Downstairs | Chicago Reader

Downstairs

This savage early talkie (1932), with John Gilbert as a chauffeur seducing and blackmailing the married woman he works for as well as two other servants, was a commercial miscalculation for MGM, but it's too interesting to dismiss. Derived from a story Gilbert wrote, and directed by the once-prominent Monta Bell (a Chaplin protege who guided Garbo through her first Hollywood feature), it seems inspired partly by Erich von Stroheim (who directed Gilbert in The Merry Widow). But Gilbert's former profile as a silent matinee idol seems to preclude his playing a “man you love to hate,” and because a more sympathetic butler character (Paul Lukas) defends traditional class divisions, the morality of this Depression-era melodrama seems both complex and confused. With Virginia Bruce (shortly to become the fourth Mrs. Gilbert). 77 min.

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