In the summer of 1931, MGM star John Gilbert began working on a new picture, WEST OF BROADWAY. After completion, BROADWAY was presented to preview audiences before its nationwide release. According to the review in Motion Picture Herald, previewers in Glendale, CA laughed at the dramatic film. The reviewer commented, “If it was the purpose of MGM to lead John Gilbert up to the guillotine and end the waning popularity of one of the most popular stars the silver screen ever known, then West of Broadway is a great success…the picture may be described as the most monotonous piece of cinematic stupidity ever recorded.” Ouch.
Gilbert’s star was fading.
Born John Cecil Pringle in Logan, Utah to actor parents, Gilbert arrived in Hollywood as a teenager. He first found work as an extra with the Thomas Ince Studios, and quickly rose through the ranks in various studios, building his reputation as an actor.
In 1924 he moved to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and starred in such high-profile silent films as HIS HOUR, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (both 1924), and THE MERRY WIDOW (1925). Then Gilbert landed the role of Jim in the war epic THE BIG PARADE (1925) [preserved at Eastman House], which became one of the highest grossing silent films in cinema history. Gilbert was now a full-fledged star.
With the coming of sound, John Gilbert, like others, found his career in jeopardy. It’s generally assumed that his voice was inadequate. Actually, he had a fine voice; it was a personality clash with Louis B Mayer and poorly written scripts that did him in. Films like HIS GLORIOUS NIGHT (1929), REDEMPTION and WAY FOR A SAILOR (both 1930) helped end Gilbert’s career.
John Gilbert died in 1935, never recovering to his matinee idol status.
I have seen a few of Gilbert’s silent and sound films, and I am curious to see WEST OF BROADWAY. A comedy on relationships, Gilbert plays Jerry, a wounded WWI veteran who discovers his fiancée has left him for another man. Jerry pretends to have also met someone else, and hires a “fake fiancée” to show off around town. Misunderstanding and chaos ensue as the couples figure what their true feelings are for each other. It was a commercial failure when it premiered— but would romantic comedy audiences today agree with the original reviews? I wish I knew. As the original camera negatives slip through my fingers during inspection, I can’t help but wish I had been there that opening night.
Deborah Stoiber is the Nitrate Vault Manager at The Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center. She graduated from The L. Jeffrey Selznick School in 1998. After graduation, she spent time at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY working on their 16mm collection.