Monday, January 20, 2014

Downstairs (1932, Monta Ball)

Gilbert and his then-wife Virginia Bruce snuggle for this half-sheet design.
Warner Archive's release of Downstairs (in Forbidden Hollywood Volume 6) is another nail in the coffin of that old canard about John Gilbert not having the voice for talkies.  Gilbert is downright mesmerizing as Karl, an unapologetic scoundrel who makes his living as a chauffeur for the barons and baronesses of Austria.  Gilbert not only stars in the film, he also wrote the story (which he reportedly sold to MGM for $1) upon which Lenore J. Coffee and Melville Baker's script is based.

What I find most fascinating about Monta Ball and Gilbert's film is the way it depicts the relationship of the masters (upstairs) and servants (downstairs) in this particular household, culminating with these two typically opposed sides coming together to deal with one bad egg (Karl).  Paul Lukas, who would later become a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, is appropriately cast as the household's stodgy head servant, Arthur, who has just married sweet, naive Anna (Virginia Bruce) and who takes his responsibilities to the Baron and Baroness very seriously. While he waxes poetic about the duties of the servants to their masters, Karl moves in on his new bride. Bruce is given a great speech when Arthur and Anna have it out over her dalliance with Karl, wherein she gets as close--very close, in fact--as pre-Code standards would allow to telling her husband that the chauffeur brought her to orgasm where he previously failed.  In its trim 77-minute running time, Downstairs has many laugh out loud moments, a number of which are simultaneously sad, particularly with regards to Bodil Rosing's over-the-hill cook who has fallen hard for Karl.

Other familiar faces include Olga Baclanova (immortalized a year later in Tod Browning's Freaks) as the Baroness who Karl attempts to blackmail, Reginald Owen (who earlier starred alongside Jeanne Eagels in the original The Letter) as the humorously soft Baron, and a pre-gossip columnist Hedda Hopper as Countess De Marnac.

All the perfs are fine, but this is Gilbert's show and when all is said and done, it's not Gilbert's voice and likely not his legendary tussle with Louis B. Mayer that did in his post-silent career.  No, aside from his untimely death in 1936, it's probably the fact that roles like Karl and that of Gunner Smith in Browning's Fast Workers are not easily digestible and overly likable to mass audiences.  These were some of the first and, sadly, in fact, only speaking roles that Gilbert had and they were a far cry from the romantic leads that he built his fame on. For the pre-Code aficionados this--a star playing a bastard and relishing that opportunity--is just one of the many decidedly pre-Code pleasures of Downstairs.  Aside from Bruce's aforementioned speech, there's no shortage of frank sexual talk and plenty of still-potent jokes at the expense of both the rich and poor, as well as the physically attractive and un-attactive, usually connected to one's ability, or lack thereof, to hold his liquor.  In other words, it's equal opportunity heckling.  Not to be missed.

Gilbert's got his paws all over another man's (onscreen, anyway) woman.

No comments: