Director: Monta Bell
Cast: John Gilbert, Virginia Bruce, Paul Lucas, Bodil Rosing, Reginald Owen, Olga Baclanova, Hedda Hopper
Karl (Gilbert) arrives at his job as the new chauffer for the Baron and Baroness von Burgen (Owen and Balcanova) on the day of the butler, Albert’s (Lucas) wedding to Anna (Bruce), the Baroness’ maid. Everyone is charmed by Karl, but soon he proves to be a cad, trying to steal money from the cook, seducing Anna, and blackmailing the Baroness.
Watching Downstairs, it’s kind of hard to believe Gilbert’s sound career didn’t work out. Sure, he didn’t have voice most expected him to have when they watched him in silent films, but this movie is just a tour de force for him. Not only does he star in it, he also wrote the story, which is a pretty impressive one. And his performance is amazing. It’s kind of interesting to see a character who is so completely irredeemable, yet so charming at the same time. He’s a horrible person, but he’s attractive and sexy, and Gilbert owns the role completely. After watching him play the romantic hero so often in silent film, it’s amazing to see such a transformation.
Gilbert’s definitely the high point of the film. While the rest of the cast isn’t bad, they don’t shine the way he does. Virginia Bruce does give a very good performance, and I think she’s more beautiful here than she ever was. And, like I said, it is a very good performance. Anna becomes quite the complicated character. She starts out as a sweet, innocent wife. Then, when Karl seduces her, she’s almost overwhelmed with guilt. But the confrontation scene between her and her husband shows a different side. While she still feel guilty, she shows a strength and a morality that’s not exactly black and white. She’s sorry, but lays a good deal of the blame on her husband, for loving her in a way completely void of passion.
Paul Lukas is decent, compared to Karl and Anna, the character of Albert is pretty boring, even after his passion rises after discovering the affair. He’s a character that’s hard to like or feel really sorry for. In this case, all the sympathy goes to Anna in this situation.
Downstairs is a very tight and well told drama. All the scenes flow together very nicely. It’s really perfectly paced. Not a shot feels out of place or tacked on. They all tie into the story. And it’s so full of pre-code goodness. The fact alone that the main character is basically a villain is something you wouldn’t see in just a few films. Same with the fact that the wife is committed adultery and is still the heroine of the story in the end. And then there’s Karl’s ending, who seems to pay for his sins in the house of the Baron and Baronss. But after leaving that job, he simply moves on to another one, presumably to pull the same tricks yet again.
By Katie Richardson