Critics hated Downstairs in 1932, and audiences didn’t like it much better. Towards the end of the movie a heroic Paul Lukas thrashes John Gilbert’s character, calling him a “filthy skunk” and a “yellow rat,” while smacking him around the cellar of their master's home. The previous seventy-plus minutes have shown that these insults are accurate. But a Depression-weary audience couldn't figure out why Gilbert, in a story he had written, in a movie he hoped would turn his career back around, had cast himself as such a reprehensible character.
There’s nothing quite like a pre-Code scoundrel. We eat up the antics of these anti-heroes even more today than audiences did during the era. There’s a reality to their darker side that is often lacking in the traditional movie hero. A 1932 audience was not immune, but Gilbert’s Karl possessed practically no redeeming qualities beyond his charm. Karl is an entirely self-interested character, whose flaws are only explained in bits of backstory delivered by a thoroughly unreliable source, Karl himself. On the surface, Karl has no particular goal beyond romantic conquest and, like everything else, he’s never really plays the game fair. To dig any deeper, we have to give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his past, but Karl is very hard to believe.
“I’ve done everything you’ve said. Everything,” he confesses to Anna (Virginia Bruce), the beautiful young newlywed who married Karl’s boss, Albert (Lukas), at the beginning of the film. “I’ve deceived you and I’ve lied to you, because I’m so crazy about you. I’d have done anything as long as I can be with you.”
Anna is angry because Karl has lied to her. Her husband, the head butler Albert, is out of town attending to their employers. Albert specifically told Karl to stay away from his wife while he was gone, but Karl told Anna that Albert wanted him to entertain her until he returned. Karl took Anna to dinner, plied her with wine, and attempted to seduce her. The final straw for Anna came when she discovered Karl had arranged for a hotel room without her consent. But Anna, who may be an even more interesting character than Karl, has a soft spot for this bounder, who has, as bounders will, given every effort to present himself to her in the best light possible.
Karl pushed too far in his quest for Anna, but at this point it's also too far for him to stop pushing. Not if he has any hope of making Anna his own. He turns the tables by admitting his villainy and then attempts to earn Anna’s pity by explaining it:
“I never had much of a chance. I never had anyone tell me the right thing to do. I’ve had to fight my way through life alone. Bad men and bad women. I’ve never been in love with anyone good, like you, before. I didn’t know how to treat you. Well, it’s too late now. Goodbye, Anna.”
I’m tempted to believe Karl, except—well, watch Gilbert’s face during this speech. Around its midpoint, you can see him sense that Anna is weakening, and from there he plows forward to his goodbye, but doesn't seem to plan on going anywhere.
“Goodbye?” Anna asks.
Karl tells her that he’s so ashamed of what he’s done that he's going to leave the household. But before Karl heads out the door he takes one final shot at victory, requesting that she only kiss him goodbye. She does. Passionately.
Karl emerges from Anna’s bedroom the next morning. A few feet out the door he crosses paths with Albert, who has just returned.
Despite his deceit, this seduction shows Karl in his best light.
Karl also romances a middle-aged cook (Bodil Rosing), but only as a ploy to get his hands on her life savings after he spots her fortune bulging in her sock. He eventually turns on her, viciously, but has made such an impression that she remains wrapped around his finger.
He keeps a firm hold on his position as chauffeur by blackmailing the Baroness (Olga Baclanova), who, believing he would be discreet, allowed Karl to drive her to a rendezvous with her lover.
After failing in her attempts to dismiss Karl, Baclanova winds up sharing a great scene with Lukas. His ever loyal Albert cannot quite understand why the Baroness will not allow him to fire Karl. The Baroness has to spell it out for Albert, who is more shocked that she’s admitting her guilt to him, her servant, than he is by either her infidelity or Karl's blackmailing of her.
The Baroness also gives Albert a bit of parting advice that will salvage his ego and allow him to eventually reconcile with his bride: “About Anna. She is young. No match for a man like Karl. You must be patient with her. Women sometimes do foolish things, just for lack of understanding.”
Virginia Bruce as Anna seems too detached in many scenes, perhaps the European setting led her to play the part with a little too much manner, but she also excels in a couple of key spots. First, her reactions to Gilbert’s Karl as he seduces her in the scene described above. But even better, opposite Lukas when she confesses her indiscretion with Karl.
“I don’t deserve to have you and me to go all to smash,” she says in reply to his anger. “There’s a kind of way of making love that drives you mad and crazy. So that you don’t know what you’re doing. Are you going to throw me out on the street because I never knew this before?”
Albert can’t believe what he’s hearing. “You learned something vile from a rat,” he tells her.
Then Bruce blazes, launching into a speech that is quoted almost whenever Downstairs is discussed, and for good reason.
“All right, you good, good man,” she says, seething with venom. Albert is a good man, but it took Karl’s flattering advances and the resulting passion to show Anna that a woman may require more than goodness.
“I’ll stop this kind of talk. You believe exactly what you want to believe, but you listen. Whatever’s happened, some of it’s your fault. Some of it. You think you can make love in the same frozen way you do everything else and you think that’s all I should ever have any wish for? Well, I tell you plain and straight right now, it’s nothing of the kind. I meant no harm. I don’t want anything but you in my home. But if you’re going to be so good, and so perfect, and so unforgiving, then I can’t have that. Then I thank heaven there is something else. Something that makes you so dizzy that you don’t know what’s happened and you don’t care. Now you go ahead and believe anything you like.”
She turns and leaves. Albert looks ill.
Albert runs the house by the book. Soon after Karl’s arrival, Albert is upset by his lack of respect for their employers. He explains to Karl their duty as servants: “If we criticize, I mean downstairs, we are no longer servants. We have broken our code. You know as servants we don’t produce a living, it’s done for us. As long as we are able, we serve them as well as we can. But if we are old, or sick, they take care of us.”
Albert and Karl will never see eye to eye on this point.
Downstairs is from an original story by John Gilbert that the actor sold to his bosses at MGM for the small sum of one dollar, simply because he wanted the film to get made. It took a downward turn of fortune for Gilbert and four years passage of time before the project came to be in 1932, and while the result stands up well today, it didn’t do much for Gilbert’s sagging fortunes back then.
“Jack’s idea of a happy ending is to drown himself in a barrel of wine,” said Photoplay’s review.
Wait, that doesn’t happen!
But the New Movie Magazine also reported, “he’s the villain who is killed in the end,” and Motion Picture Daily said, “Karl drowns,” while Film Daily provided even fewer details, but still made it clear that Karl met his death in the end.
That’s how Gilbert wrote it but, according to his daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, MGM changed the ending after theater managers complained (224).
By the time Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times viewed Downstairs, it had been revised into the version we’re familiar with today. “It was evidently Author Gilbert’s intention to show parallel doings above and below stairs and it looks as though he meant to have himself as Karl drowned in wine.”
Upstairs we aren’t privy to much beyond the Baronesses indiscretions. The Baron (Reginald Owen) is pretty much a harmless and spoiled upper class buffoon, who provides a few instances of comedy relief. Downstairs, beyond Karl’s alternate flirting with and tormenting of the cook, Sophie (Rosing), the movie confines itself to the interactions between its three main characters, Albert, Anna, and Karl.
As mentioned above, Virginia Bruce runs mostly cold, but then oh-so-hot a couple of times, as Anna. Paul Lukas provides his usual professional performance and is largely portraying the bland “good man” that his wife will eventually damn him for being. John Gilbert provides almost all of the fun as Karl.
Gilbert and Bruce only met after she tested for the part of Anna, but they announced their engagement before the movie was even completed. They were married August 11, 1932, shortly after Gilbert’s divorce from Ina Claire was finalized. Virginia Bruce became Mrs. John Gilbert IV in the newspapers and, very often, the promotional material for Downstairs.
Gilbert’s Downstairs was adapted for the screen by Lenore Coffee and Melville Baker. Monta Bell directed. The film premiered in New York just days ahead of the Gilbert marriage, August 6, 1932. Downstairs had cost MGM almost half a million dollars to make, but it didn’t make back half that cost during its run (Golden 233, 240). Despite a few good reviews, the movie was considered just another Gilbert flop when it came along in 1932.
I agree with Gilbert biographer Eve Golden’s assessment that Downstairs made a mistake in its setting, though I don’t think it was “the only misstep” (240). The European setting adds a fairytale-like quality to the outdoor wedding at the open of the movie, but isn't noticeable beyond Lukas’s accent after that. It is Mick LaSalle who succinctly nails the problem for Downstairs in his Dangerous Men, when after discussing the negative qualities of Gilbert’s character, he surmises, “Good plan, wrong century” (127).
The Depression-era audiences enjoyed their on-screen cads, but unless these characters ultimately displayed some sort of redeeming quality, they were used to used to seeing them meet their comeuppance in the end. Even my own pet example, Warren William, in his best movies of the era may have been every bit as callous as Gilbert’s Karl, but he was usually blowing off steam in a breather from his battles against the Great Depression. Karl is completely self-interested. He might have a tragic past, and he may actually love Anna, but Karl’s only goal is a better life for Karl.
We’re more forgiving of Karl today, especially because so much of his banter is witty, naughty, or simply, cold, in a manner that we’ve come to accept as realistic.
Gilbert might have fared better with 1932 audiences if MGM had simply honored his wishes and let him drown in a wine vat. Speaking from the 21st Century, I'm cynical enough to be glad to have Downstairs as it exists.
For another view of Downstairs see Danny's write-up at Pre-Code.com.
Downstairs is available from Warner Archive in their manufactured-on-demand (MOD) Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume 6 set of DVD-Rs. Also featured in the set are Mandalay (1934) with Kay Francis, Massacre (1934) starring Richard Barthelmess, and The Wet Parade (1932) starring Walter Huston among others.
- "Forthcoming Films." New Movie Magazine, September 1932, 57.
- Fountain, Leatrice Gilbert. Dark Star: The Untold Story of the Meteoric Rise and Fall of Legendary Silent Screen Star John Gilbert. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985.
- Golden, Eve. John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013.
- Hall, Mordaunt. "Downstairs: John Gilbert as a Philandering and Blackmailing Chauffeur in a Story He Wrote and Sold for $1." New York Times. October 8, 1932.
- "John Gilbert in Downstairs," review. Film Daily, October 10, 1932, 10.
- LaSalle, Mick. Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2002.
- "Showmen’s Reviews," review of Downstairs. Motion Picture Herald, August 6, 1932, 36.
- "The Shadow Stage," review of Downstairs. Photoplay, September 1932, 55.