Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s post is the latest addition in our series of Pre-Code Essentials. Here’s the updated list.
41. Downstairs (1932)
An evil chauffeur seduces and blackmails his way through high society. Starring John Gilbert, Paul Lukas, Virginia Bruce, Reginald Owen, Olga Baclanova, Hedda Hopper, and Bodil Rosing. Story by John Gilbert. Screenplay by Lenore Coffee and Melville Baker. Directed by Monta Bell. Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn Mayer.
“Karl, a scheming chauffeur hired by a Baron and his wife, arrives just when two other servants, the butler Albert and maid Anna, are set to wed. He proceeds to take advantage of several members of the household, blackmailing the Baroness for a dalliance which he uncovers, seducing the cook Sophie in order to get his hands on her life savings, and stealing the lovely and innocent Anna from her new husband. Albert tries to set everything right and throw Karl out of the household.” (This brief summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
This is one of those films that I’ve wanted to cover on this blog since we began our Pre-Code survey way back in 2013, but I couldn’t ever find a series of posts into which this picture fit. Unlike many of the films highlighted on this blog, Downstairs isn’t about the “complicated women” (as Mick LaSalle so rightly put it) that populate this era of cinema. This is about (to also use another LaSalle term) a “dangerous man” — in this case, John Gilbert. Fans of classic Hollywood know Gilbert both for his erotic silent films (several of which co-starred his alleged off-screen paramour Greta Garbo) and for the legends surrounding his demise in the talking era. To those who argue that Gilbert’s voice or his style of performance killed his career, I offer Downstairs as Exhibit A in the rebuttal. For in this story, drafted by Gilbert himself, the tragic actor plays one of the most morally bankrupt characters we’ve ever had the pleasure of discussing — and it’s his performance of this outrageously rotten fellow that earns the film the distinction of being maybe in my top ten (or at the least, 15) favorite Pre-Coders.
You see, Gilbert’s character not only seduces the picture’s leading lady, the fair-haired ingenue (played by Gilbert’s then-wife Virginia Bruce) who’s just been married to the upstanding butler (played by Paul Lukas), but he also both manipulates the affections of the homely cook for financial purposes and blackmails the mistress of the house, the baroness herself, to ensure that he retains his power over her. It’s a shockingly nasty role without any redeeming qualities, and yet we can’t help but root for the man. Some of this is in the simple Pre-Code fact that his character’s goals drive the film, meaning the story wants to achieve them (and by proxy, the audience does too), but the success of the picture has undeniably as much to do with Gilbert’s performance itself… How does one describe it? Well, there’s no sensitivity or emotional gradations, the kind we’re used to seeing in stories structured around an archetypal anti-hero, and yet the directness in his portrayal fosters a fidelity to his character’s motivations, which in itself is fundamentally respectable and somewhat likable.
In some ways, I’d be inclined to describe Gilbert’s performance as nuanced, for his character must resort to a handful of duplicitous means to achieve his wicked and self-serving aims (many of which involve the actor’s inherent charms), but these moments are meant only to fool the other characters — not the audience — and thus reinforce the utterly Pre-Code concept of a film more than just refusing to create a sympathetic protagonist, but actively presenting one that is unsympathetic. Take for example, the scene in which Sophie, the matronly cook, practically grovels for his attention and affection while he nonchalantly arranges his uniform, not even bothering to look her in the face. There’s no pretenses here — he doesn’t give a rat’s behind about her well-being, and this evident emotional detachment is thrilling, chilling, and something usually reserved for outright villains, which his character isn’t (because never once do we root for a so-called “good guy” — Paul Lukas). It’s a hard concept to fully understand, but this is the protagonist; he earns our respect, he causes conflict, and then he skates away ready to do the same thing all over again — no punishment in sight. How Pre-Code!
Ah, I love this era in cinema — complexity exists within the very fabric of the film, meaning that the script doesn’t have to do all those manipulative tactics (like explicitly attempting to make him emotionally relatable) that end up resulting in the inevitable dilution of a character’s point-of-view, thereby wrecking the complicated response the story wants to elicit. Yes, we all live in “shades of gray” (as the cliché goes), but most of the conflicts in life come from the clash between things that are metaphorically black and white. It’s wonderful to see this reflected in the Pre-Code era, which derives its shades of gray elsewhere — from the social implications of having a rotten guy played by someone so likable, to the text’s casual presentation of adultery (get a load of that conversation between Bruce and Lukas in which she’s unapologetic about having a lustful dalliance with Gilbert!) as something that should be discussed beyond simple moralistic qualifications. All of the above, boldly present in Downstairs, epitomizes everything we love about these Pre-Codes, making this wonderful motion picture one of the era’s purest examples of the form. Because of this, I recommend it highly. A classic.
Come back next Wednesday for a new Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!