Eve Golden and John Gilbert, a Research Odyssey

Washington, photo by Eve Golden

Larry thought that some of you fellow research nerds might be interested in my trip to the Library of Congress to see four John Gilbert films for my upcoming biography. First, I must tell you I could not have picked two better days—temps in the upper 70s, and not only were the cherry trees in full bloom, but so were the apple and wisterias trees. Comically lovely—you have all seen the famous government landmarks a million times, but attached are some of the swell mid-Victorian houses just blocks from the Capitol, and a delightfully cheesy wig shop right on Pennsylvania Avenue. I had not been in D.C., my dears, since the Harding administration, when Nan Britton and I used to paint the town red.

 Wig Shop by  Eve Golden
. I have been very lucky in seeing what John Gilbert films there are left to see: The Museum of Modern Art screened prints of Cameo Kirby and His Hour for me last month, and I was delighted that the Library of Congress had another four rare films. Zoran and Dorinda at the Moving Images section were helpful and friendly and interested in what I was researching (could not say the same for the scowling, angry woman down in the basement who issued my ID card—she apparently mistook me for whoever had recently dismembered her pet kitten in front of her eyes).

Washington, by Eve Golden

 Two of the films were digitized and viewed on computers (being able to pause and take notes, and rewind, was hugely helpful). Two were on reels—not the original nitrate reels, of course—and viewed on a Moviola. I saw three 1917 films John Gilbert had made at Triangle, where he worked from 1915-18. It was interesting to see him so young—at 20, he looked all of 15, and 90 pounds soaking wet. His face was all nose and chin and huge eyes; the “John Gilbert” of the 1920s is not yet visible, except when he smiled.

 They had two reels of the western Golden Rule Kate, starring Louise Glaum as a barkeep, and Jack in a supporting role as The Heller, a young trouble-maker in a Nevada mining-camp town. Looking like a sullen juvenile delinquent, he drinks, fights and—as his name implies—raises hell in the bar run by the title character (he’s “a good kid when he’s not drinking,” Kate says of The Heller, a line Jack himself was to hear repeatedly over the years). He also has a moment of quiet charm, as he goes back to his cabin and fondly caresses a photo of his sweetheart, Kate’s sister (played by sixteen-year-old Mildred Harris, who would, the following year, become the first Mrs. Charles Chaplin).

"His Glorious Night" Oct. 19, 1929.

“His Glorious Night”: I never thought I would say this about any film, but: “KILL IT! KILL IT WITH FIRE!”

 Also on tap was Happiness, which shows Jack in a rare comic role. It’s a college romance: sheltered Philadelphia society girl Enid Bennett (who is lovely, in a Lillian Gish-like way) goes off to a co-ed school, and is courted by a poor but honest boy (Charles Gunn, a charming actor who died the following year from the Spanish flu) and the college snob, played by Jack—complete with tight, vulgar suits and a silly little moustache that made him look like a refugee from a Keystone comedy. “Money + a slight social standing – brains = one hopeless cad,” reads his introductory title, and Jack threw himself into the role engagingly, with goggle-eyed stares, pouts, and unctuous flirting. He and Charles Gunn had a rousing fight scene, during which Jack was dunked into a washtub and thrown into a rubbish bin—his little comedy moustache, impressively, stayed stuck on. Happiness is a cute little film, stolen by Andrew Arbuckle (cousin of the better-known Roscoe) as Enid Bennett’s sympathetic uncle. And it shows how being part of the Triangle stock company was paying off for Jack—he was thrown into all kinds of roles (as well as into rubbish bins), and was getting invaluable on-the-job training while earning his paycheck.

June 27, 1917,

 The third Triangle film was The Hater of Men. Bessie Barriscale gives a wonderful performance as an anti-marriage feminist; though, rather matronly at 33, she looked more like Jack’s mother than his fiancée. The Hater of Men is an interesting film: very modern in stating that women can lose their individuality and (certainly in 1917) their independence when they marry. But very conventional as Barriscale discovers she does not like being seen as “one of the boys” or as a free, loose woman by her male friends and coworkers. In the end, she rushes back into Jack’s arms, her title voicing a slang gag that it is startling to see was already in common use by 1917: “Oh, Billy, a girl’s an awful fool to get married—NOT!

 I also suffered through Jack’s first-released talkie, the notorious His Glorious Night (1929), which was rumored to have killed his career. I have not yet written up my notes on it, but I can tell you it is even worse than my most dire expectations. Everyone involved in its making—right down to the prop man and the script girl—should have been taken out back and beaten to within an inch of their lives.

 More to come later—you can bet I will be plugging the hell out of this book, whenever and wherever I can!

—Eve Golden

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Books and Authors, Eve Golden, Film, Hollywood, Libraries and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Eve Golden and John Gilbert, a Research Odyssey

  1. CatM says:

    This is fascinating! I can’t wait for part 2.


  2. Gregory Moore says:

    I’ve wanted to view “His Glorious Night” for myself for decades. Can’t wait to hear what was so ghastly about it…and whether the multitude of rumors regarding Gilbert’s possibly-manipulated voice are true. You can count me in to buy one as soon as it lands! Good job…and good luck!!


  3. How exciting! But…what about Kay Wigs?!


  4. James Zeruk says:

    Eve, you are a glorious writer! You never fail to inform the reader! A thousand writers could display John Gilbert in a thousand ways, but they could never–ever–present the John Gilbert who truly matters…a star you bring to life in a most memorable way! I can’t wait for your book!!!


  5. Maury says:

    Oh my…I get to correct the fact-checkers! “…not only were the cherry trees in full bloom, but so were the apple and wisterias trees.” Cherries grow on lovely trees, and apples do as well; wistaria’s just a bloomin’ vine, no matter how you spell.

    It. Damn, there went my rhyme scheme.


  6. Lee Rivas says:

    Are any of his digitized films available on-line? Looking forward to more of your adventure.


  7. Drednm says:

    Stupid article…. HIS GLORIOUS NIGHT is only notorious because it hasn’t been seen since 1929 and has been maligned through lies and MGM publicity to kill Gilbert’s career. It actually was a minor hit and made money for MGM. But of course you won’t say that. You’ll continue the same old crap about Gilbert’s bad voice, not evident in any of his available talkies.


    • Eve says:

      Don’t worry dear, I am on YOUR side, and I think (hope) you will like my book. As you say, there was not a thing wrong with John Gilbert’s voice, and His Glorious Night did make a profit–I was actually expecting it to be not a bad film at all. But boy, was it terrible. Due mostly to Lionel Barrymore’s ham-handed directing.

      But John Gilbert was a brilliant actor, and a delightful fellow, though he had more issues than National Geographic.


  8. betty1114 says:

    Having read some of Ms. Golden’s other book and being a John Gilbert fan, I will look forward to this book; however having read his daughter’s book I can’t help but wonder what will be new. Best of luck.


    • Eve says:

      Thanks–I was able to see a lot of films that Leatrice was not (thank goodness for restoration!). And hers was a daughter’s book, not a film historian’s–she was naturally overly sympathetic to both of her parents (as I would be if I were writing about mine!). I hope I am 100% fair to both John Gilbert and Leatrice Joy, but I do not cut them any breaks, either.

      I admire both of them as people and performers, but this is not going to be a starry-eyed whitewash OR a hatchet piece. By the way, I have Leatrice Fountain’s blessings on the book, which is awfully sweet of her. I hope she likes it; she very nicely did not request to vet it before it is published.


  9. betty1114 says:

    Having read Ms. Golden’s other book, I am looking forward to this one on John Gilbert. However, having read the book by his daugter Leatrice Fountain; I can’t help but wonder what will be new in this book.


  10. Mary Mallory says:

    Eve is going to archives, which Leatrice did not do. That means she’s seeing paperwork regarding what really happened to his career, not hearsay. She’s seeing everything that survives, something that Leatrice didn’t do. While she did do a great job of explaining his life, she didn’t provide full details of his career. That can only be done by digging through archives, looking at old trade papers and periodicals, and other such things. This will be full of new information.


    • Eve says:

      My big find was a bunch of notes from unpublished interviews Gladys Hall did with John Gilbert between 1924-33, so we have a lot of his own uncensored words! I must add that it was James Zeruk’s big find, not “mine.” Thanks, James!

      To be fair, Leatrice did a LOT of research and interviews. But I don’t think it is possible to write an unbiased book about one’s parents.


  11. Mary Mallory says:

    @ Dredm, I’m glad you already know what Eve is going to write since the book isn’t even written yet. She’s seeing more films than you’ll ever see, and digging more deeply into archives, periodicals, newspapers, trades, etc., than anyone has ever done. So if you were smart, you would shut up until you read the book.


  12. @Drednm (also), HIS GLORIOUS NIGHT was screened at Cinecon 33 in 1997 in Glendale, CA. Some of the soundtrack had been lost, so actors standing off to the side and reading from the shooting script were used. I also believe it was screened in London at the time Leatrice’s book was released. The film is a failure on many levels: least of which is Gilbert’s voice. Your accusation that the article perpetuates a myth is not true and you should apologize to Eve as she does not give specifics. (Apparently she’s still recovering from the shock of the screening). However, you, unwittingly I am sure, stir up the old legend by re-stating them. The best way to end such rumors is not to repeat them.
    As I recall, copyright issues have kept HGM locked up so having the film barbecued won’t be necessary, Eve. Kept under lock and key in a film vault in the salt mines? Can’t argue with that.


  13. Wow. Really enjoyed this (and your other) posts Eve but must admit I was taken aback (I love working that word in anytime I get the opportunity) by the overly charged comments. Gee, to this point, I can’t find any reason to question your scholarship, so why the vitriol (‘nuther good one)? People are funny and I don’t mean in a funny-ha-ha way.


    • Eve says:

      I am just glad there is still so much passion and disagreement about John Gilbert! Bodes well for my book, I hope, that he still has so many fans.


  14. Donna says:

    Having read most of Eve Goldern’s other books, I can only say I am looking very much forward to her book on John Gilbert. As Eve said herself in the comments above, she’s going to be fair and not cut any slack. That is a good thing for a biographer, to be a dispassionate 3rd party, passionate about the subject, but not hagiographic about the subject. I enjoy Eve’s writing style, she has a way with a turn of phrase that is most engaing and entertaining. And, she’s a damn fine researcher. So I will now sit as quietly as I can and be as patient as I can and wait for the book which I will surely buy. Gilbert deserves a good and fresh look.


  15. Donna says:

    Goldarn, if only I could freaking type……….Eve Golden………cripes


  16. Joan says:

    Oh, I dunno. I kinda like “Eve Goldurn.” Whatever, I only wish I could write as well as Eve does, whether she’s Golden or Goldurned.


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