I saw two movies today which brought home to me for the first time why the movies were so immensely popular when they were first invented. Both starred John Gilbert, whom I had never seen before.
The first of them --- called He Who Gets Slapped --- was made in 1924, and was the first film made under the new label MGM. It co-starred the young actress Norma Shearer, and Lon Chaney, jr, and was directed by a man who spent his life in the movie business, Victor Sjostrom, the Swedish actor whose fame for my generation came from his wonderful performance in the 1950s as the old man in Ingmar Bergmann’s Wild Strawberries. Before taking that role --- he was 78 at the time --- Sjostrom had directed dozens of movies, both in Sweden, and in the United States, where he had worked for many years, something that I had never known about him.
Gilbert’s acting career began in 1915, and continued uninterrupted even by the invention of talkies, until 1934. He Who Gets Slapped, made in 1924, was a silent version of a story by the Russian writer Leonid Andreyev. With all the subtleties stripped away, it was presented as a straight melodrama, which even I, who sometimes has trouble following the intricate plots of modern movies, found no difficulty with. A famous scientist is humiliated by his wife’s having an affair, and when he objects she laughs at him and calls him a clown. So he takes refuge in a circus as a clown.
An acrobat with whom he falls in love is affianced by her father to an old aristocrat, and when the former scientist tries to stop it, he is stabbed by the father. The clown --- played by Lon Chaney --- releases a lion into the room, which kills both the father and the proposed husband, and the clown, fatally wounded, goes into the ring, and dies at the end of an act that the audience think is funny. Gilbert is the acrobat's professional partner. Though on the surface, the film was a lot of rubbish, I couldn’t help watching it until the end.
The second film --- these were part of a whole day presented by Turner Classic Movies of John Gilbert films --- was called Gentleman’s Fate. It was made in 1934, by which time Gilbert had successfully made the transition to talkies. It, also, was a simple melodrama involving a man called Jack Thomas who had been told he was an orphan and brought up to be a gentleman. Suddenly, he is told his real name is Giacomo Tomasulo and he has a dying father, and an older brother. The father makes him a dying gift of a necklace of emeralds for his fiancee, who has sworn her fidelity to him, and it turns out they were stolen. At the brother’s insistence, Jack Thomas takes the rap, serves 10 days in jail, and his life as a gentleman is shattered. He loses his girl-friend, and joins the bootlegging racket run by his brother, which inevitably involves him in the murders that are the consequence of staying on top of the racket.
He is shot and killed by a rival gangster, and dies, grieved by his new girl-friend, a former gun moll of the rival gangster, and his sorrowful but loving brother. Pure melodrama, but again, a difficult story to leave before the end.
What surprised me when I looked up the history of these two films, and these performances was to find that Gilbert was involved with many of the great figures of the first wave of people who built and controlled the movie industry --- men like Louis B. Mayer, Eric von Stroheim (who directed Gentleman’s Fate), King Vidor,and with major early stars like Greta Garbo (whom he once hoped to marry, though the marriage never came off) Lon
Chaney and many others.
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