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An alcoholic millionaire heads WEST OF BROADWAY to his
Arizona ranch to shake off the paid date he married during
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. However, of the 8 MGM 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. WEST OF BROADWAY, however, was quite decent, and, indeed, fully representative of the material the studio was producing in 1931.
Gilbert gives a dignified performance, with the occasional flash of talent that shows what he might have been capable of had MGM worked harder to give him better material. He is given excellent support by pert Lois Moran, who puts real honesty into her portrayal of a poor girl who grabs her only chance of happiness.
El Brendel, popular dialect comedian of the period, gets some much needed laughs out of his pseudo-Swedish role, although his bizarre tickling sequence with house boy Willie Fung is sure to raise a few eyebrows. Lovely Madge Evans as the woman who jilts Gilbert, Ralph Bellamy as a noble cowboy, Hedda Hopper as a society snob & Gwen Lee as a floozy all do well with their supporting roles. Movie mavens will recognize an uncredited John Miljan as an obnoxious cad.
The film is helped immensely by outdoor location filming during the ranch scenes.
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.
One of the great controversies in cinema history is the fall of the
greatest male Hollywood star of the silent era, John Gilbert. Since the
old suspicion, that it was merely his voice being too high pitched for
the microphone, was definitely disproved when scrutinized several
decades ago, the question since has been: Did he jump or was he pushed?
It took more than one nail in his coffin to bury John Gilbert's career. WEST OF Broadway was certainly one of the nails. The question becomes: was the incompetence of WEST OF Broadway deliberate and one of a series of career sabotaging moves made by Louis B. Meyer, or was this just another run of the mill bad movie put out during the changeover to sound. It has been pointed out that one surefire way to wreck a career, or least pound one nail in the coffin, would be to have Lionel Barrymore direct your picture. He was that bad a director and he directed Gilbert's disastrous first talkie, HIS GLORIOUS NIGHT.
The question is would Meyer have deliberately wrecked his own property as revenge on a man who hit him and knocked him down? And while we know the studios had the knowledge of how to build a personality into a star (witness the careful grooming at this time of Clark Gable by Irving Thalberg) were they knowledgeable enough to destroy one deliberately?
The facts about WEST OF Broadway aren't very pretty. The director was veteran, top drawer hack Harry Beaumont. Though Gilbert's reputation was made as the great lover, idolized by millions of women, the main character of WEST OF Broadway, Jerry Seevers, is a bitter and disagreeable man who accidentally marries a woman who loves him and he spends the whole film insulting, rejecting and abusing the woman who comes back for more with a sweet smile on her face. He is cold, cruel and hurtful. Women seeing this, however the denouement is engineered to a happy ending, would have to be turned off. Instead of worshiping Gilbert, women could but despise him. The fact that Seevers is a war hero just sucks all of the life out of Gilbert's great triumph in THE BIG PARADE (still the best war movie ever made). While destroying one Gilbert legend WEST feeds into a new Gilbert legend, that of the self destructive drunkard. Besides being a cold bastard in this picture he is also a nasty drunk. Not a pretty picture. When we finally do get to the ending and the fade out clinch we don't actually get to see the great lover do his stuff. Instead the camera tilts down to capture a piece a business with their feet and legs. This would have been a super cute ending in a light hearted Lubitsch picture but as this picture deals in alcoholism, prostitution, divorce and infidelity it may not be such a good idea. Not showing the great lover actually planting one on sweet pretty little Lois Moran was not a good career move. Meyer couldn't have concocted a better career snuffer than WEST OF Broadway if he tried. The only nagging suspicion is that he did try. No one can prove anything one way or the other but speculation will go one until proof is found one day.
On the other hand WEST OF Broadway is beautifully photographed and the bloodlines of the scriptwriters suggest a project that had been considered as a top picture but whose plot problems couldn't be solved and had been reduced in importance to a 68 minute programmer and unloaded on Gilbert. The plot is rather perfunctorily disposed of all too quickly moving from New York to Arizona and back again. No effort, not the slightest effort, is made to establish any period ambiance. Pre prohibition 1919 is virtually identical to the 1931 of the picture's release including an anachronistic reference to flying from Chicago. WEST OF Broadway was something of a showcase for newcomer Ralph Bellamy who, unlike Gable, didn't catch on as a star. The studios had a method in all this madness. MGM was certainly careful not to allow any of their more valuable properties - e.g. Harlow, Crawford, Sherer etc. near the sinking S.S. Gilbert. Gilbert may have been too oblivious from drink to notice or care at this point but more likely the ego inherent in every actor would have been stimulated to assay a role of a bitter, self destructive man with the DT's so he probably actively participated in his own eclipse as a star.
WEST OF Broadway is interesting today because it's another station on John Gilbert's Via Delarosa and is a typical example of the brief pre-code period of Hollywood openness, an openness which would soon close up not to be returned to until the 1960's.
I was surprised at how much I liked this movie... It is so much better than I thought it would be, Gilbert is so handsome it's startling, he sounds great, the character is interesting and his co star Lois Moran, is charming. It has the feel of an early 30's style romantic farce, which it is , and I absolutely do not understand what people are talking about when they say this film is not good ...My interest is inborn, John Gilbert is my grandfather and until my mother wrote Dark Star after researching his life throughly, I knew little of him. I had never seen his films. I have seen most of them by now and am as much a fan as anyone. I know he must have suffered terribly towards the end of his career and life, but his films, silents and talkies, are simply wonderful to watch, even to a modern mind. As my mother points out in her lectures on his films, the silent film is an art form that stands on its own to the informed observer. Gilbert's talkies, including West Of Broadway are well worth watching.
You get the feeling this might have been a bigger picture. The tacked on ending ruins the preceding hour, which showcases John Gilbert, the great romantic idol of silent films. Certainly one of the most controversial figures of the dawn of talkies. Gilbert's great career crashed fast and fatally. His voice was fine, and he was a terrific actor. But he was never able to recover from the debacle of his starring talkie debut in His Glorious Night. Despite terrific performances in Downstairs and Queen Christina (with Greta Garbo) Gilbert made no headway as the 30s moved along. Several of his talkies were downright awful, but West of Broadway isn't bad at all despite the hacked up ending. Gilbert plays a cad who gets married to a woman because his fiancée jilts him. He then spends the rest of the movie trying to unload her. Lois Moran is quite good as the unwanted wife; Madge Evans is the snooty fiancée. El Brendel (playing his usual fake Swede) and Willie Fung as the Arizona houseboy have a funny scene trying to understand each other. Hedda Hopper, Ralph Bellamy, and Frank Conroy co-star. Gilbert was married to stage actress Ina Claire, who happened to be my grandfather's cousin, so I've always felt a connection to John Gilbert. What a tragedy. He should have been as big a star in talkies as he was in silent films.
I'm always leery about a plot that begins with a drunk marrying a girl for almost no reason, only to find out the next day what a mistake it was. And the plot gets worse as people seem to behave without reason. I couldn't believe a minute of the film. (Preview audiences laughed at the goings on.) Still, it is a good film to watch if only to dispel any myths about Gilbert's voice being the cause of his demise as a star in the sound era. His voice is not high-pitched or squeaky (which I had heard) but is rather strong, low-pitched and quite good. You could see he still was an excellent actor. Beautiful Lois Moran was excellent as Gilbert's co-star; I wondered why she virtually quit making movies after 1931. There was one comedy scene I liked, with El Brendel and Willie Fung speaking their broken English and trying to understand each other. Otherwise, even the comedy relief, mostly supplied by El Brendel, was pretty bad.
Returning from World War I service are millionaire John Gilbert (as
Jerry Seevers) and comic relief pal El Brendel (as Axel "Swede"
Axelson). Mr. Gilbert aches for pretty fiancée Madge Evans (as Anne),
but she has fallen in love with another man. An alcoholic, Gilbert
begins a serious binge. He attaches himself to beautiful but poor
blonde Lois Moran (as Dot), who is looking for millionaire
companionship. Gilbert continues drinking heavily, proposes to Ms.
Moran, and the two are quickly married...
The next morning, Gilbert wakes up with the shakes. He offers Moran a generous settlement to end the "gin marriage," but she says she really loves Gilbert. Moran began as a gold-digger, but has now fallen in love with Gilbert. She pledges to save the marriage, win Gilbert's love, and help him his battle with the bottle. Gilbert flees to his ranch, and Moran follows. The couple is further challenged when he reveals a secret, and she attracts attention from Gilbert's ranch foreman Ralph Bellamy (as Mac)...
The scene played between Mr. Brendel and Chinese cook Willie Fung (as Wing) is more jaw-dropping than side-splitting. Watch as the two heavily accented men cure indigestion by rubbing each other's bellies, then socking each other in the genitals. The comic elements seriously drag this interesting drama down; possibly, Brendel was included to highlight Gilbert's relatively deep, masculine voice. Otherwise, this film isn't hazardous. Gilbert was given Brendel, a good part, and an attractive vis-à-vis.
***** West of Broadway (11/28/31) Harry Beaumont ~ John Gilbert, Lois Moran, El Brendel, Ralph Bellamy
West of Broadway (1931)
** 1/2 (out of 4)
A rather strange drama from MGM about Jerry Seevers (John Gilbert), a man returning from WWI where he was injured and the doctors give him just six months to live. He spends most of his nights in a bottle but things start to change when he "orders" a woman (Lois Moran) and the two are married while he's drunk. At first Jerry wants a divorce but the woman has fallen in love with him and plans to break him from alcohol. If you know anything about this era of Hollywood then you know the legendary stories of Gilbert who was given bottom of the barrel roles at MGM and you've probably heard about his horrible talking voice. If you've actually seen any of the pictures from this era you're going to realize that they really aren't as bad as their reputation and there's really nothing wrong with Gilbert's voice. Is WEST OF Broadway a forgotten masterpiece? Not even close but it's certainly a lot better than its reputation would have you believe. I think the biggest thing going against the film is that the Gilbert character never really gets fully developed. When he meets the young woman he's kind as can be but of course he's drunk. He sobers up the next morning and turns into a complete jerk and I must admit that I never really bought this difference in him and it's really never explained. The entire bit about him dying is only occasionally brought up and at times you wonder if the screenwriter simply forgot about it as it comes in and out of the story without too much logic. The film works better than it probably should due to the two leads and their chemistry together. Whether it's the early cute stuff, the more dramatic moments or the predictable "turn" in the story, the two stars are completely believable in their parts and especially when they're working together as this troubled couple. I thought Gilbert was pretty strong playing the alcoholic and especially in the scenes where he's battling the addiction. The supporting cast includes a wasted Ralph Bellamy playing a cowboy, El Brendel, Madge Evans and Hedda Hopper. The story really doesn't contain anything too original or ground-breaking but it's worth viewing due to the performances and that it does actually look at alcoholism in a serious manor, which wasn't always the case with Hollywood. It's funny that this dramatic look at Hollywood would help finish off the career of Gilbert while another silent legend in D.W. Griffith would have his career end the same year with THE STRUGGLE, another film taking a serious look at alcoholism.
"West of Broadway" is a fascinating movie for film buffs, an opportunity to watch two stars, John Gilbert and Lois Moran, who would soon vanish from the screen for totally different reasons. John Gilbert made "West of Broadway" after plummeting from silent screen stardom via a series of embarrassingly bad "talkies." The myth that it was Gilbert's high, squeaky voice that wrecked his career is palpably untrue. He had a rich, robust voice which he put to good use both in this picture and his dual role as a Houdini-like magician and a malevolent marquis in his other good "talkie," "The Phantom of Paris." But he couldn't overcome the hatred of Louis B. Mayer whom he openly ridiculed, a growing taste for booze and a heart condition -- and he died of cardiac arrest at the age of 39. Had he lived, he almost certainly would have found a second shot at stardom as a character actor. His co-star, Lois Moran, was also a silent screen player who'd made the transition to sound -- and made it splendidly. She was blithe, funny, winsome and charismatic. But she fell in love, married aviation pioneer Clarence M. Young, the assistant Secretary of Commerce under presidents Hoover and FDR, and "West of Broadway" was her last screen appearance for nearly 25 years. Otherwise, there's every likelihood that she'd have enjoyed a lusty career in screwball comedy. As for "West of Broadway," it centers on a wealthy young war hero who comes home, gets jilted, gets drunk, marries the first girl he meets and escapes to his ranch out west. That's where she shows up, smitten with him. Sure,the plot is pitted with potholes, but somehow Gilbert and Moran manage to make it remarkably entertaining and more than just a chapter in motion picture lore.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Don't get me wrong. John Gilbert did a great job of acting in this one,
because by the time it was over I was completely convinced he was the
biggest heel in the history of the world. But then that seldom raises
one's star, especially after you have been playing rather complex
heroes for years, which is what Gilbert had been doing.
Gilbert plays Jerry Stevens, returning from WWI, and all he wants to do is find and marry his girl, Anne (Madge Evans), the thought of which has been keeping him alive and going through his wartime experiences and his injury. But at first meeting she firmly tells him it is over and there is somebody else. Jerry drowns his sorrows in alcohol and escort services. One night while out on the town with one of these escorts, Jerry runs into Anne and her fiancé. Jerry, drunk and angry, introduces the escort (Lois Moran as Dot) as his fiancée. They find a JP who marries them that very night, and the next morning Jerry apologizes for getting Dot caught up in his personal problems and offers to make a big settlement on her in their divorce. The problem is, Dot is in love and refuses any money or any divorce. This is the point where Gilbert's character begins acting like an unredeemable heel. He insults her, calls her an outright prostitute, and just leaves his NYC apartment for his ranch out west to not only ditch Dot but stop drinking.
Dot outsmarts him and follows him. The scenes out west are hard to watch with Gilbert being absolutely horrid to Dot, and Dot just letting him walk all over her like some bearskin rug. That may be why they brought the always likable and harmless El Brendel into all of this as Jerry's friend, so there is at least one character you cannot dislike. There are a couple of funny scenes - probably unintentional - where Brendel and Gilbert walk around dressed in the same western outfit, reminding me of a Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy short.
In a very early film appearance there is a ranch foreman, Mac, played by Ralph Bellamy who takes a true liking to Dot and shows some contrast to Jerry by treating the girl like a lady. When Mac intervenes when Jerry (Gilbert) gets rough with Dot, Jerry fires him.
Gilbert's character sinks to a new low though when shortly thereafter he seduces Dot, acts like he cares, and yet the next morning is STILL talking about divorce. But he has a consolation prize! He'll give her more money than he originally promised for the previous night's use of her private parts. Nothing makes a gal feel like a prostitute more than being treated like one. Well this is the final insult. Dot signs the divorce papers, and takes the next vehicle that comes by off the ranch and back to New York. But what's this? She tore up Jerry's check and gave it back to him? Why, she's a regular girl after all and Jerry goes back to New York begging her forgiveness. What happens? Watch and find out. If I'd been writing the script she would have put a shotgun shell right through his chest at next meeting, but that would ordinarily be murder IF the victim was human.
There are several things that just seem odd in this picture. At one point Jerry's society friends all show up at the ranch to tell him that Anne has broken her engagement. They might as well be talking about the weather because Jerry - who is on this self destructive course in the first place because Anne left him - never reacts to this news at all.
The other odd thing is that Jerry is supposed to be a severe alcoholic by the time he arrives at the ranch. Yet you will see Gilbert shaking sometimes as though he has the DTs when he is perfectly composed at other times. It makes you wonder how much of this is acting and how much of this shaking is Gilbert succumbing to his own alcoholism.
I'd recommend it just as a head scratcher for the film history buff. Why would Gilbert do THIS film after playing a part that was just perfect for him in "The Phantom of Paris"?
This picture features John Gilbert who appears to have suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from WWI, and then marries Lois Moran on the rebound while drunk. She then pursues him across the US to prove she really loves him. El Brendel, "Swedish", not Hispanic as you might suppose from the name, is featured as ethnic comic relief. Perhaps more interesting for latter day viewers is the question of what was so charismatic about John Gilbert to silent screen audiences. While his acting (and voice) is adequate, it's certainly not outstanding, and while handsome, his appearance is leading-man ordinary (does anyone else think his nose is too big when seen in profile?).
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