Much has been said about John Gilbert's fall from grace in the early 1930s. His voice is often blamed, but anyone who has watched his most famous talkie, "Queen Christina", will know that there wasn't anything wrong per se. We know now that L. B. Mayer's own personal vendetta against him had something to do with it - as it did to another of MGM's late silent male stars, William Haines. However, after watching "Downstairs" I wonder how much of Gilbert's own career choices might have weighted in his demise.
"Downstairs" was a pet project of the actor and he is credited with the story. However, rather than playing the romantic hero, he plays the cad. The story itself is very good. The new chauffeur of noble household in post-WWI Austria blackmails the mistress, seduces an old cook for her savings and the new wife of the butler for sport. The character has no redeeming features and Gilbert doesn't quite achieve the level of charm to carry it through. I was left wondering what was the effect of that in Depression audiences.
But it's not just Gilbert that doesn't deliver the goods. His soon to be real-life wife, Virginia Bruce, plays the young bride. With a very limited range and a expressionless face she is a bore to watch, despite one good scene (more on that later) and a very good part. I can only remember her in "Kongo" where she was equally dull. Paul Lukas, as the butler, and Olga Baclanova ("Freaks"), as the baroness, are harmed severely by their accents, at times exceedingly hard to follow. The best element in the cast is the actress playing the cook, Bodil Rosing.
Despite the casting faults, the film has a few moments of pre-code glory. The honesty about sex is really refreshing in the film, in particular the issue of female satisfaction - the baroness has a lover because she's married to an older buffoon; the old (and ugly, we are told) cook is seduced by the first man who says a few nice things to her - and she knows it; and the young wife is carried away by desire, rather than duty. In the scene I mentioned above, she lashes out to her husband that his own distant manner is in part the reason she has given in to the passionate chauffer, who we are left in no wonder from his first appearance, has made a career out warming up his mistresses in cold rides in the country.