10 July 2000 | Ron Oliver
A Decent John Gilbert Talkie
Cheri-Bibi is the most celebrated magician & escape artist in France. Young & debonair, he enjoys the attentions of society & the love of one young woman in particular. But when her wealthy father is found murdered & all evidence points to Bibi, he must put all his considerable talents into evading the law long enough to clear his name - while being forced into living a life in the twilight & shadows as THE PHANTOM OF Paris.
According to cinematic legend, all the talkie MGM films starring John Gilbert were dreadful - the result of a bitter hatred between Gilbert (the highest paid star in Hollywood, with a $1.5 million contract) & studio boss Louis B. Mayer. A determination on Gilbert's part to fulfill the contract, and a campaign instituted by Mayer to destroy Gilbert's career - including spreading the rumor that Gilbert's voice was 'high & feminine', culminated in several unwatchable movies.
Not entirely true. The Studio had a huge financial investment in Jack Gilbert and was not going to completely cut its own throat by showcasing him in nothing but dreck. Of the 8 talkies in which he appeared as solo star (1929 - HIS GLORIOUS NIGHT; 1930 - REDEMPTION; WAY FOR A SAILOR; 1931 - GENTLEMAN'S FATE; THE PHANTOM OF Paris; WEST OF Broadway; 1932 - DOWNSTAIRS; 1933 - FAST WORKERS) most were certainly rather ghastly. THE PHANTOM OF Paris, however, was quite decent, and, indeed, fully representative of the material the studio was producing in 1931.
Gilbert does a fine job through much of the film and has one standout scene - hiding in a cellar - which is excellent and shows what he was really capable of. MGM gives him 3 top drawer co-stars (Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt & marvelous old Sir C. Aubrey Smith) with which to work. The other featured players (Leila Hyams, Ian Keith & Natalie Moorhead) do creditable work. Movie mavens will spot Fletcher Norton in an unbilled role as a society twit.
Ian Keith was undoubtedly cast as the villain due to his slight resemblance to Gilbert, which is important to the plot, although he is noticeably taller. However, having Gilbert impersonate Keith and fool Hyams, Moorhead or Stone for even a moment is ludicrous and the weakest point in the story.
Finally, about The Voice. There was nothing at all strange or unnaturally high about Gilbert's voice. As a matter of fact, it was of medium range & rather cultured & refined. Which was the crux of the problem, of course. While it is possible that no voice could have ever matched the perfect one viewers heard in their minds while watching his strong, virile silent roles, the reality was very different from what they wanted to hear (imagine Robert Montgomery's voice coming out of Clark Gable's mouth.) Gilbert was doomed from his first scene in his debut talkie; his war with Mayer only intensified the agony. He would die in 1936, forgotten by most of his former fans, at the age of only 36.