John Gilbert Used to Be the Biggest Movie Star in the World

07/14/2009 1:22 PM |

ca1b/1247588532-bardelys.jpgJeanine Basinger succinctly summed up the problematic legacy of silent matinee idol John Gilbert in her essential compendium Silent Stars: “John Gilbert is triple-cursed: forgotten, misunderstood, and underappreciated… This combination has relegated him to a name without a persona…” Basinger wrote that in 1999, and in the decade that has passed, I’d say that even Gilbert’s name was in danger of being forgotten, persona or no persona. Of the scant few of his films that ever appeared on VHS, only two — Flesh and the Devil and Queen Christina, his penultimate sound picture — ever made it to DVD. His most famous films, admired by fans and critics alike, such as The Big Parade and La Boheme, remained out of print and out of the public’s hands. Such is the fate off all too many icons of film history. Flicker Alley, that bastion of the silent screen, comes to the rescue once again with Bardelys the Magnificent and Monte Cristo: The Lost Films of John Gilbert, unveiling two films once thought to be lost forever, both starring Gilbert at two very different stages of his career.

Bardelys the Magnificent (1926) marks Gilbert’s fifth collaboration with director King Vidor, who also led Glibert to two of his greatest triumphs with The Big Parade (1925) and La Boheme (1926), breaking him out of the “pretty boy” mould and giving him challenging, meaty roles which brought his hitherto untapped acting potential. Vidor, similarly an unfortunately forgotten figure, was one of the top filmmakers of the 1920s, with a rarely equaled gift for naturalistic yet poetic storytelling, effortlessly moving between comedy, romance, drama and — as Bardelys the Magnificent proves — action, as well. A comic swashbuckler in the Douglas Fairbanks tradition (and one of the few that actually deserves the comparison and rivals any of the master’s own films), Bardelys the Magnificent features Gilbert as a notorious ladykiller of the court, handing out lockets with snippets of his hair (which really come from a wig) like there’s no tomorrow. When his abilities to win any woman are challenged, Gilbert masquerades as a wanted rebel in order to win the damsel’s hand. Unfortunately, he also wins the attention of the law, who want to hang him for his crimes against the king.

It’s easy to see why Gilbert made both women and men swoon so feverishly back in the 1920s, because he strikes that perfect balance between almost femininely graceful looks and seething masculine energy. Athletic, sexual, cunning and violent, Gilbert was the secret dreams of moviegoers writ large and monochromatic. Aiding these fantasies is the inventive direction of Vidor, whose versatility is on full-display here. The boat ride between Gilbert and love interest Eleanor Boardman (Mrs. Vidor) is lush and romantic, filmed in soft-focus as a gently rocking first-person camera passes through the foliage that acts like natural lace curtains for the lovers. And then there’s the final, climactic action scene in which Gilbert escapes from the gallows, leaping off enemy spears and using an axe to scale the castle walls. Following the action star every step of the way is Vidor’s agile camera, unafraid of vertiginous heights or close scrapes with pointy blades.

Included in the DVD is an earlier feature, Monte Cristo (1922) made right as Gilbert began drawing the attention of moviegoers but before he attained his idol status, and a new documentary, Remembering John Gilbert, that chronicles his life and legacy.

1bfa/1247588565-moonisblue.jpgAlso on DVD this week:

The Man I Love (1947) (Warner Archive, Region 1) – Raoul Walsh directs this Manhattan-set noir about a lounge singer (Ida Lupino) and her affairs with the nightclub owner (Robert Alda) and an AWOL pianist (Bruce Bennett). Studio ace Sid Hickox (The Big Sleep, Colorado Territory, Dark Passage, White Heat) handles the cinematography.

The Moon is Blue (1953) (Warner Archive, Region 1) – Otto Preminger’s controversial film (initially banned in some cities) in which William Holden and David Niven lust after the same woman, a young Maggie McNamara. Popular lore has it that this was the first American film to use the word “virgin,” which outraged censors at the time.