Gable and Taylor Rivals?
By Charles Darnton
Screenland magazine, June 1937
Of course, it’s an unusual situation. For that matter, there has never been one like it. For here are not only the two most popular actors in the world. Clark Gable, long-reigning favorite, and Robert Taylor, new idol of the screen, but they are stars of the same motion picture company and both working on the same lot.
Ticklish is no word for it! With this delicate state of affairs people are thinking, even saying, they must be deadly rivals. Everything considered, this is natural enough to suppose. In fact, it isn’t hard to believe. Small wonder, then, that Hollywood wiseacres go about shaking their heads and muttering darkly. They fondly hope for the worst. Nothing, in their cherished opinion, could possibly be worse unless it were two actresses put on the same spot. Then, oh joy! Hair would be pulled and eyes scratched out. But if ladies are never gentlemen, as some sage gas shrewdly observed, actors always are—anyway, appear to be.
As for appearances, it would be difficult—does someone protest impossible?—to improve upon Mr. Gable and Mr. Taylor. Yet there are those who suspect they may smile in bowing acquaintance and still have knives up their sleeves. Or, another happy thought, they may shake hands like prizefighters formally introduced in the ring and at the same time only be waiting to slaughter each other in hot blood.
If you can believe all you hear, this is how it is. But is it? Why heed wild rumors, accept snap judgments, reach irresponsible conclusions? Why not get this straight from Clark & Bob?
“I see Mr. Taylor as a rival!” marvels Mr. Gable, spreading his four-square smile. “Never even thought of such a thing. Bob’s a fine boy, a fine-looking boy, a young, healthy, virile, clean, intelligent American boy, and God knows we need more of them in this business. I’m glad he came along. He has taken some of the burden off my shoulders, and I’m grateful to him. I’ve worked plenty. I do too many pictures. I’d rather do less and be seen less. For a long time Bob Montgomery and I were the only leading men on the lot, and we were kept going from one woman star to another. Bill Powell has been here for only the last year and a half. Then Spencer Tracy joined the gang. Now, with Taylor, there are five of us. And as for Bob all I can say, and say it from the heart, is welcome to our Culver City.”
Mr. Taylor is all but diffident as he hesitates to say: “I don’t know how Gable feels about me, but I’d like to be a pal of his. He’s completely a man. When I came here people kept asking, ‘Why don’t you get acquainted with Clark?’ I told them, ‘He doesn’t want any of me.’ You see, I felt he was too big to be bothered with small-fry. So for a long time it was just a case of ‘Hello’ or ‘How are you?’ when we happened to pass on the lot. I’d been a fan of his ever since seeing him in ‘Free Soul’—still am. After that picture I talked about him for weeks, then did more talking when I saw him in ‘The Secret Six.’ But I didn’t have the nerve to talk to him on the lot. Finally there was a matter of business I wanted his advice on, and I got up guts enough to ask him if he’d let me see him about it. He opened up like a book, and he’s been swell ever since. Now we go to lunch together, and I get a big kick out of it. My being a leading man hasn’t made any difference. I couldn’t be a rival of his even if I were chump enough to have any such fool idea.”
Mr. Gable: “I never look on anyone playing with me, or for the same production company, as a rival. No good actor is a rival, he’s an asset. Everyone has his own individual way of doing things, and I never felt I had something that no one else had.”
Mr. Taylor: “No one, least of all myself, could be a rival of Gable, any more than anyone might have been of Valentino. Clark is in a class by himself. He can’t be likened to any other actor, no more than two fingerprints can be alike.”
So that’s cleared up! But you are now befrogged by something else—two high-powered stars speaking of themselves as leading men. What is this, undue modesty?
“That’s the way I figure myself,” explains Mr. Gable. “When I came into pictures I hadn’t the faintest notion of ever becoming a star. Such a possibility never entered my head. Far from it, I didn’t think I could even be a leading man, for at that time leading men were different from those of today. I wasn’t a pretty boy. And, anyway, they didn’t think much of stage actors then. They’d rather have a good-looking doorman or a truck-driver. My looks, romantically, weren’t worth a nickel. I’d never have got my foot in at all if it hadn’t been for gangster pictures. All that saved me was that I could look tough.”
“I certainly don’t consider myself a star,” declares Mr. Taylor. “I’m more than satisfied with the way things are going. That’s all right with me, good enough and a whole lot better than I ever expected. I suppose it’s only natural for some guys to dream of being another Gable, but I’m not funny that way. And, when you stop to figure ‘em out, the odds are all against this starring thing. All you have to do is consider the fact that there aren’t many stars compared with all the people who try to get to the top. I’m content to be right where I am. Anyway, I literally can’t be a star unless I’m billed as ‘Robert Taylor in Something-or-Other.’ Not that I want to be. It’s a mystery to me how I ever got this far. I put it all down to luck.”
You may put it down to something more. But with Robert Taylor it’s all in the lap of the gods—and maybe a few goddesses.
“I was lucky to get anywhere,” Mr. Gable is grateful to say. “It’s all in the luck of the game. But popularity in pictures is very temporary. It may be for this year, then it’s gone forever. You’re up today and down tomorrow. There’s no use trying to keep it up. You just have to struggle along and make the best of it. But the trouble today is that the average beginner wants to start as a star and work down. He needn’t worry about the working-down part—there’s sure to be plenty of people to help him. What has helped me most of all is experience. I’ve had seventeen years of it. Best of all was that I got in theatrical stock companies. It’s unfortunate we haven’t them today, for there’s no other place where an actor gets such valuable training. It’s like an interne learning to be a doctor. Bob Taylor is fortunate for having studied in the studio dramatic class. He came out of it knowing something about the work he was going to do. I only hope there’ll be more like him. We haven’t enough young actors to fill the bill. It is because of the lack of them that there are so many foreign actors in American pictures. Not that I object to them generally. But I don’t think it a good idea to have foreigners play American characters, for no matter how good they are they can’t be convincing. It takes actors like Taylor to play those parts. When I started I was at least what might be called a home-grown, or garden variety of actor. Sprouting in Akron, after coming down from the Ohio back-hills, I was just about as green as they come. With Taylor it was different. He came out of college, where he had played in the dramatic society. But it was simply the glamour of the theatre that got me. I’d sit pop-eyed in the gallery watching the actors and say, ‘Oh God, if I could only do that!’”
“I didn’t want to be an actor,” discloses Mr. Taylor. “But I did want to be the next thing to it, an orator. Maybe I just liked to hear myself talk. Be this as it may, I was strong on lung-power. When the dramatic society at Pomona was planning to do ‘Journey’s End’ I was all set to go to an oratorical contest in Seattle, having already been to one in Detroit. I changed my mind for purely a sentimental reason. I took the part of Stanhope simply because that was my mother’s maiden name. But I thought it would be my last stab at acting. Not knowing there was a studio casting director in the audience. I was amazed when I got a letter from him. It meant just one thing to me—a job. Dad, who was a doctor, had died three months before, so my source of income stopped. I had to go to work, and here was a chance to make thirty-five dollars a week. After six months I was getting fifty, but felt I wasn’t anywhere and made up my mind to quit. A friend thought he could get me a job in a San Bernadino bank at sixty-five dollars a month. I was all for it when the studio pushed me into a picture. I might have been better off and a lot happier f I’d taken the bank job. Then I could have settled down in a small place, probably got married and maybe raised a family. Of course, you can marry and may raise a family in Hollywood, but it’s lots harder.”
“I’ve done all kinds of work and in looking for it gone more places than a Fuller brush man,” Mr. Gable tells you. “But acting is the only kind I really like. Taylor, in time, will probably get to feel the same way about it. So far as that goes, he has every reason to feel so now. Somebody has said, unless I’ve forgotten my lines, we live and learn. That goes for me in Hollywood. But I’ve probably learned more from men than women.”
On this point Mr. Taylor admits: “An actress can mean an awful lot to an actor. If he has any doubt about what to do she can key a whole scene for him and make it go—that is, if she’s a good actress. But Gable knows exactly what to do before he goes into a scene. He doesn’t need any help.”
“Bob has come along like no other actor in the business,” warmly adds Mr. Gable, “and instead of looking on him as a rival I’m mighty proud of him.”
“Clark is so big,” glows Mr. Taylor, “that all I can do is look up to him.”
So there they are—just like big and kid brothers!