If this daylong tribute marks a high point in the resurgence of John Gilbert, it is also a triumph for his daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, who has worked tirelessly for nearly 40 years to restore her father's reputation.
I spoke with Leatrice after the "Summer Under the Stars" schedule was announced.
"Speechless and surprised," was Leatrice's reaction to the all-day honor, "and it's so satisfying."
Leatrice was born just as her parents, John Gilbert and silent film star Leatrice Joy, were divorcing in the mid-1920s. Raised by her mother (the two are pictured at right), she yearned to know her father. She recalls, "My nurse told my mother that I kept asking when my daddy was coming home." But the marriage was finished and Leatrice had little contact with her illustrious dad.
Time passed, and then came a summer Leatrice and her mother spent in Malibu - where, it turned out, her father was also staying. She had been trying but hadn't managed to run into him yet when one day, as she was rolling in the surf, the victim of a rogue wave, strong hands snatched her from the sea. Leatrice looked up to see that her rescuer was her handsome father.
A while later Leatrice sent him a letter; she asked for his picture and enclosed one of herself. This ignited what Leatrice calls "a brief, intense relationship" that spanned the last year of John Gilbert's life.
"He appeared, we clicked and the future looked bright," she remembers. He was the only adult in her life that didn't talk down to her, he spoke to her as an adult and asked her grown-up questions. "I was a news junkie even then," she says, and her father talked with her about various topics of the day, from President Roosevelt to the repeal of prohibition. In that short period, Leatrice achieved a bond with her father that she didn't have with her mother ("a sweet fluff-head") or stepfather.
"My father lived on a Hollywood hillside in a Spanish-style home near a water tower. In my mind he lived in the tower of a castle at the top of a hill." Gilbert had the aura of a storybook prince for his daughter and when he died suddenly of a heart attack in January 1936 at age 38, Leatrice was devastated. Her longed-for connection with him had completely engaged her and then he was gone - "I felt a great emptiness...I don't think I ever got over the loss."
As years passed, John Gilbert, a top MGM star at the height of the silent era, was reduced to a Hollywood footnote. What most people knew about him, if they knew anything, were oft-repeated (and reprinted) tales of an inadequate voice that didn't translate to sound, a broken romance with Greta Garbo, questionable acting ability and a drinking problem that killed him.
At the time of his death Gilbert's great silent pictures were no longer shown and his career was in flux, so Leatrice grew up not knowing enough about her father's life or career to actively dispute the mythology that had become accepted as truth.
By the early 1970s, Leatrice was a married woman with five children living on the East Coast. Though she didn't know it at the time, she was about to embark on one of her life's missions, the restoration of her father's name. New York's Museum of Modern Art invited her to a screening of one of John Gilbert's signature silent films, Erich von Stroheim's The Merry Widow (1925). Watching the film for the first time, Leatrice experienced a jolt; she realized her father was not simply a handsome face, but a gifted actor. She recalls, "A young fan came up to me and commented on the "wonderful film" and said he wanted to write a book about John Gilbert. It then became my cause...I knew I wanted to be the one to write the book."
Once committed, Leatrice began to seek out her father's other films. She traveled to Eastman House in Rochester, NY, where she told fabled film curator James Card, "I don't know anything about my father's work," and Mr. Card eagerly replied, "Come with me and I'll show you..." Between Eastman House, MOMA and the Library of Congress, she saw all of John Gilbert's available films.
Leatrice was a busy wife and mother when she began her research and so she worked "in bursts" over several years. In the course of her work she met with many people who knew or worked with her father. Today Leatrice looks back and realizes she began her undertaking in the nick of time; most of the people she interviewed were soon gone. She met with cameramen and other technicians, she met with directors like Clarence Brown, John Ford, Howard Hawks and King Vidor, and she met with stars like Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Lillian Gish and Norma Shearer.
According to Leatrice, some remembered John Gilbert from before he was a star, when he was affectionately looked upon as "an adopted kid on the MGM lot." All responded warmly to her and Leatrice discovered that they all had liked her father and respected his work. She stayed with King Vidor's daughter and was able to spend days talking with the man who had directed her father in two of his best silent films, The Big Parade (1925) and Bardelys the Magnificent (1926). Clarence Brown, who directed Gilbert and Garbo in Flesh and the Devil (1926), generously spent an entire afternoon with Leatrice sharing his memories.
Norma Shearer, whom Leatrice believes may have once had a fling with Gilbert, told her of his passing, "Some of the tears I shed while making Romeo and Juliet were for your father."
The transformation in industry and public perception of John Gilbert came slowly, but Leatrice recalls a moment when she knew attitudes were shifting. In the early '80s she was invited by esteemed silent film historian/author/documentary filmmaker Kevin Brownlow (co-producer of the distinguished Hollywood series for Thames Television) to introduce a screening of Flesh and the Devil in London. She remembers enthusiastic crowds of young and old lined up to see the film and that, "New writers and reviewers watched without bias and wrote about what they saw on the screen."
In 1985 St. Martin's Press published Dark Star: The Untold Story of the Meteoric Rise and Fall of the Legendary John Gilbert, Leatrice's biography of her father, written with John Maxim. Filled with Leatrice's detailed research, the book not only recounted the story of John Gilbert's life but also went a long way to set the record straight on the rumors about him.
Perhaps the most virulent myth debunked is the story that John Gilbert's "high voice" had caused the collapse of his career. Gilbert's first talking feature, a film Leatrice describes as "a romantic comedy that was mistaken by audiences and critics for a straight romance," was a resounding flop. The dialogue was laughable and laughed at. But some said it was Gilbert's voice that caused the tittering. The voice theory was not the consensus at the time but it was the story that stuck over time. Leatrice calls her father's voice "a light baritone similar to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.'s." Ultimately, a combination of factors plagued Gilbert's transition to sound: his disastrous relationship with MGM kingpin Louis B. Mayer, the quality of the early talkies to which he was assigned and, perhaps, a change in audience tastes from Victorian-era morality to pre-Code realism.
In her book Leatrice pointed out that John Gilbert continued to receive film offers till the end of his life. Marlene Dietrich, his final love, had persuaded him to co-star with her in Desire (1936), but he was forced to drop out after he suffered one in a series of three heart attacks, the last of which killed him. Leatrice is firm that, though her father did drink to excess, "he did not drink himself to death."
Regarding Gilbert's storied romance and rumored near-wedding with Greta Garbo, Leatrice comments,"I don't think she ever had any intention of marrying him."
Dark Star was a great success and Leatrice traveled the talk show circuit, spoke to college audiences, appeared at silent film events and gave countless interviews. She still gives an occasional interview and has continued to frequent silent film festivals and screenings around the world, introducing her father's pictures and taking part in panel discussions. Her "swan song" on the road, she told me, might have been last year's annual Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy, the largest silent film festival in the world. At this writing, though, Leatrice is beginning to change her mind...she just might go to Pordenone again this year...I hope so.
She muses, "In his lifetime, my father did not believe his film work would last or be remembered and he said as much to his close friends."
Leatrice Gilbert Fountain's passionate campaign to restore her father's reputation has succeeded beyond anything she might once have imagined. Today she is happy to report that her children are able to "bask in the reflected glory of their grandfather." Like their mother, they attend screenings and introduce his films to new generations of appreciative fans.
John Gilbert on TCM, Aug. 24
(Times shown = Eastern/Pacific)
He Who Gets Slapped (1924) - silent with Lon Chaney and Norma Shearer - 7am/4am
The Merry Widow (1925) - the silent film that made Gilbert a star - 8:30am/5:30am
The Show (1927) - silent directed by Tod Browning - 11am/8am
Desert Nights (1929) - Gilbert's last silent - 12:30pm/9:30am
Way for a Sailor (1930) - with Wallace Beery - 1:45pm/10:45am
Gentleman's Fate (1931) - directed by Mervyn LeRoy - 3:15pm/12:15pm
The Phantom of Paris (1931) - Gilbert took the title role followng Lon Chaney's death - 5pm/2pm
Downstairs (1932) - "a dark little masterpiece" - 6:30pm/3:30pmThe Big Parade (1925) - silent classic, perhaps Gilbert's best film - 8pm/5pm
Bardeleys the Magnificent (1926) - swashbuckling silent classic - 10:15pm/7:15pm
Flesh and the Devil (1926) - silent classic with Garbo - 12am/9pm
Queen Christina (1933) - Garbo and Gilbert's classic sound film - 2am/11pm
The Captain Hates the Sea (1934) - Gilbert's last film, with Victor McLaglen - 4am/1am