Saturday, July 31, 2021

Stubs - Downstairs

Downstairs (1932) Starring: John Gilbert, Paul Lukas, Virginia Bruce Directed by Monta Bell. Screenplay by Lenore Coffee, Melville Baker Story by John Gilbert Produced (None Credited) USA Run time: 77 minutes. Black and White. Drama. Pre-Code.

There were many silent stars who did not fare well with the coming of sound but none may have been more famous than John Gilbert. Once the rival of Rudolph Valentino as a box office draw, Gilbert was once known as "The Great Lover". The coming of sound didn’t end Gilbert’s career, but it did correspond with his decline.

There is the oft recounted myth that Gilbert had a "squeaky voice", when in fact, he had "a light speaking voice". However, what didn’t help was his inept phrasing, and "dreadful enunciation." Audiences laughed nervously at Gilbert's performance in His Glorious Night (1928), directed by Lionel Barrymore. In that case, however, the real culprit was perhaps the film's overly ardent love scenes. As an example, in one scene Gilbert keeps kissing his leading lady (Catherine Dale Owen) while saying "I love you" over and over again.

While Gilbert was championed by Irving Thalberg, the head of production, Louis B. Mayer, the studio head, was never a fan. Ill feelings between the two led some to speculate that Mayer deliberately assigned Gilbert bad scripts and ineffective directors in an effort to void a lucrative multi-picture contract the actor signed with the studio in 1928 worth $1.5 million.

Thalberg, however, temporarily restored the actor’s prospects with two projects that were character studies, giving Gilbert an excellent showcase for his versatility: The Phantom of Paris (1931) and Downstairs (1932).

The latter is based on a story idea Gilbert himself had written in 1928 for a silent film that was never made. When Thalberg revived the project, Gilbert was so jubilant about the opportunity that he sold his original story to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for only one dollar.

The film opens with the wedding of Albert (Paul Lukas) and Anna (Virginia Bruce).

The film opens on the Austrian estate of Baron von Burgen (Reginald Owen). The butler Albert (Paul Lukas) and maid Anna (Virginia Bruce) are getting married and their employers are throwing their wedding as appreciation for Albert’s years of loyal service. The party mixes servants with employers.

Karl Schneider (John Gilbert), the new chauffeur, arrives and runs into a former
employer, Countess De Marnac (Hedda Hopper), and his new boss
Baroness Eloise von Burgen (Olga Baclanova).

During the reception, Karl Schneider (John Gilbert), the new chauffeur, arrives. After unsuccessfully flirting with Antoinette (Marion Lessing), the Maid to the Countess, he runs into Countess De Marnac (Hedda Hopper), a guest at the party and his former employer, with whom he once had an affair. She is shocked to see him and threatens to tell his new employers not to hire him but backs down when Baroness Eloise von Burgen (Olga Baclanova) walks up and is introduced to her new driver.

That night, as Albert and Anna are about to start their honeymoon, the butler that was subbing for him, Françoise (Lucien Littlefield), gets drunk and can’t carry on his duties. Albert, who is still nothing but a servant to the von Burgens, is summoned by the Baron to serve his guests.

With Albert out of the room, Anna is visited by Karl, who has been watching her through the window. He is obviously attracted to her and wins her sympathy by telling her about a sad childhood.

One day, Karl drives Baroness Eloise to Vienna for shopping purposes. Instead, she has him drop her off at her town apartment. She goes in alone, leaving Karl, the door shut in his face, out on the street. While he stands there, the Baroness’ boyfriend arrives. Karl now knows he has something on the Baroness.

When they return home, Eloise tells Albert that they were in an accident, but Albert does not believe her. He asks Karl about it and brushes off Karl's attempt to tell the truth, instead reminding him of his social position and warning him never to interfere with the people upstairs no matter what they do.

When Albert gets called away, Karl makes a play for Anna.

Albert takes a liking to Karl and invites him over to have dinner with him and Anna. They all seem to be having a good time. However, once again, Albert gets called back to duty. No sooner does he leave than Karl makes a move on Anna. He tells her that he regards her "like a sister," but then tries to kiss her. She slaps him instead and threatens to tell Albert. But when he comes back with more beer for them, Karl makes his excuses and leaves to return to his room.

Sophie (Bodil Rosing), the cook, confesses her love to Karl. Notice the bulge in her stockings.

Waiting for him in his room is the cook Sophie (Bodil Rosing), with whom he had been intimate the night before. Sophie has been saving her money, which she carries in her stockings. Karl tells her fabricated stories about being the illegitimate son of royalty in order to extort money from her.

Karl defends Anna to the Baroness who has accused her of stealing her brooch.

Later, he offers Anna a jewel of the Baroness' that he found in the car and did not return to her. At first, she refuses, then chides him for his treatment of Sophie. He pins the jewel on her crucifix necklace anyway. As she is helping the Baroness pack for a fishing trip, the Baroness recognizes the clip and accuses Anna of stealing. Just then, Karl comes in and says that he gave the clip to Anna, claiming he bought it while in Vienna, making allusions to the Baroness' indiscretions there. The Baroness apologizes to Anna.

Anna thinks that Karl is wonderful for standing up for her.

In retaliation, the Baroness, knowing that Albert can hear her in the next room, tells the Baron that Karl gave Anna jewelry and that they are involved in a scandal. Albert is shocked. The Baroness then tells Albert that since he won’t be needed on the trip that he should use his discretion to make some changes to the staff while they are away.

Albert warns Karl to leave Anna alone.

But at the last moment, the Baron insists on taking Albert with him. In his last effort to stop anything from happening, Albert warns Karl to stay away from Anna. But Karl tells her that Albert asked him to take her out to dinner and have a good time. They end up at an inn and Karl gets her drunk. He goes so far as to arrange for a room, but when she realizes that, she insists on leaving.

Despite Albert's warning, Karl takes Anna out to dinner and tries to get her drunk.

Meanwhile, the fishing party turns back because the Baron has injured himself with a hook.

Sophie watches from her morning bath as Karl and Anna arrive back at the mansion. Once there, Karl follows Anna to her room and claims that he only lied to and deceived her because he is very much in love with her. He tells Anna that he loves her and plans to leave, but after he kisses her goodbye, they become lovers.

Albert comes home just after Anna and Karl's tryst and fires him.

Later that morning, Albert arrives home just in time to see Karl coming out of his apartment. Even though he doesn’t know what happened, he fires Karl, using a hanging button on his uniform as the excuse.

Alone, as she’s getting ready to attend to the Baroness, Anna confesses to Albert what had happened when he coldly calls her "a servant," and then leaves.

Karl uses the knowledge of her affair to blackmail the Baroness to keep him on staff.

Meanwhile, Karl goes to the Baroness and blackmails her into reinstating him, which she does in front of all the servants, making Albert a momentary laughing stock.

In front of the staff, the Baroness overrules Albert's firing of Karl.

Ashamed, Albert goes to the Baroness to resign, but instead, she tearfully admits her affair and begs him to stay, and also to forgive and understand Anna, who is too young not to be taken in by Karl.

That night, in an effort to keep him, Sophie tearfully goes to Karl and gives him all her savings so that they can buy a coffee shop together in Vienna.

Karl asks Anna to go away with him but she refuses.

The next morning, he packs to leave and asks Anna to go with him, but she begs him to leave her alone because she loves Albert.

Later, in a struggle in the wine cellar, they knock over a rack of bottles, creating a disturbance that brings Albert. Seeing Anna’s uniform disheveled sets him off and Albert fights with Karl. He is only stopped by the Baron, who mistakenly thinks that the fisticuffs are over the spoiled wine. The Baron orders the servants to clean up the mess.

Down in the cellar, Albert apologizes to Karl and they have a drink together. But then Albert orders Karl out of the house and they begin to fight again. Anna, seeing the violence of their fight, again summons the Baron. In front of him, Karl is made to give back Sophie's money. The Baron orders Karl to leave and then congratulates Albert. Albert and Anna make up.

Sometime later, Karl introduces himself to another rich woman (Karen Morley), hoping she’ll pick him as "madame's new chauffeur."

The film was reportedly well-received by critics and fans but did little to revive Gilbert’s career. He completed his contract with MGM and, exhausted and demoralized, announced that he was retiring from films.

His fortunes temporarily changed when, in 1933, he signed a new seven-year deal with MGM at $75-100,000 a picture. It was his former co-star Greta Garbo who revived his career by insisting she play opposite him in Queen Christina (1933). Even though it was a critical success, it didn't help Gilbert’s self-image or his career. By now, he was a heavy drinker, which was affecting his health. His final film was The Captain Hates the Sea (1934) for Columbia Pictures. He would suffer two heart attacks, one in 1935 and a fatal one in 1936.

In his review of Downstairs, New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall is very aware that Gilbert is the author of the story, noting that right off the top in his review. He also writes that the film is “hampered by the strange tale.” He writes repeatedly that the “story-teller” and “the author” sees the story a certain way. In summing up the climactic scene, Hall writes, “It was evidently Author Gilbert's intention to show parallel doings above and below stairs and it looks as though he meant to have himself as Karl drowned in wine, for during a struggle with Anna, something like 200 bottles of the best wines are broken when the shelves collapse.” I don’t think he was all that impressed with the film, referring to Gilbert’s performance as “Ingenuous."

I must admit, I don’t believe I’ve seen a John Gilbert film before and he was one of the reasons I wanted to see this film. He’s not bad in the role but you get the sense, as the author, he wanted to present himself as a real lady-killer. But the character of Karl is not really a feel-good protagonist. He is a blackmailer, a thief, and a sociopath. Seeing as this is a pre-code release, he doesn’t seem to be punished for his misdeeds but rather we see that he’s free to spread his form of misery into another well-to-do family.

You have to give him credit for choosing such a role when your career is in the balance. I’m sure that Gilbert’s better roles are well behind him, but he wasn’t bad in the role. In fact, it seemed rather a comfortable fit for him.

Paul Lukas gets the inevitable job of playing a very strait-laced Albert, whose life is somewhat comfortable, but he still seems to resign himself to a life of servitude at all costs. I will give him credit that you do feel sorry for him as the cheated upon.

The attraction between Anna and Karl must have been real, as Virginia Bruce and Gilbert would be married shortly after the film was released. However, the marriage wouldn’t last long. Bruce, who is very pretty, is a good actress, playing Anna as a naïve young bride who gets played by the worldly Karl.

If you’re a fan of John Gilbert’s, you should definitely see the film if for no other reason than to dispel the “squeaky voice” myth that is so often blamed for the demise of his career. He seems to still be a capable actor if not a great storyteller. It is also interesting to see how Pre-Code films were able to handle themes of infidelity and blackmail.

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