• Industry

Forgotten Hollywood: John Gilbert

On January 9, 1936, the Reading Eagle’s front page headline blared: “Fight to Save Life of ‘Great Lover’ Futile.” Actor John Gilbert, who “thrilled millions,” had died of a heart attack.

The article breathlessly reported that Gilbert had died at 7 a.m. that morning: “But even then, Dr Madsen [his personal physician] didn’t give up. Modern medical science has revived dead men before. And there was a chance, this time. A call was sent to the West Los Angeles Fire Department. And there began a drama as tense and poignant as any Gilbert ever portrayed on the screen. Careening along the curving tree lined avenues of the fashionable suburb where the actor lived, the red firetruck with its inhalator sped on its mission of mercy. . . Tirelessly, the rubber bellows of the machine rose and fell as air was forced into the lungs that had ceased to breathe. Powerful shots of adrenaline were forced into his veins. But it was of no avail. After an hour’s work, Dr Madsen gave the word for the firemen to cease their efforts.”

Gilbert had died at the age of 38 and left behind four ex-wives and two daughters.

For a decade during the silent movie era, Gilbert was one of the biggest box office stars, MGM’s most profitable actor, inheriting the mantle of ‘The Great Lover’ with the passing of Rudolph Valentino. The Big Parade in 1925, directed by King Vidor, was his first hit; Erich von Stroheim’s The Merry Widow that same year and Tod Browning’s 1927 The Show continued to pack theaters with swooning female fans.

But Gilbert was a great lover offscreen as well. His affairs with Hollywood’s leading ladies, such as Marlene Dietrich, Laurette Taylor, Barbara La Marr, Lupe Velez, Lila Lee, Bebe Daniels were all well documented. But his most publicized amour was the love of his life, Greta Garbo, to whom he proposed three times.

At the height of his fame, he was making $250,000 a picture with a 6-picture deal signed with MGM. According to his biographer, British historian Kevin Brownlow, Gilbert was astonished at his fame. In an interview cited by Brownlow, Gilbert said, “Everywhere I hear whispers and gasps in acknowledgment of my presence…[t]he whole thing became too fantastic for me to comprehend. 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!”


Gilbert was born John Cecil Pringle in 1897 in Logan, Utah to parents who were actors and perpetually on the road, alternately dragging the son with them or leaving him behind in various schools. When the family finally moved to California, Gilbert was sent to the Hitchcock Military Academy in San Rafael. He worked brief stints as a rubber goods salesman in San Francisco and a stage manager in a stock company in Spokane. His entrée into showbiz was by playing extra roles at the Thomas Ince Studios in 1915 for $2 a day. He slowly moved through the ranks to bigger roles, working for studios like Kay-Bee and Triangle, and he also learned to write and direct movies, churning them out under the name Jack Gilbert.  

In 1921, Gilbert signed a three-year contract with the Fox Film Corporation where, now renamed John Gilbert, he made almost 20 films, some of them lost, with stars like Barbara La Marr, Lon Chaney, Jr. and Renee Adoree. With 1922’s Monte Cristo, his reputation as a romantic leading man soared.

In 1924, he moved to MGM, and his big hits were He Who Gets Slapped with Norma Shearer, The Merry Widow made the following year with Mae Murray, and La Boheme with Lillian Gish in 1926, Gish personally selecting him to star opposite her. 1925’s The Big Parade, for which he received $10,000 a week, cemented his stardom, and drew MGM ahead of Paramount for the first time. It was the most profitable silent film of all time and the second highest grossing at the box office.

At this time, 20 year-old Swede, Greta Garbo arrived in Hollywood. She and Gilbert were cast in 1926’s Flesh and the Devil and so began a strange love affair. Their onscreen chemistry was palpable, the director Clarence Brown saying, “After I finished a scene with them, I felt like an intruder. I’d have to walk away, to let them finish what they were doing” referring to their love scenes. Gilbert fell hard for the starlet, she was lonely in Hollywood, and the studio played up their romance to the hilt with publicity photos and planted press articles. Their stardom shot through the roof. Gilbert wanted to marry her, but she kept wavering. A double ceremony was proposed with the Eleanor Boardman-King Vidor nuptials at the Malibu house of Marion Davies, William Randolph Hearst’s mistress. Garbo was a no-show.

Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, Gilbert’s daughter, describes in her book about her father “Dark Star: The Untold Story of the Meteoric Rise and Fall of Silent Screen Star John Gilbert” (1985) what happened next as told to her by Boardman. “When Garbo didn’t show up on time for the wedding John was naturally upset. Nervous, he began drinking. Louis B. Mayer told him, “What’s the matter with you, Gilbert? What do you have to marry her for? Why don’t you just fuck her and forget about it?” A fight began with Gilbert punching Mayer in the face and banging his head into the wall. Mayer’s glasses flew into the air. Eddie Mannix, ex-bouncer and Mayer lackey, pulled the two apart. Mayer screamed, “You’re finished, Gilbert. I’ll destroy you if it costs me a million dollars.”

This incident appeared to be the start of Mayer’s hatred for Gilbert leading to his role in destroying Gilbert’s career. But more on that later.


Garbo, who most historians now acknowledge was more interested in women than men, still moved in with Gilbert after the wedding debacle, and Gilbert played mentor and coach, advising her to go on strike till the studio raised her $750 a week salary. She was his hostess at the weekly tennis parties at his Bel Air home where the elite of Hollywood such as Jean Harlow, Irving Thalberg, Norma Shearer, King Vidor and Eleanor Boardman were regulars.

In 1927, Gilbert and Garbo made Love, a redo of Anna Karenina, which was advertised as “Garbo and Gilbert in Love;” the following year they made A Woman of Affairs.

The lovesick Gilbert tried proposing again in 1929. When Garbo refused again and moved out, he rushed off and married Broadway actress Ina Claire in Las Vegas, only six weeks after they met. She would be his third wife and they divorced in 1931. He had married Olivia Burwell in 1918 and they divorced in 1922. His second wife was actress Leatrice Joy who he married in 1921 in Tijuana before his divorce from Burwell was final. They had to get that marriage annulled because of the scandal; they remarried in 1922. They then divorced in 1924 when Joy was pregnant with their daughter Leatrice. Joy accused him of striking her in his alcoholic rages and also of infidelity.

In 1932, for the fourth time, he married his costar Virginia Bruce. An amusing clipping in the Syracuse Herald of August 11 tells of how Gilbert interrupted Bruce’s filming on the MGM lot and announced they were to be married at 6 o’clock that evening.

““Oh, John,” Miss Bruce began. “Six o’ clock,” Gilbert cut in. “But there’s so much to be done –” “Six o’clock. My bungalow. Be there.” In this manner did Gilbert, the screen’s ‘great lover,’ set the stage for his wedding last night to Miss Bruce. And Miss Bruce was there in 15 minutes, all washed and dressed in bridal apparel, establishing some sort of a record for speed, if what the press agents said was true.”

They had a daughter, Susan Ann, then unsurprisingly, divorced in 1934.

By this time, Gilbert’s career had fallen precipitously. Bound by his contract to MGM, Mayer cast him in unsuitable roles with mediocre directors, determined to force him out of his contract, but Gilbert wouldn’t cave. With the advent of sound films, it was rumored that Mayer sabotaged Gilbert, removing the bass from his recorded voice in his first talkie, 1929’s His Glorious Night (directed by Lionel Barrymore), causing his voice to be artificially high-pitched, squeaking “I love you” again and again to his costar Catherine Dale Owen, and leaving audiences laughing.

After a handful of other movies that didn’t do much business, he appeared with Garbo one last time at her insistence in Queen Christina, but that did not resurrect his career. Gilbert’s drinking went out of control. His old lover Marlene Dietrich stepped in to help, reportedly hiding his liquor bottles and trying to find him work. He hung on for a few years, but his career was over. His last film was The Captain Hates the Sea for Columbia in 1934. In 1935, he suffered a heart attack. A second heart attack took his life in 1936. His ashes rest at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

In 1960, Gilbert was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1755 Vine Street.