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The Pre-Code Era
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Remind Me
,Downstairs

Downstairs

Karl, a scheming chauffeur hired by a Baron and his wife, arrives just when two other servants, the butler Albert and maid Anna, are set to wed. He proceeds to take advantage of several members of the household, blackmailing the Baroness for a dalliance which he uncovers, seducing the cook Sophie in order to get his hands on her life savings, and stealing the lovely and innocent Anna from her new husband. Albert tries to set everything right and throw Karl out of the household.

Lead actor John Gilbert, "The Great Lover of the Silver Screen," as Irving Thalberg called him, also wrote the original story for Downstairs (1932), envisioning Erich von Stroheim - with whom he had worked previously on The Merry Widow (1925) - as a director. Certainly, the theme of aristocratic decadence in Central Europe would have suited the director's sensibilities perfectly. However, by that time Stroheim's directing career was effectively finished, especially as far as Louis B. Mayer and MGM were concerned. Legend has it that Gilbert was unable to survive the transition from silents to talkies because of a high-pitched voice. Although his voice was perhaps not the most resonant in Hollywood, it was in fact perfectly normal. Gilbert's problems were instead an antagonistic relationship with Louis B. Mayer and being given weak scripts to work with. These two factors were probably not unrelated. One of Gilbert's early sound films, His Glorious Night (1929), has the star saying "I love you. I love you. I love you." It was the likely model for the laughably bad talkie, "The Dueling Cavalier," depicted in Singin' in the Rain (1952). During the production Gilbert and Virginia Bruce fell in love; the two were married that year.

In recent years director Monta Bell (1891-1958) has often been mistaken for a woman because of his unusual name. Born in Washington, D.C., he worked as a journalist before becoming a stage actor. His only screen role was in Charlie Chaplin's The Pilgrim (1923); the same year he worked as an editor for Chaplin's remarkable A Woman of Paris (1923). During the mid-to-late twenties Bell worked with some of the greatest talent of the era, directing Greta Garbo in her American debut The Torrent (1926) and producing the Marx Brothers' comedy The Cocoanuts (1929) and Rouben Mamoulian's groundbreaking early sound musical Applause (1929). In the early '30s Monta Bell switched to Paramount Studios and focused his energies mainly on producing. His last project as a director was the World War II-era anti-Japanese propaganda film China's Little Devils(1945).

Director: Monta Bell
Screenplay: Melville Baker and Lenore J. Coffee
Cinematography: Harold "Hal" Rosson
Editing: Conrad A. Nervig
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Cast: John Gilbert (Karl), Paul Lukas (Albert), Virginia Bruce (Anna), Hedda Hopper (Countess), Reginald Owen (Baron), Olga Baclanova (Baroness), Otto Hoffman (Otto), Lucien Littlefield (Francois), Marion Lessing (Antoinette), Bodil Rosing (Sophie).
BW-78m.

by James Steffen

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