Author Eve Golden is a serious name in the biography industry, particularly within the world of classic cinema. Her biography on Theda Bara, Vamp, is still one that I’m hoping to purchase in time for my birthday. Golden’s latest is a well-written and thoroughly engaging biography on the life of silent movie actor, John Gilbert; a man who inspired 2011’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, The Artist, as well as became legendary with the rough transition from silents to sound. Golden’s crux is to dispute that Gilbert’s voice was what ruined his career, and throughout explores a man who battled with demons including women and drink. It lacks anything particular grit, and the lack of memorable stars might push away those who aren’t devotees to silent film, but in the end it’s one of the best biographies out now.
The only issue with Golden’s book is the overall loss of impact I felt while reading it. The book breezily moves from John’s upbringing with little mention of it after the fact, aside from the requisite mention of family members dying. There’s also little real discussion on John’s relationship with his two daughters, although that could contribute to the children’s lack of relationship with their father. Golden is far more invested in charting Gilbert’s rise and fall within the industry, and while that is interesting, it prevents you from getting a complete portrait of the man. It’s especially frustrating when the various grandchildren of Gilbert’s mention not knowing about him, and other elements that could have appealed to Gilbert as a sympathetic man. Why did Gilbert’s daughter raise her children outside of Hollywood? What was she like? The short answer could be that by focusing on those elements a separate book would need to be penned, but more than a few sentences would have been nice.
Really, that’s the only thing at odds with John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Screen Stars. Golden has the ability to create Hollywood of the 1920s on the printed page, and as various half-remembered and forgotten stars of yesteryear come through, you feel you know them. Golden has done her research and throughout she’ll go off on mini-tangents discussing the tortured lives of other stars (suicide, alcoholism, and drug use were out-of-control). These tangents do provide a complete picture of the debauchery and sadness of the early Hollywood world – and how a person like Gilbert could fall so fast – but it only proves that you haven’t learned nearly enough about these people, Gilbert included, outside of their scandals.
The book’s predominant focus is on going behind the curtain to understand why Gilbert, the once “Great Lover” of the screen, was never able to maintain that into the later decades. People today believe that Gilbert had a nasally voice that ended up ruining his career before talkies took hold (the true-life inspiration for Lina Lamont), another victim of the sound transition to sound. Golden explains that it’s a rumor and nothing more; Gilbert’s voice wasn’t perfect, and it didn’t suit his image but neither did it wreck his career. In the end, Gilbert was simply an overly expensive star who burned bridges with some of the most powerful people in Hollywood, including Louis B. Mayer. It’s not as prurient as other stars’ fall from grace, nor is it as embedded in the popular culture as Lina Lamont, but it’s a perfect example of Occam’s Razor: The simplest theory is usually the truth.
John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Screen Stars is a well-done book and another riveting tome from Eve Golden. What it lacks in personal discussion of the star, it makes up for with a biting exploration of a man who didn’t die in poverty, but died lonely. Gilbert’s work is slowly resurging, so if you haven’t checked out his movies, do so!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.