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.
Anyway. 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).
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”: 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.
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!