John Cecil Pringle was born on July 10, 1897, in Logan, Utah. His parents were both stock company actors, and after their divorce his mother married Walter Gilbert. After many years on the road, the family settled in California. Jack, as he was nicknamed, began working at Thomas Ince’s studio in 1915, graduating from bit parts to more substantial roles over the next five years. He married Olivia Burwell in 1918, but they separated a year later.
Credited as Jack Gilbert, he appeared in nearly fifty films during this period, including Heart O’ the Hills (1919), with Mary Pickford. Mentored by filmmaker Maurice Tourneur, Gilbert also turned his hand to writing and directing.
In 1921, Gilbert signed a three-picture contract with the newly-formed Fox Film Corporation. With dark, curly hair and a twinkle in his eye, he was a natural leading man. In Shame (1921) he was billed as John Gilbert. His ‘swashbuckling’ turn as the Count in Monte Cristo (1922), based on Alexander Dumas’ novel, made Gilbert a star. Subsequent roles at Fox included St. Elmo (1923) and The Wolf Man (1924.)
Gilbert’s second marriage, to actress Leatrice Joy, ended amid accusations of his heavy drinking and infidelity. Their daughter, also named Leatrice, was born in 1924. That year, John moved to MGM, which was fast establishing itself as Hollywood’s leading studio. As his career entered its peak, Gilbert was described as ‘The Great Lover’.
His Hour (1924), King Vidor’s adaptation of an Elinor Glyn romance, was followed by He Who Gets Slapped, a Lon Chaney vehicle in which Gilbert and Norma Shearer provided the love interest. In Erich Von Stroheim’s The Merry Widow (1925), Gilbert wooed Mae Murray. A classic of silent cinema, Vidor’s The Big Parade was set during World War I, and became the most successful film ever made (until Gone With the Wind was released in 1939.) Vidor directed Gilbert again in La Bohéme (1926), also starring Lillian Gish; and another swashbuckler, Bardelys the Magnificent.
In Flesh and the Devil (1926), Gilbert was paired with Greta Garbo, a twenty year-old Swede who was taking Hollywood by storm. Their chemistry was palpable, and the love affair continued behind the scenes. It is rumoured that Gilbert proposed to Garbo several times, but she always refused. Gilbert next appeared in Todd Browning’s The Show (1927.)
By early 1927, Garbo was asserting her independence in other ways. Although she was MGM’s hottest property, studio head Louis B. Mayer was determined to have the upper hand. New York’s Daily Star reported that MGM was ‘going ahead with plans to have Jeanne Eagels play the role of Anna Karenina’ in their version of Tolstoy’s classic novel, retitled Love.
As punishment, Garbo was given a minor role in another film. The leading lady dropped out, and Mayer blamed Greta. She stood firm, and by March, her contract had been renegotiated. Love began shooting with Garbo and Ricardo Cortez. Unhappy with the early footage, production chief Irving Thalberg insisted on replacing Cortez with John Gilbert. Although Edmund Goulding was credited as director, it is believed Gilbert did most of his work, as Garbo insisted on his approving every scene.
On August 5, reports circulated that Jeanne Eagels would star opposite Gilbert in her Hollywood debut, MGM’s The Fires of Youth. This would not be a remake of her 1917 Thanhouser film of the same name, but an original story written and directed by Monta Bell, who had directed Gilbert in The Snob (1924.) It was later renamed Man, Woman and Sin. Eagels played the society columnist for a Washington newspaper, where she meets a cub reporter (Gilbert). He falls in love with her, but she is also the mistress of the newspaper’s owner. Eagels left for Washington in the second week of August, joining Gilbert and Bell to film exterior scenes before heading to California, and the Culver City lot for interiors.
Difficulties were reported from the set of Man, Woman and Sin. Eagels had a reputation for erratic behaviour, but the challenges she faced in making the transition from stage to screen were considerable. Rather than flowing continuously, the action was divided into tiny segments, and repeated until the director approved. Scenes were shot out of sequence to save money. This created a start-and-stop mentality which could be frustrating, particularly to a stage actress.
According to Garbo’s biographer, Karen Swenson, Gilbert flirted with Eagels in a futile attempt to make his girlfriend jealous. Shortly after her arrival in Hollywood, Gilbert invited Eagels to a party at his hilltop home. ‘I was awfully frightened driving up the road to his house,’ she told the Los Angeles Times. ‘I told Mr Gilbert he should never be able to get rid of me, because I shall simply never dare to drive down that road again.’ However, Eve Golden writes in John Gilbert: Last of the Silent Stars that ‘Eagels’ timing was off: had it not been for Garbo, Jack would no doubt have taken her up on that.’
In addition to her problems at MGM, Eagels’ marriage was in trouble. Towards the end of September, husband Ted Coy arrived unexpectedly on the set to escort her back to New York. According to the New York Times, ‘the report on the great White Way was that the star was released from her film contract owing to temperamental differences with the management.’
Man, Woman and Sin was released on November 19, and despite its troubled production, was popular with both critics and audiences. After Eagels’ tragic death in October 1929, Gilbert told the Los Angeles Times that ‘she seemed to hate the movies for the popularity they could not give her. The blind, unreasoning adulation of the movie fans was a type of popularity she spurned. Fundamentally, Jeanne was much superior to us. Movie actors are crazy to be worshipped. She wanted to be understood and appreciated.’
Gilbert starred in another epic adventure, The Cossacks (1928), before reuniting with Garbo in A Woman of Affairs. His last silent film was Desert Nights (1929.) In May he eloped with Ina Claire, a Broadway actress who had befriended Jeanne Eagels during their chorus girl days, and was now also branching out into movies. But Gilbert’s luck was running out. His first talking picture, His Glorious Night, was said to have flopped because his voice was too high. Some believed that Louis B. Mayer, who disliked Gilbert, had tinkered with the sound, but in fact, his voice was perfectly acceptable – it was the risible dialogue that hampered his performance.
While Mayer tried to force Gilbert out of his contract, assigning him to mediocre projects, he had a powerful ally in Thalberg, who cast him in The Phantom of Paris (1931) and Downstairs (1932), which Gilbert co-wrote. Directed by his old cohort, Monta Bell, Downstairs also co-starred Virginia Bruce, who became Gilbert’s fourth wife. Their daughter, Susan Ann, was born a year later.
Gilbert left MGM in 1933, but Greta Garbo persuaded him to return for their last picture together, Queen Christina. Now separated from his wife, Gilbert was a chronic alcoholic. With almost a hundred films to his name, he was down but not out. After filming The Captain Hates the Sea at Columbia, he began dating another European star, Marlene Dietrich, and was set to appear in her next film, Desire.
On January 9, 1936, John Gilbert suffered a heart attack and died aged thirty-eight – just a few months younger than his tempestuous former co-star, Jeanne Eagels, had been when she died six years earlier. Gilbert was cremated, and his ashes were interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.