Little Known Tidbit: Nance O’Neil and John Gilbert

18 Feb

(Recycled post)

Nance O’Neil, the “ships in the night” friend of Lizzie Borden, had a starring role in the film that destroyed the career of silent screen idol John Gilbert.

Here’s the background on the film:

His Glorious Night, also known as Breath of Scandal has gone down in history as having more or less single-handedly caused the downfall of silent-screen matinee idol John Gilbert, whose ardent declarations of “I love you, I love you” to an overly inert Catherine Dale Owen were parodied twenty-odd years later in MGM’s otherwise highly apocryphal Singing in the Rain (1952). Owen, from the Broadway stage, plays Princess Orsolini, who refuses an arranged marriage in favor of dallying with Kovacs (Gilbert), a dashing cavalry officer. But on the advice of her mother (stage luminary Nance O’Neil), the princess reluctantly informs Kovacs that she cannot love the offspring of a peasant. In revenge, the latter indulges in a bit of blackmail, but true love wins out in the end. Rumors to the contrary, the problem was not with Gilbert’s voice but with screenwriter Willard Mack’s overly florid dialogue, which might have been fine as subtitles but sounded downright embarrassing to audiences when spoken by a cast suffering from the stilted direction of a microphone-conscious Lionel Barrymore.” -Hans J. Wollstein, All Movie Guide

Gilbert’s voice sounded high-pitched and effeminate in a film where he was supposed to be a romantic swashbuckler. Audiences laughed at him upon hearing his voice at different places in the film and his career as a romantic leading man ended forever. Although Gilbert continued to make several more films over the next 5 years, he never again was the box office star he had once been. Click here for more.

Nance O’Neil was a formidable presence on stage and in films. She had transitioned from the stage to the silent film era and on to the “talkies” with her powerful voice, making over two dozen more films in her career after 1929. Only a handful of her contemporary stage actresses would transition from stage to silents to talkies as she did.

Nance, who died in 1965, would have lived long enough to have seen three foreign film remakes of “His Glorious Night” as well as the 1960 American re-make by Michael Curtiz.

During the Depression years, while many actors had no work, Nance earned her living with these films playing with all the greats – as well as many of the future greats – like Barbara Stanwyck, Lawrence Olivier, Bonita Granville, Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy, to name a few. Career longevity in an industry that sees so many “stars” flicker bright but burn out quickly, surely must have earned her respect among her peers.

But back in 1929, it was our dear old Nance who, literally, had a role in that little piece of theatrical history when John Gilbert met his cinematic demise.

And that, my friends, is a Little Known Tidbit about Nance O’Neil. 🙂


Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Nance O'Neil


Tags: , , , ,

2 responses to “Little Known Tidbit: Nance O’Neil and John Gilbert

  1. Lizzie Borden Audio

    May 21, 2019 at 8:47 PM

    Yes, it was a delicious little tidbit with chocolate on top. Thanks, I needed that.

  2. Emma

    October 18, 2019 at 7:50 PM

    The rumor was Louis B. Mayer destroyed Gilbert’s career, after Gilbert slugged him, the story goes Gilbert was waiting for Greta Garbo to marry him, when it became apparent Garbo was not gonna show up, Gilbert became quite unstrung, eventually breaking down in the church’s men’s room. Mayer came out of a stall and said something like “For God’s sake Jack, don’t marry the broad, just keep ****ing, her!” causing Gilbert to hit him. a stunned Mayer, told Gilbert he was “finished in Hollywood” he is supposed to have had Gilberts voice slightly sped up.


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