A stage illusionist escapes from prison on the eve of his execution for a murder he didn’t commit. He vows vengeance on the guilty party but, after a surprising turn of events, finds himself impersonating the murderer and living his life.
French author Gaston Leroux is now only really remembered for his twisted classic ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ but he wrote many other novels, and these included a series featuring gentleman thief ‘Cheri-Bibi.’ The exploits of Bibi and his criminal gang were more romantic escapades than anything else, although Leroux delivered them as straight adventure tales and endowed Bibi with a strong moral compass. This ﬁlm adaptation reduces our hero to a far less morally ambiguous figure, of course, casting him as a low-born magician who takes Paris by storm and catches the eye of rich, young socialite Leila Hyams. Her father doesn’t approve, of course, and a (not very) tangled web of murder and mystery ensues.
Despite being made in the early days of the ‘talkies’ this MGM production is surprisingly free of the usual, stilted qualities that tend to haunt ﬁlms made at that time. The story flows well, the performances are surprisingly restrained, if still a little mannered, and there’s a more mobile camera than usual. The script is nothing special, though, and there’s a lack of the action, thrills and romance that an audience of the time would probably have expected. In fact, there’s pretty much only one reason this film is likely to be watched and discussed in a modern era, and that’s the presence of its leading man.
John Gilbert was a bona fide global megastar in the 1920s. After Rudolph Valentino’s death, he became the silver screen’s great lover, being paired with Greta Garbo in ‘Flesh and the Devil’ (1926) and ‘Love’ (1927). Unfortunately, he was to become the poster boy for the ‘star who failed to make the transition into talkies’. Apparently, audiences laughed at his effeminate voice in his first sound film ‘His Glorious Night’ (1929) and his career simply never recovered. His vocal talents were ‘unsuitable for talkies’ and he made just two more films after the end of his MGM contract in 1933, one of which saw him co-starring with Garbo for one last time, on her insistence. He died three years later of a heart attack, most likely brought on by his chronic alcoholism.
But the truth may not be that simple. Gilbert’s voice in this picture is fine. Absolutely nothing unusual about it at all. So what happened? Well, by the late 1920s many stars had been able to negotiate fabulous contracts with the studios, because of their pulling power at the box office. Lillian Gish was a prime example of this. Other leading actors were wilful and ‘difficult’ such as the luminous Louise Brooks. Then sound changed the game. lt gave studio moguls a heaven-sent opportunity to kick their rebellious stars back into line. It’s amazing how many of them were found to have ‘voices unsuitable for talkies’ (Brooks for example), or, like Gish, ‘weren’t accepted by the public in speaking roles.’
What happened to Gilbert may be even more sinister. His relationship with head of MGM, Louis B Mayer, was one of mutual hatred. Allegedly, Gilbert even physically assaulted Mayer on one occasion over a remark the latter made about Garbo. There’s also a rumour that Mayer had Gilbert’s voice speeded up for comic effect in ‘His Glorious Night’ (1929). The film still exists, apparently, but it’s not available for general viewing so it’s impossible to judge.
It’s certainly true that the public’s only source for movie news at the time were trade papers, movie magazines and gossip columns, all of which were entirely dependent on stories fed to them by the major studios. Additionally, the studios also had complete control of distribution and owned all the movie theatres. A star who went up against the system really had no chance.
Which is a shame. Although Gilbert’s performance here does little to suggest he could have recaptured his glory days in the new medium, he is still far more ‘modern’ in his style than many of his contemporaries, who still favoured extravagant gestures and painfully slow delivery of dialogue. He plays the villain in disguise pretty well too, adding a credibility to events that would have been seriously lacking if he’d not been up to the task. ln fact, he put me in mind a little of William Powell, who transitioned seamlessly between the two filmic worlds, and gained a head start on his rivals that he later turned into 3 Oscar Nominations.
Hyams is also worth noticing here. She gives a very naturalistic performance as Gilbert’s underwritten love interest. She was also a refugee from the silent days, best remembered for original ‘The Cat and the Canary’ (1927), but you’d never know it from her appearance here. A glittering career might have followed if not for her decision to appear in two controversial films in 1932. Both ‘The Island of Lost Souls’ (1932) and Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’ (1932) were banned for many years in the UK, and it’s still illegal to show the latter in certain American states. The first ran into problems because of its visceral take on source material ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’ by H G Wells, the second because Browning chose to populate his cast with real circus performers, some with extreme disabilities. Hyams retired from the business in 1936 to concentrate on her marriage. lt was obviously a good choice as she remained united with Phil Berg until her death in 1977.
A picture more remarkable for the history that surrounds it than the film itself, this is still a mildly entertaining diversion for fans of classic Hollywood.