How Clark Gable is Conquering Loneliness
By Ruth Waterbury
Photoplay magazine, August 1942
Six months have now passed since that tragic January day when a plane bearing Carole Lombard and her mother, Mrs. Peters, Otto Winkler, Clark’s Gable’s best friend and personal agent, and fifteen young Army pilots crashed against the barren slopes of Table Mountain in Nevada, killing all onboard.
These months since he lost Carole have been the blackest months Gable has ever experienced, even though none of his life, prior to his movie success in 1931, was very easy.
Many rumors have been circulated about him during this time. There were stories that he was going into the Army as a buck private, that he enlisted in the Navy, that he had a commission in the Single Corps, that he was selling the Encino ranch that his and Carole’s honeymoon house, and that he was retiring from the screen.
None of these stories is true, though the fact that each was reliably printed and many of them believed is perfectly understandable since Clark did consider each of these ideas in turn, only to reject them all eventually.
This is the truth considering Clark Gable today; he is not going into active military service. He is not selling the ranch. He is going on with pictures. But the reasons that have determined these decisions reveal the changed Gable, this strong and complex man who after his exquisite wife’s death discovered through his tragic loneliness that he had loved her even more than he had ever realized.
You have doubtless read a score of times that to know Gable even slightly is to worship him. We repeat it here, only because the way he has risen over his sorrow is due to those qualities his friends have always known laid deep and secret within his personality.
The dashing, debonair, devil-may-care Gable you have seen so often onscreen is definitely one side of his personality. But there is another side to him, the side you will see more frequently in the future.
Six months of lonely nights and bitter days have left their mark on Clark, as you observe when you see “Red Light”. To take merely one slight example; until now he has always had trouble keeping his weight down. Yet within one week after Carole’s loss, he dropped twenty pounds and he hasn’t yet been able to regain even half of that.
Another thing is that until this spring it was almost instinctive with Gable to do what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it. That nickname “King” wasn’t tacked on him by mere accident.
Clark may always have been gay and kidding about his requests, yet he’s always made them with the assured air of a guy who had the power to back up his requests and see to it they were granted.
But these six months he has been up against the most brutal of realties. He had lost the person who was the most important human being in life to him and there wasn’t one thing he could have done about it, except take it.
His instinctive reaction, therefore, when he had finally got through the funerals of Carole and her mother and Otto, was to join the Army. He told his closest friends, Howard Strickling, head of MGM’s publicity department, Al Menasco, the racing driver, and Harry Fleischman, his favorite hunting companion, that he couldn’t possibly face a camera again. Reality made play-acting impossible. The world was a horrible place, with America a little more than its first month in the war and all he wanted was direct action, a chance to take a gun and get out and get his private quota of Japanese soldiers.
It may have been Strickling who, knowing that work would eventually prove an anodyne, murmured at that moment that enlisting was a wonderful thing but could Clark wait long enough to finish the picture on which he had been working prior to the tragedy.
“I’ll go back just long enough to finish this one picture,” he finally said to Strick. “You’ll have to get them to change the title however. I couldn’t walk on a set with those words before me.”
The title had been “Somewhere I’ll Find You”. They changed it to “Red Light.”
The nerves of the entire cast and crew were taut as harp strings the first morning Gable returned to work. But if you didn’t look too closely and ignored his thinness, he was just the usual Clark, with the same flashing smile, the usual jaunty wisecracks. He kept his smile on all day, too, and never once blew up in a scene. The only way he deviated from his normal routine was at lunchtime. His custom had always been either to eat at the big table in the main MGM dining room at which the directors and writers gather, or to go to the other side of dining room and sit on a high stool at the counter where the crew eats. His first day he retired to his dressing room and ate alone. That is still true. He hasn’t yet returned to the commissary for a meal.
That night Al Menasco went home to that Encino house with him. “I’ve got to get out of here,” Clark said.
“Sunday I’ll go look for a new place.”
“You bet,” said Al. “I’ll help you.” He did help too. On Sunday, he drove Clark all over the San Fernando Valley and every place they looked at, he’d point out the advantages. He told Clark that there would never be a thing on any of these ranches to remind him of Carole, never a stable where they hung up their tack after their long rides, never a barn where he’d remember the first cow he bought, which hadn’t given enough milk, and how, when he’d sent the animal back to its original owner, Carole had said it must be the most humiliated cow in all of California. He kept pointing out these advantages. Gable finally gave him a look from beneath those brows of his.
“So ok,” he said very sharply. “So turn around and I’m not leaving the old house.”
It was the following Monday that Clark sent for Larry Barbiere, the publicity man who had first known the truth about Carole’s death, and asked him to lunch with him. Larry went over to the dressing room, half frightened by the request, more frightened when Clark asked him to retell every detail of that first night. But Larry did talk and then Clark began talking back to him, asking and answering questions, and the lunch hour flew by, and the early afternoon. The set waited, but no one disturbed them.
It got to be three o’clock and Larry was thinking that there would be no more shooting that day, when suddenly Gable became conscious of the time. He rushed out to the stage and quickly went into a scene. Apparently, that talk about Carole had worked some release and that afternoon for the first time since the tragedy his acting regained its old suavity. The scenes taken then were actually the first Gable scenes that they printed.
Things were much easier after that until the day that Carole’s will was probated. Except for a trust fund for her brother, Carole had left all her money to this man she had loved like a god. He came back to the studio in one of his moods of terrific depression. Magnificently concealed though it is, there has always been this somber mood deep within Gable, which is the heritage of his Dutch blood. That night he was on one of those lows and when, a day or so later, the battle of Macassar Straits began going not so well for us, he first began talk of going into the Navy.
It was then that his devoted gang really gave it to him. “You know how old you are?” he was asked. He thundered at them that he perfectly well knew. He was forty-one and so what. They retorted by saying the average age of Navy recruits was nineteen, the average Army recruiting age a year or so older. In other words, they said brutally, he’d be surrounded by boys young enough to be his sons and did he think that he could hold his own physically against them?
It is a strange phenomenon, but any psychologist will tell you that the greatest sense of grief from a death is frequently felt three months after the event. Gable hit this period in mid-April. It was during that a Hollywood member of the Signal Corps talked to him about the possibility of his getting a commission in this branch of the service. Gable brooded on this in silence for days, finally announced that he now felt he should stick to acting unless Washington definitely called him for some specific war work. Actually Washington had already let it be known that what it most wanted of Gable was for him to keep on acting.
MGM quickly submitted a trio of scripts to Gable for his next picture. Interestingly, the one he chose to do first was one dealing with life-after-death, the first essay he has ever made into the supernatural. After that, he goes into a highly romantic, a most poetic role in “The Sun is My Undoing.”
But the greatest proof of Gable’s courageous snap-back is the fact that when Metro, who had been sold on the title “Somewhere I’ll Find You,” approached him recently with the idea of releasing his present picture under that original title instead of the second-choice substitute, “Red Light,” he was not too disturbed. You may, after all, see Clark Gable playing in “Somewhere I’ll Find You” and you will know then that he has made himself strong enough so that he can no longer be hurt by a few unimportant words.
Meanwhile he has seen to it that every fan letter of sympathy that reached him—and they came in the literal hundreds of thousands—has been answered and he has begun to go out a little to the houses of those friends who understand him and where he can feel relaxed. He now goes for dinner with Howard Strickling and his vivid wife, Gail, or with the Walter Langs, where he laughs at the gay wit of Mrs. Lang who used to be Fieldsie, Carole’s closest friend and confidante, or with Phil and Leila Hyams Berg, Phil, who is his agent, and Leila whom he’s known ever since the first day he walked on the Metro lot.
One thing the Government has promised to let him do (and he is immensely eager to get at it) and that is to make a series of short subjects to be shown to the service lads. What they will be on, when and where they will be made, he himself doesn’t know and he isn’t asking. He just wants to do them. As for Bond buying, the day after we went into the war, he bought the full quota that any individual is entitled to buy in any one year. He got his 1941 quota on December 8, his 1942 quota on the second of January. He’s got standing orders at his bank to buy the top limit for him if at any time this ruling may change.
Clark loved Carole with the passion that only a strong man of temperament, intelligence and imagination can love the woman who inspires the best in him. She was superior, beautiful, laughing, generous person, this Carole, and Clark knows he can never replace her image in his heart.
Yet he is, for all that gleam in his eye, for all that persuasive smile of his, a domestic man, who loves his home and thus, inevitably, I believe, there will be another chapter to his life story. And like all people who triumph over the events that could have defeated them, he’s coming out of this stronger than ever.
Personally I like to think about a story he told me years ago, about how, when he was first learning to act, he had to learn to smile. It wasn’t natural to him, until one day somebody told him that only the brave smile well.
He’s smiling now, carefully and deliberately, and he intends to keep on smiling. It’s an attitude to keep remembering these days of 1942.