Plot: An affluent household has just welcomed a new chauffeur, a charismatic chap named Karl (John Gilbert), who has plans to make the most of his new position and do whatever it takes to get what he wants. The home belongs to a Baron and Baroness who have a close knit relationship with the other servants, to the extent that they even hosted the recent nuptials of Anna (Virginia Bruce) and Albert (Paul Lukas), a house maid and the head butler. No sooner does Karl arrive than he has his eye on the married Anna, but first he begins to get close to the other servant women and seduces them, some with ill intentions behind his actions. As brash as Karl is, he seems to find the women receptive and continues his path of seduction, but will the Baroness and Anna figure out his game or will Karl wind up in control of the entire household?
Entertainment Value: The era of pre-code cinema is well populated with cads of all kinds, but few of these villains were as brash and memorable as John Gilbert as Karl, the nefarious chauffeur of Downstairs. He is smooth, cunning, and ambitious, willing to do whatever is needed to achieve his ends, even if that means leaving an entire household in ruins behind him. You can tell this is pre-code cinema, as there are affairs around every corner, a bold, open scene about passionate sex, and Karl’s karmic retribution is never assured, so this ticks a lot of boxes. Virginia Bruce’s exchange about the affair is remarkable and sure to turn some heads, but it also feels believable and adds some spark to the movie. The narrative is not all that unique, as we’ve seen a lot of these tales of ladders of seduction before, but the performances ratchet up the movie’s value and it is a little bolder than most, which also helps. I had fun with Downstairs and I think it is worth a look based on Gilbert’s performance and the wilder moments, but it is a solid overall picture as well.
His role here was a departure from the usual suave leading man parts he was known for, but John Gilbert handles the scoundrel quite well and to me, is the main reason the movie works as well as it does. He is immense fun to watch here, as the lout who toys with people and trashes their lives, all while trimming his nose hairs to remind us he couldn’t care less. But he doesn’t twirl a mustache and dial up to an over the top style villain, so the tone remains serious and that’s good in this case, so Gilbert finds just the right balance to strike. Not to be overlooked is Virginia Bruce, who shines in a few key sequences and really brings the heat in a confrontation with Paul Lukas, which proves to be the film’s most powerful exchange. Her performance overall is rock solid, but in that moment, she is electric. The cast also includes Hedda Hopper, Reginald Owen, Olga Baclanova, Bodil Rosing, and Otto Hoffman.