Cast & Crew
On the Austrian estate of Baron von Burgen, butler Albert and maid Anna are given a wedding by their employers, who appreciate their years of loyal service. During the reception, Karl Schneider, the new chauffeur, arrives, disturbing the Countess De Marnac, a guest and his former employer, with whom he once had an affair. That night, as Albert and Anna are about to start their honeymoon, Albert is summoned by the baron to serve his guests when Françoise, another butler, gets too drunk to work. While Albert is serving, Anna is visited by Karl, who wins her sympathy by telling her about a sad childhood. One day, the baroness requests Karl to drive her to Vienna and they become lovers. When they return late, she says that they had an accident, and though Karl tells Albert the truth, Albert insists that Karl maintain respect for the "upstairs" people no matter what they do. They soon become friends and Karl impresses Anna, whom he says he regards "like a sister," but who slaps him when he tries to kiss her. Later, Karl insults the cook Sophie, with whom he had been intimate the night before, then tells her fabricated stories about being the illegitimate son of royality to extort money from her. Sometime later, he offers Anna a jewel of the baroness' that he found and did not return, but she refuses, then chides him for his treatment of Sophie. He pins the jewel on her crucifix necklace anyway, and when the baroness recognizes the clip, she accuses Anna of stealing. Just then, Karl comes in, and says that he gave the clip to Anna and alludes to the baroness' indiscretions. The baroness apologizes to Anna, who thinks that Karl is wonderful for standing up for her. In retaliation, the baroness, knowing that Albert can hear her in the next room, tells the baron that Karl gave Anna jewelry and that they are involved in a scandal. She then tells Albert to make some changes on the staff while they are away on a fishing trip, and use his discretion. At the last moment, the baron insists on taking Albert with him and Albert warns Karl to stay away from Anna. Telling her that Albert asked him to take her out to dinner and have a good time, Karl then takes Anna to an inn and gets her drunk. Meanwhile, the fishing party turns back because the baron has slightly injured himself. At home, Karl tells Anna he loves her and plans to leave, but after he kisses her goodbye, they become lovers. The next morning, when Albert comes home, he fires Karl, even though he doesn't know for certain what has happened. Anna confesses to Albert when he coldly calls her "a servant," then leaves. Karl, meanwhile, goes to the baroness and blackmails her into reinstating him, which she does, in front of all the servants. When Albert goes to the baroness to resign, she tearfully admits her affair and begs him to stay, and also to forgive and understand Anna, who is too young not to be taken in by Karl. That night Sophie tearfully goes to Karl and gives him all her savings so that they can buy a coffee shop together in Vienna. The next morning, he packs to leave and asks Anna to go with him, but she begs him to leave her alone because she loves Albert. In a struggle in the wine cellar, they knock over a rack of bottles, creating a disturbance that brings Albert. He then fights with Karl, but is stopped by the baron, who thinks that it is over the spoiled wine. Albert apologizes to Karl and they have a drink together in the celler, but when Albert orders Karl out, they begin to fight. Anna, seeing the violence of their fight, again summons the baron, in front of whom she makes Karl give Sophie's money back. The baron then congratulates Albert, and he and Anna make up. Some time later, Karl introduces himself to another rich woman as "madame's new chauffeur."
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).
by James Steffen
Downstairs on DVD
Gilbert, a supreme matinee idol of the silent era, famously did not well survive Hollywood's transition to sound, appearing in ten talkies until his death in 1936. Most were of middling quality, but a few, like Downstairs, were quite strong. Still, this is not quite the same John Gilbert of The Big Parade (1925) or Flesh and the Devil (1926). He is lecherous, lewd, and downright evil here as a philandering chauffeur who sleeps his way through rich Austrian households. Bored baronesses, chaste maids, busty cooks -- he doesn't discriminate. The movie establishes him as a heel right from the start, as he flips a coin to his carriage-driver, forcing him to get down and pick it up off the ground. Gilbert then arrives at a mansion as the new chauffeur and wastes no time leering at every woman he encounters, no matter her age or position. He is smooth-talking and has a modicum of initial charm, so he is successful. (It's a role that Zachary Scott would have been perfect for a dozen years later.)
Eventually Gilbert sets his sights mainly on a pretty young chambermaid (Virginia Bruce, outstanding) who has just married the household's older and boring butler (Paul Lukas). Naturally she presents a challenge to Gilbert, and his slow conquering of her, as well as her gradual giving-in, is a pre-Code sight to behold. What seems sleazy yet almost harmless at first, as if Gilbert were just an overgrown frat boy, turns much more dangerous and menacing as the story wears on and he starts playing with the feelings of the mansion cook (Bodil Rosing) in order to fleece her of her savings, and blackmailing the lady of the house (Olga Baclanova) when he discovers her own adultery. Throughout, the glee and delight with which Gilbert slinks through these people's lives makes this one of the most fun pre-Code movies out there, on a par with Baby Face (1933).
When Paul Lukas eventually gets wind of Gilbert's seductive ways and confronts his wife about it, Virginia Bruce unleashes one of the ultimate speeches in all of pre-Code filmdom, telling Lukas that now she knows "there's a way of making love that drives you mad and crazy, so that you don't know what you're doing. You think you can make love in the same frozen way you do everything else! I thank heaven I found there IS something else, something that makes you so dizzy you don't know what's happened and you don't care." Bruce is fantastic, and adding a layer of irony to this speech is the fact that in real life, Gilbert was pursuing her with wild abandon during the making of this film. He gave her jewelry, clothes and a car, and after a week (still during production), he proposed. Two months later -- and barely a week after Downstairs opened in theaters -- they were married. They later had a child, but divorced within two years.
Gilbert starred in only three more films, all representing a career decline that had come about with Hollywood's transition to sound, before he died of a heart attack at the age of 38. Film historian and author Jeanine Basinger made the good point in her 1999 book Silent Stars that Gilbert's career was indeed killed by sound, but not because he was unable to act in talkies or because he had a bad voice. Downstairs is proof enough that those notions are false. What happened instead was that sound "diminished John Gilbert" by somehow taking away his swagger, fire and intensity. He gives a solid performance in Downstairs, and he's right for the part, but he just doesn't burn up the screen like he used to in silents.
Downstairs, in fact, was quite a personal endeavor for Gilbert. He had written the screen story himself in 1927 and had tried to set it up ever since. Finally in 1931 he convinced Irving Thalberg to produce it. According to Gilbert biographer Eve Golden (John Gilbert, 2013), Gilbert said during the making of Downstairs, "I am happier than I've been in years. It's a psychological study, a cross-section view of two strata in life. The chauffer is a swaggering Don Juan who makes up in audacity what he lacks in conscience. He is an outright villain, but nevertheless, a fascinating chap." Gilbert even wrote some of his own dialogue for the film. Strangely, the entertaining and sexy Downstairs was not that well received by critics or audiences, and it lost money. Time has been much kinder, and it is simply a must-see for fans of pre-Code cinema.
Forbidden Hollywood Volume 6 (as well as Volume 7, also just released) are the latest in the Warner Brothers series of pre-Code DVD collections that started in 2006 as pressed DVDs, and have continued as burn-on-demand DVD-Rs through the Warner Archive label. The collections have lost none of their interest. The other titles in Volume 6, for instance, are all very worthwhile: The Wet Parade (1932), directed by Victor Fleming, is a long melodramatic look at alcoholism and Prohibition, a two-part story set first in the south, then in the north, with a powerhouse cast including Walter Huston, Myrna Loy, Robert Young, Lewis Stone, Neil Hamilton, and Jimmy Durante.
Mandalay (1934), directed stylishly by Michael Curtiz, is an hour-long melodrama starring chic Kay Francis as a woman abandoned in Rangoon and seemingly doomed to become a prostitute there for Warner Oland. And Massacre (1934) is a fascinating look at the plight of the American Indian told through the prism of a 1930s Warner Bros. social-conscience picture, with Richard Barthelmess as a college-educated Sioux who returns to his reservation and fights for social justice all the way to Washington, D.C.
Forbidden Hollywood Volume 7 features four more pre-Coders: The Hatchet Man (1932) stars Edward G. Robinson as a Chinese hit man, and while neither he nor Loretta Young look or sound even the tiniest bit Chinese, it's still rough and raw going with some gripping sequences. The fine Robert Florey-directed Ex-Lady (1933) is a witty, racy, marital sex comedy starring a prime Bette Davis and Gene Raymond. And two absolutely top-drawer Warren William titles round out the set: Skyscraper Souls (1932) and Employees' Entrance (1933), which are worth the price of the collection alone. Take a look at William's delicious turns as leering, powerful businessmen in these films and you will immediately want to see everything else he ever did in pre-Code Hollywood. (William's characterizations are more charming than John Gilbert's scummy chauffeur.) It's also worth noting that these melodramas probably say more about Depression-era life than other, more serious, "prestige" pictures that were overtly about the Depression.
Picture and sound quality are generally of the high quality we've come to expect from Warner Archive. Both volumes are very highly recommended.
By Jeremy Arnold
Downstairs on DVD
John Gilbert wanted to do this movie so badly he sold the story to MGM for $1.00. Ads for the movie proclaimed "starring Mr. and Mrs. John Gilbert" since the couple was married shortly after the production completed filming.
A news item in Hollywood Reporter on June 13, 1932 noted that M-G-M scenario editor Sam Marx had written lyrics for a melody composed by Edmund Goulding for the picture; however, neither is credited in any other contemporary source, and there is no song in the film. Many ads and reviews for the picture proclaimed, "starring Mr. and Mrs. John Gilbert," in an attempt to capitalize on the marriage of Gilbert to Virginia Bruce shortly after the release of this film. According to New York Times review, Gilbert sold his original story for the picture to M-G-M for one dollar.
Released in United States 1932
Released in United States March 1980
Released in United States 1932
Released in United States March 1980 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (Treasures From Eastman House) March 4-21, 1980.)