Eighty years after Bardelys the Magnificent’s 1926 premiere, a cellar in France yielded a nearly complete print of John Gilbert’s final film with King Vidor. Considered lost, the film had come at the peak of the actor’s popularity. Prior to Bardelys the Magnificent, Gilbert had been one of the motion picture industry’s most adored stars. He had enjoyed top billing since his arrival at MGM two years prior and relished the rarefied life of Hollywood royalty. After completing Bardelys the Magnificent, he accepted the lead in Flesh and the Devil, which began his fateful relationship with costar Greta Garbo. Twenty-one films and less than ten years later, John Gilbert was dead at the age of 36 and ever after cited as a self-destructive casualty of the talkies.
MGM’s King Vidor directed Gilbert in five of his most successful films. Since starting his film career in 1915, Gilbert had worked alongside many pioneering directors, including Thomas Ince, Maurice Tourneur, Clarence Brown, and John Ford, responsible for Gilbert’s breakthrough film Cameo Kirby (1923). After making the move to MGM in 1924, Gilbert’s list of directors grew to Victor Sjöström, Monta Bell, Erich von Stroheim, Edmund Goulding, Tod Browning, and Rouben Mamoulian.
His Hour (1924), Gilbert’s first picture at MGM, was also his first with Vidor. Fans and critics alike responded enthusiastically to Gilbert as a romantic lead and to his few but crucial scenes in He Who Gets Slapped (1924), which starred Lon Chaney and Norma Shearer. When Vidor directed him again as a womanizing poet in The Wife of the Centaur (1924), stories of ego clashes between director and star arose from the set, but both men dismissed them as differences of opinion between two professional colleagues.
The Big Parade (1925) proved to be the most rewarding of their collaborations, although Vidor initially fought against Gilbert playing the nuanced role of a traumatized soldier. “Gilbert was playing a part he never played before,” Vidor said. “He never had dirty fingernails before, and he’d never done a part without makeup before. Then he found that he liked it.” In an interview with the New York Times after the picture had opened, Gilbert discussed their working relationship: “We talk over a picture story like two gabby women, and now that I realize Vidor’s greatness I feel that I had to go through disagreements to appreciate him.”
The two colleagues went immediately into production on La Bohême, with Lillian Gish as Mimi. Neither was enthusiastic about the leading lady. In an interview with Theatre magazine, Gilbert said: “Mimi is supposed to be a creature whose very body and soul crave for Rudolph, a woman who loves with a passion that absorbs every fiber of her being. And what is unbeautiful about such a grand, vital love? No, instead, we had to make her a pale, passive, prim phantom.”
Bardelys the Magnificent was the fifth and final collaboration between Vidor and Gilbert. Production designer Cedric Gibbons and actor Karl Dane returned from two previous projects, as did the dependably lurid Roy D’Arcy. Vidor’s soon-to-be-bride Eleanor Boardman was brought on to play opposite Gilbert. With nothing more to prove, the makers of Bardelys the Magnificent were able to concentrate on elements that make an outsized, entertaining picture: the costumes are foppish, the love story equal parts sacred and profane, and the action sequences thrilling and hilarious. Critics and audiences also seemed to be in on the fun. The New York Times said, “John Gilbert leaps into the active realms of Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore … and that millionaire cowboy, Tom Mix.” Time alluded to “John Gilbert doing Fairbanksian leaps in Bardelys the Magnificent” and focused on William Daniels’s striking compositions in exterior shots, including the love scene among the willows and the climactic action sequence. Gilbert, ever his own harshest critic, even played along, contributing an autobiographical sketch for Photoplay: “Bardelys the Magnificent. Applesauce. With one, John Gilbert, contributing most of the sauce.”
Gilbert’s next film, Flesh and the Devil, was a melodrama directed by Clarence Brown, in which Greta Garbo, Gilbert, and Lars Hanson exude a desperate heat in their depiction of a love triangle. The picture was actually fueled by the real-life passion between Garbo and Gilbert. Before the film was completed, the couple was cohabiting in an on-again-off-again arrangement complicated by her fast-rising star and his fading one.
In late 1928, Gilbert renegotiated his MGM contract to stipulate $250,000 per picture, with a limit of two pictures a year for three years. The year 1928 also saw John Gilbert’s last appearance in a King Vidor movie. In Show People, a comedy about trying to break into movies, William Haines and Marion Davies duck into a theater where the willows love scene from Bardelys the Magnificent is up onscreen. It’s played for laughs, but the kidding is affectionate. According to Vidor, the actor enjoyed the gag: “Pops, you son of a bitch. I’ll get even with you!”
Unfortunately, Gilbert’s first starring talkie was the inexplicably slipshod His Glorious Night (1929). It quickly acquired mythical status as the film that destroyed John Gilbert. Some suspected the autocratic Louis B. Mayer of sabotaging the actor’s debut. Mayer had scorn for Gilbert’s flashy life-style and the two had had a notorious fight over his affair with Garbo. But would Mayer have risked MGM’s biggest cash cow over a personal vendetta? MGM veteran King Vidor didn’t think so, describing his version of Gilbert’s downfall: “[He] was an impressionable fellow, not too well established in a role of his own in life. The paths he followed in his daily life were greatly influenced by the parts that some scriptwriter had written for him. … Whatever role he was playing, he literally continued to live it off screen. … It was a precarious existence.”
Gilbert made nine more talking pictures. None of them restored him to his former glory, and his health was in decline. By his own admission, he had played hard and abused alcohol for most of his adult life. A comeback seemed possible in 1933 when Garbo insisted on Gilbert as her costar in Queen Christina. To make the film he had to sign a new contract at a fraction of his previous salary, but it brought him no better roles. In the March 20, 1934, issue of Variety, Gilbert took out an ad: “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer will neither offer me work nor release me from my contract. Jack Gilbert.” Six months later, his final film, The Captain Hates the Sea, was released to general indifference. The end came in his hilltop home some time in the early hours of January 9, 1936, when his battered heart gave out. Later that same year, Bardelys the Magnificent was lost. The studio had licensed the rights to adapt the Rafael Sabatini novel for only ten years, and all known prints were destroyed in 1936 per the agreement.
Film historian Jeanine Basinger wrote that Gilbert is “triple-cursed: forgotten, misunderstood, and underappreciated.” His precipitous decline seems tied to what King Vidor termed “the forced transition” to talking pictures. Gilbert agreed but refused to succumb to self-pity in a 1933 interview: “Oh, what the hell. They liked me once. A man is an ass to squawk about life. Especially me.”
Presented at SFSFF 2009 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra