The change from silent films to talkies had a big effect on many Hollywood stars. For each one that made the transition smoothly, there were many many more who struggled. John Gilbert was one such actor. He was a suave, handsome, performer known as “The Great Lover.” At times his popularity rivaled even Rudolph Valentino. The majority of his films were made in the silent era. Only a few talkies close out his career before his death at age 38. One of his final films was 1932’s Downstairs, which heconceived the story for in addition to starring.
The film opens at the estate of Baron Von Burgen (Reginald Owen). His Butler Albert (Paul Lukas) is marrying one of the maids, Anna (Virginia Bruce). During the festivities, the new chauffeur, Karl Schneider (Gilbert) arrives. Right from the start we know that Karl is a bit of a playa’. When he takes his chance to kiss the bride, he kisses her long and slow on the mouth. Later in the evening, when the dutiful Albert interrupts his own wedding night to replace one of the other butler’s who is drunk, Karl shows up to chat with Anna in her room…sneaking in through the window, of course.
Karl settles in quickly as chauffeur to the Baroness (Olga Baclanova)…which is to say they become lovers. Karl also starts to get cozy with the elderly cook (Bodil Rosing) in an effort to extort money from her. Even with all this activity, he still has his eye on Anna. One day when Albert accompanies the Baron on a fishing trip, Karl takes the opportunity to make his move. At first Anna is repulsed, but she ends up giving in to his advances. It doesn’t take Albert long to figure out what is going on though and he sets out to bring an end to Karl’s evil ways once and for all.
Man, I thought that Warren William had a thing for playing nasty characters – but John Gilbert gives him a run for his money in this one. He plays a man with absolutely no scruples and he’s great at it! Just a few moments after we meet him for the first time he gives the most inappropriate wedding kiss in history. From there on we know this guy is no good. No woman is safe around this guy. For me the most jolting part of story is his illicit relationship with the aging cook. The actress looks much older than she actually was, but it works on the audience. It feels like he’s bedding down with someone’s grandma and stealing her money. I’m beginning to see that nothing is off limits when it comes to pre-code cinema.
I did really enjoy the interesting dynamic that the film creates between the servants (the ones who live downstairs) and their employers (upstairs). The Baron, especially, is pompous, boisterous, and a bit clueless. Meanwhile Albert and Anna are simple good-natured. It’s the perfect opportunity for Karl to exploit the weaknesses of both sides. Paul Lukas, with his Hungarian Lugosi-esque accent, comes across as a very sympathetic figure. Yet there’s a fire in Albert which he’s probably kept bottled up for years. When he finally unleashes it on Karl at the film’s climax, it makes for a bit of a fist-pumping moment.
I’ve certainly got to hand it to John Gilbert. It takes a lot of guts for a suave leading man to not only play such a reprehensible character, but to also be the one who conceived of the role in the first place. His performance is wonderfully devilish and makes Downstairs an unexpected treat.
This is Forgotten Film’s contribution to the Pre-Code Blogathon, hosted by our friends over at Pre-code.com. Be sure to head over there and check out all the reviews.