My Pal, Clark Gable
By Spencer Tracy
Screen Life magazine, May 1940
“Gone with the Wind” Gable is given the once-over by “Northwest Passage” Tracy, who finds him a wholly delightful friend. You’ll enjoy this unusual SCREEN LIFE feature
A couple of years ago there was a contest to find “the proudest small town in America”—the one proudest of being the birthplace of some famous American. And do you know what town won the gilded plaque? A little place named Cadiz, Ohio. That’s where Clark Gable was born.
It’s supposed to be tough to get Hollywood to think of you as a hero, and it is tough.
But it isn’t half so tough as getting your old hometown to think of you as a hero. Clark is one of the few who has made the grade.
He arrived in the world about a year after I did. And he arrived with the same amount of theatrical blood. Namely, none. His father was an oil worker. Mine was a salesman. Nobody in either of our families, as far back as the Flood, had ever acted.
His mother died when he was a baby and he spent the first five years of his life with his grandparents on a farm. It was three hoots and five hollers to the nearest neighbor. He didn’t have any playmates. Only a dog. But he and that pooch must have been something special in pals, because today he can make friends with a dog faster than any other man I know.
When he was five, his father married again, and Clark went back home and found out for the first time what it was like to have a mother. His father’s second wife really looked out for him. She treated him like a son, not a stepson. He says he owes a lot to her—including getting away from the farm.
When he was eight, they moved to a little town named Hopedale with a population of about 500. It seemed like a big place to him. There were kids around to play with and fight with and go swimming with. That was where he got most of his schooling. Apparently he likes school better than I did, because he wasn’t ready to quit when he was 15. But he had to, to help out on a 300-acre farm his father had bought near Akron.
No tailor gave Clark that physique. Farm work did. Winter or summer, he had to be up at 4am to start the day’s chores. He had cows to milk. He had stock to feed. He had wood to chop. Come spring, he had fields to plow. Come summer, he had fields to hoe—when he didn’t have hay to pitch. Come fall, he had a dozen harvests to get in.
After a couple of years of that, he was 17, and big for his age, and full of spunk. He decided he had had enough farming to last him the rest of his life. Traveling from the house to the back 40, or from the house to the cow barn, wasn’t enough. He wanted to go a little further than that.
He said so to his father one night. His father was pretty upset—couldn’t understand how Clark could think of leaving a good home, which would be his some day. His stepmother argues that they ought to give him a chance to pick his own future.
What Clark wanted to do, and what his father finally let him do, was to go to Akron, get a daytime job in a rubber factory, and go to school nights at the University of Akron. He signed up for a pre-medical course. He had ideas of becoming a doctor.
He would have made a good doctor. He has an analytical mind along with an even temperament. He takes things as they come. He doesn’t lose his head, no matter what happens. And he’s interested in people, if they’re themselves—which people are apt to be with a doctor.
But one night at a lunch counter he met a couple of actors from a local stock company, and that changed everything. They have him a pass to the show they were in. It was the first show he had ever seen, and it hit him right between the eyes. He had to be in show business or bust.
He struck the manager of the company for a job, and was taken on as a “super,” the stage equivalent of an “extra”—at no pay. Nobody can ever say that gold lured Gable into the theatre. Just the thought of acting was enough to lure him.
That’s enough to lure most of us. Only payless paydays are a problem to most of us, when we’re starting out. We couldn’t stick around, if somebody—usually home folks—didn’t finance our stay. Clark was able to take care of himself with that daytime job in the rubber factory.
He’d be able to take care of himself, if his acting career ended tomorrow and he lost all his money at the same time. He isn’t like most actors who can’t do anything with their hands except gesture.
He was just getting started with the Akron stock company when his stepmother died, and his father couldn’t stand the empty farm and sold it, and took Clark with him down to Oklahoma where there was a big oil boom. Clark became an oil driller. He was doing all right financially, making $12 a day, when a touring stock company came along. He gave up prosperity to become an actor—at $10 a week.
Today he says that year in the Oklahoma oil fields was the unhappiest of his life. But it did one thing for him. It taught how tough guys looked at life and how tough guys behaved. And it just so happened that that stock company needed somebody who could play tough guys.
The company headed West and got so far as Portland, Oregon, before it folded. There weren’t any theatrical jobs in Portland. So what? So Gable, the fatalist, got another kind of job. Joined a surveying gang. After that he worked on a lumbering crew. He picked hops. He was a telephone lineman for a while. He sold neckties. He made a living.
That wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to act. But he wasn’t so stage-struck that he couldn’t see his shortcomings as an actor. He wasn’t proud. He enrolled in some dramatics courses being taught by a woman named Josephine Dillon. Later he married her.
She did a lot for him, and he’s the first to tell you so today. She taught him how to handle himself, handle his voice, how to “time” dialogue. A man can have acting instinct, but it takes practice to make him an actor. Clark had the instinct and she gave him the practice—every evening after work, month after month.
He headed for Hollywood in 1925. He pounded on the gates quite a while and Hollywood wouldn’t let him in, except to play “extras”. And not too many of those, at $7.50 a day. Just enough to eke out a meager living.
Fatalist Gable shrugged his shoulders and looked for other things to do. A stage producer named Louis Macloon took him on as a member of his Coast stock company. That led in time to him getting a job with a stock company in Houston, Texas. He made a hit in Houston. That gave him the nerve to try Broadway. And he was doing all right on Broadway, when Louis Macloon offered him the role of Killer Mears in the Coast production of “The Last Mile.”
If Clark had had a short memory for old friends, he wouldn’t have taken that offer. And the whole story might have been different.
Killer Mears did the trick for him. In fact, it did the trick for both of us. I was playing the role on Broadway when the movies threw a contract at me. He was playing it on the Coast when the movies discovered him. Or, rather, Lionel Barrymore discovered him. Lionel was directing at the time, which gave him the right to make tests of any likely-looking talent. He decided this chap Gable was worth a test. And that test made MGM decided he was worth hiring—as a he-man heavy.
The boys didn’t realize what they had, till he played The Other Man, the menace in Norma Shearer’s life, in “A Free Soul.” The public went wild about him. Women screamed that here was a man who was irresistible. And men liked to hear it. Because they spotted him as a regular guy.
He didn’t lose his head and his head didn’t swell. You see, he had been around Hollywood a long time and nobody had noticed him. He hadn’t changed in looks since then or in any other way. The only thing that had changed was his luck.
A million advisers congregated around him and told him that now he was a Big Star, he was expected to be seen in glamorous places with glamorous people, to live in glamorous surroundings, to do glamorous things. Gable said that was too bad, because he wasn’t ever going to try to be a glamour boy. He was going to be himself. He was going to have to live with himself a long time—long after this hullabaloo was over.
Publicity was a great thing, but if the people who paid to see him on the screen didn’t like him on the screen, it wouldn’t matter what he did off screen. So he was going to concentrate on his job, and let the publicity take care of itself.
When the hullabaloo first started, he was single. His first marriage had gone on the rocks. If he had been publicity-minded, he would stayed single a while, a long while.
Instead, almost immediately, he married again. The marriage didn’t work out, but for four years it looked as if it was doing all right. And that fact didn’t put any crimp in his popularity that anybody could see.
I don’t know anything about his private life. That’s his business, not mine. But, offhand, I’d say his marriage to Carole Lombard will last for keeps. They’re suited to each other. They’re two regular people. And from where I sit, it looks like love.
He’s the kind of man it relaxes you to be around. He’s himself, so he expects you to be yourself. If you aren’t, you can go fly a kite. He’s so natural, most people can’t tell the difference between the on-screen Gable and the off-screen Gable. They think he’s playing himself. He is, up to a certain point. There’s a difference between being natural off the screen and being natural on it. It takes a little art to be natural with a camera in front of you and a microphone over you. Gable has made a fine art of it. If you don’t think he’s a past master of acting, let me point out that nobody ever takes a scene away from Clark Gable.
But he has a phobia about letting anybody tell him he’s good. He distrusts flattery. He’s not going to let anybody trap him into being self-satisfied. He’s the greatest self-blower-downer in captivity. He’ll give a terrific performance and then turn to the director and say, “Was that hammy enough?”
I think one reason why he fell in love with Carole Lombard was that she had a knack for making laugh at himself. Like sending him a ballet skirt when she heard he was going to dance in “Idiot’s Delight.” He arranged for some friends to see “Gone with the Wind” in the projection room, so what did Carole do but brie the projectionist to start the showing with an old test of Clark, wearing a loin cloth a la South Seas, and a rose over one ear. Clark rolled in the aisle.
His performance as Rhett Butler is one of the greatest things he has ever done. And he tried to dodge the role. He has my trouble—he doesn’t know what pictures will be good for him and what won’t. He didn’t want to do “It Happened One Night,” didn’t think it had enough dramatic action to keep an audience interested. All it did was to win the Academy Award that year, and he won an Academy Award in it.
MGM gave him something extra special in portable dressing rooms—paneled, and furnished like a model house. But does he use it? Only to change his clothes. Most of the time it stands there empty, because Gable is out on the sidelines of the set with the gang, sitting in a camp-chair. As I said before, he likes people.
Most actors can’t help talking shop. But when Gable doesn’t have to act, he relaxes. He talks about sports, the way, the latest gags, hunting, farming—anything but acting. Or himself. Unless something happens to him that will hand the boys a laugh. Like the time he and somebody else went some place where he was expected, and the gateman stopped them, and wanted to know, in all seriousness, which one was “Mr. Gable.” He got a kick out of telling that one—especially in front of the publicity boys.
Anybody as important as he is in the Hollywood scheme of things is entitled to a few stooges who won’t let him forget he’s important. But he doesn’t even have a valet. Something else he doesn’t have is a swimming pool. He doesn’t like the fancy touches.
Being a dirt farmer—the thing he said he was through being, for the rest of his life, when he was 17—is right up his alley. He kids a lot about his twenty acres and calling the place a farm. But he loves it. And he works at farming. He doesn’t just play at it. With my own eyes, I’ve seen him plowing. It’s another way of his forgetting acting in his spare time.
His favorite escape used to be hunting. Going way off in the back country, where people never saw movies, and nobody cared who he was, as long as he minded his own business. Since has had the farm, he hasn’t been able to go as much. He has to keep his eye on the alfalfa. But he and Carole lit out for the back country down Mexico way a while ago. They went so far back in the hills that there was a rumor they were lost. Somebody got the wrong idea. When Gable disappears, he isn’t after publicity. He’s trying to get away from it.
He’s a healthy specimen. He can take care of himself. If that needed any proving, he proved it a few months ago when a hold-up man paid him a visit. Gable took his gun away and sat on him till the police arrived.
His contract has two more years to run. After that? He shrugs his shoulders. That’s something to be decided when the time comes. And not by him, but by the fans. As long as they’re willing for him to be in front of the camera, he’s going to be willing to earn his living acting. If they ever say they aren’t willing—Heaven forbid!—I think he’ll try to get behind the camera, be a director.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he went on acting the rest of his life. He’s a man with millions of friends. And I’m proud to be one of them.