Why Clark Gable Says, “I Get Paid Not to Think”
By Ruth Biery
Photoplay magazine, December 1932
He takes the roles they hand him without so much as a shrug of the shoulder, but what effect have these on parts on his screen career?
“I have been in the show business for twelve years. They have known me in Hollywood but two. Yet, as picture making goes, two years is a measurably long time. Nevertheless, my advice has never been asked about a part in a picture. I have never been consulted as to what I would like to play.” And smilingly Clark Gable added, “I am paid not to think.”
This is a bit reminiscent of a squabble Ina Claire had with Sam Goldwyn. Ina had proffered suggestions while working on “The Greeks Had a Word for Them.” As a producer herself of plays, she felt she knew something about the show business. Her ideas came to Goldwyn’s attention. He sent for her and said, “To let actors think is too expensive.”
I reminded Clark of this Goldwyn-Claire controversy, and he smiled. “That’s right,” he said, “I am not even thinking about my screen future.”
And yet Clark is not one of those lads who make a success in a few pictures and then believe they know more about the business than those who have been producing pictures for years; who try to tell the studios what to do and how to do it.
No, Clark has never done that. When he chose to express himself, he has done it in a more practical way. Money. When his name became famous, he did ask for a raise, but went about the matter quietly and with dignity.
He knew that screen fame is usually short-lived. It could last only so long as he might have the proper parts, and he knew he might not be given them. He was, therefore, determined to secure as big a stake for his future as possible. He demanded more money than the starting salary on which he had been signed. He demanded it just after he had begun work on “Polly of the Circus”. The psychological moment! They couldn’t finish the picture without him.
To demand more money was but to demand protection for the future—a protection to which every man who works is entitled.
When I asked him why he doesn’t volunteer suggestions for plays in which he would like to do, he answered, “I just work here. I try to work well and hard.”
“But if you have good ideas, Clark—“
He interrupted. “I haven’t any more to lose than they have. After all, they have an investment in me. They’ve spent money on me. It’s my business to work; not to think. I do my work without talking.”
Yet Clark knows what “Polly of the Circus” and “Strange Interlude” have done for him. He knows he was close to the summit when “Possessed” was released. And he knows that those first two—to which he was photographically unfitted—have him a push backwards from which it may take time and exceptionally well-suited pictures to recover.
He also understands, as few do, the secret of picture success. He knows that he might have done “Polly of the Circus” and “Strange Interlude” on the stage and gotten away with them. His twelve years of study and experience have made him a versatile actor—on the stage. But the stage is not the screen.
To know Clark Gable in person is to know a swarthy-complexioned, quiet person who says what he has to say in terse sentences and an “I-am-always-myself” manner. A frequent twinkle in the eyes; a rapid flash of dimples indicates a well-controlled sense of humor. A likable chap who recalls dozens somewhat-like-him whom you have known on the college campus.
There is no more suggestion of the gangster of “I-always-get-my-woman” type than there was about the others.
But Clark Gable on the screen! Ah! The camera plays queer tricks with us.
It plays queer tricks with so many. It types its subjects, whether they wish to be typed or not. It classified Janet Gaynor so she can never be anything but wistful and adolescently appealing—no matter how tempted she is, personally, to seek sophistication. It has typed Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. They are sirens and must remain such if they are to continue successful. The camera has so dictated.
You may be as versatile as a Duse or a Laurence Barrett on the stage, but in pictures you are only as versatile as the camera allows you to be. You may be absolutely colorless as a person, but when you flash on that screen, you may radiate individuality so powerful that you bless the camera.
Clark Gable fully appreciates what the camera does to him. It metamorphoses him from a sensible, independent young man, who is not so different from hundreds of others, into the modern feminine version of a cave man. In “Night Nurse” he played a despicable character, one who he would hate in real life. But the camera made him desirable to women, even though despicable.
In “Possessed”, his favorite picture, it made him a well-dressed, cultured fellow, but one who still slapped down his women.
In “A Free Soul”—hardboiled, “I-take-what-I-want-when-I-want-it.”
Each of these pictures told a story which bent to the will of the camera, and allowed him parts of which he was camera-fitted.
But “Laughing Sinners”, “Polly of the Circus” and “Strange Interlude”! A salvation army boy in the first. Clark replaced Johnny Mack Brown in that picture. They put the screen personality of Clark Gable into a part intended for the screen personality of Johnny.
Somebody besides Clark wasn’t thinking.
“Strange Interlude”. I blamed the make-up of Clark as an old man for much of the censure awarded that production. Clark doesn’t. He tells me that they took eighteen tests for that make-up. Tests average a cost of two hundred dollars apiece.
Metro expended thirty-six hundred dollars in an earnest effort to make Clark look a believable old man. It couldn’t be done because the camera wouldn’t allow it.
Clark plays old men convincingly upon the stage. The demon camera simply stuck its tongue in its cheek and said, “I’ve showed you what Clark Gable can do on the screen. Go ahead and ruin him if you wish. I won’t budge an inch. He’s not to play old men any more than ministers.”
Perhaps there are ministers such as Clark played with Marion Davies in “Polly of the Circus”. But they are exceptions and the public does not accept exceptions in its screen entertainment. All the way through that picture, I felt like rushing to the screen, grabbing the clerical collar, which was throttling Clark’s neck and screaming, “Be yourself! Go and get her!” Judging from the letters received, many other women had the same inclination.
Clark knows the reason he had to play in these pictures even though he won’t tell you or me about it. He only smiles, as you imagine the sphinx would smile, when you say: “they had to pass you around among the big feminine stars so each would have you, didn’t they, Clark?”
Leading men are the most difficult problem for women stars. Somehow, they are scarcer in Hollywood than honest politicians in Washington. A good leading man, like Robert Montgomery, is discovered, plays a few roles and is then made a star. It is only natural that feminine stars pounce upon a new man like Clark, especially when he is already well-started toward becoming a sensation.
Joan Crawford and Connie Bennett had him first as their leads. Then Norma Shearer in “A Free Soul.” Then Joan insisted he be given to her for “Possessed”. She insisted with vehemence, too.
Even went to the “front office” and refused to make the picture unless Clark played opposite her.
The parts chanced to fit his screen personality in these pictures. But the race was on. Marion Davies must have her turn and Norma another chance since Joan had him twice. The fact that he didn’t fit the part in Norma’s “Strange Interlude” was forgotten. Women are apt to forget seemingly minor points when they are fighting for their own way. Even Greta Garbo must have her turn. The role in “Susan Lenox” was not appropriate, either.
In none of these cases was Gable asked whether he would like to play the picture. ‘I found out I was going to do ‘Susan Lenox’ in Del Monte,” he says. “Read it in the paper. I also read in the paper that I am to go to Paramount to play with Miriam Hopkins in ‘No Man of Her Own.’ When I walked on the lot, one day, they told me I was to play ‘Red Dust’ in place of John Gilbert.”
“But ‘Red Dust’ is great for you, isn’t it, Clark?”
“It was originally chosen for Greta Garbo.”
“But you have a strong, virile role in ‘Red Dust’—“
“It was bought for Greta Garbo.”
I paused, looked at him closely. His face was non-committal. The story had been bought to star a woman. And unless they changed the script completely, it was a woman’s story. Jean Harlow! Since our conversation, “Red Dust” has been released. The script was evidently changed, because it emerges as a man’s story—Clark’s—and only the exceptional performance of Jean Harlow made her part equal to his.
Well, men had starred before in a woman’s story.
“What should a story contain to make it interesting?” I asked.
He took his time answering, as though thinking aloud. He had forgotten he was paid not to think.
“You must have characters in a play in which the audience is sufficiently interested to care what happens to them. I learned that in stock. It is true of pictures. The characters in themselves must be interesting. As they were in ‘Possessed’. If the character isn’t interesting, no actor can make him so. I did a play on the stage. It did not reach New York. I would like to do it in pictures. It was called ‘Broken Windows.’”
Suddenly he stopped, looking as though he had awakened abruptly from a dream. He laughed, slightly embarrassed.
I changed the subject quickly. “How’s your polo?” I asked.
“I don’t play polo anymore.”
“Oh, I forgot. They won’t let you play because it’s too dangerous.”
“Yes, they just want to give me more of the kind of work I have been doing, so I can play polo sooner.”
Some bite in those words!
For a man of whom thinking is neither expected nor wanted, it seems to me that Clark Gable’s mind is exceptionally active.
Can’t you read between the lines one of the outstanding reasons for his great popularity and success?