In the time right before silent films switched over to talkies, there was a Hollywood couple that everyone was talking about. John Gilbert and Greta Garbo were two of the biggest stars of the time period, and they become involved in a romantic relationship almost immediately after first working together. Though the two would end up parting ways romantically, the relationship would have lasting effects for John Gilbert in his career. Join Facts Verse as we explore the devastating affair that ended John Gilbert’s career.
John and Greta Were the Hottest Couple of the Silent Era
For a time during the 1920s, the two biggest movie stars on the planet were John Gilbert and Greta Garbo. Their public relationship boosted their celebrity profile significantly, which was something that wasn’t lost on the studio that made the pair famous. John and Greta worked for MGM, and the couple’s relationship occupied so many headlines during the time period that some began to wonder if the relationship was just a ploy on the studio’s part to stir up publicity.
If the romantic relationship between John Gilbert and Greta Garbo was just a ploy on the part of MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer to stir up publicity for two of his biggest stars, then that would explain a lot about how the relationship fizzled out. However, what happened between John and Louis on the day that was supposed to be John and Greta’s wedding suggests that Louis not only didn’t have a hand in the relationship, but that he had also advised his star against it.
John Gilbert and Greta Garbo first met in the mid-1920s, during the filming of a film by the name of Flesh and the Devil. As the story goes, the two became instantly enamored with each other over the course of the film’s production and John proposed to the actress as soon as filming wrapped. Greta accepted the actor’s proposal, and the two went about planning an elaborate double wedding that would see them married alongside another Hollywood couple. When the day of the wedding came, Greta Garbo was nowhere to be found. Devastated, John Gilbert was said to have ran to the bathroom crying. He was followed into the bathroom by aforementioned studio head Louis B. Mayer, who gave the actor what he likely thought were words of encouragement.
John Punched His Boss in the Face for Disparaging Greta
According to legend, when Louis B. Mayer followed John Gilbert into the bathroom after the latter figure was stood up at the altar by Greta Garbo, the studio head told the actor that marrying the actress was a bad idea. Apparently, Louis told John that Greta was the kind of person you slept with, but not the kind of person that you made a commitment to. Though these words are certainly incredibly harsh, they take on a deeper meaning when you consider that Greta didn’t tie the knot one single time over the course of her lifetime.
Regardless of the intention that Louis B. Mayer had when disparaging Greta Garbo to John Gilbert, the outcome likely wasn’t what he had planned. The story goes that John Gilbert snapped upon hearing how Louis truly felt about Greta, and then attacked the studio head by punching him in the face. Louis became instantly enraged himself, allegedly proclaiming right there on the spot that he was going to put an end to John Gilbert’s career immediately.
Given that John Gilbert’s career fizzled out significantly in the period following his would-be wedding to Greta Garbo, there is some merit to the idea that Louis B. Mayer put the beloved actor’s career to an end. However, there’s also the fact of the matter that the type of movies that John appeared in were losing their popularity with audiences. John was a silent film actor, and he didn’t make the transition to talkies very well.
Historians remain divided on just how big of a part MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer played in the career downfall of John Gilbert. However, there are plenty of stories of Louis sabotaging opportunities for John to have more of a career than he did following the alleged bathroom incident that occurred after Greta Garbo stood the actor up at the altar. One such incident involved another famed Hollywood legend: Howard Hawks. If you’re enjoying this video so far, be sure to hit the like button to show your support! Also, subscribe to the channel if you’d like to be among the first to know when more Facts Verse videos are on their way!
Louis Prevented John from Working with Howard Hawks
One of the ways that MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer was said to have sabotaged the career of John Gilbert was by preventing the actor from starring in a picture by famed Hollywood producer Howard Hawks. Even after John and Louis’ alleged falling out, John remained on contract with MGM. Some suggest that Louis used his power over John to prevent the actor from getting good roles, instead relegating the actor to appearing as a supporting player in minor works. When the opportunity arose for John to play a role in a Howard Hawks film that was cherry-picked for the actor himself, Louis B. Mayer knew he couldn’t let him have it.
Howard Hawks went on to make the World War I feature The Dawn Patrol without John Gilbert, and the film was a success. If Louis B. Mayer had agreed to loan John out to Howard for the picture, it could’ve done wonders for the actor’s fledgling career. Since John was on contract with Louis, the actor was essentially his to do whatever he wanted with. However, since the studio head wasn’t finding any great use for the actor at MGM, it stands to reason that he could’ve loaned the star out to Howard Hawks for the right price. This is further evidence that there was a real grudge that existed between John and Louis. While John had been known as a beacon of success during his peak, he became known as one of the most miserable men in Hollywood towards the end of his life. Sadly, the end of the actor’s life would come all too soon, putting an immensely tragic end to a story that was already heartbreaking enough.
Things never did turn out between John Gilbert and Greta Garbo, though the actor retained a flame in his heart for the actress until his dying day. For her part, Greta didn’t have any hard feelings towards John. The actress was always emotionally flighty, and the actor easily forgave her for the transgression of standing him up at the altar. Some say that Greta claimed before her death that John was the love of her life, though she was too frightened to commit to him because she was too attached to her independence. However, others suggest that the actress never married over the course of her lifetime because she was a lesbian. Those who believe that Greta was a closet lesbian also typically believe the aforementioned angle of Louis B. Mayer coming up with her and John Gilbert’s relationship as a publicity stunt.
John and Greta Remained Friends Until John’s Death
John and Greta remained friends until John’s death, and Greta even tried to give her former fiancé’s career a boost by letting him appear alongside her in the 1933 film Queen Christina. While John’s popularity was fading into oblivion, Greta was even more famous than ever. The early 1930s saw the peak period of the actress’s success, and she thought that she should share it with the actor that helped make her a star. Sadly, John’s appearance in the film didn’t do much to revitalize his stardom. The actor was drinking significantly at that point, and he had a hard time pulling himself together to give the performance his all.
John’s untimely death was made even more tragic by the fact that the actor managed to turn away from drinking shortly beforehand. Even more than his obsessive love for Greta Garbo and his supposed feud with MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, alcoholism had certainly been the major factor in John Gilbert’s downfall. John was 38 years old when he passed away from a heart attack in 1936.
Though John Gilbert and Greta Garbo were on good terms in the time leading up to the actor’s death, the actress wasn’t able to attend her former fiancé’s funeral due to the fact that she was in Sweden. Greta would go on to live for many more decades before passing away herself in 1990, though she would never forget about her relationship with John.
Though John Gilbert isn’t talked about all that much nowadays, the actor was one of the biggest stars of the 1920s. In 1925, John appeared in two major hits for MGM, with those being The Merry Widow and The Big Parade. Around the same time period, studio head Louis B. Mayer travelled to Europe to scout out actresses. This is how Louis ended up stumbling on Greta Garbo, who had been working in the European film industry. The studio head then brought the actress out to American and gave her a makeover.
John and Greta first starred together in the film Flesh and the Devil. It was during the filming of this picture that they fell in love, and they would’ve been married soon afterwards if Greta didn’t stand John up at the altar. It’s hard to say how John Gilbert’s career would’ve turned out if Louis B. Mayer had loaned him out to Howard Hawks, though it’s also undeniable that the studio head wasn’t the only factor in the actor losing his popularity with audience members.
John Gilbert became so romantically fixated on costar Greta Garbo that he ended up destroying his own career. Now it’s time to hear from you: did you know that Greta Garbo stood John Gilbert up at the altar, and that some say MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer fabricated the pair’s romantic relationship to cover up the fact that Greta was a lesbian? As always, like this video to show your support, and subscribe and hit the notification bell if you’d like to be among the first to know when more Facts Verse videos are on their way!