"Downstairs" features a great cast (John Gilbert, Virginia Bruce, Paul Lukas) and many memorable, tension-filled scenes. Its plot is a strange combination of old-fashioned class-conflict melodrama (servants' lives compared to the aristocracy's) and sexual satire. I think it has held up well for its age, undoubtedly because it was a pre-code movie and could deal with subjects which only two years later were taboo.
This film and The Big Parade are my two favorite John Gilbert films. He was an under-rated actor, very attractive, polished, but with a sharp edge of naughtiness. His voice was quite pleasant and intriguing, only slightly nasal, but you rarely notice that. He obviously had training to lower his voice and make it more cultured, just like all the actors did who crossed over from silents to talkies. However his battles with Louis B and his declining health limited his roles soon after Downstairs to B pictures.
The most dramatic scene in the film however belongs not to John Gilbert, but to Virginia Bruce, whom I must confess is not a favorite of mine. After being seduced by John Gilbert's character she boldly and passionately tells her husband (Lukas) off and insults his lovemaking in comparison. Wow-sa for 1932! No wonder TCM showcased this scene in the pre-code movies special a few months back. However the TCM special didn't lay the foundation for the scene, because if we had it we would have naturally sympathized with the husband much more than the seducer or the wife!
Watch Downstairs if you enjoy the saucy John Gilbert or if you like pre-code movies. You'll enjoy it.
‘Downstairs’ is a curio; rarely seen, bombing at the time – possibly because of the change of image of John Gilbert, known as one of the silent screen’s great romantic heroes and desperately trying to make good after the disaster of the previous year’s ‘His Glorious Night’. Here, Karl is an amoral and coarse creation, unfeeling and a louse – and Gilbert plays him brilliantly. A pity then that this film is all but forgotten.
Alongside him in the cast are Paul Lukas (slightly wooden as Albert the butler) and Gilbert’s future wife, Virginia Bruce (an excellent performance as Albert’s young bride, Anna, who lets her guard down and find she likes it), along with Reginald Owen (still going strong and as effective years later, and pretty good here) and Olga Baclanova (nicely judged as the guilty mistress of the house; this was her first movie after the controversial ‘Freaks’), Hedda Hopper (a brief but entertaining appearance as Karl’s previous employer), and Bodil Rosing (memorable as the daft ageing cook, Sophie).
‘Downstairs’, developed into a film from John Gilbert’s original story, is a fairly run-of-the-mill story of masters and servants for the most part, but the scenes between Karl and Anna have a raw power that makes the film stand out from others of the period. There’s no romance in this servants’ hall; everyone is really out for what they can get.
This is John Gilbert’s best talkie–a scathing drama about a man who’ll use anyone to get ahead. Aside from being a tight drama, the film is important as the best of Gilbert’s dozen or so talkies and also because it proves for anyone who has seen it, that the advent of talkies did not kill his film career because his voice was effeminate. Hollywood legend, never very accurate, has it that Gilbert’s blazing film carrer was doused by his first talkie (His Romantic Night). Not true. The rude technology may have hurt his performance–as it did with many crossover stars–but his voice was not the problem. In Downstairs, Gilbert took a big chance in playing a non-romantic part, a part that shows off his acting chops. While the cook pleads with him not to throw her over, Gilbert casually picks his nose and wipes it on his pants–astounding for 1932. The film did not save John Gilbert’s career, but it stands as proof of his talent. What a shame other forces were at work to ruin him. (drednm)
John Gilbert was the highest paid actor in Hollywood in 1929, the year silent films breathed their last. By 1933 he was through with movies and by 1935 he was dead. Lots of people believe bad things about him, mainly that he had a high squeaky voice or that he was a ham who couldn’t adjust to talkies. In "Downstairs" he proves that both of these myths are false. The film is a splendid little drama–"little" being the only kind of movie MGM would cast him in by then–about a scheming chauffeur who blackmails or steals from practically everybody at the mansion he works at. Paul Lukas, years from stardom, plays the head butler, and Virginia Bruce (who married Gilbert in real life) plays the butler’s new bride. The script and story are flawless, and Gilbert, playing very much against type, shines as the amoral chauffeur. "Downstairs" is a sophisticated drama that could not have been made a few years later after the censors cracked down on Hollywood, but more importantly, it is a testament to John Gilbert, who might have had a successful career in the talkies if he had been given a chance.
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