Hollywood’s Hold on Gable
by Gladys Hall
Modern Screen magazine, July 1940
“Nope, no retirement plans,” Clark Gable told me after emerging with Claudette Colbert from a rickety dance hall on the set of “Boom Town.”
“You’re going back on your given words,” I reminded him, after we were comfortably settled in his pine-paneled portable dressing room at one end of the muddy “Boom Town” street. “Three years ago, you told me that you would retire at the expiration of your contract, which then had three years to go. You were decisive about it and documented your decision with facts and figures, whys and wherefores.”
“I know,” said Clark. He removed his ten gallon hat, kicked off his rawhide boots, ran a hand over his somewhat unshaven face and grinned.
“You said,” I continued, “that by the end of the three years, you expected to have a life income of $10,000 a year and that if that wasn’t enough for any man and his wife to live on, it was too bad about them. You said you would ‘go back to the land’ and become in practice the farmer that you are at heart.
You said that you and Carole (you weren’t married then, of course, but you were planning to be) would travel and see the world. You said, in short, that you would do all the things you’ve always wanted to do, among which being a movie star was not included. You were very positive about all this and, I thought, very honest. I believed you not because I wanted to, for a Gable-less Hollywood is no Elysian field for anyone to contemplate. I believed you simply because you never said anything you didn’t mean.”
“I believed myself,” said Clark. His eyes and voice were serious. I was surprised, because Clark is only serious about really important things. Otherwise, he sort of likes to kick the conversation around, get some laughs and give the matter the brush-off.
“It was my full intention at the time, “ he was saying, “to retire at the expiration of my contract. But I haven’t. I not only haven’t retired but I have signed a new contract. I didn’t, however, sign the agreement until a few days before time. A year ago, as a matter of fact, the studio had the contract drawn up for me. It stipulated that, any time I wanted to quit for good, I could—provided that I didn’t work for any other company. That was okay by me. I was willing to sign that document. But when it came right down to it, the studio wouldn’t sign. They said—and reasonably enough—that they couldn’t subscribe to a contract like that, because they have to lay out a schedule for a star a year in advance. What if the gypsy in me should suddenly get the whip hand? Then where would their advance schedule be?”
“They wanted me to sign another straight, seven-year contract. I wouldn’t do that. We temporized. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘what kind of contract can we make? I don’t want to work as I have been working, making four and five pictures a year.’ We finally got together. The contract I signed states that for the first three years I am to make three pictures a year; I am to have two free weeks between pictures and twelve consecutive weeks’ vacation each year. For two years after that, I am to make two pictures a year, have four weeks off between pictures and the twelve consecutive weeks’ vacation. Then for the next and final two years, I have an option which the studio doesn’t have: the option stipulates that I can work for MGM or I can retire. In other words if, at the end of the next five years, I decide that I don’t want to work, I can quit and no one can sue me. If, on the other hand, I do continue to work, I work for MGM and no one else.”
“That’s how it is and everyone is happy. But a lot of argument went over the dam before the foolscap was signed, sealed and put in the vault. The studio’s first argument was: ‘You haven’t enough money to retire.’ Well, I haven’t the $10,000 a year life income I thought I would have. Taxes see to that. I have enough for my own needs. My tastes haven’t changes any; I still hold with the axiom that you can sleep in only one bed, wear only one suit of clothes, eat only one beefsteak at a time. I still want to live like a farmer. I do now. Our place is twenty acres with a small, nine room house. It’s easy to live in and easy to rent, if we want to get away.”
“The money I’ve got now would be all right for our present set-up, but not for our future set-up which, we both hope, will include some kids. And when you’ve got kids you can’t brush the matter of income off like that. I wouldn’t want to think that kids of mine might say someday, ‘That old man was okay, but he certainly saw to it he did what he wanted to do. Responsibility didn’t bother him any, the lazy so-and-so.’ ”
“The the studio came out with this: ‘You’d put a lot of people out of work if you retired. Don’t you think that’s kind of a selfish way to look at things? ’ I called that one. I said that, if I didn’t work, someone else would. They refuted me, saying that was okay in theory but might not work out in practice. If they brought an actor in to replace me, they asked, what guarantee would they have that he’d last? They said that you can’t replace a ‘going concern’ with a gamble and rest easy nights. They said that for me to retire for no sound reason (wanting to travel around the world and rake alfalfa aren’t ‘sound reason’ to business men) was setting an unhealthy precedent. If everyone felt like that, what would happen?”
“They called my attention to the fact that an established star is a ‘One Man Industry’. A top star in Hollywood entails big exploitation which, in turn, calls for huge personnel. They itemized the scenarists who do the scripts, the typists, the boys in the mimeograph department, the boys in transportation who carry companies to and from locations, the make-up man, the wardrobe man or woman, the script girl, the set designer, the publicity department, etc., all the people who ‘eat off’ the success of a ranking Hollywood star. They painted a grim picture of the unemployment situation that would result if many of us decided to retire.”
“I hadn’t thought about it like that. But when I did think about it, it did seem kind of selfish. After all, I wasn’t planning to retire because of ill health, the only valid reason, I suppose, for a man to quit working. I was planning to retire for purely selfish reasons, so I could do the things I wanted to do.”
“Besides, and not sound too much like the gallant fellow who lays down his cherished desires for his fellow-men, there was another reason for not getting out: I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. Carole and I had, as you know, a scheme up our sleeves. I might call it a dream and not be too fancy about it. We planned to take at least two years off and do nothing but travel. We planned to go in our own little car, with no chauffeur and as little luggage as possible. Time, we said, was not to be considered. We might come back in two years; we might come back in twenty years, we might never come back. We’d see everything in the world while we were still young enough to be up and doing. We’d go into Egypt, India, South Africa! We’d follow the trails the tourists have made and explore out of the way, lonely places too.”
“Well, that scheme was knocked in the head when the war rambled in. We couldn’t go to Europe. The Orient was closed up. We could have gone to South America, but I’ve been there before and that’s not what we wanted, anyway. We wanted to be free to go everywhere.”
“Carole and I didn’t do much talking about it. What was there to say? When we thought we could go, she was all for my not signing another contract, of course. Now that we can’t go, not yet anyway, we don’t talk much about contracts and things. We never have talked shop at home, you know. We still don’t. The most we ever do is check with each other on how long we expect to be on our current pictures. We try to plan it so that we’ll both be working at the same time and both be free at the same time. A few weeks ago I read in the paper that Carole had signed a contract with RKO. I called her on the phone,” grinned Clark, “and asked her about it. It was the first I had heard of it. She said she hadn’t decided.”
“I got to thinking, too, what would I do with myself at the end of the first year of retirement? Read books? I’d read a couple of books, then I’d be ready to relax. I’m just not of the Intelligentsia, you know; I’ve got to be active, got to have things to do with my hands. The farm wouldn’t take up all my time, and pretty soon I’d be talking to myself!”
“I thought of the bunch I’ve worked with all these years, pals of mine like Vic Fleming and Jack Conway, the boys on the sets, the fellows who drive the studio cars, the boys and girls of the Press who have been so swell to me. And they have,” said Clark. “I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for them. There have been a couple of times in my career, when they could have done me in with a few neat phrases. They could have made me the laughing stock of the country. They didn’t. They told the truth and left it at that. One or two have taken a sock at me, but that’s the law of averages and you can’t blame the lot for the few. Yeah, I decided I’d be pretty lonesome without the gang who ‘made me what I am today.’ So, when you add all these things up, the answer seem to be that there’s no reason to be an obstinate lunkhead and do something just because you once said you’d do it.”
“Last but not least, I must confess, I had another reason for saying, three years ago, that I’d retire this year. I thought I’d be washed up by this time. And I’d hate like hell to do down and down and down. That I’m not washed up is a matter of…”
“Don’t say its luck,” I interrupted him. “You always say it’s luck, the ‘breaks’. That’s too modest and not true.”
“Sorry, sister,” Clark said, patiently, “but I’ve got to call it luck because that’s its name. I’ve told you right along, and I’m still telling you, that the breaks I got might have come to anybody, they just happened to come to me.”
“Figure it out! Look, I made ‘San Francisco’, that was swell. Then bang, along came ‘Parnell.’ No one went to see the thing. Know something? The fans can smell out bad pictures before we’ve finished shootin’ ‘em. They seem to be ahead of us. All right, after ‘Parnell’ came ‘Test Pilot’, a honey, but—it might have been another stinkaroo. The cards were shuffled right for me, that’s all. Then ‘Idiot’s Delight’…yeah…and then ‘Gone with the Wind’. See what I’m getting at? I’ve always alternated one good, then one not so good, then a good one again. I’ve never had two baddies in a row. Two baddies in a row don’t do anyone any good.”
The man’s modesty is chronic and invincible. Ten years have tested and proved that. Why, in his first two years of stardom he went through a barrage of fan fever and feminine swoons, such as no man, saving perhaps Valentino, ever knew. It would have made the head of a less earthy man spin like a whirling dervish on a bender. Clark’s head didn’t spin nor did it swell. He never lost the ‘common touch’.
Almost as though the thoughts running through my head were visible to Clark he said, “This has always been a business to me. Nothing personal about it. How can you take a bow for making a picture like, well, like ‘Boom Town’? A forty million dollar organization is back of you. The best writers, best director, cameraman, the best cast to be got is given to you. A group of people as a whole should take a bow when a picture is a success—not an individual.”
I said, “I was thinking of the more personal adulation you get—the fan letters, the autographophiles, the tumult and the fury give you, as an individual.”
Now Clark did laugh. He said, “Honey, when I get one of those hot potato things in the mail I think, ‘So what, they wrote that to Ronnie Colman day before yesterday!’ That sort of thing doesn’t hand the palm to me. Nothing to get conceited about,” said Clark, “in this business.” He added, with a grin, “The defense rests his case.”
“No Retirement Plans.” I’ll say not. But not because he changed his mind, not because the studio argued him out of hit, not because he can’t go on his travels. That’s just what Clark honestly thinks. The real reason is that We, the People, wouldn’t let him retire. You don’t let a friend get away from you, do you?