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John Gilbert biography offers look at real-life inspiration for ‘The Artist’

Dennis King Published: May 24, 2013

Even casual movie fans probably know something of the rags-to-riches-to-ruin story of silent era matinee idol John Gilbert because “The Artist,” the popular, Oscar-winning homage to Hollywood’s golden age by French director Michel Hazanavicius, was in part inspired by Gilbert’s glamorous but tragic career.

Gilbert once rivaled Rudolph Valentino as the silent cinema’s “great lover,” and he became one of the biggest stars of the day after starring in King Vidor’s “The Big Parade” in 1925. Gilbert appeared opposite some of the silver screen’s great beauties, including Norma Shearer in “He Who Gets Slapped,” Mae Murray in “The Merry Widow” and Lillian Gish in “La Boheme.” And like Valentino, his career faded with the onset of the talkies and he died an untimely death.

“John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars” (University Press of Kentucky, $39.95) is author Eve Golden’s finely detailed and gracefully written effort to set the record straight about this forgotten movie star whose life and career have become shrouded in myths and, according to the author, in half-truths.

While it has been widely assumed that Gilbert failed to make the leap from silent films to talkies because he possessed a high-pitched voice that didn’t project well on screen, Golden questions that narrative and offers other possibilities for his downfall (perhaps his public problems with drinking, his four marriages and his high-profile affairs with numerous actresses, his career-long feud with MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer that was rumored to have led to fistfights).

Golden, a veteran researcher who has also written about the ultimate Ziegfeld girl Anna Held and early show-biz figures Kay Kendall and dancers Vernon and Irene Castle, works diligently to separate fact from fiction as she traces the actor’s life from a childhood spent traveling with vagabond acting troupes to the peak of his fame.

Along the way, she relates many colorful anecdotes involving figures such as Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich (Gilbert’s final lover) and his own mother, silent screen beauty Leatrice Joy. Much source material is derived from interviews with Gilbert’s daughter, Leatrice Joy Gilbert Fountain, who herself has written an insightful biography of her father titled “Dark Star.”

While Golden’s book doesn’t necessarily mine any startling new information about this suave, handsome man in slicked-back hair and pencil moustache, it does, with its abundance of trivia, insights into relationships, sharp analysis of his many screen roles and 62 black-and-white photos, paint a complete and compassionate portrait of a star who blazed onto the screen and sank under the burden of his own fame.

Just as “The Artist” was fine, juicy melodrama to feed our silver screen dreams, so John Gilbert’s life was one of triumph and tragedy that it seems could only be imagined and lived in Hollywood.

- Dennis King


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