Here’s Rhett—You Asked for Him!
by James Reid
Modern Screen magazine, March 1940
As everyone including you had chosen Gable to play Rhett, he went thru with it— had time of life
“Do you suppose people will still recognize me?” asked Clark Gable.
He invited inspection of the rags he was wearing—faded, greasy, tan denim rages: the shreds of a French convict suit. He ran one hand through his hair, which looked as if it hadn’t been combed or cut for weeks. He scraped the same hand over a beard that had been weeks a-growing. He grinned with lips that a make-up man had just made look cracked and parched.
But he wasn’t commenting on his appearance in Strange Cargo so much as on his non-appearance in anything else since Idiot’s Delight—except Gone with the Wind. Which started way back in January, 1939, wasn’t premiered until December, 1939, and still hasn’t been seen except in a few special spots.
The Gable grin widened. “I hear some folks have forgotten what this phiz of mine looks like—they haven’t seen it in so long. And other folks wonder how I’ve changed—after spending the best years of my life in Gone with the Wind, to quote the wisecrackers.”
He shook his head whimsically. “It’s bad enough, worrying about what people expect Rhett Butler to be like, without worrying about what they expect Gable to be like.”
“One critic’s going to cause me trouble. I feel it in my bones. He said I ought to retire because I could never top my performance as Rhett. I like to be patted on the back as well as the next guy, but, boy, that pat has the makings of a knockout blow. I don’t want people getting the idea that, from here on, I’ll be slipping. God forbid. And I don’t want people going to see Gable in Gone with the Wind and coming way disappointed because they expected to see a super-Gable. There just ain’t no such animal.”
He fumbled for a cigarette in one pocket of the camel’s hair coat he was wearing over his rags between scenes. (The set was supposed to the edge of a tropical jungle, but the temperature was sub-Arctic.) He fumbled in the other pocket for a match. Then, having touched match to cigarette, he continued:
“I tried to duck that Rhett assignment, you know. I didn’t want any part of it. I had my neck out far enough; acting characters that only script writers had ideas about in advance, without sticking it out where everybody could take a swipe at it. Everybody this side of Tibet had read the book, and everybody had different ideas about Rhett, and it was a cinch I couldn’t please everybody.”
“They tried to tell me I was ‘everybody’s choice for the role.’ They showed me carloads of letters to ‘prove’ it. The only way that made me feel good was that, in case I did play the role and there were any complaints”—he grinned again—“I could always say, ‘Folks, you asked for it!’”
“Then they tried to make out that Margaret Mitchell had had me in mind when she created the character. That didn’t go down with me. The book came out in 1936. She had been writing it for three solid years before that, and planning it for years before that. According to my figuring, she thought of Rhett Butler long before anybody, anywhere, thought of me twice.”
“I had an answer for all their arguments except one. That one floored me. It was: if I played Rhett, Selznick would release the picture through MGM, which would mean a lot to the home team.” He sounded like a fellow who went out for football for good old alma mater, not because he wanted to play football.
Clark laughed. “Yeah, I don’t think I wanted to play. But once I got into the spirit of the thing, I played my fool head off. And had a good time doing it—with Victor Fleming coaching and with running mates like Leigh and Howard and de Havilland. The only thing that bothers me is: I still don’t know what kind of showing I made.”
“I like the picture; I think it’s a good one; but that doesn’t mean a thing. I got paid for making it. Besides, any ham likes any picture that gives him a meaty role. And what critics say doesn’t mean much, either. They see shows on passes. The opinion I’m waiting for is the opinion of the fellow who plunks down thirty-five cents of his own hard-earned dough to see it. Meanwhile, I’m not retiring.”
Suiting the action to the word, he took time out for a scene with Joan Crawford, who was also in rags and was also presumably perishing from thirst. He left behind him an impression that playing the one and only Rhett Butler in a way to start talk of a second Academy Award hadn’t gone to the Gable head; he was still blowing himself down, as always. When he came back and lighted another cigarette, he added to the impression.
“The thing that worried me most about that role was saying my lines like I had been reared at some mammy’s knee. About the second day on the picture, I met a girl on the set who was from Charleston, South Carolina. You know—the place Rhett hailed from. You would have sworn she was Scotch. That was how she talked. I said, ‘Tell me, does everybody in Charleston talk the way you do?’ She said, ‘Everybody.’ From that day on, I relaxed. I had the perfect alibi, in case anybody didn’t think my Southern accent was thick enough. I was from Charleston, suh.”
Again that Gable grin—that you’ll-have-to-pardon-me-if-I’m-myself grin.
“Something I can’t figure out,” he said after a smoke-blowing pause, “is why people expect you to be different off-screen when you do something different on the screen. I’m getting that now. People say to me, ‘But Mr. Gable, you couldn’t be Rhett for months on end without its having some effect on you!’ They’re so positive about it, they’ve got me doing a double take every time I look in a mirror—to make sure I’m seeing straight.”
“Why, in the name of common logic, should Rhett change my whole life? The picture was in production five months; the rest of the time it was in the cutting-room and the Technicolor works. I was in it about two and a half months. I worked longer in both Mutiny on the Bounty and San Francisco. And the only times I worked at being Rhett, during those two and a half months, was when I was in front of a camera. Maybe you can picture me trying to be Rhett around home. You know the ribbing I’d get. No mercy whatsoever.”
In other words, you know Carole Lombard.
It was all right, his asserting that he had had a few spare moments this past year to be Clark Gable. But that wasn’t saying that he hasn’t changed, even if Rhett hasn’t changed him. What had he been doing in those spare moments?
“Getting calluses on my hands,” he said, “instead of where I used to get them. I’ve reverted to type. I’ve gone dirt-farmer. My dad was a dirt-farmer. I grew up on a farm. A 300-acre one, back in Ohio. I milked cows, and plowed fields, and pitched hay, and cultivated corn, until was good and sick of it—at 17. I said then I never wanted to see another farm, except from something moving fast. Now I’m eating my words.”
“I got fed up with being walled in, or hedged in, to get some privacy. So I bought those fourteen acres out at Encino. It had a house, just week-end size, hidden from the road by an orange grove. There wasn’t much room inside, but there was plenty of room outside to move around, without bothering anybody or having anybody bother me.”
“I started going there on Saturdays and Sundays, to loaf in peace and quiet. Then I discovered something I’d forgotten: you can’t loaf on a farm. Or ranch, as they call it out in this country. You see too many things that need doing. So I started doing a few things around the place, and I discovered something else I’d forgotten: when you start working with your hands, you stop worrying about other things. Hollywood was only forty-five minutes away, but when I got out to Encino, there wasn’t anything to remind me of it, or acting, or any of the rest of it.”
“I got some free time soon after I bought the place. I spent it out there. That cinched it. I wanted to live there. I wanted to keep my eye on the alfalfa.” He grinned. “So—I started fixing up the house, and added a couple of rooms, Then I went at the barn. I took a trip out to the Adohr Milk Farms and looked the establishment over; then I built a replica of it, in every detail—for three cows. Then I started looking over the fields and orchards.”
“All the farm machinery out in this country is big stuff; too big for a place the size of mine. So I sent back to Indiana for a one-man harrow, and a reaper, and some other stuff–and a mule to haul it. Yeah, I’ve even got a mule. And chickens. Brother, when I eat a chicken, I know what went into the bird. And I know my scrambled eggs are fresh. And those vegetables—they taste like nothing you can get in town.”
“No, I’m not making any money off the place. This is just a play farm. It’s costing me money. But no more than it would cost me to live in town. And think of the fresh air I’m getting free.”
“The hired help consists of one farmer and one handy man. I get a kick out of my farmer. He says every morning, ‘If we don’t have rain pretty soon we’ll never have any alfalfa. I was talking to So-and-So yesterday, and he says the same thing. There won’t be any crop of it if it doesn’t rain pretty soon.’ The only difference between So-and-So and us being that So-and-So had a hundred acres in alfalfa—and we have three.”
He lighted a fresh cigarette.
“I understand the word’s out that Gable’s changed—he’s keeping people at a distance. Because I put up an electric gate and a No Trespassing sign. Let me tell you how that happened. I was working out by the barn late one afternoon when a car with three men drove in. One of them was in uniform.
He got out and came over to where the famer and I were putting some pipe together. ‘Mr. Gable—?’ he said. ‘I drive for one of the bus companies that make regular tours of the Valley. We pass by your place every day. Mighty pretty place. We think folks would like to see it. Would you be willing to let us drive in? We wouldn’t stop or anything. I’ve been looking over the layout—and the bus could turn around right over there.’ He pointed. Before I could say anything, my farmer said, ‘Why you–! Git!’ And he got.”
“How would you like it if strangers just opened your gate and wandered in, at odd hours?” Clark demanded. “Wouldn’t you want to get a gate they couldn’t open? I’m no hermit. I’m an easy guy to meet during working hours. But when I get home, I want to be able to relax. You feel the same way. Anybody does.”
What about that story that his swimming pool was going to be something new for Hollywood—a replica of the old swimmin’ hole, with grassy banks and an overhanging oak tree for a springboard?
“Don’t believe everything you read,” he chided. “I happened to tell a press-agent one day in a weak moment that when, and if, I built a swimming pool, it wasn’t going to be one of those deluxe, marble, Hollywood kind—and, by the time he got through working on it, it was quite a story. Don’t worry; I’m not going to have to climb a tree to take a dive. I’ll have a springboard. I like modern conveniences.”
He tried to think of other ways he had changed this past year, besides going back to the soil and getting a new bang out of life.
“Well,” he said, “my taste in cars has changed—if that proves anything. I’m through with speed and splash. I’ve simmered down. I brought a new coupe yesterday and I asked for something plain. Dark. Inconspicuous.”
“I was driving Carole home in it last night and I noticed she kept flicking her cigarette ashes out of the window. I asked her why didn’t she use the ashtray. ‘What ashtray?’ she said. I looked all over the dashboard. There wasn’t one in sight. ‘What kind of car is this?’ I said. ‘There’s got to be an ashtray somewhere. Look in the instruction book.’ So Carole looked, and she said, ‘It says if you press here—‘ and she pressed. Down came a section of the dashboard with a whopper of an ashtray. All you have to do to make it disappear is push up the panel. That’s pretty fancy for Farmer Gable.”
He couldn’t remember the last time he had been in a nightclub. Or to a big Hollywood party attended by all the right people.
“I don’t see what difference it would make if I went, so I stay away. You can go to all the parties in town, play politics to a fare-you-well, work overtime to impress this big shot or that—but if that fellow who plunks down thirty-five cents at the box office doesn’t like you, it’s curtains. All that counts in this business is how you do up there on the screen. That’s what I’m saving my energy for.”
“And that’s why I don’t have any plans for the future. I’m not the one who’s going to decide how long I’m going to keep on acting. The fans are going to decide that. All I know if that I have a contract here for two years more. After that—I don’t know a thing. Nobody does.”
This was pretty modest talk, coming from the man of the hour. But he wasn’t talking just for publication. He has made blowing himself down a habit. For example, a few days before, a distinguished visitor from Greece had told him, upon meeting him, “You know, Mr. Gable, you’re as well-known in Greece as you are in America.” It took Clark just one second flat to answer, “Yeah, I know. That’s why I’ve never been to Greece.”
As long as he keeps that sense of humor, you don’t have to worry about his losing his balance or letting roles or publicity or Hollywood or dirt-farming or marriage change him so that you can’t recognize him.
Speaking of marriage, that seems to be doing all right, too. Because the interview ended with his being called to the telephone. “Mrs. Gable calling,” said the messenger. “Mrs. Gable,” notice. Not “Miss Lombard.”