A major talent of the silent era, John Gilbert is best remembered today as a textbook victim of the Hollywood machinery, a classic example of the motion picture industry's ability not only to manufacture stars but also destroy them. Born John Pringle in Logan, Utah on July 10, 1899, he broke into movies in 1915 as a bit player in Matrimony. His big break came four years later, when he appeared opposite Mary Pickford in Heart O' the Hills. Soon Gilbert was a star, moving to Fox during the 1920s and cementing his reputation as a leading adventure and western hero thanks to such swashbuckling fare as the 1922 hit Monte Cristo.
By the middle of the decade, Gilbert was a cinema idol with few peers, starring in a string of successes ranging from the 1924 hit He Who Gets Slapped to the back-to-back 1925 smashes The Merry Widow and The Big Parade. In 1927 he teamed with Greta Garbo in MGM's Flesh and the Devil; the two stars were soon rumored to be romantically involved, and the intensity of the on-screen relationship made subsequent pairings like 1927's Love and the following year's A Woman of Affairs major hits. However, following the deterioration of Gilbert's relationship with Garbo, he came into conflict with studio-mogul Louis B. Mayer, effectively ending his career. While Gilbert's later fall from grace was publicly attributed to the awkwardness of his voice following the advent of the talkies, Hollywood insiders knew the truth -- Gilbert was the victim of Mayer's considerable wealth and influence. The writing was on the wall: the studio heads could crush anyone who crossed their paths, regardless of their popularity and star power. Gilbert was perhaps their most celebrated sacrifice. On January 9, 1936 he died of a massive heart attack.