalled. "He was always anxious to keep the atmosphere happy on the set...serious actors kept their problems to themselves while they were working. He had too much self-respect."
Ultimately however, Gentleman's Fate, was a case of too little, too late. The movie that resulted was astutely described as "a sort of elephant's burial ground for actors who were being disciplined by the studio or were at the end of their careers or contracts" by Leatrice Gilbert Fountain in her biography of her father, Dark Star. The accuracy of Fountain's remarks was rooted in her father's troubles, but the rest of the cast were also going through their own rough patches. Louis Wolheim, the 50-year-old, buffalo-headed character actor who had made a successful transition from silents to talkies and had lent his dramatic weight to the internationally hailed All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), was dying of cancer when he made this movie. While he made an unlikely genetic sibling to Gilbert as his brother in this film, his impact in all his scenes was powerful. He would be dead before it premiered in theaters.
Leila Hyams, an actress noted for her delightful, down-to-earth light touch in such classics as Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) would go on to play supporting roles in a total of three Gilbert films, including one of his best talkies, The Phantom of Paris (1931), but she would retire from the movies completely in 1936. Her "crime," from the studio viewpoint, would have been her marriage in 1927 to innovative talent agent Phil Berg, which lasted fifty years. Berg has been credited with creating the package deal for his clients, in which the agent found a script, a writer, actors and a director, and then sold the entire package to a producer. The concept changed the basic structure of Hollywood in the 1930's, to the chagrin of studios.
Blonde Anita Page, who played an endearing floozie in awe of John Gilbert's suave character, was only a few years out of her teens when Gentleman's Fate was made. She had a promising career ahead of her when she became a screen favorite after Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and gained further attention in the smash talking musical, The Broadway Melody (1929). Her exceptional popularity, which had led to her being starred opposite M-G-M stars William Haines and Ramon Novarro, also encouraged her agent to ask for more money after one year at the studio, instead of better parts for her. As Page once described it, Louis B. Mayer then promised her that he "could make you the biggest star with three pictures--and I can kill Garbo in three pictures--and I'll never lift another finger to help you."Marie Prevost played a fringe member of the Tomasulo gang whose pesky presence in the dive where they holed up enlivened several scenes. She had been a Mack Sennett "Bathing Beauty" in silents and had been a star of several light comedies in silents, but she found herself relegated to secondary roles as sound came in and a growing weight problem hampered her career. A sparkling presence in several films of the '30s, such as Ladies of Leisure (1930) and Hands Across the Table (1935), even though scripts sometimes cruelly included jabs about her plumpness, Prevost would eventually starve herself to death by 1937 in an effort to remain in pictures.
Overall, the impact of Gentleman's Fate on John Gilbert's career was not enough to reverse his free fall from mega-stardom nor to prevent his early death of a heart attack at the age of 40, which was accelerated by his alcoholism. In some quarters, however, there were those who believed that the relatively positive, if mixed notices accorded the gangster picture did help the actor. Interestingly, a few of his last films, particularly Queen Christina (1933), The Phantom of Paris, and Downstairs (1932)--which Gilbert also wrote and acted in, continue to grow in critical stature and audience appreciation since the time when they were made.
Despite the personal and professional turmoil that characterized John Gilbert's last years, perhaps an anecdote told by writer Victor Heerman reflected the actor's essential self. Heerman told a story that he once stopped by the dusty, deserted streets of the M-G-M studio in Culver City on a Sunday to pick up a script, when he spied a lone figure strolling through the solitude of the place. Realizing that it was actor John Gilbert, he asked what the man was doing there, "Don't you take Sundays off like the rest of us?" Jack Gilbert responded quietly, "I just can't stay away from this place, Victor. It's so great to be a part of anything like this. I just can't believe I'm here."
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Ursula Parrott (story); Leonard Praskins (continuity)
Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Film Editing: William S. Gray
Cast: John Gilbert (Jack Thomas), Louis Wolheim (Frank), Leila Hyams (Marjorie), Anita Page (Ruth), Marie Prevost (Mabel), John Miljan (Florio), George Cooper (Mike), Ferike Boros (Angela), Ralph Ince (Dante).
by Moira Finnie
Aldine, Gentleman's Fate Review, Pittsburg Post-Gazette, May 4, 1931
Fountain, Leatrice Gilbert, Maxim, John, Dark Star, (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985)
Golden, Eve, Golden images: 41 Essays on Silent Film Stars, (McFarland, 2001)
LeRoy, Mervyn, Kleiner, Richard, Mervyn LeRoy: Take One, (Hawthorn Books, 1974)
Thomas, Dan, "John Gilbert Comes Back," The Evening Independent, Feb. 3, 1931
Vieira, Mark A., Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince, (Univ. of CA, 2009)