Cast & Crew
Chicago millionaire Jerry Stevens, badly wounded during World War I, runs away from his hospital boat to meet his fiancée Anne, aided by his loyal friend, Axel "Swede" Axelson. Jerry is disappointed when Anne isn't at the dock and, thinking that something has happened to her, goes to her house. Though happy to see Jerry, Anne is distant and unromantic, then says she can't marry him because she has found someone else. Jerry pretends that he also has found someone, then leaves. Some time later, Dot, a pretty girl who is broke, agrees to go with her roommate Maizie to a ritzy party and act as a millionaire's companion. The man turns out to be Jerry, who is impressed with her looks and honesty when she refuses to take his money, even though he is very drunk. Later, at a nightclub, when they run into Anne and her new fiancé, Tony, Jerry introduces Dot as his future bride. Dot thinks that Jerry is merely joking, but later he says he means it because she has been nicer to him than any other woman. They are married that night by a justice-of-the peace, after which Jerry passes out. Dot, who has fallen in love with him, then whispers, "I'm going to get you on the wagon and get you to love me." The next day, however, Jerry has a bad case of delirium tremens and says he wants a divorce because he was too drunk the previous night to know what he was doing. He offers her a settlement, but Dot refuses. Jerry thinks that she is trying to get more money and decides to go with Swede to his ranch in Arizona. When Jerry goes to bed on his first night at the ranch, he finds Dot there and tells her that she will soon be a widow, as doctors have only given him six months to live. Saying that she wants him and not his money, she dares him to stay off liquor and keep her from being a rich widow. As the weeks pass, Dot remains at the ranch, despite Jerry's scorn and bouts with the DTs. When some old friends come to see Jerry, one of them, Mrs. Trent, tells him that Anne has called off her marriage to Tony. After they leave, Jerry is desperate for a drink and starts a violent quarrel with Dot. He is interrupted by Mac, his foreman, who has fallen in love with Dot and doesn't like the way Jerry has been treating her. Jerry fires Mac, but later that night goes to Dot's room to apologize for his behavior and spends the night. The next day, when Jerry's friend, Judge Barham, comes to discuss a divorce settlement, Dot is so hurt to discover that Jerry still wants to go through with it that she signs the papers and leaves, refusing to take the $10,000 settlement. Back in Chicago, Dot resumes living with Maizie and refuses to take phone calls from Jerry. One night, when Maizie has invited some men to their apartment, Jerry walks in and starts a fight when Dot refuses to speak with him alone. They are then arrested and taken to court, where Judge Barham speaks to the presiding judge and tells him what has happened. The judge then places Jerry on a bond to refrain from molesting his wife, but when Jerry finally is able to talk to Dot he asks for another chance and they reconcile.
West of Broadway
When we first meet Gilbert's Jerry Seevers, he's springing himself from a military hospital, with the help of his right-hand man, Swede (El Brendel). He's anxious to get back to his fiancée in New York, not realizing she's jilted him for another guy. To get back at her, he proposes to Dot (Moran), a low-class but extraordinarily principled tootsie. Dot thinks he's joking, but fueled by alcohol, he insists on going through with the marriage that night. The next day he tries to dispose of her, but she's already fallen in love with him and realizes he needs her help to straighten out. He tries to escape to his Arizona ranch, but she follows him, and there she's befriended by the polite, stalwart ranch foreman, Mac (Ralph Bellamy), who ultimately plays a role in changing Jerry's mind about his straight-talking, not-so-blushing bride.
West of Broadway brings together three actors whose careers would, in just a few years, veer in radically different directions. This was Bellamy's third film, and perhaps represented a tryout of sorts to see if he had what it took to be a leading man. Though this tall, sturdy, agreeable actor never became A-list leading-man material, he did become the go-to actor for certain types of supporting roles, most notably the suitor who doesn't quite get the girl. (He received an Academy Award nomination for playing just such a role in Leo McCarey's 1937 The Awful Truth.) Moran had appeared, to great acclaim, as Laurel Dallas in the 1925 Stella Dallas, though her real claim to fame may have been as the inspiration for Rosemary Hoyt in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night. West of Broadway was her last full-length film; in 1935 she would marry Clarence M. Young, the Assistant Secretary of Commerce, leaving Hollywood movies behind for good.
But it was Gilbert, perhaps, who had the most to lose at the time West of Broadway was made. As Bellamy wrote in his 1979 autobiography When the Smoke Hit the Fan, Gilbert -- who, in 1928, had been one of the highest-paid stars in Hollywood -- had just signed a costly two-year contract with MGM. But his voice, as it was recorded for early talkies, was too thin and reedy to be appealing. "They tried to get him to terminate the contract, but he wouldn't," Bellamy writes. "They put him in mediocre pictures, hoping he'd refuse to appear and thus break the contract, but he didn't." Gilbert was determined to make the successful transition into talkies, or at least to keep the money rolling in. During the shooting of West of Broadway, he told Bellamy, "I'll work out the contract cleaning spittoons, if they make me, for that kind of money."
As film historian Kevin Brownlow (who himself received an honorary Oscar® last year) points out in his study of the last years of silent film The Parade's Gone By..., there was nothing at all wrong with Gilbert's voice. Early sound recording made voices sound an octave or two higher than they really were; that meant baritones were particularly well-suited to early talking pictures, simply because of the technology's limitations at the time. According to Brownlow, Gilbert's "normal speaking voice was a pleasant tenor, which was eventually recorded properly, too late to save his foundering career, in Queen Christina (1933)."
Aside from the fact that Gilbert doesn't sound unusually squeaky in West of Broadway, he brings details and shading to his performance that suggests his career could have lasted much longer than it did. The day after his hasty marriage to Dot, Jerry appears before her to cajole her into agreeing to a divorce, and his hands, his head, his whole body are quivering visibly -- the character is clearly suffering from the DTs, and in this brief period of pre-Code tolerance, Gilbert was free to portray that. The character he plays here is bitter and disagreeable, particularly in comparison to Dot's soft, yielding, generosity. But in this particular scene, Jerry's shakiness betrays his vulnerability. It's the sort of unspoken detail that great actors of the silent era, like Gilbert, excelled at. Gilbert died in 1936, at age 38, and in The Parade's Gone By..., Brownlow echoes Bellamy's contention that the actor was undone by studio politics. He noted that Gilbert's contemporary, Louise Brooks, considered the failure of the actor's career to be "a deliberate act of sabotage" on the part of MGM. West of Broadway couldn't revive Gilbert's career. But it's proof, at least, that he didn't go down without a fight.
Director: Harry Beaumont
Screenplay: Ralph Graves, Bess Meredyth, Gene Markey
Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad
Editing: George Hively
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Cast: John Gilbert (Jerry Seevers), El Brendel (Axel 'Swede' Axelson), Lois Moran (Dot), Madge Evans (Anne), Ralph Bellamy (Mac), Frank Conroy (Judge Barham), Hedda Hopper (Mrs. Edith Trent).
by Stephanie Zacharek
(Stephanie is the chief movie critic for Movieline - www.movieline.com)
Ralph Bellamy, When the Smoke Hit the Fan, Doubleday, 1979
Kevin Brownlow, The Parade's Gone By, University of California Press, 1968
West of Broadway
According to the review in Motion Picture Herald, preview audiences in Glendale, CA laughed at the picture. The reviewer commented, "If it was the purpose of M-G-M to lead John Gilbert up to the guillotine and end the waning popularity of one of the most popular stars of the silver screen ever known, then West of Broadway is a great success...the picture May be described as the most monotonous piece of cinematic stupidity ever recorded." The Hollywood Reporter review noted, "John Gilbert holds little because the plot behind him holds nothing. His voice is satisfactory, while as a pantomimist he's the same John Gilbert. They might have given him kinder treatment."