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John Gilbert, The Star Who Exploded Without Trace

Updated on November 20, 2011

A Bright Flame Extinguished

John Gilbert was one of the very early Hollywood meteors. His rise was sudden and his decline even more dramatic. His career was very similar in many ways to that of Errol Flynn - dramatic success followed by sudden failure. Flynn's is still a household name, but Gilbert's is not.

His talent was evident but it did not save him from the vicious politics of Hollywood. Louis B Mayer made him and it was Mayer who destroyed him.

Early Career

John Gilbert was born John Cecil Pringle in 1897 into an itinerant show-business family - his father was a comic with the Pringle Stock Company. As a child John became fascinated with the developing world of movie making.

By 1915, through family contacts, he had become an extra with Thomas H. Ince's company and was a lead player by 1917. In those days he worked as assistant director, actor or screenwriter. He also tried his hand at directing. By 1919 he was being noticed in films and getting better roles such as the romantic lead opposite Mary Pickford in "Heart of The Hills". In addition to acting John also enjoyed writing screenplays for films.

With Mary Pickford in 'Heart O' The Hills', 1919
With Mary Pickford in 'Heart O' The Hills', 1919 | Source
With Lillian Gish in La Boheme
With Lillian Gish in La Boheme

Hollywood Stardom

Over the next few years John appeared in films with the top leading ladies of the silent screen era, including Renee Adoree, Billie Dove, Barbara La Marr and Mae Murray. Lillian Gish, who had a new contract with MGM, picked Gilbert to co-star with her in La Boheme, (1926). With the death in 1926, of Rudolph Valentino, his only competition, John was on top of the world and by 1928 he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood.

With Greta Garbo


His reputation as a ladies' man was further confirmed by the series of romantic films he made with Greta Garbo who starred with him in Love (1927), Flesh and the Devil (1926) and A Woman of Affairs (1928). The on-screen chemistry between these two was incredible reflected a torrid off-screen affair which the studio publicity department publicised diligently. Audience figures, profits and the stars' fame skyrocketed. During this period of unparallelled success Gilbert proposed to Garbo three times but was rebuffed each time.

He did in fact marry four times (three times to actresses Leatrice Joy, Ina Claire and Virginia Bruce.) He had one daughter with Leatrice Joy, a girl, also named Leatrice Joy Gilbert.

Gilbert With Greta Garbo 1935
Gilbert With Greta Garbo 1935
Gilbert and his fourth wife, Virginia Bruce
Gilbert and his fourth wife, Virginia Bruce


The decline of Gilbert's career began at the end of the 1920's and coincided with the advent of talkies. This has led to the persistent rumour that his voice was too high pitched and that audiences laughed when he spoke on screen. This was not true because Gilbert had a distinctive and pleasant voice and made several sound films, including Queen Christina, in which his voice was fine. The truth was that after 1929 when sound came in, John was placed in films such as Redemption (1930) and Way for a Sailor (1930) that were poorly scripted for sound cinema, and just not up to his talents.

In 1932 MGM made the film Downstairs from Gilbert's original story, in which Gilbert played against type as a scheming, blackmailing chauffeur. The film was well received by critics, but did nothing to restore Gilbert's popularity. Soon after making the film he married co-star Virginia Bruce but the couple divorced in 1934.

Louis Wins

Gilbert also made the big mistake of incurring the enmity of Louis B Mayer, the head of MGM, and one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Mayer disliked Gilbert intensely and after one heated argument (about his relationship with Garbo), Mayer vowed to destroy Gilbert's career and when his contract ran out in 1933 it was not renewed. Gilbert had begun drinking heavily and died suddenly of a heart attack in 1936 at the age of 38.

The meteor had been powerful but it had run its course.


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