kids encyclopedia robot

John Gilbert (actor) facts for kids

Kids Encyclopedia Facts
Quick facts for kids
John Gilbert
John Gilbert publicity 1930s.JPG
John Gilbert in 1931
John Cecil Pringle

(1897-07-10)July 10, 1897
Died January 9, 1936(1936-01-09) (aged 38)
Resting place Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale
Other names Jack Gilbert
Education Hitchcock Military Academy
  • Actor
  • director
  • screenwriter
Years active 1914–1934
Olivia Burwell
(m. 1918; div. 1921)

Leatrice Joy
(m. 1922; div. 1925)

Ina Claire
(m. 1929; div. 1931)

(m. 1932; div. 1934)
Children 2

John Gilbert (born John Cecil Pringle; July 10, 1897 – January 9, 1936) was an American actor, screenwriter and director. He rose to fame during the silent film era and became a popular leading man known as "The Great Lover". His breakthrough came in 1925 with his starring roles in The Merry Widow and The Big Parade. At the height of his career, Gilbert rivaled Rudolph Valentino as a box office draw.

Gilbert's career declined precipitously when silent pictures gave way to talkies. Though Gilbert was often cited as one of the high-profile examples of an actor who was unsuccessful in making the transition to sound films, his decline as a star had far more to do with studio politics and money than with the sound of his screen voice, which was rich and distinctive.

Early life and stage work

Born John Cecil Pringle in Logan, Utah, to stock-company actor parents, John George Pringle (1865–1929) and Ida Adair Apperly Gilbert (1877–1913), he struggled through a childhood of neglect, with his family moving frequently and young "Jack" having to attend assorted schools throughout the United States. When his family finally settled in California, he attended Hitchcock Military Academy in San Rafael. After he left school, Gilbert worked as a rubber goods salesman in San Francisco, then performed with the Baker Stock Company in Portland, Oregon, in 1914. He subsequently found work the following year as a stage manager in another stock company in Spokane, Washington, but he soon lost that job when the company went out of business.

John Gilbert in Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual
Promotion of Ince’s rising "juvenile" star in studio directory, 1916

Film career

After losing his stage job in 1915, Gilbert decided to try screen acting, and he quickly gained work as a film extra through Herschell Mayall. Gilbert first appeared in The Mother Instinct (1915), a short directed by Wilfred Lucas. He then found work as an extra with the Thomas Ince Studios in productions such as The Coward (1915), Aloha Oe (1915), Civilization (1915), The Last Act (1916), and William Hart's Hell's Hinges (1916).

Kay-Bee Company

During his initial years in films, Gilbert also performed in releases by Kay-Bee Company such as Matrimony (1915), The Corner (1915), Eye of the Night (1916), and Bullets and Brown Eyes (1916). His first major costarring role was as Willie Hudson in The Apostle of Vengeance, also with William S. Hart. Viewed by studio executives as a promising but still "juvenile" actor at this stage of his career, Gilbert's contract salary was $40 a week ($996 today), fairly ample pay for most American workers in the early 1900s. Gilbert continued to get more substantial parts at Kay-Bee, which billed him as "Jack Gilbert" in The Aryan (1916), The Phantom (1916), Shell 43 (1916), The Sin Ye Do (1917), The Weaker Sex (1917), and The Bride of Hate (1917). His first true leading role was in Princess of the Dark (1917) with Enid Bennett, but the film was not a big success and he went back to supporting roles in The Dark Road (1917), Happiness (1917), The Millionaire Vagrant (1917), and The Hater of Men (1917).

Triangle Films and other studios

Gilbert went over to Triangle Films where he was in The Mother Instinct (1917), Golden Rule Kate (1917), The Devil Dodger (1917) (second billed), Up or Down? (1917), and Nancy Comes Home (1918). For Paralta Plays, Gilbert did Shackled (1918), One Dollar Bid (1918), and Wedlock (1918) and More Trouble (1918) for Anderson, but the company went bankrupt. He also was cast in Doing Their Bit (1918) at Fox and then returned to Triangle for The Mask (1918). Gilbert also did Three X Gordon (1918) for Jesse Hampton, The Dawn of Understanding (1918), The White Heather (1919) for Maurice Tourneur, The Busher (1919) for Thomas Ince, The Man Beneath for Haworth, A Little Brother of the Rich (1919) for Universal, The Red Viper (1919) for Tyrad, For a Woman's Honor (1919) for Jess Hampton, Widow by Proxy (1919) for Paramount, Heart o' the Hills (1919) for Mary Pickford, and Should a Woman Tell? (1919) for Screen Classics.

Actor, screenwriter and director for Tourneur

Maurice Tourneur signed him to a contract to both write and act in films. Gilbert performed in and co-wrote The White Circle (1920), The Great Redeemer (1921), and Deep Waters (1921). As a writer only, he worked on The Bait (1921), which starred and was produced by Hope Hampton. For Hampton, Gilbert wrote and directed as well, but he did not appear in Love's Penalty (1921).

Fox and stardom

Gleam O'Dawn (1922) - 6
Gilbert (center) with Barbara Bedford and unidentified actor in Gleam O'Dawn (1922)

In 1921, Gilbert signed a three-year contract with Fox Film Corporation, which subsequently cast him in romantic leading roles and promoted him now as "John Gilbert". The actor's first starring part for the studio was in Shame (1921). He followed it with leading roles in Arabian Love (1922), Gleam O'Dawn (1922), The Yellow Stain (1922), Honor First (1922), Monte Cristo (1922), Calvert's Valley (1922), The Love Gambler (1922), and A California Romance (1922). Many of the scenarios for these films were written by Jules Furthman.

Gilbert returned temporarily to Tourneur to costar with Lon Chaney in While Paris Sleeps (1923). Back at Fox, he starred in Truxton King (1923), Madness of Youth (1923), St. Elmo (1923), and The Exiles (1923). The same year he starred in Cameo Kirby (1923), directed by John Ford, co starring Jean Arthur. He went into The Wolf Man (1923) with Norma Shearer. Gilbert also performed in his last films for Fox in 1924, including Just Off Broadway, A Man's Mate, The Lone Chance, and Romance Ranch.


Under the auspices of movie producer Irving Thalberg, Gilbert obtained a release from his Fox contract and moved to MGM, where he became a full-fledged star cast in major productions. First starring in His Hour (1924) directed by King Vidor and written by Elinor Glyn his film career entered its ascendancy. He followed this success with He Who Gets Slapped (1924) co-starring Chaney and Shearer and directed by Victor Sjöström; The Snob (1924) with Shearer; The Wife of the Centaur (1924) for Vidor.

The next year, Gilbert would star in two of MGM's most critically acclaimed and popular film productions of the silent era: Erich von Stroheim's The Merry Widow and King Vidor's The Big Parade.

The Merry Widow (1925)

Gilbert was assigned to star in Erich von Stroheim's The Merry Widow by Irving Thalberg, over the objections of the Austrian-American director. Von Stroheim expressed his displeasure bluntly to his leading man: "Gilbert, I am forced to use you in my picture. I do not want you, but the decision was not in my hands. I assure you I will do everything in my power to make you comfortable." Gilbert, mortified, soon stalked off the set in a rage, tearing off his costume. Von Stroheim followed him to his dressing room and apologized. Then Gilbert apologized, and the tempest subsided and was resolved amicably. According to Gilbert, the contretemps served to "cement a relationship which for my part will never end."

The public adulation that Gilbert experienced with his growing celebrity astounded him: "Everywhere I hear whispers and gasps in acknowledgment of my presence...[t]he whole thing became too fantastic for me to comprehend. Acting, the very thing I had been fighting and ridiculing for seven years, had brought me success, riches and renown. I was a great motion picture artist."

The Big Parade (1925)

Gilbert was next cast by Thalberg to star in King Vidor's war-romance The Big Parade (1925), which became the second-highest grossing silent film and the most profitable film of the silent era. Gilbert's "inspired performance" as an American doughboy in France during World War I was the high point of his acting career. He fully immersed himself in the role of Jim Apperson, a Southern gentleman who, with two working class comrades, experiences the horrors of trench warfare. Gilbert declared: "No love has ever enthralled me as did the making of this picture...All that has followed is balderdash."

The following year, Vidor reunited Gilbert with two of his co-stars from that picture, Renée Adorée and Karl Dane, for the film La Bohème (1926) which also starred Lillian Gish. He then did another with Vidor, Bardelys the Magnificent (1926).

Greta Garbo

In 1926, Gilbert made Flesh and the Devil, his first film with Greta Garbo. Gilbert first encountered Garbo on the set during filming of the railway station scene, and the chemistry between the two was evidently instantaneous. Director Clarence Brown remarked approvingly that he "had a love affair going for me that you couldn’t beat, any way you tried." Garbo and Gilbert soon began a highly publicized romance, much to the delight of their fans and to MGM.

Publicity photo for Love (1927)

He made The Show (1927) with Adoree for Tod Browning then did Twelve Miles Out (1927) with Joan Crawford and Man, Woman and Sin (1927) with Jeanne Eagels.

Gilbert was reunited with Garbo in a modern adaptation of Tolstoy's 19th-century novel, Anna Karenina. The title was changed to Love (1927) to capitalize on the real life love affair of the stars and advertised by MGM as "Garbo and Gilbert in Love."

Though officially directed by Edmund Goulding, Gilbert, though uncredited, was responsible for directing the love scenes involving Garbo. He was perhaps the only person in the industry whose "artistic judgment" she fully respected. As such, MGM approved of this arrangement.

Garbo - Gilbert - publicity
Gilbert with Garbo in A Woman of Affairs (1928)

Gilbert made The Cossacks (1928) with Adoree; Four Walls (1928) with Crawford; Show People (1928) with Marion Davies for Vidor, in which Gilbert only had a cameo; and The Masks of the Devil (1928) for Victor Sjöström.

Gilbert and Garbo were teamed for a third time in A Woman of Affairs (1928). His last silent film was Desert Nights (1929).

Sound Era

With the coming of sound, Gilbert's vocal talents made a good first impression, though the studio had failed to conduct a voice test. The conventional wisdom of the day dictated that actors in the new talkies should emulate "correct stage diction". Gilbert's strict adherence to this method produced an affected delivery that made audiences giggle, and not due to any particularity in Gilbert's natural speech. Indeed, the "quality of his voice compared well with that of co-star Conrad Nagel, regarded as having one of the best voices for sound."

Gilbert signed an immensely lucrative multi-picture contract with MGM in 1928 that totaled $1,500,000. The terms of the agreement positioned MGM executives Irving Thalberg and Nicholas Schenck, both sympathetic to the star, to supervise his career. Gilbert, however, frequently clashed with studio head Louis B. Mayer over creative, social and financial matters.

In the all-star musical comedy The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929), Gilbert and Norma Shearer played the balcony scene from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, first as written, then followed with a slang rendition of the scene. The comic effect served to "dispell the bad impression" produced by Gilbert's original "mincing" delivery.

His Glorious Night

Audiences awaited further romantic roles from Gilbert on the talking screen. The next vehicle was the Ruritanian romance His Glorious Night (1929), directed by Lionel Barrymore. According to reviewers, audiences laughed nervously at Gilbert's performance. The offense was not Gilbert's voice, but the awkward scenario along with the overly ardent love scenes. In one, Gilbert keeps kissing his leading lady, (Catherine Dale Owen), while saying "I love you" over and over again. The scene was parodied in the MGM musical Singin' in the Rain (1952) in which a preview of the fictional The Dueling Cavalier flops disastrously and again in Babylon (2022).

Director King Vidor speculated that the late Rudolph Valentino, Gilbert's main rival for romantic leads in the silent era, probably would have suffered the same fate in the talkie era had he lived. Gilbert's inept phrasing, his "dreadful enunciation" and the "inane" script as the genuine sources of his poor performance, that drew "titters" from audiences.

The "Squeaky Voice" Myth

The persistent myth that John Gilbert had a "squeaky voice" that doomed his career in sound films first emerged from his performance in 1929 with His Glorious Night. It was even rumored that Louis B. Mayer ordered Gilbert's voice to be altered by manipulating the sound track to give it a higher, less masculine pitch. Later, after analyzing the film's sound track, British film historian Kevin Brownlow found that the timbre and frequency of Gilbert's speaking scenes in His Glorious Night were no different than in his subsequent talkies. Brownlow also reported from that analysis that Gilbert's voice, overall, was "quite low". With regard to the alleged manipulation of Gilbert's footage by Mayer or by anyone else, television technicians in the 1960s determined that the actor's voice was consistent with those of other performers on the same print, casting doubt that any targeted "sabotaging" of Gilbert's voice occurred.

Film critic John Baxter described Gilbert as having "a light speaking voice", a minor defect that both MGM and the star "magnified into an obsession." Despite any conflicting opinions or myths surrounding the actor's voice, Mayer's lingering resentment and hostility toward Gilbert remained apparent, especially after MGM's star signed a new contract for six pictures at $250,000 each. Those ill feelings fueled additional speculation that Mayer deliberately assigned Gilbert bad scripts and ineffective directors in an effort to void the contract.


Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cast Gilbert in a film adaptation of The Living Corpse by Tolstoy re-titled as Redemption (1929). The bleak atmosphere and maudlin dialogue presaged the disaster looming in the star's personal life and career. Gilbert's confident screen presence had vanished, while his use of the exaggerated stage diction that elicited laughs from the audience persisted.

MGM put him in a more rugged film, Way for a Sailor (1930) with Wallace Beery. He followed it with Gentleman's Fate (1931). Gilbert became increasingly depressed by progressively inferior films and idle stretches between productions. Despite efforts by studio executives at MGM to cancel his contract, Gilbert resolved to thwart Louis B. Mayer and see the six-picture ordeal through to the end.

Gilbert's fortunes were temporarily restored when MGM's production chief Irving Thalberg gave him two projects that were character studies, giving Gilbert an excellent showcase for his versatility. The Phantom of Paris (1931), originally intended for Lon Chaney (who died from cancer in 1930), cast Gilbert as a debonair magician and showman who is falsely accused of murder and uses his mastery of disguise to unmask the real killer.

Downstairs (1932) was based on Gilbert's original story, with the actor playing against type as a scheming, blackmailing chauffeur. The films were well received by critics and fans but failed to revive his career. In between, he appeared in West of Broadway (1931). Shortly after making Downstairs, he married co-star Virginia Bruce; the couple divorced in 1934.

Gilbert fulfilled his contract with MGM with a perfunctory "B" picture – Fast Workers (1933) directed by Browning. He left the studio in 1933, terminating his $10,000 a week contract.

Gilbert became exhausted and demoralized by his humiliations at MGM and his declining success at the box office, which contributed to his declining physical and mental health.

Queen Christina (1933)

Gilbert announced his retirement from acting and was working at Fox as an "honorary" director when, in August 1933, he announced he had signed a seven-year contract with MGM at $75–100,000 a picture. The reason was Greta Garbo insisted that Gilbert return to MGM to play her leading man in Queen Christina (1933), directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Garbo was top-billed, with Gilbert's name beneath the title. Queen Christina, though a critical success, did not revive Gilbert's poor self-image or his career. Garbo was reported to have dropped the young Laurence Olivier scheduled to play the part, but director Rouben Mamoulian recalled that Olivier's screen tests had already eliminated him from consideration.

Columbia Pictures gave Gilbert what would be his final chance for a comeback in The Captain Hates the Sea (1934) in which he gave a capable performance as "a dissipated, bitter [and] cynical" playwright. It was his last film.

Personal life

Gilbert was married four times. His first marriage, on August 26, 1918, was to Olivia Burwell, a native of Mississippi whom Gilbert had met after her family moved to California. They separated the following year and Burwell returned to Mississippi for a while. She filed for divorce in Los Angeles in 1921.

In February 1921, Gilbert announced his engagement to actress Leatrice Joy. They married in Tijuana in November 1921. As Gilbert had failed to secure a divorce from his first wife and the legality of Gilbert and Joy's Mexican marriage was questionable, the couple separated and had the marriage annulled to avoid a scandal. They remarried on March 3, 1922. The marriage was tumultuous and, in June 1923, Joy filed for legal separation. They reconciled several months later. Gilbert and Joy had a daughter, Leatrice Gilbert (later Fountain; September 4, 1924 – January 20, 2015). Joy was granted a divorce in May 1925.

In 1929, Gilbert eloped with actress Ina Claire to Las Vegas. They separated in February 1931 and divorced six months later. Gilbert's fourth and final marriage was on August 10, 1932, to actress Virginia Bruce, who had recently costarred with him on the MGM film Downstairs. The entertainment trade paper The Film Daily reported that their "quick" wedding was held in Gilbert's dressing room on the MGM lot while Bruce was working on another studio production, Kongo. Among the people attending the small ceremony were the head of MGM production Irving Thalberg, who served as Gilbert's best man; screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart, whose wife Beatrice acted as Bruce's matron of honor; MGM art director and set designer Cedric Gibbons; and his wife, actress Dolores del Río. Bruce retired briefly from acting following the birth of their daughter Susan Ann; however, she resumed her career after her divorce from Gilbert in May 1934.

Before his death, Gilbert dated actress Marlene Dietrich from 1935 until his death in 1936 as well as Greta Garbo from 1926 to 1927. When he died, he had recently been slated to play a prominent supporting role in Dietrich's film Desire.


Gilbert suffered a serious heart attack in December 1935, which left him in poor health. Gilbert suffered a second heart attack at his Bel Air home on January 9, 1936, which was fatal.

A private funeral was held on January 11 at the B.E. Mortuary in Beverly Hills. Among the mourners were Gilbert's two ex-wives, Leatrice Joy and Virginia Bruce, his two daughters, and stars Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Myrna Loy, and Raquel Torres.

Gilbert was cremated and his ashes were interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale in Glendale, California.

Gilbert left the bulk of his estate, valued at $363,494 (equivalent to $7.1 million in 2022), to his last ex-wife Virginia Bruce and their daughter, Susan Ann. He left $10,000 to his eldest daughter Leatrice, and other amounts to friends, relatives and his servants.

For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Gilbert has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1755 Vine Street. In 1994, he was honored with his image on a United States postage stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.


Year Films Role Notes
1915 The Coward Minor role Uncredited
1915 Matrimony Extra Short film
1915 Aloha Oe Extra Uncredited
1916 The Corner Extra Uncredited
1916 Bullets and Brown Eyes
1916 The Last Act Extra Uncredited
1916 Hell's Hinges Rowdy townsman Uncredited
1916 The Aryan Extra Uncredited
1916 Civilization Extra Uncredited
1916 The Apostle of Vengeance Willie Hudson
1916 The Phantom Bertie Bereton
1916 Eye of the Night Uncredited
1916 Shell 43 English Spy
1916 The Sin Ye Do Jimmy
1917 The Weaker Sex
1917 The Bride of Hate Dr. Duprez's Son
1917 Princess of the Dark "Crip" Halloran
1917 The Dark Road Cedric Constable
1917 Happiness Richard Forrester Credited as Jack Gilbert
1917 The Millionaire Vagrant James Cricket
1917 The Hater of Men Billy Williams
1917 The Mother Instinct Jean Coutierre
1917 Golden Rule Kate The Heller
1917 The Devil Dodger Roger Ingraham
1917 Up or Down? Allan Corey
1918 Nancy Comes Home Phil Ballou Credited as Jack Gilbert
1918 Shackled James Ashley Credited as Jack Gilbert
1918 More Trouble Harvey Deering Credited as Jack Gilbert
1918 One Dollar Bid Credited as Jack Gilbert
1918 Wedlock Granger Hollister Credited as Jack Gilbert
1918 Doing Their Bit Credited as Jack Gilbert
1918 The Mask Billy Taylor Credited as Jack Gilbert
1918 Three X Gordon Archie Credited as Jack Gilbert
1918 The Dawn of Understanding Ira Beasly Credited as Jack Gilbert
1919 The White Heather Dick Beach Credited as Jack Gilbert
1919 The Busher Jim Blair Credited as Jack Gilbert
1919 The Man Beneath James Bassett Credited as Jack Gilbert
1919 A Little Brother of the Rich Carl Wilmerding
1919 The Red Viper Dick Grant Credited as Jack Gilbert
1919 For a Woman's Honor Dick Rutherford
1919 Widow by Proxy Jack Pennington Credited as Jack Gilbert
1919 Heart o' the Hills Gray Pendleton Credited as Jack Gilbert
1919 Should a Woman Tell? The Villain Credited as Jack Gilbert
1920 The White Circle Frank Cassilis Credited as Jack Gilbert
1920 The Great Redeemer Undetermined role Uncredited
1920 Deep Waters Bill Lacey Credited as Jack Gilbert
1921 The Servant in the House Percival Credited as Jack Gilbert
1921 The Bait
Lost film
1921 Love's Penalty
Writer, director, editor
1921 Shame William Fielding/David Field
1921 Ladies Must Live The Gardener Credited as Jack Gilbert
1922 Gleam O'Dawn Gleam O'Dawn
1922 Arabian Love Norman Stone
1922 The Yellow Stain Donald Keith
1922 Honor First Jacques Dubois/Honoré Duboois
1922 Monte Cristo Edmond Dantes, Count of Monte Cristo
1922 Calvert's Valley Page Emlyn Credited as Jack Gilbert
1922 The Love Gambler Dick Manners
1922 A California Romance Don Patricio Fernando
1923 While Paris Sleeps Dennis O'Keefe
1923 Truxton King Truxton King
1923 Madness of Youth Jaca Javalie
1923 St. Elmo St. Elmo Thornton Lost film
1923 The Exiles Henry Holcombe
1923 Cameo Kirby Cameo Kirby
1924 Just Off Broadway Stephen Moore
1924 The Wolf Man Gerald Stanley Lost film
1924 A Man's Mate Paul
1924 The Lone Chance Jack Saunders Lost film
1924 Romance Ranch Carlos Brent
1924 His Hour Gritzko
1924 Married Flirts Guest at party Cameo appearance
Lost film
1924 He Who Gets Slapped Bezano
1924 The Snob Eugene Curry Lost film
1924 The Wife of the Centaur Jeffrey Dwyer Lost film
1925 The Merry Widow Prince Danilo Petrovich
1925 The Big Parade James Apperson
1925 Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ Crowd extra in chariot race Uncredited
1926 La Bohème Rodolphe
1926 Bardelys the Magnificent Bardelys
1926 Flesh and the Devil Leo von Harden
1927 The Show Cock Robin
1927 Twelve Miles Out Jerry Fay
1927 Man, Woman and Sin Albert Whitcomb
1927 Love Captain Count Alexei Vronsky Director (Uncredited)
1928 The Cossacks Lukashka
1928 Four Walls Benny Horowitz Lost film
1928 Show People Himself Cameo appearance
1928 The Masks of the Devil Baron Reiner
1928 A Woman of Affairs Neville "Nevs" Holderness
1929 Desert Nights Hugh Rand Last silent film
1929 His Glorious Night Captain Kovacs Sound film debut
1929 The Hollywood Revue of 1929 Himself
1930 Redemption Fedya
1930 Way for a Sailor Jack
1931 Gentleman's Fate Giacomo Tomasulo/Jack Thomas
1931 The Phantom of Paris Chéri-Bibi
1931 West of Broadway Jerry Seevers
1932 Downstairs Karl Schneider Story
1933 Fast Workers Gunner Smith
1933 Queen Christina Antonio
1934 The Captain Hates the Sea Steve Bramley

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: John Gilbert para niños

kids search engine
John Gilbert (actor) Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.