Why Gable Has Stayed at the Top
By Chet Greene
Photoplay magazine, November 1935
The story of how Clark has been able to face and survive the hardest test put to his conceit – fanatical woman worship
Five years ago, Clark Gable said: “I’ll be lucky if this lasts five years.”
To say now, after those five years have passed, that Clark Gable is really just arriving at success may sound like the addled mutterings of some Rip Van Winkle peering in cobwebby puzzlement at the wonders of Hollywood. A Rip whose snores were sound enough to shut out the febrile huzzahs which during the past four years have acclaimed Clark Gable the greatest masculine idol since Rudolph Valentino, indeed the only one that can be confidently mentioned with that heart shattering Sheik.
Clark Gable arrived, anyone will tell you, the day he walked on the set of “Dance, Fools, Dance.” He arrived when the whole set instinctively turned and looked at the tall, broad-shouldered masterful guy and kind of drew in a short breath exhaled during a long, naïve, rude stare. Nobody knew who this lad was, but they felt what he was.
Clark Gable arrived, those days after “Dance, Fools, Dance,” and “The Secret Six” when the public responded with a jerk to his new shot of s. a. adrenalin. They swamped the studio with letters, and excited theater exhibitors all over the country shot wires to Messrs. Metro, Goldwyn and Mayer demanding: “Who is this new guy? What’s the idea of keeping him under wraps?”
He arrived at a sensation – yes – he arrived at lucky strike, an unbelievable bonanza – sure – but just recently with “The Call of the Wild,” “China Seas” (and although you haven’t seen it yet, it’s safe to include “Mutiny on the Bounty”) he hooked those three picture pegs onto a ledge of solid success.
To do five years after that first hit was a much harder job than becoming a sensation, for a whole lot of reasons, believe you me.
It takes something. Clark has it.
“Whatever comes of all of this,” he said during those first heady moments of new hero worship, “it’s still okay with me. Even if I go down as fast as I’ve jumped up, it’s still a lucky break.”
He meant it. He was so sick and tired of touring the sticks in the “B” shows and in stock companies. So weary of being shunted off to dreary stands that seemed to lead to worse than nowhere, so familiar with that dreaded two-weeks notice that he said with a grateful sigh:
“I’ll be thankful if they’ll just let me stay here and work.” It might have been that gratitude, so deeply felt, which has helped Clark Gable face and survive the toughest test a man ever had put to his own conceit – public, world wide, fanatical woman worship.
But then it might have been several other things, too.
Clark had had his ears well beaten down by short-lived one-night stand fames, wetted down by disappointments. He had considered himself set once on Broadway and found himself shagging the sidewalks the next month hunting a job.
Whether or not he cynically observed his sensational break as a mushroom destined to dry up and pop into dust in a few weeks, he told a friend: “Don’t worry, I know they’re not hailing me as an actor or anything like that. I’m not so flattered. It isn’t any compliment to me. I just happen to represent something to ‘em, that’s all.”
You could speculate about a number of things which set Clark off on the right foot.
The kind of a down to earth regular fellow he was to start with. The realistic background of factory work, oil drilling, mountain engineering. The fact that being past thirty, he had more than the average lady-killer’s balance. The fact that when he arrived at M-G-M he couldn’t have helped notice the struttings of Jack Gilbert and one or two other idols of the weaker sex still in vogue at the time. Jokes to some around the lot, Clark might well have resolved to keep away from anything like that.
You might consider his sense of humor. Or the superior person who is his wife, Rhea Gable.
But none of that is more than an accessory to what the situation has demanded – character.
It isn’t what started Clark Gable off that counts so much as what has stuck with him through these five years to – that sort of stuff you find in champions – what brought Dempsey back in the ring with Firpo, what grimly stalled off match point for Halen Wills Moody.
I think it took Clark quite a spell to shake off the punches of his past and realize just what was holding up his right arm in the Hollywood ring.
I know he once remarked quizzically that the first time he really felt that success had come to him was on one Christmas morning a couple of years ago.
For his two stepchildren, whom he adores, he had bought a couple of new Fords.
When he gazed out the window that morning and saw the cars standing there in the driveway, bright, new and shiny, he was impressed by what all the mash notes, praiseworthy articles and hurrah of his new status had failed to drive home.
The fact that he was able to do that much for people he loved made him feel that after all perhaps he really did amount to something!
It’s no use to paint any right guy such as Clark Gable with any golden gilt of human infallibility just to get across the fact that he does have a character reserve that has brought him through in the pinches.
He’s been in the pinches because he is human.
But he has always come through.
There was a time when something separated him from his wife, briefly. But he had sense enough and character enough to whip that and go back to her.
There was a time when rumors seeped through Hollywood that he was looking with more than casual interest at a certain glamorous actress. But truth or untruth, whichever it was, he handled it gracefully and proceeded unscathed.
In fact, the only instance on record when Clark Gable ever sallied forth publicly with a woman other than his wife occurred at the late lamented Agua Caliente.
He was making “Hell Divers” on location in San Diego, across the border from the Mexican Monte Carlo. To soothe his fevered brow a work-weary, wedded executive, nameless here, had recruited a very fetching looking blonde. They were to relax one evening at the Caliente gaming tables.
Clark got wind of the philandering, literally stole the girl, motored her to Mexico. There the surprised and frantic blonde-less exec discovered his escaped dove on the arm of the dark menace, Gable. After the exec had suffered enough, Clark gallantly returned the forbidden beauty to him!
There was a time about a year ago when a greater danger than romantic rumors of marital ripples menaced Gable’s career.
I think at that time Clark would have sold out his career for thirty cents and a promise of peace.
You might have heard he was “slipping.” When any star doesn’t knock ‘em cold, you’ll hear he’s slipping. It was that period before “It Happened One Night.”
His first screen “wind” was about gone. He was tired. He had been fed to weak and wicked women on the screen one after the other. He was physically as sick as a cat. You’ll remember how thin and tired he looked. The vigor wasn’t there. It wasn’t there to give. Probably you don’t realize just what that force which makes Clark Gable on the screen costs him in energy. It is a definite element. If it isn’t there, it doesn’t show.
He went on the operating table, ostensibly for an appendicitis operation. They found intestinal complications and made it a major slash. Snipped out some extra yardage. Since then on he hasn’t been able to ride a horse. That’s why, incidentally, Clark turned his love for horseflesh to racing nags (viz.: “Beverly Hills” the much publicized bangtail of last year who certainly was no threat to Omaha).
It took a long time to get over that blow to health, to regain confidence and ambition and morale.
But Gable has managed it, because he has the stuff.
It is a strange jest of fate that finds Clark Gable coming into his own at the very time when he expected to be washed up.
The same idea – that it really can’t last – persists in his subconscious mind, even now. Not long ago he hinted that five more years was his limit. No one but himself believes it.
And I think the recognition by himself, as he stands today, stronger, more solid, more entrenched as a popular idol than ever before rather appeals him, rather awes him.
At any rate, Clark Gable has changed, since that illness. He’s more sober and serious – more responsible. Graduated from the sensation class, he’s a postgraduate actor.
Last Spring he set out from the studio one rainy afternoon for a radio broadcast. He drove his inconspicuous Ford roadster, but that didn’t disguise him. Halfway there a big sedan filled with women spotted him. They shouted and gave chase.
They passed him, ran him into the curb. He backed, twisted, ran up alleys and side-streets, hid in garages. It was a definitely dangerous chase over slippery streets. Its excuse – nothing, except the rabid, unthinking, practically persecuting curiosity of a bunch of dumb females.
“Why doesn’t you call a traffic copy and shake them?” wondered the friend who rode with him. “They’ll wreck your car before we know it.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” said Clark, skidding out of the way. “How can you complain because somebody chases after you?” he grinned. “That’s my public.”
He adores New York, but he’s scared to death to go there. They mob him. When he flew to Dallas, Texas, only recently for the marriage of his stepdaughter, the pilot swooped over a large crowd at the landing field. Clark spotted them.
“Shall I go on?” asked the pilot. “There’s another field farther on.”
“No,” said Clark, “we’ll make it.”
They did, after a mobbing that was soul-twisting torture to Clark Gable every minute.
Then (can you tie it!) he read in one paper where Clark Gable had “hired a crowd to meet him”!
Clark Gable, unfortunately for him, but fortunately, I think, for his career, is about the farthest thing from a crowd lover as you might imagine, except possibly Garbo or a Southern darkey about to be lynched.
There are very few people in Hollywood who really know him today. He gets around, yes, but the Gables aren’t the entertaining, social kind. He has maintained a rugged love for hunting, fishing and the outdoors which is no phony “man’s man” pose. As a matter of fact, such things are the very essence of his play days.
There are rough mountaineers in Wyoming who have no idea that that city feller from Los Angeles who packs in with them is a celebrated movie star – and wouldn’t care much if they did. To them, he is just a good shot or a smart guy with a rod and reel.
There was a boy who asked for a ride and got it once when Clark was invading the Kaibab Forest in search of mountain lions.
As Clark climbed into the car, he said: “Y’know, mister, you look like Clark Gable, the movie star.”
“Funny, isn’t it?” said Clark. “I am Clark Gable.”
The boy brightened.
“That’s a swell idea,” he said. “I’ll pretend I’m Jackie Cooper.”
This part of Clark Gable, the rugged, simple, direct, close-to-realities part which shows in every screen print of his personality is his personality, is what makes him great, an idol, and an artist whether or not he will ever be selected as an actor of any great shakes.
It is bone, sinew and fibre of him, and it will never change.
But my brief is that this is also the stuff behind the character which has brought about another change: The metamorphosis of Clark Gable from a strict sensation into a mature, rounded, confident screen star.
But Lionel Barrymore, who got our hero that first screen test at M-G-M, and who knows actors and particularly Clark a whole lot better than I do, snorts, as only Lionel Barrymore can snort.
“Change? The only change in Clark Gable is his weight. He’s ten pounds too fat.”