Jack Gilbert Writes His Own Story: Part 1

PHOTOPLAY (June 1928)

Jim Quirk has asked me to write an outline of my career in pictures. Behind his request lies one of two purposes: to destroy me utterly or to discover first-hand information regarding some of his best enemies. The adjective “worst” cannot be applied to Jim’s enemies; they afford him his only amusement. So, because I like Jim (because Jim likes me), and because doing the right job might be fun, and because Jim has assured me that a great many readers of his magazine would like to hear of my early asininities, I am complying with this request.

An outline of my career in pictures follows; mostly as it happened, some of it censored, some of it omitted, none of it elaborated–all Gospel according to St. Cinema, and my God have mercy on my soul. And those of you who have your brickbats ready, permit me to remind you of the proverb about people who live in glass houses, and that the good is oft interred with their bones.

In March 1915, I was a member of the Baker Stock Company in Spokane, Washington. I was seventeen years old. I was the stage manager of the company. The title was important; the job was not. The stage manager of a stock company is the assistant director and his duties consist of ringing the curtain up and down, calling the overtures and warnings to the actors that their cues for entrance are approaching, holding a manuscript at rehearsals, making out stage settings and property plots, and seeing to it that every prop or article used during each act is in its correct position. If, during the play, a white-faced, suffering little mother says to the swarthy villain: “Here is the will,” and there is no will—God help the stage manager.

I hold no brief for my qualities as an assistant stage director.  For our opening bill the management secured “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” the well-known underworld drama.  The big scene of the play and the climax of the last act takes place when the little girl, Kitty, is locked in a safe, and Jimmy and his pal, Red, both reformed crooks, must, in order to release the child, open the great time locks by touch, thus divulging their identities to the detective, Doyle, who watches through a half-open door.  Jimmy sandpapers his fingertips and slowly turns the dial.  Red kneels beside him.  The stage is dark.  Jimmy calls: “Match!”  Red strikes a match and holds the flame close to the dial.  Jimmy blows out the light.  Once more he sandpapers his nerves to the dial.  I watch spellbound from the wings, awaiting my cue to ring down the curtain.

What should have happened is this: the safe door is suddenly opened, the little girl falls into Jimmy’s arms; a spotlight, from nowhere in particular, plays upon her; the detective enters and confronts Jimmy while the girl Jimmy loves enters from the opposite side.  A beautiful scene should have been enacted.

On that night it wasn’t.  I rang the curtain down before Kitty was out of the safe.  To this day I don’t know why, but I did, and the show was over, and I was fired.

I should have been thrown bodily from the theater and blacklisted from the American stage.  I had ruined the scene for the actors and had created a ridiculous situation which the first night critics could chortle over when they reached their typewriters.  But I was forgiven.

After the first violent outburst had subsided, it was remembered that I was still an invited guest at a party given by the members of the troupe, after the performance.  Beer was served, and chili beans and more beer—and then—beer, and these actor folk, bless them, grew shiny-faced and mellow, and friendly, and though they all acknowledged my brainlessness, they condoned it and told tales of their own stupidity, and anecdotes of their early stage lives and more bottles foamed, and more stories were told, and my last blurred memory of the evening is that of my vain attempt to drown the baritone of the leading man with my choir-trained falsetto, in tribute to “Sweet Adeline.”

Our stock company died early in its youth.  We produced but four plays.  One morning I was given a notice to tack on the bulletin board.  I have the notice still—it was worded, in brief, as follows: “To the members of the Auditorium Baker Stock Company: Ladies and Gentlemen: We regret to inform you that we are forced to bring the engagement of the Baker Players to a close, week ending Saturday, March 20, 1915—The management feels grateful toward each and every member of the Baker Company.  However, we feel we are unable to lose any more money, so kindly accept this as two weeks’ notice for the closing of the engagement.”

I know of no people so sensitive as actors; as easily pleased as children and as easily depressed.  The members of our little troupe were thrown into a chaos of mingled emotions; some looked forward eagerly to their return to New York while others gathered in little groups and worriedly discussed the future.  A medicine show was coming through town next week; maybe a chance there for some.  For others, who had saved no money, the outlook appeared dark.  Little joy was displayed during the next two weeks.  There was no party given on the night of our last performance.  An atmosphere of gloom pervaded the darkened theater.  Our tribe had been broken up.  Some were hastily packing to make the eastbound train that night, others disappeared to get quietly and solitarily drunk.  The stage-doorman dismissed us individually with a nod and a grunt.  The stage-doorman still had his job.  They folded their tents like the Arabs and as silently stole away.  I caught the Oregon Flyer for Portland.

When I met my father, who was directing a stock in Portland, for some unaccountable reason I felt ashamed.  Not that I had had anything to do with the closing of our company, but I was out of a job and inasmuch as I had supported myself since my mother’s death three years earlier, I exaggerated my present predicament until I felt positively degraded.  There was no opening for me in the Portland theater, nor did I particularly care to return to the “Oregonian,” a newspaper on which I had formerly been employed.

My mind was bent on acting.

What to do?  Aimless wanderings.  Movie shows.  The Million Dollar Mystery—Selig zoo pictures with Tom Santschi and Kathlyn Williams; Earle Williams and Anita Stewart; a new fascination—I could do that!  I should photograph well.  Charlie Chaplin.  Grand!  And one night an honest-to-goodness Merton prayer: “Oh, God, please make me a movie actor.”

No sooner was my burning desire communicated to my father than a letter was dispatched to Walter Edwards, then a director of pictures of Thomas H. Ince, of the New York Motion Picture Corporation at Inceville, Santa Monica.  Two especially posed photographs were enclosed.  A week of foodless days and sleepless nights, awaiting a reply.  I was consumed with my ambition and was completely “movie struck.”  I absorbed all the magazines containing news of pictures, I went to as many shows as I could cram into a day, I was feverish and delirious with hopes and fears.  Then came the answer, brief, but exploding like dynamite!  “Mr. Ince says he can give the boy fifteen dollars a week if he cares to come down.”

I’m afraid I became a bit hysterical.  That night I dreamed dreams and planned plans, and being very human, I forgot all about God and didn’t thank Him at all.  Two days later I left for Los Angeles.  Ariel had begun to play for me, and I, sure of his capture, chased madly after  him.  But I did not catch him.  I never will.

San Francisco, and several hours to wait for a southbound train.  Time in the morning for a trip through the Exposition Grounds, the great World’s Fair of 1915.  Magnificent buildings, designed and erected by the greatest architects and builders in America, but for me—unimportant.  The Tower of Jewels, radiant in the sunlight, reaching far into the heavens.  Insignificant.  The exhibit of machines, massive, cool and naked, sullen in their inactivity.  Stupid and tiresome.

But my heart beat quickly as a low wind from the golden Gate whispered in my ear, “You are going to be a movie actor.”  That was important.  That was amazing.  That destroyed these obelisks rising precipitate, these clusters of domes and towers, these displays of man’s mechanical genius.  My expression was to be a complete projection of my inner self on an entirely mental plane, with nothing visible but a shadow of me thrown on a screen.  To hell with this man’s Exposition!  I was seventeen!  Hi!  Ho!  What a world to live in!

In the afternoon I saw a picture.  A new idol sprang up before me—William S. Hart.  I thought he was great.  So was the picture.  It was called “On the Night Stage.”  And then time turned backward.  Years before, my mother had played in a stock company in Cincinnati.  Her leading man’s name was Herschel Mayall.  The last time I had seen him was when my father had taken me into a saloon near the theater to say goodbye, as the company was closing.  A few words of farewell were exchanged and we departed, leaving Herschel leaning against the bar, one foot on the rail, his glass to his lips.  “On the Night Stage” had barely started when a title was flashed on the screen introducing “Black Jack Malone,” the bad man of the movie.  As the scene faded into view there stood Herschel leaning against the bar one foot on the rail, his glass to his lips.  The effect upon me was startling.  Herschel either held his liquor well, or it had been a long time between drinks.

When the train arrived in Los Angeles, I rushed to a telephone.  Santa Monica, I knew, was some distance from the city, but I wished to announce my arrival.  The studio would probably send a car for me.  (Do not forget that during the few days on the train I had gone through my entire movie apprenticeship, had graduated from bits and small parts and had now arrived, important and a bit blasé, ready to start my first starring vehicle.)  Someone at Inceville answered the telephone.  I proclaimed my presence.  The voice inquired: “What of it?”

I asked: “How shall I get out there?”

The voice came back: “Walk.”

I answered: “Don’t get fresh.”

Inceville retorted: “Go to hell,” and rang up.

A bit disturbed, but by no means humbled, I once more rang the studio, and when the same disquieting voice came over the wire, I repeated my previous announcement and query, whereupon the gentleman at the other end asked who the hell I was and what the hell I wanted and what the hell I thought that place was, and once more told me to go to hell, and again rang up.  The telephone calls had cost sixty cents.  I decided to try an appearance in the flesh.

Late in the afternoon I found Inceville, God knows how.  Trains and street cars and buses carried me far up the beach beyond Santa Monica.  There lay the studio of my dreams, under two feet of dust.  Inceville resembled nothing more than a sleep, dirty Western town—scattered buildings, of plain boards, and rut worn roads leading up into the hills.  Barring the entrance was a high swinging gate with a “No Admittance” sign barely legible through a mixture of caked mud and manure, and guarded by a crumbly, grizzled old desert rat.  Few people were visible.

I approached the gateman and told him who I was, and that I had been engaged by Mr. Ince.  He merely looked at me.  Stared at me for a long time, and said nothing,–and did nothing.

I became embarrassed.  I repeated my information.  The gateman merely stared.  My discomfiture increased.  I appeared to be talking to a deaf-mute.  An impulse seized me to open the gate and pass through.  The sight of a six-shooter hanging on the wall of the gatehouse smothered the impulse at birth.  I looked about me.  A rugged, endless coast line stretched east and west; lazy waves lapped intermittently upon the sandy beach; a tired seagull floated near, casting his eyes inquisitively in my direction.

In a tremulous voice I asked the gateman if he would telephone the office and notify someone that I was waiting.  His reply was sharp and laconic: “no ‘phone here.”

I felt very small and unimportant.  I asked if I might sit down.  The gateman waited a long time before replying, then asked: “Where?”

I didn’t know so I remained standing.  The gateman spat tobacco juice and returned to the magazine he was reading.  After several minutes of this tortuous silence he cocked one eye at me and inquired: “Actor?”

Timidly I replied: “Yes, sir.”

Another long silence as the gateman’s eyes bored into my soul, then he mused: “Hmm.  Lot of ‘em here.”

The Ford bus from Santa Monica chugged up and came to a spasmodic halt to await home going passengers from Inceville.  The driver said to the gateman: “Lo, Joe.”   Silence.

I climbed into the bus and slipped into a dust-covered seat.  I shut my eyes and dreamed a little bit.  I was not aware that nothing ever turns out as we have planned.  Inside of me was a dull ache, and Ariel was silent.

I heard the sound of hinges squeaking.  The gate was being opened.  A man walked toward the bus.  The man was Herschel Mayall.  I leaped upon him.  He did not recognize me.  I told him who I was, then he remembered.  I explained my predicament and he was entirely sympathetic.

The gateman said nothing as Herschel led me through and into the forbidden territory.  I was taken to Walter Edward’s office.  I was so voluble and excited that I tried to mouth three words at a time.  Then I was brought before Mr. Ince and his business manager, E. H. Allen.  They were both cordial and made me welcome.  I dined that night with Walter Edwards, and leaving him, rented a room at a hotel nearby.  I tried to sleep but could not.  I was neither happy nor unhappy.  I was not calm, neither was I excited.  I was a movie actor and—well—what the hell of it?


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