“Acting, the very thing I had been fighting and ridiculing for seven years, had brought me success, riches, and renown. I was a great motion picture artist. Well, I’ll be damned!” –John Gilbert
When Hollywood ushered in its transition to sound, many careers flourished as the opportunity to vocalize, serenade, and showcase a cacophony of sounds made its way to the screen. Though a fair share of Silent Era stars successfully adapted their careers to sound films, there were also stars who were unsuccessful in bringing their acting careers into the Sound Era. A renowned silent film star, John Gilbert’s career was, sadly, one that would be negatively impacted by the advent of sound in films.
John Cecil Pringle was born in Logan, Utah, on July 10, 1897. His parents, John and Ida, were actors in stock companies and did not provide him with a very happy childhood. They moved frequently and Pringle was often neglected. His family eventually settled in California, where he would attend the Hitchcock Military Academy.
Afterward, Pringle worked a series of odd jobs in San Francisco but would soon perform with the Baker Stock Company in Portland, Oregon. He would later secure a position as a stage manager for a stock company in Spokane, Washington, but lost the position with the end of the company.
Eager to continue performing, Pringle pursued work in film as an extra. He appeared in film shorts before beginning work as an extra at the Thomas Ince Studios, with his first feature film appearance occurring in The Coward (1915).
Later, he would transition to working in films for the Kay-Bee Company, billing him as Jack Gilbert. His first lead role would be in Princess of the Dark (1917). Unfortunately, the film did not receive high praise, which led to him appearing in supporting roles.
Gilbert married for the first time in 1918 to Olivia Burwell, who he met when his family moved to California. They separated within a year, with Burwell returning to her home state of Mississippi and filing for divorce in 1921.
Gilbert would spend time working for a variety of different studios, quickly amassing a rather lengthy filmography. He performed for Triangle Films, Paralta Plays, Fox, Universal, Paramount, Tyrad, and Screen Classics, to name a few. Eventually, Maurice Tourneur signed him to a contract which allowed him to not only act in films but to write them as well. His contract with the Fox Film Corporation would soon lead to his stardom.
At Fox, Jack Gilbert became romantic lead actor John Gilbert, experiencing his first starring role in Shame (1921).
In 1921, Gilbert married actress Leatrice Joy in Tijuana. At the time, his divorce from Burwell was not finalized, questioning the legality of his newest marriage. The couple separated and had the marriage annulled but would remarry in 1922. Throughout the tumult of their relationship, they separated and reconciled. Joy became pregnant with their daughter, Leatrice Gilbert, while claiming that Gilbert was having affairs with many different actresses. They divorced in 1925.
His success as the lead in Shame was soon followed with roles in Arabian Love (1922), Gleam O’Dawn (1922), The Yellow Stain (1922), Honor First (1922), Monte Cristo (1922), and many more. He would go on to work with other stars such as Jean Arthur and Norma Shearer before receiving a release from his Fox contract and securing a move to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).
At MGM, Gilbert was treated like a star and appeared in many successful films, including The Merry Widow (1925) and The Big Parade (1925). In the following year, Gilbert added more celebrated films to his repertoire, including La Boheme (1926) alongside Lillian Gish and Bardelys the Magnificent (1926). In the same year, he would be paired with Greta Garbo for the first time in Flesh and the Devil (1926), with the two possessing palpable on-screen chemistry. Off-screen, their romance was highly publicized. Their next pairing, Love (1927), was cheekily advertised as “Garbo and Gilbert in Love.” Though the two planned to marry, he was left standing at the altar.
As the Sound Era became a reality in Hollywood, Gilbert worked to maintain his place in the studio by focusing on proper stage diction. Unfortunately, his keen attention to diction affected his delivery, making audiences question his potential as a star in the talkies. To complicate matters, Gilbert frequently clashed with studio executives–both verbally and physically–making his time during this transitional period a challenging one.
Gilbert would reunite with Shearer in The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929) to effectively enact the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, serving to eliminate unease about his voice. However, exaggeration in his love scenes for His Glorious Night (1929) would again affect his chances of starring in speaking roles. In one particular love scene, he repeats the phrase “I love you” frequently. The scene would later be parodied comically in Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
In 1929, Gilbert married for the third time. He eloped with actress Ina Claire, though they separated in 1931 and later were divorced.
As the years went on, Gilbert became depressed by the lower-quality film roles he was receiving. Though he did appear in hit films such as The Phantom of Paris (1931) and Downstairs (1932), they failed to revive his career.
Shortly after filming Downstairs, Gilbert would marry his co-star, Virginia Bruce. Bruce would be his final wife, with their hasty wedding ceremony being held in his dressing room. The couple had a daughter named Susan Ann before divorcing in 1934.
In an effort to save his career, Garbo insisted that Gilbert be her leading man in Queen Christina (1933), instead of Laurence Olivier. Though the studio granted her wish, the film failed to revive his career. Marlene Dietrich, another love interest of his, also worked to try and restore his career to no avail. Gilbert would have one more chance at a comeback in Columbia Pictures’ The Captain Hates the Sea (1934) but the film would be his last.
With Gilbert retired from the screen and suffering from alcoholism, his health and morale were severely damaged. He suffered a fatal heart attack on January 9, 1936. He was 38 years old. After a small private funeral, Gilbert was cremated and interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
Once Gilbert passed, Dietrich remained close with his family and was particularly devoted to his youngest daughter. Dietrich would send her presents at Christmas and on her birthday until Dietrich’s passing.
Today, Gilbert has been memorialized in many ways.
Because his family moved so frequently as performers, it is difficult to locate physical addresses for them. According to the 1900 census, they at one point were in St. Mary’s Hospital in Pueblo City, Colorado. The location is now St. Mary-Corwin Medical Center in Pueblo City.
In 1917, Gilbert lived at 5408 Holly Blvd in Los Angeles. The home no longer stands.
In 1920, Gilbert was living at 431 W. 7th St in Los Angeles, California. This is the location today:
In the 1930s, Gilbert resided at 9897 Tower Rd. in Beverly Hills, California. The address changed to 1400 Tower Grove Rd. and had several other celebrity owners, including Miriam Hopkins. The home was eventually purchased by someone outside of the entertainment industry who noticed a significant deterioration in the beams. The home was razed and a new one was built in its place.
Gilbert was also awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His star is situated at 1755 Vine Street in Hollywood.
In 1994, he was honored with a United States postage stamp, featuring a caricature of him by Al Hirschfeld.
Today, Gilbert is still celebrated by his films, and by his daughters. In particular, his silent films continue to showcase his strong screen presence and capture his acting abilities beautifully.