The Only Girl on a Gable Location
By Muriel Babcock
Screenland magazine, November 1935
Yo, ho, ho and a close-up of Clark and the other “Mutiny on the Bounty” boys
There’s an old sailor’s tradition that a woman aboard ship bodes no good.
If that be true, Mr. Clark Gable, Mr. Charles Laughton, Mr. Franchot Tone, and others of the crew of the good ship Bounty, beautiful old square-rigger which you will see in the picture, “Mutiny on the Bounty,” had better look out!
For a woman did sail that ship for two long days on the blue Pacific, just off the Isthmus of Catalina. The woman was your scribe, who clambered up the wave-slapped, slippery sides of the ship and, tucked away back of a couple of smelly, dead sharks and a barrel of imitation tropical fruit, watched Clark and other hardy, (1935 model), film buccaneers re-enact scenes of England’s most famous maritime mutiny.
Yes, I am one of the few females ever to ride the deck of the Bounty, and believe you me, there never was a thrill like it. On the days of my visit, I was the only woman on board, the only female within miles! (No, there are no Jean Harlows or Joan Crawfords in the film—just some Tahitian maidens and they stayed on land in the shade of the palm trees).
In addition to the thrill of riding that beautiful old ship—for I am one who likes the sea—there was the added zest of knowing that there was no female competition and would be none unless a nasty old Channel swimmer hove in sight, to snatch from me the attention of a Gable or a Laughton or any of the other gallant gentlemen of the ship.
Speaking of a Gable, you’ve never seen anything until you’ve seen Clark at sea. It was surprising how handsome and attractive he looked against this background of sea and ship. Barefooted he was, shirt open at the neck, old-fashioned breeches flapping around his knees, hair rumpled in the wind. He looked extraordinarily rugged and even more handsome, I believe, than when all slicked up with mustache and well-cut tailored suits in his more modern settings.
And for the first time, I believe, I talked to the real Gable. He confided to me, as we perched ourselves on a couple of old barrels on the wind-swept deck, that he loved this sort of thing. That he felt he was intended to be a man of the outdoors, and that in pictures like this and “China Seas” he felt a deeper satisfaction than in any of the more debonair sophisticated things he is called upon to play.
“This is almost a vacation for me,” he said with a grin. “Almost, not quite. You know what my idea of a real one would be? I’d fly in my own plane from here to Rio de Janiero, and find out about some of that wild, untraveled tropical jungle of Central and South America, see some of that fascinating beauty of those South American cities I’m always reading about, and then take the Graf-Zeppelin—boy, what a ship and what a thrill—to Europe, see a few sights incognito, and fly back. It could all be done in a month and think of the territory covered.”
Yes, that was the Gable who loves speed, action, adventure—and beauty! But I am getting ahead of my story. I am talking about Clark Gable entirely, and I know you want to hear the whole story of the exciting Bounty location trip.
Sailors’ superstitions be hanged! There were no mishaps those days because of a woman on board. No mishaps? Well of course—
There was the day that Laughton, as the tight-lipped, stern disciplinarian Captain Bligh, slipped on the deck when the bounty took a great lurch and almost went overboard.
And it was at 1:30am the next morning, coming back from Avalon by speed-boat, that twenty-three of the men, (no stars in the lot), ran afoul of a reef a mile from shore and jammed three holes in the bottom of their boat. For thirty long minutes, while the boat filled with water, and they bailed frantically, they sent up SOS signals with a pocket flashlight which were finally and luckily seen by a tugboat captain smoking a final pipe before he went to bed. (Of course, you know later, off Santa Barbara, a camera man did lose his life heroically).
And there was the day that Clark, amusing himself between scenes by taking pot-shots at live sharks which flipped in the waves off the boat, dropped a handful of shells on deck and a few moments later, running its length barefooted, stepped on one and so injured his foot that he had to have medical aid.
And you’ve never seen such a near-catastrophe as took place when your female scribe tried to get off the Bounty. She slipped on the wet ladder going down the side of the ship and was only rescued from a plunge into the water where she would have been, if not drowned, crushed between tossing water-taxi and rolling ship.
And there never were such frightful sunburns incurred by one and all that day, Clark not excluded. But trivial matters, all, said we, at the time.
Here’s my running story of the whole trip. Maybe you’d like to hear the details in case a Bounty and ship-load of barefoot actors come into your life some day!
If you’re going from Hollywood, you ride the film boat from San Pedro wharf direct to the Isthmus, some ten miles across Channel. The boat makes it once a day carrying passengers and supplies. And so, surrounded by eight twenty-gallon gasoline tanks, four cartons of strawberries, two dead sharks, (to be used for Bounty atmosphere), and six milk cans, I started my great expedition.
The sky was clear. The stars were shining. The sea was choppy and rough; but by sticking my head out of the side and missing the strong gasoline odor, I managed to keep the stomach quiet. (I am told Mr. Franchot Tone, making the same trip the night previous, was not so fortunate! On Mr. Gable’s trip, he yelled for more speed!) At 12:30am, we sighted land and the huge camp, “City of Men,” wherein were parked the hardy crew of actors and technicians, et al, for MGM’s “Mutiny on the Bounty.” There was a cottage reserved for me, and I fell instantly into its waiting bed.
At 5:30 the next morning—it seemed middle of the night—a siren blew. Well, go to the fire. But no, it was just the first call for breakfast. Another siren blew at six; and at 6:30, I found myself at breakfast in the camp’s main dining hall with an extremely sleepy-eyed Clark Gable, a silent Charles Laughton, and a very charmingly pleasant Director Frank Lloyd. (You know, of course, that most men are really not fit to speak to in the morning until they’ve had their coffee, and I would say that Mr. Laughton and Mr. Gable, charming as their manners were later on the day, would be no exception to this rule. Mr. Lloyd, by the time I arrived at the table, had had his coffee!)
Incidentally, forgetting the rule, I remarked brightly to Mr. Gable that it looked like a fine day, and after a terrific effort, he brought forth a smile and a mumble: Yes, it might be, but he hoped it wasn’t windy. Mr. Laughton merely remarked bitterly that if he got any more sunburned, he couldn’t work anymore. After the first few sips of coffee, they looked much brighter, and by the time we fell into another water-taxi—it was the same I had ridden the evening previous, only now it was headed for sea—the conversation was a little more stimulating, although far from brilliant.
Incidentally, would you like to know what they ate for breakfast, these film idols? Well, Mr. Gable, I must report, is a sissy eater. He had a glass of lime juice and two cups of coffee. No scrambled eggs or sausages for him. Not even a bit of dry toast. I thought he looked longingly at Charlie Laughton’s well-filled plate, but I couldn’t be sure until he told me later—goodness, bit then; he hardly mumbled a word then—that he had to watch his diet. Clark Gable watching his diet!
“I haven’t eaten a boiled potato in years,” he told me. “And I love ‘em. I come from a family of big men. Fatness is a family trait. I had a grand old uncle with a stomach like John L. Sullivan’s and six double chins. Well, I resemble him in features, but I don’t try the double chins. So it’s no beans or potatoes or any of the hearty foods I like, For Gable.”
The Bounty, anchored off the Isthmus every night, had already started out to sea under power of its auxiliary motor, and we caught up with it some three miles distant and clambered up its side. The deck of the Bounty, as I viewed it for the first time, was a sight never to be forgotten. As you know, the ship is a replica of the famous old vessel which sailed from England to Tahiti back in 1700. It is ninety feet long, has a twenty-four foot bean, and carried three masts, the mizzen, fore mast, and main mast. It is what is known technically as a square-rigger and in the early morning calm, its sails were still to be furled.
Sprawling on the deck, standing, sitting, or lounging against boxes, was the all-male cast, a picturesque sight in stripped sailor pants, bare feet, and colored ‘kerchiefs around their heads. The real crew, regular San Pedro seamen, were, much to their disgust, in the same garb as the cast. They had to be so costumed for atmosphere; but later in the day when close-ups were in order, they made a quick change to their grease-smudged blue jeans and flannel shirts and square-toed shoes.
The first scene on tap was that in the story where the sailors, after being becalmed for days, catch a whiff of wind. Clark, as Fletcher Christian, excitedly runs the length of the deck, and Mr. Laughton, as Captain Bligh, follows him.
The first I knew work was under way came with a sharp call from Director Lloyd: “Have we a captain on board? Get your hat off, Mr. Laughton, and let’s get going!” For Mr. Laughton, still wary of the beating rays of the sun, was lolling in what shadow he could find, a lovely white 1935 duck hat pulled securely over his face.
Over and over, they took that scene. And then close-ups. And then some shots of Donald Crisp as Seaman Burkett, fighting with hungry, snarling shipmates over the catch of a shark. It was, surprisingly, much as if you were watching movies made within the four walls of a studio stage, save for the background of the tall masts of the old square-rigger with its flopping sails and the blue Pacific.
My attention concentrated on Clark—(what female’s wouldn’t?). I found him putting extraordinary vigor and power into his scenes; and then between shots, he was alike a great big kid. For the most part, he acted more like an ingratiating, irresponsible small boy than a great big he-man. Always between scenes he was forever playing, and more excited about the possible chance of potting a live shark with his revolver, which he had brought along, than the scene to be shot. Once I thought Director Lloyd was going to have to reprimand him seriously for his romping. Someone had yelled, “There’s your shark, Clark,” and forgetting his scene, he had grabbed his gun and rushed to take aim. The cameras were set, the lighting was right, and Lloyd wanted action. He yelled, “Take your places!” Everyone but Clark was ready. Lloyd yelled again, “Come on, Clark, let the shark go.” Looking very much like a disappointed small boy called to supper from playing pirates, Clark came back to work.
Laughton was a great surprise to me. I thought, why, I don’t know, that he would be extremely British and stand-offish and very dignified. He was completely the opposite. Much more adult in his actions than Clark, he too relaxed between scenes, but by sitting and chatting of everything with prop boy or actor or—yours truly.
I was fascinated to watch him go into a scene. In a second, with a twist of the shoulder, a flicker of an eyelid, he goes into character, is completely the sinister, stern English sea captain. His stride down the deck carried more power and more authority than I thought possible in a little man. The way he planted his feet on the deck, the way he carried his shoulders, changed him instantly from a pleasant person into that ominous captain whose every move exuded cruel power.
Franchot Tone is invariably bored. He had no scenes on board ship that day, but I saw him in the evening on land nonchalantly putting nickels in the marble machine. He looked surprised at my appearance and inquired, “What, for heaven’s sake, are you doing here?” And when I told him, he said, “My, it doesn’t seem possible anyone would deliberately choose such an assignment!” And when the rest of the gang left for an evening’s frolic at Avalon, and Gable, resplendent in white flannels, tried to persuade Franchot to go along in Clark’s specially chartered speed boat, Franchot wouldn’t be bothered.
Well, the day went on and the days’ shooting. A wind came up right after lunch, (served below deck), and the sails of the Bounty were unfurled to the breeze—I hope that’s the right nautical term! Anyway, full sail we went with the wind. I have never seen a lovelier sight than the Bounty in full sail. The breeze became stiffer and stiffer, and coats and sweaters were donned; bit still the cameras ground until nearly six, when fog rolled in.
When there’s fog on the Pacific, and you have a motion picture to make, you just—like Greta Garbo—go home, call it a day, and put on the sunburn ointment. At least, that’s what happened to us of the Bounty.
After dinner with only roast beef, roast veal, fried potatoes, two kinds of vegetables, soup, salad, apple pie, ice cream, and coffee—you have no appetite at all on the sea!—everybody boarded water-taxis once more and went off to Avalon where there is a real motion picture theatre, to see the rushes run. And if I still entertained any notions about Mr. Charles Laughton being sedate and prim, I lost them then. There was a little delay getting the theatre lights turned on and out of the darkness from the stage came the sound of a tap dance. As the lights blazed, there was Mr. Laughton, enjoying himself hugely as he executed a soft-shoe number all by himself. When the gang yelled their approval, he bowed and recited the Gettysburg address.
The next day, “The City of Men” on the Isthmus lost its official classification. The Joan Crawford company, making “I Live My Life,” moved into camp for scenes on some old Greek ruins constructed high on a hill overlooking the bay. Women arrived in numbers, and I lost my ranking as “the only female.” And so I went home.
En route to the mainland in water-taxi, we struck fog, los to our course, and almost hit an enormous freighter which loomed, foghorn squawking, out of the darkness. Somehow, that old sailor’s superstition “A woman aboard ship…” kept coming into my mind and it ever looked so good to be back on the mainland. But I won’t forget Gable in a hurry!