Tuesday, December 26, 2017


Among the many male stars of 1920’s silent films (not including here the stars of comedy shorts or action films, but of major studio productions), JOHN GILBERT has aged better than most. He did not have a florid or stagy or over-stated style, and his under-stated charm and his self-deprecating quality and his mastery of the subtleties of purely visual acting have kept his work fresh over the decades. He was the man that women wanted to be with and men wanted to be. Unfortunately, the untrue claim that his voice was not “right for sound” stuck on him for decades. From my perspective, the truth is that at the coming of sound, Gilbert had the misfortune of starring in two mis-fires (one was so bad that the studio was not going to release it) where the lousy dialogue would have sounded bad coming out of ANYONE’s mouth, and as new careers were being built with the coming of sound and old careers were declining, Gilbert was kind of left at the gate, and by the time he was able to prove himself as a fine sound actor (which he did--watch him opposite his old friend and romantic partner Greta Garbo in QUEEN CHRISTINA, or as the sleazy chauffeur in DOWNSTAIRS (which was based on a story he wrote), or as the master of disguise in THE PHANTOM OF PARIS (a property originally intended for Lon Chaney Sr. but given to Gilbert after Chaney’s death) or in his final performance, as a drunken novelist in the outrageous THE CAPTAIN HATES THE SEA), his career had slipped, his health deteriorated (not helped by his drinking), and he passed away at the age of 36 in 1936.

Gilbert’s silent-film style and persona were taken up and adapted for sound by such actors as Clark Gable and Errol Flynn, and because of their influence, many later male stars were channeling Gilbert second-hand without even knowing it.

DESERT NIGHTS was Gilbert’s final silent film. He’d wanted it to be a sound film, but the MGM brass would not authorize the money. Oh, let me correct myself....this WAS a sound film to some extent. No, not one of those proto-sound films like THE JAZZ SINGER or LONESOME which have three or four minutes of awkwardly recorded dialogue scenes awkwardly shoe-horned into a silent narrative. DESERT NIGHTS was one of those “synchronized sound” films which had an original music score that went out with the film and matched the action plus an occasional sound effect. This was an odd hybrid seen mostly in 1928 films, but also in late 1927 and throughout 1929. Laurel and Hardy made a number of comedy shorts done in this way. I recently saw the 1928 Marion Davies vehicle SHOW PEOPLE, and that also was a “synchronized sound” film with its original score still intact. The original 1929 score really helps DESERT NIGHTS to create mood and it echoes the sounds the audience imagines based on the action they see up on the screen.

DESERT NIGHTS is a lean film, running only 62 minutes (I have not been able to determine whether it was cut or if this is the original running length--reviews from the time cite a 62 minute length), but that keeps things moving quickly and keeps the audience on their toes. The director, William Nigh, is another one of those people (like, say, Phil Rosen) who directed “A” pictures in the silent era but moved into “B” programmers in the sound era. Both Rosen and Nigh worked extensively at Monogram in the 40’s, directing many excellent crime and detective films. They no doubt worked quickly and efficiently and knew how to pace a film, which is why Monogram used them, and the roots of that can be seen here, even though this was an MGM production.

It’s essentially a three-character piece. Gilbert is the manager of a diamond mine in southern Africa, on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. It’s announced to him that “Lord and Lady Stonehill,” two British aristocrats, are coming to visit the operation, Gilbert prepares for them, and when they later arrive at the mine he takes them on a tour, shows them the inner workings of things, and shows them many large uncut stones. He then gets a message from the home office that the Lord and Lady were detained and will arrive a week later....so WHO are these people who are posing as them? Crooks, of course, and they take Gilbert prisoner and escape into the desert with their ill-gotten gain. The phony Lord is played by Ernest Torrance, a Scottish actor who had a successful career playing villains (and also Buster Keaton’s father in STEAMBOAT BILL JR.), and pulls out all the stops here, poisoning water-holes in the desert and being brutal (although in the early scenes, he shows his comic skills when posing as the eccentric and bumbling Lord!). The phony “Lady” is played by Mary Nolan, who’d been in the Ziegfeld Follies and made a number of films in Germany under another name in the 1925-1927 period. Of course, a romance has to happen between her and Gilbert, and it does.

The proposed title for this film was THIRST, and I wonder if that was tapping into the residual memory of the film GREED, which remained the classic of bleak films with desperate people clawing at and destroying each other in the desert. Presumably filmed in the Mohave Desert, the film (which was shot by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe) is intense even by today’s standards, as the three stagger on, near death and without water, trying to kill each other. Gilbert retains his unique charm even when he’s injured and filthy and near-death in the desert, and the combination of his star-power and the melodramatic plot--and the austere and beautiful desert vistas--keeps the viewer’s attention throughout. This must have looked amazing on the big screen back in the day. The resolution comes quickly and is a bit contrived, but with a major heart-throb like Gilbert, you know he’s not going to get killed and you know he’s going to get the girl, even when the girl’s been literally trying to “get” him for the entire film. Well, evidently she was just under the spell of her svengali partner the whole time, don’t you know, and she now is capable of reform.

DESERT NIGHTS was well-reviewed in its day, but it was lost among the sizzle and flash of all the fully-sound films that were coming out in 1929, and frankly, it had little shelf life left after its initial release as few theaters outside the hinterlands were still showing silent films by mid-1930. John Gilbert’s career hit a roadblock with the coming of sound, and DESERT NIGHTS was quickly forgotten. However, it’s a great star vehicle for Gilbert, it’s great looking with the wide and bleak desert setting, it’s got non-stop back-stabbing excitement as Gilbert and Torrance try to kill each other, and Nolan keeps switching sides--or does she? John Gilbert closed out his silent career with style and class.

As this is an MGM film, it pops up every year or two on TCM (watch for it around John Gilbert’s birthday, January 9), and it’s also available from the Warner Archive. It might be a good choice to show someone who’s never actually sat through an entire silent feature film. Dialogue is not really needed here, and I’d doubt most people not used to watching silent films would even notice it was missing. Of course, we love silent films here at BTC (there was a period in the late 1980’s when I watched mostly silent films, and my children grew up with silent films always in their mix of what we watched together), and we’re happy to see that silent cinema is getting more attention now than at any other time in the last 40 years. D. W. Griffith’s INTOLERANCE may be over 100 years old now, but it’s never too late to experience the purity and the power of the silent cinema....and DESERT NIGHTS might be a good place to start.

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