I’ve been wanting to re-read this book for a while, and when Raquel announced her #ClassicFilmReading challenge again this summer, I knew it was the perfect time for me to pick up this rare biography again. I originally read it in Summer 2016 after spending ages hunting down a decently-priced copy of it online, and I loved it immediately.
This biography of Hollywood star John Gilbert is special because it was written by his daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain. It’s a super-emotional, truthful, unbiased look at John Gilbert’s tumultuous life (and I do mean tumultuous). Gilbert’s childhood was horrific – he was born to a woman who basically considered him a nuisance and a major inconvenience. Gilbert’s mother would leave him with anyone who was at all willing to look after him for days or weeks at a time so that she could continue living it up and having fun. At one point, she even left him with a prostitute who hardly fed him and kept him in the same room she would entertain her clients in.
John Gilbert travelled from Utah to California on his own with barely any money in his pocket. Miraculously, he found his way to Hollywood and embarked on a successful screen career that saw him become one of the most popular screen actors of the mid- to late-1920s. His popularity soared to the highest heights in silent cinema and crash-landed and died with the advent of sound. John Gilbert went from abandonment and malnutrition in his childhood, to vast fame and fortune in his twenties, to utter rejection and desolation in his thirties. It’s no wonder he died at the age of thirty-eight of a heart attack brought on by the effects of alcoholism.
Gilbert’s daughter does an excellent job of chronicling her father’s short life in this biography. It’s a difficult book to track down, but my goodness if you should ever come across it at a used book sale, please please please do yourself a favour and snap it up! It’s certainly one of the most emotionally-driven biographies I’ve ever read and despite the author having a (very) personal connection to her subject, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain never ever sugar-coats anything she writes about here. If something shitty happened in her father’s life – and believe me, there’s plenty of shitty episodes depicted here – she doesn’t stray away from the shittiness of the event(s). She tells is like it is and that makes such a big impact on the reader.
This is why I found myself in floods of tears during the final two chapters of the book. It’s no secret that John Gilbert is one of my absolute favourite classic film stars, but I think even if I didn’t love him as much as I do, I’d still be affected by this book’s ending. Reading his daughter’s very real reflections of her father’s demise and ultimate death is utterly devastating and heart-breaking. Leatrice Gilbert Fountain only knew her father for eleven short years before he prematurely passed away and that, my friends, is a real shame because despite all of John Gilbert’s faults, something tells me he would have grown to become a wonderful father to Leatrice had he lived longer.
If you’re a fan of early Hollywood, silent movies, pre-Codes, and John Gilbert, I’d highly recommend you read this book. Even if you’re just a casual fan of classic film, I’d still recommend you read this because it’s a wonderful tribute to a (mostly) forgotten film star that shone so incredibly brightly in his heyday.
My favourite John Gilbert films include FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1926), THE BIG PARADE (1925), THE MERRY WIDOW (1925), DOWNSTAIRS (1932), and QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933).
PS – If you’re wondering what brought about John Gilbert’s fall from grace from the silver screen, look no further than this biography. One thing I can absolutely promise you is that you’ll walk away hating Louis B. Mayer with a passion that burns brighter than the fiery pits of hell. At least I did.