Although raised by both, John Gilbert ended up choosing his mother's way of life rather than his grandfather's.
John Gilbert was commonly known by his nickname "Jack."
John Gilbert is ranked as the 28th most influential person in the history of film in the book The Film 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential People in the History of the Movies. Gilbert is the only LDS actor (and only LDS person) on this list. [See exerpts below.]
Source: Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, with John R. Maxim. Dark Star: The Untold Story of the Meteoric Rise and Fall of the Legendary John Gilbert. New York: St. Martin's Press (1985).
Dark Star is written by John Gilbert's daughter.
He was born John Cecil Pringle on the morning of July 10, 1899. Not 1895 or 1897, the two dates most often appearing in film biographies. He lied about his age until he was about thirty, for reasons that will become obvious.Pg. 7:
The place was Logan, Utah, about seventy miles due north of Salt Lake City. He'd mentioned at one time or another that no doctor or midwife was in attendance because he was born during the worst flood of the decade. A massive summer storm had caused the Logan River to burst from its canyon and fan out over the Wasatch Valley. The storm was easy to verify from meteorological records. It was 1899, July 9 through 11.
The house belonged to Jack's [John Gilbert's] maternal grandfather, William Henry Apperly. Apperly was a retired schoolteacher and himself the child of Mormon pioneers who came from the village of Week in Gloucestershire, England. Apperly's father, also named William, had served in the Royal Marines and was sent to India, leaving his wife behind in Britain. While he was gone, she converted to the Mormon religion and apparently had no trouble converting William almost as soon as he stepped off his troop ship.
Their only son, schoolteacher William Henry Apperly, married a bad-tempered but eminently fertile woman named Lydia Mangreen. Lydia had been orphaned in infancy and grew up as a servant girl in Washington, Utah. It took her ten years and eight children to realize that schoolteachers lived basically on the charity of the community and that the situation wasn't likely to improve. Nor was she crazy about kids, particularly in large groups. By all accounts, she paid them scant attention once they were born, asserting that no one gave her any mothering when she was growing up and she turned out just fine.
Lydia ran off to San Francisco one year, was followed and retrieved by her husband, and then ran away for good. This time, William sued for divorce and seven of the eight children ended up scattered all over Utah. All except Ida Adair Apperly, his favorite daughter [John Gilbert's mother].
Ida Adair, as she called herself [John Gilbert's mother], was born with a burning desire to be an actress... she practiced elocution and singing every chance she got. When a traveling stock company came to town [Logan, Utah] in 1898, someone told the leading lady to break a leg and she did. Ida was hired on the spot to replace her. She lost no time in marrying her deliverer, the show's producer, John Pringle [John Gilbert's father], and began her life on the road...
Within the first year of her marriage, she carelessly became pregnant and returned home to her father's house [in Logan], where she bore the child who was to become Jack Gilbert [a.k.a. John Gilbert]. Ida was back on the road within two weeks, determined never to get careless again.
As one might expect, Ida's maternal instinct was recessive to say the least. The baby was an accident, an inconvenience, and an intrusion. She swore like a sailor during the difficult labor, and when it was over she refused even to look at it for twenty-four hours... Ida's first act after Jack's birth, when the rain stopped and the roads were passable again, was to hitch up her father's wagon and go calling on relatives in the Wasatch Valley, hoping to find someone who would take the child off her hands. But times were hard and no one could take him in. Ida wrapped him in a borrowed blanket and took off to join the company in Montreal, where at Pringle's request Jack was baptized in the Church of England. She didn't hang around Utah long enough to register his birth.
John Pringle [John Gilbert's father] was the son of German emigrants. His grandfather was a [pg. 8:] circuit-riding Methodist preacher in Missouri... Ida and John [John Gilbert's parents] were divorced before Jack [John Gilbert] had any clear memory of his father, and he never used his [Pringle's] name. Jack would not see or hear from him for twenty-six years. John Pringle went one way with his stock company, playing in tents before rural audiences, while Ida went another, an itinerant actress touring the dingy provincial theaters of America around the turn of the century.
When Jack [John Gilbert] was six years old, Ida left him in New York with a seamstress, a woman she barely knew... Her own daughter [the seamstress's] was a prostitute who worked out of the furnished room they shared on Amsterdam Avenue... For ten months, Jack was exposed to the ugly scenes that went on in that room. The daughter's patrons were told to pretend he wasn't there...
One winter day, while lugging a pail of beer back to the Amsterdam Avenue flat [an errand he would run for the seamstress], he caught sight of a familiar face. Incredibly, it was Marie Stoddard, the woman who'd been kind to him in Cincinnati, standing on the curb waiting for a trolley. Jack dropped the pail and ran to her, clutching her skirts and crying. She didn't recognize him at first; he was [pg. 11:] covered with grime and dressed in ragged clothes. But finally she realized who it was and swept him up into her arms.
Years later, when she was teaching acting classes in Hollywood, she told me the story of Jack's rescue, how she climbed five flights of stairs and confronted the wretched woman. The fat seamstress denied any mistreatment of the boy and swore he was a lying little devil...
"You had only to look at him," Marie said, still furious at the memory. "I marched him out of there and brought him a coast and shoes and a ticket to Rochester where his mother was performing with Bert Lytell. I had little enough money to spare, but what could I do?"
Ida, enjoying her career and a private life unencumbered by a child, was not entirely pleased to see him. A few weeks later, she sent him to his grandfather's farm in Utah, where he remained for almost a year.
He rejoined his mother at about the time of her marriage to a comedian named Walter Gilbert. Marie Stoddard remembered Gilbert as a cheerful type but a man who was careful with his money. Gilbert flatly refused to call his stepson [John Gilbert], now eight years old, Cecil. He thought it was a silly effeminate name--as opposed to "Jack," for example. Cecil became Jack. Later, when Walter adopted the boy, he became Jack Gilbert. His mother persisted in calling him Cecil.
Marriage seemed to stabilize Ida's life for a while. She returned to Cincinnati as leading lady and played many demanding roles... The marriage soon deteriorated into one more or less of convenience. Ida resumed taking lovers, began drinking heavily, and Jack [John Gilbert] was in the way again. Back he went to his grandfather's house in Logan.
He was never happy there. Jack was a city child, used to noise and people. The stillness of the Utah nights kept him awake. During the day, the wide empty horizon to the west and the looming mountains to the east made him feel small and vulnerable. The farmyard smells made him sick. Eating was one thing, murdering screaming animals and dismembering them was quite another.
He had cousins to play with, but nearly all the games in which they excelled were new to him. They rode horses as if born in the saddle. Jack counted it a good ride if the horse didn't throw him or try to bite off his toe. One cousin, Clifford Apperly, did go out of his way to be kind to Jack. He taught him the basics of baseball and finally got Jack to where he could manage a horse, if not master it. Jack never forgot the kindness, and remembered Cousin Clifford in his will. All things considered [pg. 12:], however, the relatives had little use for him. He was a bookworm, which meant that he read whatever he could find, and they read not at all except for the Book of Mormon and the Sears, Roebuck catalogue. He was a snob, which meant that he did not share their conviction that the simply godly country life was infinitely preferable to life upon the wicked stage. Jack missed his mother desperately. For better or worse, they understood each other.
During a period of relative prosperity while Ida and Walter were playing San Francisco, Jack was sent away to boarding school, the Hitchcock Military Academy in San Rafael, California... Ida's health began to fail during the summer of 1910...
Ida Adair's career was moving quickly to its end. The next year, 1911, she played one last engagement at the Garrick Theater in Salt Lake City. After that, her health deteriorated and she died of tuberculosis. on September 29, 1913. She was not yet forty years old.
Jack was in school when his mother died. He was summoned home to Logan, Utah, for the funeral. As he left Hitchcock Military Academy, he had a feeling that he would not be returning, that his formal education was now over. It was. Jack never finished the ninth grade...
The family left for the funeral in hired carriages through a steady pouring rain. Jack found himself alone with a young girl, his cousin Clara, who smiled comfortingly and took his hand. Her concern and sympathy warmed him and, on impulse, he leaned toward her and kissed her cheek. He never saw Clara again, but he remembered the purity of the moment for the rest of his life. She had cared.
Ida was buried beside her father and other members of the family in a sandy graveyard at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains. Jack looked across the open grave at his aunts and uncles standing in the chill autumn rain. Stern, hard-faced Mormon farmers. He wondered how he and his gypsy mother could ever have grown from roots such as these. He could see in their eyes a certain satisfaction. Jack was sure they saw the hand of God in her defeat and death.
"Poor mother," he wrote later, "all she ever wanted was to gloriously play New York. Nothing, no one else in life, was ever quite as important as that one fundamentally trivial goal. That fact was the real [pg. 14:] tragedy of her life. But trivial or not, it was a goal, and she made a grand try..."
After the funeral, Jack received another shock. Walter Gilbert [John "Jack" Gilbert's adoptive father, his mother's second husband] could no longer take care of him or pay for his education. It was time for Jack to earn his living. He handed Jack ten dollars and took him to Salt lake City's Union Station, where he put him on a train for San Francisco. A fine place to start, Walter said.
Jack was fourteen years old and on his own. There was no question of staying in Logan. He had ten dollars, his mother's makeup case, and a sheaf of her clippings and posters. Her other valuables, Walter told him, were sold to pay for her long illness and burial expenses.
The apparent utter lovelessness of his childhood came as a shock to me... Marie also made the point that Ida's ever-growing coldness toward her son wasn't all that uncommon in show-business families. A child getting bigger reminded an actress-mother that she was getting older. Worse, it reminded producers. Better to keep the kid out of sight.
It should have been a spirit-crushing childhood by almost any standard, but Jack never appeared to have been beaten down by it or turned into a loner. On the contrary, he showed more than the normal resiliency of children and became quite resourceful. It's hard to doubt that he resented--even hated--his mother or that some of those feelings would eventually turn inward. But by and large he felt sorry for her. Jack knew a personal demon when he saw one.
John Gilbert (a.k.a. The Great Lover of the Silver Screen) was born John Cecil Pringle July 10, 1899, in Logan, Utah. The son of an actress, he made his first stage appearance as an infant and played an extra in films during his adolescence. The Merry Widow launched him to fame in 1925, and by 1928 he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood. He is best known for his starring role in The Big Parade, the most successful film of the silent era, and, in fact, the most successful film until Gone with the Wind. He made nearly one hundred films before his untimely death in 1936. His page-turning biography, Dark Star, by Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, is sold at Amazon.com.
John Gilbert's influence is ranked higher than that of John Ford, George Lucas, Katharine Hepburn, Stanley Kubrick, Buster Keaton, Fritz Lang, James Cagney, Ingmar Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Roger Corman, Bernard Herrmann, Gary Cooper, Sidney Poitier, Billy Wilder, Bette Davis, Woody Allen, Clark Gable, Gregg Toland, Akira Kurosawa, Marilyn Monroe, Robert De Niro, and others.
Excerpts from The Film 100:
In the late 1920s, John Gilbert was the screen's greatest idol, appearing in one hit after another. Following the death of the legendary Rudolph Valentino, Gilbert was being groomed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to replace him in macho adventures and bedroom dramas. An article of the day in Cinema Art magazine proclaimed that "John Gilbert stands alone at the top-most pinnacle of film fame. There is no one who can approach him." He was receiving gushing praise, collecting $10,000 a week, and romancing a modern-day goddess [Marlene Dietrich and/or Greta Garbo, two of his most famous lovers at the time of his death]. Then, after a row with MGM boss Louis B. Mayer during a cocktail party, Gilbert was cast out of the picture business forever. The event signaled a major shift from an industry dominated by powerful stars to an industry controlled by studio heads. Mayer used John Gilbert to effectively demonstrate the ease with which he could destroy an actor's career.
The downhill slide of Gilbert was the steepest of any actor in film history... he broke into films in 1915... starred opposite Mary Pickford in Heart o' the Hills (1919)... He was prominently marketed as a dashing swashbuckler in such films as Monte Cristo (1922). His status was a budding screen idol grew with each picture.
His blockbusters came at the close of the silent era and included He Who Gets Slapped (1924), The Big Parade (1925), and The Merry Widow (1925), a smash hit and a boon to his clout as a Hollywood star. By the time he teamed with Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil (1927), he was MGM's hottest property, demanding bigger pay and better roles. Hisheated romance with Garbo made their paritings in Love (1927) and Woman of Affairs (1928) eagerly anticipated events and international events.
The advent of sound films ushered in a new generation of actors who didn't have to combat silent stereotypes, and there was little hope for a reversal of Gilbert's declining fortunes... He drank himself into depression and became something of a village idiot... Literally drinking himself into poor health, John Gilbert died of a massive heart attack in 1936. He was only forty-one years old.
The demise of John Gilbert's career is now so clouded in legend that separating the cause from the effect is critical to an understanding of his place in Hollywood history. It is clear that before the wedding scuffle [with Mayer], Gilbert was at the height of his popularity. His pictures were breaking attendance records, and many of his five-year-old films had been re-released internationally by William Fox to full houses and enormous grosses. But despite Gilbert's unforgettable charm, no producer dared to recruit him. Gossip columns clung to the [false] story of his high, squeaky pitch, and some guessed his misfortune was a result of the downfall of romantic silent dramas, but the point was bell-ringing clear to other actors--the studio heads had demonstrated that they had the power to make stars and to ruin careers at will. Gilbert was the most compelling example yet of how studio heads had turned the tables on powerful stars. The film industry would no longer be ruled by the forces of its creative talent, but instead by a system of managers and executives who would determine all aspects of filmmaking--a system that has remained a permanent part of Hollywood since the tragic end of John Gilbert's career.
Web page created 19 June 2002. Last modified 19 June 2002.