John Gilbert passed away silently at 7:44am on January 9, 1936 at his home in California. It was a heart attack, his second major one (there had been several minor ones). He was only 39 years old. His long-time nurse, May Jordan, called the doctor, but it was too late. She told the doctor that Mr. John had raised his hands shortly before he died as if he wanted to say something, but he dropped them and passed away. A silent death, she reported.
The doctor signed the death certificate that the cause of death was “acute myocarditis,” but everyone who knew John knew that it was because he drank himself to an early grave. John’s long-time butler, a man with the improbably name of Don Veto, said that John would often drink alone, silently downing glass after glass, bottle after bottle, night after night. The man literally drank himself to death.
You probably haven’t heard of him, but John Gilbert was a wealthy man in the 1920s. John had wisely invested the money he made in the entertainment business and lived off the investment income. You see, people knew John Gilbert, but his had not been one of the voices that people heard over his years in show business for the most part. His house was paid for, he could well afford the butler, the chauffeur, the cook, and the gardener. He had the finest clothes, the prettiest women, and the best champaign that money could buy.
Too much of the champaign, it turns out.
So, it seems that John would have everything to live for. Yet, he was miserable. You see, the decade of the 1920s saw more films made than any other decade. Despite what some say, the films of that decade were more than Chaplin and Keaton and those other silent film comedians. Some of the most beautiful and technically brilliant as well as some of the best stories ever told were produced in the 1920s.
And John Gilbert starred in a film, The Big Parade, that was the second highest-grossing film and the most profitable film made during that era. His next film, Flesh and the Devil, paired him with Greta Garbo. He and Garbo, his love interest in the film, became lovers in real life. Their every movements were reported in the newspapers and their hordes of fans followed their love story breathlessly. Next to Rudolph Valentino, John Gilbert was the greatest matinee idol of the decade.
But then, in the fall of 1927, Al Jolson uttered the famous line, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” at the start of The Jazz Singer, and the era of “talkies” was born. By 1930, the film All Quiet on the Western Front was first filmed as a silent movie, but it was quickly remade as a talkie and went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture that year. Silent film was dead.
Gilbert had trouble transitioning to talking pictures. The issue wasn’t that his voice was high-pitched or nasally as so many silent stars’ voices were. No, Gilbert had the opposite problem. His voice was fine, but his enunciation was perfect. People who believed Gilbert’s acting when he they couldn’t hear him suddenly found him unbelievable when they could. His diction was off-putting. It made people laugh.
Sadly, by 1936, John Gilbert’s career was over, and he was dead.
And so were silent films.