Gilbert was born – in a dressing room – to a family of opera performers and launched himself into vaudeville before hitting his ’teens. Stan Laurel spotted him in one such show and recommended him to Hal Roach, for whose studio Laurel and Hardy were working. From the start, Gilbert was a triple-threat talent, writing and directing in addition to taking acting roles, crossing paths with Thelma Todd and the Our Gang kids.
He made eleven films with Laurel and Hardy between 1931 and 1938, including the Academy Award-winning short “The Music Box” – the saga of hauling a piano up a forbidding flight of 131 stairs, only to discover that the top-hatted professor (Gilbert) who lives at their destination wants no part of it. “Piano? Piano? I hate and detest pianos!” he thunders. “They are mechanical blunderbusses!” (According to Gilbert, his German accent was intended to distinguish him from frequent Laurel and Hardy antagonists Edgar Kennedy and Jimmy Finlayson.)
|The Music Box|
Gilbert was a Johnny-on-the-spot for day-player work, and even cameos in a couple of classic horror films: “Mad Love” with Peter Lorre and the over-the-top “Devil Doll” with Lionel Barrymore and a menacing miniature woman. He could appear for a few seconds, as when he asks Chico Marx not to play the piano in “A Night at the Opera,” or sustain a supporting role such as Herring in Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.”
You get a taste of Gilbert as himself in his role as Master of Ceremonies in Eddie Cline’s “The Villain Still Pursued Her,” a misfired attempt to film a classic melodrama, putting Buster Keaton, Margaret Hamilton, Franklin Pangborn and many others to waste.
He’s in some early Three Stooges shorts, and his three short features with Shemp Howard, with whom he displayed a great vaudeville-oriented affinity. He brings out a tender, sympathetic side as the bartender who serves Frank Sinatra in “Anchors Aweigh.” He’s blusteringly officious in Olsen and Johnson’s “Crazy House” (which, if you take the Broadway show as a model, is more Hellzapoppin’-esque than their earlier “Hellzapoppin’”) But it’s his cameo as a process server in “His Girl Friday” that threatens to steal the picture out from under Cary Grant and ensemble, showing what Gilbert could do with just a few lines of dialogue and a derby hat.
Given his heritage, it’s not surprising he was drawn to musicals. On Broadway, he staged revivals of “The Red Mill” and “Sally” in the ’40s, had a singing role in “The Chocolate Soldier” in 1947 (he later reprised it for TV), and co-wrote the book for and performed in the short-lived musical “Buttrio Square” in 1952.
|His Girl Friday|
His legacy is a great quantity of moments, each of which he tempered to the story at hand. He usually was brought in to be blustery, but he was a chameleon of bluster, a one-man lesson in how to make an acting moment your own.