Lukas is Albert, the head butler and chief of servants at the Austrian mansion of Baron von Burgen. Things are going swimmingly, as Albert has just married the pretty ladies' maid Anna (Virginia Bruce). The wedding coincides with the arrival of Karl, the new chauffeur (Gilbert). Karl is an evil schemer, who winds up sleeping with half of the residents of the Bergen mansion and blackmailing the other half. He seduces poor Anna, as well as Sophie, the homely, middle-aged cook, from whom he extracts her entire life savings. Karl wants to run away with Anna, but Albert isn't going to sit back and let that happen.
Downstairs was taken from an original story by Gilbert, who sold the story to MGM for $1 so the film would get made. Gilbert, a huge star in the silent era whose career had tanked with the advent of talking films, had hoped that this movie would revive his career, so one might wonder why he wrote for himself the role of the irredeemable evil blackmailer. The film was a flop as were all of Gilbert's other talking films, and Gilbert's film career ground to a halt well before he died of a heart attack in 1936, but Downstairs is remembered today as one of Gilbert's best talking films and one of the best films of the pre-Code era. This film, along with all of Gilbert's other talkies, also disproves the myth that his career collapsed because of a high voice that was unsuitable to talking film.
This film exhibits the following tropes:
- Blackmail: Karl blackmails the mistress of the house, Baroness von Burgen (Olga Baclanova, Freaks) after she has Karl drive her to an assignation with her lover.
- "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: Inverted.Baroness: Do you realize that this is blackmail?Karl: That's just the word I was trying to remember.
- The Cameo: An uncredited Karen Morley (Scarface) appears in the last scene as Karl's new employer.
- Comforting Comforter: Albert returns to his and Anna's room after their big confrontation in which she admitted she cheated on him. He finds her sleeping on the couch. He carries her to their bed, and tucks her in.
- Dramatic Irony: Karl tells Anna a sob story about how he's had a hard life, always fending for himself, he'd never been in love before, and he didn't know how to treat a good girl like her. He says he'll walk away forever. She says an emotional "Goodbye?", and his predatory evil grin as she faces away from him reveals that he's conning her.
- Driving a Desk: Very, very obvious when Karl is driving the Baroness around.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: The film makes it clear that Karl likes to sleep around.Karl: [addressing his former employer] I thought that I had given madam full satisfaction.
- Here We Go Again!: The film ends with Karl entering into the employment of another rich lady.
- Ironic Echo Cut: A servant is counting the drinks that are being set out for a party at the mansion. Cut, without missing a beat and in perfect number sequence, to Karl counting the money he's stolen from Sophie.
- Karma Houdini: Albert calls Karl's bluff, physically attacks him, and throws him out on his ear. But the film ends with Karl entering into the employment of another rich lady, up to his old tricks.
- Literal Ass-Kicking: Albert does this after calling Karl's bluff and while throwing him out of the mansion at the end of the film.
- Match Cut: The camera focuses tightly on a loose button of Karl's coat, swinging on a thread after Anna ripped the coat off of him. Cut to the windshield wiper in a car moving back and forth as Albert and the Baron ride home from the Baron's fishing trip.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: After Albert confronts her about her infidelity, Anna lets him have it, basically saying that his neglect drove her into Karl's arms.Anna: All right, you good, good man. Ill stop this kind of talk. You believe exactly what you want to believe, but you listen. Whatevers happened, some of its your fault. Some of it. You think you can make love in the same frozen way you do everything else and you think thats all I should ever have any wish for? Well, I tell you plain and straight right now, its nothing of the kind. I meant no harm. I dont want anything but you in my home. But if youre going to be so good, and so perfect, and so unforgiving, then I cant have that. Then I thank heaven there is something else. Something that makes you so dizzy that you dont know whats happened and you dont care. Now you go ahead and believe anything you like.
- Sexy Discretion Shot: Karl kisses Anna. The camera pans away to Anna's figurine of a ballerina under a glass dome, sitting on a table. Karl's coat gets thrown on top of the figurine.
- Your Cheating Heart: The Baroness is carrying on an affair. Later, Anna breaks down and sleeps with Karl.