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John Gilbert

The Last of the Silent Film Stars

Eve Golden

Publication Year: 2013

Charming and classically handsome, John Gilbert (1897--1936) was among the world's most recognizable actors during the silent era. He was a wild, swashbuckling figure on screen and off, and accounts of his life have focused on his high-profile romances with Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, his legendary conflicts with Louis B. Mayer, his four tumultuous marriages, and his swift decline after the introduction of talkies. A dramatic and interesting personality, Gilbert served as one of the primary inspirations for the character of George Valentin in the Academy Award--winning movie The Artist (2011). Many myths have developed around the larger-than-life star in the eighty years since his untimely death, but this definitive biography sets the record straight. Eve Golden separates fact from fiction in John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars, tracing the actor's life from his youth spent traveling with his mother in acting troupes to the peak of fame at MGM, where he starred opposite Mae Murray, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and other actresses in popular films such as The Merry Widow (1925), The Big Parade (1925), Flesh and the Devil (1926), and Love (1927). Golden debunks some of the most pernicious rumors about the actor, including the oft-repeated myth that he had a high-pitched, squeaky voice that ruined his career. Meticulous, comprehensive, and generously illustrated, this book provides a behind-the-scenes look at one of the silent era's greatest stars and the glamorous yet brutal world in which he lived.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: Screen Classics

Front Cover

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pp. c-i

Also by Eve Golden

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p. ii-ii

Title Page

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p. iii-iii

Copyright Page

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p. iv-iv


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. 1-4

Honeymooners John Gilbert and Ina Claire were among the more eyecatching American tourists in Europe in the summer of 1929. Fortyish Ina Claire was Broadway’s leading light comedienne, and as for John Gilbert—in his early thirties, he was the screen’s hottest heartthrob, the...

Part 1: The Climb

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pp. 5-6

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Chapter One

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pp. 7-16

John Gilbert was—perhaps literally—born in a trunk. He was born John Cecil Pringle in Logan, Utah—about eighty miles north of Salt Lake City—on July 10, 1897, the son of a small-time stock-company manager and his young actress bride. Jack’s father, John George Priegel, had been born in Missouri in 1865; by the 1890s he was known as ...

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Chapter Two

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pp. 17-36

Walter Gilbert obligingly sent a letter to a former coworker, Walter Edwards, a longtime director who was currently working for producer Thomas Ince at the newly opened Triangle Film Corporation in Culver City, California. Edwards had entered films in 1912, but there is no telling how far he would have gone, as he died in 1920, still working steadily at ...

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Chapter Three

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pp. 37-65

Freelancing as a film actor was perilous in the late 1910s, but not as unusual as it would become later, when stars and bit players alike so often enjoyed being in the safe rut of a long-term studio contract. From 1918 through 1921, Jack had films produced and/or released through companies big and small, some still in business today, others long forgotten: the ...

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Chapter Four

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pp. 66-72

Just as Jack was getting a foothold in the early 1920s, the movie industry was struck with an unprecedented series of deaths and scandals that brought not only worldwide press coverage but the wrath of religious, political, and censorship groups. The movies had been subject to the usual sad events in the early years: deaths in the Great War and from ...

Part 2: The Peak

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pp. 73-74

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Chapter Five

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pp. 75-87

When Jack reported to work at the new Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, he was actually stepping back into his own past: the production headquarters, at 10202 West Washington Boulevard, in Culver City, was the colonnaded old Triangle Studio building. Fellow freshmen starting out ...

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Chapter Six

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pp. 88-116

While Jack may have been a prickly perfectionist, he was also social and likable, able to draw many friends into his circle. He was an enthusiastic partygoer and host, and he spent much time with directors: King Vidor, Jack’s daughter Leatrice Fountain felt that he and King Vidor were what would today be termed “frenemies.” Jack treated women like “queens ...

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Chapter Seven

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pp. 117-128

In late June 1926 it was announced that Clarence Brown would delay filming The Trail of ’98 so he could do Flesh and the Devil first. One little line at the very end of the article mentioned in passing that “Greta Garbo will play the leading role opposite the star.” ...

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Chapter Eight

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pp. 129-138

As early as December 1925, Herbert Howe of the Los Angeles Times was looking over the upcoming class of performers and wondering who the next big stars would be. “Valentino won’t have his clothes torn off his back anymore, thanks to Mr. John Gilbert, whose broadcloth now maddens the flapper to clawing frenzy,” wrote Howe. “John Gilbert is ...

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Chapter Nine

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pp. 139-180

At the end of 1926 Jack was awarded Photoplay’s annual best-acting medal, one of the highest honors in those pre-Oscars years, for The Big Parade. Riding high on his success, he traveled to New York, where he was reported to be in talks with Famous Players–Lasky, which “is more ...

Part 3: The Decline

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pp. 181-182

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Chapter Ten

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pp. 183-191

Everyone knows, of course, that talkies did not begin with The Jazz Singer in 1927—in fact, The Jazz Singer was not really a “talkie,” it was a silent with recorded musical score and a handful of brief talking sequences thrown in (it was also a really terrible movie, which was noted ...

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Chapter Eleven

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pp. 192-214

At the beginning of 1929, the Russian drama Redemption and the costume romance Olympia were set as John Gilbert’s first talkies, to be shot in that order. The choice of a depressing Russian play as his talkie debut is easy to second-guess in hindsight—but in their panic, studios ...

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Chapter Twelve

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pp. 215-231

MGM’s other silent-era male leads were not doing much better. Chipper, brash William Haines was still in his late twenties when talkies hit, but he was already becoming slightly pudgy, and his hair was thinning. What really killed his career was the type of parts he played: the wise-ass frat boy who charms and wheedles his way into a girl’s heart. In silent ...

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Chapter Thirteen

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pp. 232-250

In early 1932 Jack met the woman—still a girl, really—who would become the fourth and final Mrs. John Gilbert. Virginia Bruce was twenty-one when they met, a delicate-looking Dresden-doll blonde. But her looks were deceiving: Bruce was smart, tough, and strong minded A talented singer and pianist, Bruce was expelled from her North ...

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Chapter Fourteen

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pp. 251-271

In January 1933 production on Jack’s last assignment under his MGM contract, Rivets (eventually retitled Fast Workers), was announced. It was produced and directed by Tod Browning—late of The Show—and ...

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Chapter Fifteen

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pp. 272-283

Virginia Bruce was making some tentative overtures of friendship by early 1935, trying to get Jack to come over and see their daughter more often. “I think we failed to make a go of it because Jack was so unhappy in his work,” she said. “He is more encouraged now, so maybe . . .” She ...

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pp. 284-288

In 1984 glamour photographer Horst and interviewer James Watters put out a fascinating “Where are they now?” coffee-table book titled Return Engagement. Seventy-four actresses were profiled, from early silent stars to 1940s and ’50s glamour queens. Coincidentally, three of the featured stars were John Gilbert’s ex-wives: Leatrice Joy, Ina Claire, and Virginia Bruce ...

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pp. 289-290

First, my thanks to Leatrice Gilbert Fountain for giving me her blessings for this book about her father (and about her mother) and for not asking to peruse and approve it before publication. I nervously hope she likes it.This book certainly could not have been written without the help of James Zeruk Jr., the best researcher I have ever known. James is a ...


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pp. 291-322


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pp. 323-346


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pp. 347-350


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pp. 351-366

Screen Classics series page

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pp. 367-368

E-ISBN-13: 9780813141640
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813141626

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Screen Classics