Gable is Afraid of Shirley Temple!
By Ida Zeitlin
Modern Screen magazine, August 1937
Someone was congratulating Clark Gable on having made second place among the ten ranking box office stars.
“No. 1 next year, Clark,” prophesied his well-wisher.
A grin spread over his face, a grin so wide and sunny that you would have supposed it to be in pleasure at the compliment implied. But no—“Don’t fool yourself,” said Gable. “No. 3 maybe, or 13, or 33. Not No.1. Not while that blonde menace, Miss Temple, is doing her stuff.”
“So Shirley’s the big bad wolf,” gibed a friend. “You’re afraid of Shirley Temple.”
“Sure I’m afraid of Shirley Temple,” he agreed solemnly. “She haunts me. I can see her sitting up there, shaking her curls and twinkling her eyes at me. I can almost hear her: ‘Hey man down there, come on up and catch me.’ But I’m not playing tag with Shirley. I know my place. And mighty grateful that it’s even second.”
Considering his terror of the blonde threat, he was looking remarkably carefree and content. As he talked, twirling a small object on his watch-chain, the smile that came and went on his lips rarely left his eyes. He seemed, in a word, to be enjoying the pastime of kidding himself. And the deeper he plunged into his theme, the more chuckles he found there.
One of the trade magazines, for example, had come ‘round for an ad.
“Why should I put in an ad about myself?” he inquired.
“Well, good Lord man, why not? You’re top ranking star—below Shirley Temple.”
“In other words,” he said, pouncing triumphantly on the loophole, “I’m tops, except that I’m not.” And then he turned plaintive. “Isn’t it bad enough to be pushed around by an eight-year-old without shouting it from the housetops? You want me to call attention to the fact that a pint-size youngster has me stopped? There she stands, three foot something or other, and holds the fort. You can’t crawl ‘round her, and you can’t climb over her. If it were Bob Taylor now, you could at least take a poke at him. Not that it would do any good, but just for the hell of it. But Shirley, what could you do with her? She’d lift those lashes and smile that smile, and she’d have you licked, same as the rest of ‘em. ‘Take it away, lady, it’s all yours,’ that’s what you’d say, knowing darn well you weren’t giving her a thing she didn’t have snug and tidy in her pocket already.”
Having this ingeniously routed the ad man, he proceeded to answer a question he’s often been asked.
“Sure I’d play with Shirley if I got the chance. A man doesn’t shy off just because he’s scared. I might shake and shiver, but I’d face the music and go down with my boots on. Make no mistake about that. I’d go down all right. Even a good actor like Frank Morgan had to stay on his toes every minute he was playing with her. She’s not just a cute youngster.” And here he turned serious. “If it were just that, there’d be plenty of other cute youngsters to take her place. Well, can you figure anybody taking Shirley’s place? People on the set have told me how she handles herself, how she never blows up, how she’s got the technique of her hob at her little fingertips. I’d probably find myself rehearsing in front of a mirror, trying to keep up with her. I’d probably learn plenty from her, too. I have—from all the women I’ve worked with—Loy, Garbo, Shearer, Lombard, top-notchers, the lot of ‘em. Be kind of fun, at that, to go to school to No. 1.”
“Of course,” he went on, still gravely, though the twinkle reappeared in his eyes, “Miss Temple has two strikes on me from the start. I’m big, and she’s little, and who wants to look at a lunk like me when he can look at Shirley? I’m dark and she’s fair, and the gentlemen prefer blondes. The ladies?” He thought fast. “Well, show me any lady in the land who could resist Shirley.” He seemed pleased at getting out of that one.
“How about dimples?” I inquired, though fearfully. “You’re even there.”
“When you say that, smile,” he warned me. “She’s got what belongs to her. I’ve got what doesn’t. The very word wrecks a man. What guy wants to go around with a hole in his face? But Shirley—“ He forgot for a moment his role of indignant plaintiff. “Those two little stars chasing themselves ‘round her mouth. Cute as the devil, aren’t they?” And his smile was like the smile he turned on Claudette Colbert, after she had sobbed herself to sleep behind the walls of Jericho.
“Then,” he went on, returning to character, “there’s the great ear problem. Now I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing Miss Temple’s ears, though I go to all her pictures. The only time I ever saw her in person was at the Academy Award dinner last year. She’s a beautiful baby and kind-looking, and if I’d asked her politely for a peek at her ears, she might have shown them to me. But to tell you the truth, it never occurred to me. If I’d have known this story was coming up, I’d have made a point of it.”
“Anyway, they’re probably small and shell-pink, like the rest of her. But suppose, for the sake of argument, they weren’t. Suppose, for the sake of argument, they were something like mine. Would anybody know it? Would they stand naked and free to the wind, like some I could mention? No. She’s got a head of golden curls to hide ‘em under. She doesn’t have to hide ‘em, mind you, but she’s got the curls just the same. Mine ought to be hidden, and I haven’t got the curls. Not that I want ‘em, heaven forbid. But the least they could do is send me up on a picture to Alaska, where I could wear earlaps—and do some big game hunting at the same time,” he added as an afterthought.
“And Alaska reminds me of beards. When we started ‘Parnell’ there was some talk of a beard. We compromised on sideburns. With Shirley, the question would never come up. If it did, she’d laugh and stick it on and think was some fun new kind of game she was playing. What’s more, she’d look just as sweet with that face of hers poking out over it. Well, the beard would look just as funny on me, but the face would take punishment. And then there’s clothes. Put Shirley in a frilly dress, and she looks grand. Put her in overalls and she looks just as grand. Put me in a frilly dress and see how I look. I just don’t have the range,” he grinned.
“Finally, there’s this all-important question of time. Movie stars don’t generally last more than five years, so you’re told. Well, that’s where Miss Shirley has it all over the rest of us. And I’m not kidding this time. That baby’s twined herself so fast around people’s heartstrings that I don’t believe they could get along without her. They’ll want to keep right on seeing her, same as their own kids. They’ll want to know what happens to her from one year to the next. They’ll want to watch her growing from a little girl to a bigger girl. They’ll be interested in every stage, when she ties back that mop of curls with a ribbon; when she begins to lengthen out like a long-legged colt; when she goes in for roller-skating and bicycles; when she starts being interested in boys and goes to her first party in her first party dress; when she graduates from school; and then when she really grows up and falls in love.”
“Sure, they’ll only see it on the screen, but they can imagine her doing the same things in her own life. There’ll be all that change, all that variety, while the rest of us stay the same, except that we get a little older each year. People get tired of seeing the same faces all the time. I know I do. But I’ve got a hunch they won’t get tired of Shirley, because they’ve adopted her. She belongs to them.”
“I can see it going on and on forever, till she’s playing grandmother parts, with her white hair still curly and the dimples still chasing each other ‘round her mouth. And the fans still loving her.”
“Nope,” he concluded, folding his hands behind his head. “I’m not in her class. Not the grandmother type,” he amended, with a flash of white teeth. “So the smart thing for me is to get out before I’ve tumbled so far that Shirley won’t even think I’m worth haunting anymore. That’s just what I intend to do in four years, when my contract is out. By that time it’ll be a relief to all concerned.”
“I’d like enough money for security and not a penny more. Five hundred a month will do. I wouldn’t cross the street to make more, if I had that much. Then I want to travel while I’m still young enough to enjoy it. I want to see all there is in this world to see. I want to go on that big game hunt in Alaska and to Africa on another, where I’ll only have No. 1 lions to wrestle with instead of No. 1 movie stars. I don’t want to wait till I’ve reached the age when I can’t lie down on the ground without getting lumbago. I don’t want to wait till doctors start telling me: ‘Better not fly, old man. Your heart won’t stand it.’ I’m going while I can do all the things I want to do as I want to do ‘em.”
“Then, if I still feel that way, I’ll build a little house here in California. I don’t want estates with stables and pools and tennis courts. It’s not what I’ve ever been used to, and I don’t like it. Just a small house where I don’t have to have a flock of strange servants walking around all hours of the day and night, or a lot of rooms that nobody uses.”
“But plenty of ground where I can keep animals. Two hundred acres, maybe. And I don’t have to live in San Fernando Valley, where they soak you six hundred an acre for land. Drive out from Hollywood an hour or two, and you can get it for twenty-five or fifty. I’d like to combine the background and atmosphere of a ranch with a New England landscape, with lots of tress and grassy meadows and a stream.”
“The house could be almost anything that was practical and comfortable. Only not Spanish; I don’t like Spanish architecture. Early American, maybe; and one story. I don’t go for two-story houses. And not to run over ten thousand dollars. I’d have gas and electricity and all those things put in. I don’t care for the fancy stuff, but I do like a certain amount of comfort.
“There’d be one big living room, probably running the entire length of the house, with a huge fireplace at one end, the kind you could get a good big log into. I might almost make it a combination living room, dining room and playroom.” He was warming to his theme now, as the house grew under his eyes, eager as a boy’s. “You could sort of whisk the dining room away, when you’d finished eating, like those fellows in the fairy tales. I’d do the whole room in knotty pine, with a ceiling of big timbers, and instead of board floors, I’d have this time you can throw rag rugs down on. So if you’re out riding, you can come in with mud on your feet, and so can your dogs, and you don’t have to worry about what’ll happen to the Oriental carpets. Just run a mop over it, and there you are.”
“I’d like plenty of gay color around, but none of this wild stuff—what do they call it? Surrealist? Can you make heard or tail of it? No? Me, too. Oh, and brass; I like brass bright and shining by the fireplace and anywhere else I can stick it.”
“Not over three bedrooms; a couple for my friends, because the latchstring would always be out. Not too big a kitchen; and a cellar under the whole house. Where I could store things like potatoes and apples. Bathrooms are the one thing I might go haywire on. Probably spend more money on them than the rest of the house put together. I hate a shower that sprays out a measly trickle or two and stops. I want them full, with lots of pressure behind them, so they make you sting.”
“Then I’d have a little cottage on the grounds for the help, man and wife, If I could get ‘em. When I’m in a house, especially a house that’s small, I like to be able to close the door and know that I’m the one in it. I hate,” he said with an almost fierce intensity, “the sense of people pussyfooting around.”
“Animals? First of all, two or three horses. I’d want to take care of them myself, and I couldn’t take care of more than that many. Probably a cow, because I like the milk. No, I wouldn’t milk her myself,” he laughed. “Not that I don’t know how. But I wouldn’t want to tie myself down to a cow. When milking time comes, you’ve got to be right there. And there were too many times I had to go home from school to do that very thing, when I wanted to be playing baseball.”
“Let’s see, what else? Chickens, for eating. Oh, yes, and a cat,” he said suddenly, with the air of being slightly started at himself. “You know, I used to think I didn’t like cats. Well, the fellow at the stable where I keep my horse has one running around. I was amazed when I saw how he jumps over this guy’s arm and comes running like a dog when he whistles. I’ve kind of fallen for that cat. He knows me now, and we get along fine. Yes, decidedly I want a cat. And dogs, of course, plenty of ‘em, all kinds, any kind, mutts and near-mutts and maybe a snob or two, provided they don’t stick up their noses at the others.”
“Will I miss the movies? Well, you see, I’m just a farmer at heart. I’ll be building fences, pruning trees, making improvements, working out my horses. I’ll be too busy to miss anything—even Shirley.”
“Maybe some day,” a quizzical blue gleam shot from under his black lashes, and the hole in his face deepened, “when I’m rubbing down Southern Son, a little lady with fly-away golden curls and a frilly dress’ll pass by. Maybe my horse’ll be curious enough to want to know who she is. Maybe she’ll be fourteen or eighteen or twenty-one. That won’t make any difference. I can still tell him: ‘That’s the little day who once kept your old man hopping. That’s Shirley Temple, No. 1 actress in the movies.’”