The Twisted Way John Gilbert's Romance With Greta Garbo May Have Destroyed His Career

Though the name John Gilbert may not be particularly well-known by the general public today, he was once one of the biggest actors in all of Hollywood. Breaking into fame during the silent film era of the 1920s, Gilbert took up the mantle of leading man after the death of Rudolph Valentino and starred in hits such as "Flesh and the Devil," "Love," and "A Woman of Affairs," per Britannica. In addition to acting, Gilbert also worked behind the scenes as both a writer and a director.

During his peak popularity, Gilbert was so well known that he even received his own moniker, "The Great Lover." This was reinforced when gossip magazines discovered that he was dating — and later engaged to — Greta Garbo, his co-star and romantic interest in the three films listed above. However, it was his romantic nature that ironically ended up being his downfall, both in terms of exiling him from Hollywood and helping erase him from the pantheon of Tinseltown greats.

Jilted at the altar and a punch to the face

According to Slate, Gilbert proposed to Garbo shortly after they wrapped up filming for "Flesh and the Devil." She accepted, and the two decided to have a double wedding with film director King Vidor and actress Eleanor Boardman. However, Garbo's cold and mysterious persona wasn't exactly a fictional persona, and she reportedly didn't show up on the day of the wedding, effectively jilting Gilbert at the altar. Understandably, Gilbert was incredibly upset, and he allegedly went to the bathroom to cry over the stinging rejection.

As befitting a double wedding for four major Hollywood players, the giants of the film industry were in attendance, including mega-producer Louis B. Mayer. Mayer was not only one of the founders of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer pictures, colloquially known as MGM, but also Gilbert's boss. When Mayer walked into the bathroom to see his star weeping, he tried to offer some solace but unfortunately said the last thing that the film star wanted to hear. Mayer reportedly told Gilbert, "Sleep with [Garbo], don't marry her."

In response, Gilbert punched Mayer in the face, breaking the mogul's eyeglasses in the process. Mayer was so angry and insulted that he reportedly told Gilbert on the spot, "I will destroy you." Those chilling words would have an even more chilling effect on Gilbert's fortunes.

A powerful film producer's revenge

In the late 1920s, the film industry was moving from silent movies to sound, and many famous actors weren't able to make the jump. Though some historians have argued that Gilbert was already on a downswing — his movies were making less and less money, yet his salary remained the same — the fact that Mayer was now Gilbert's enemy certainly didn't help.

Though Mayer never overtly did anything to Gilbert's career, he did make some moves behind the scenes and wanted to ensure "Gilbert played out his contract, without allowing [him] to do anything that might reverse his fortunes," per Slate. For example, fellow famous Hollywood producer Howard Hawks showed an interest in having Gilbert star in the World War I movie "The Dawn Patrol." Since Gilbert was still contracted at MGM, he would need to be "loaned out," a common practice at the time. Mayer took a meeting with Hawks to discuss the loan, only for Mayer to demand such a high sum for Gilbert's services that it would be nearly financially impossible for Hawks to make a profit from the movie. The move to cast Gilbert was accordingly dropped.

With a floundering career, Gilbert soon found that the press — which had once sung his praises — was far less forgiving. For example (via Slate), in 1931 the Los Angeles Times called him "Hollywood's Unhappiest Man." On January 9, 1936, Gilbert died of a heart attack at just 38 years old (via the Los Angeles Times). Garbo was then in Sweden and didn't attend the funeral.