No Guy Like Gable
by Bob Fender
Modern Screen magazine, June 1951
Through Hollywood is full of young Prince Charmings, not one has shaken “King” Gable from his throne and an old friend tells why.
Ronald Colman ran his finger along his nose and peered questioningly at the ceiling.
“Clark Gable,” he mused. “Clark Gable. Isn’t he the new actor I’ve heard about?”
We were sitting in Ronnie’s cottage at the Del Monte Hotel. It was about 18 years ago.
“He’d like to meet you, Ronnie.” I said.
“Good enough,” Ronnie answered. “I’d like to meet him too.”
When I offered to bring Gable over sometime, Colman answered, “Bring him over, nothing. He’s a new guest here. Why not really make him feel welcome by dropping in on him.”
So celebrity-weary Ronald Colman trailed along behind me as I found Gable’s cottage and knocked on the door.
The meeting between the suave Colman and the eager lumberjack-turned-actor was something to see.
Big, bluff, handsome Clark, wearing a white turtleneck sweater and grey slacks flung open the door.
He stood for a moment in amazement, then, when I introduced him to Colman, Gable grasped his hand firmly and said, “You know, Mr. Colman, I guess I’m your Number One admirer and I never expected to see you walk in my door–it was quite a shock.”
Ronnie thanked him and settled down for a talk.
Colman wanted to hear the full story: how Clark got his break in pictures and what, in general, he thought of the whole business. Flattered, Clark didn’t leave out a detail. He’d just finished Hell Divers, one sequence of which showed him parachuting through space and landing kerplunk on the ground.
“D’ya know, Mr. Colman,” he explained, “I actually didn’t fall more than a couple of feet. They dropped me out of a harness and I simply fell into a bunch of pads right on the stage. Isn’t it wonderful the way they make movies?”
That’s how new he was to the business and that’s how marvelous it all seemed to this unaffected guy from Cadiz, Ohio.
Clark Gable has never lost that early enthusiasm.
Barbara Stanwyck said it: “They’ll never come any greater than Clark, because he has the same joy of living and the ability to bring joy to others today that he had when he arrived here. No matter what his age, he’ll never be old.”
It was with Barbara that Clark made his first hit, in Night Nurse. His name wasn’t billed very high when they were making the picture. But within thirty days of its release, Gable’s name topped all the others in the cast. Theater managers simply found it good business to put it there.
Gable slapped Barbara in that picture–a slap, as it turned out, that was heard around the world.
He slapped her again, some 20 years later, in To Please a Lady.
“He hasn’t lost any of that old punch,” Barbara says of him. “Nor,” she adds, “any of that old charm.”
“The tough thing about describing Clark Gable,” says Mervyn Leroy, the director, “is that there’s nothing bad to say.”
Even Hollywood’s most careless gossip writers have let him alone. “He isn’t a guy we like to monkey with,” one of them said recently. There’s something in Gable’s eyes that discourages Hollywood’s average character assassins.
Among his many friends are grips, electricians, mechanics and janitors.
King (that’s his nickname) grins, waves a hand as he walks down a studio street, says, “Hi ya, Bernie” (or Ed, or Joe, or Bill). For each he has a personal quip. “Still foolin’ ’em, huh?” he’ll ask a producer. Or, to a cameraman, “Get that brownie in focus. You’re going to shoot my unholy map this afternoon.”
But when it’s a girl he meets, there are no smart cracks. Call him old fashioned, if you will, but Clark is loaded with the brand of chivalry you don’t find these days. He ignores the passes girls make at him, and makes none himself.
He hates a smutty story. And if conversation turns to gossip, he simply walks away. I’ve never heard him say an unkind thing about anyone. And I’ve seen a couple of guys intent on destroying a girl’s reputation suddenly freeze up when they get a look at his eyes.
You leave the street and swing onto a stage with the six-foot-two, 200-pound package called Gable. He walks straight and he walks quickly, leaning forward slightly, the way a good fighter will do in the ring.
Inside his dressing room he relaxes. There’s a phone there and he grabs it to make a call.
“How are things at home, mama?” he asks. “Mama” is Mrs. Gable, or “Mrs. G.”, his other nickname for her. “Anything I should bring home?”
They liked to say that Clark Gable wouldn’t be able to take the kind of life his wife enjoyed. They said he was somber man, even a sourpuss, a victim of deep purple moods. They said that parties and other activities which amused Sylvia would leave him cold, even morose. They were wrong.
Not only has he approved of the way she’s decorated his San Fernando Valley ranch, he’s even pitched in and helped. (He says that’s the only way he could be sure of at least a little masculinity in the overall decor.)
And if he hasn’t actually loved the brilliant dinner parties Sylvia’s given there, at least he’s survived them in handsome style.
Few men have ever filled out a dinner jacket the way Clark does. Once, when he was vacationing in San Francisco, a group of sweet, elderly ladies were entranced by the figure he cut.
It was Clark’s habit, during that trip, to come into the hotel wearing slacks and a jacket after a day’s sightseeing, then to change to dinner clothes each night for a series of civic social affairs.
Every night the ladies, dressed in their finest, drew up their chairs in a sort of semi-circle to watch him cross the lobby. This went on for a few nights until Clark, aware of his timid, quiet and adoring audience, did a typically Gable trick.
As he passed the chair of the eldest lady, he stopped, handed her a rose and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
The effect in that lobby was approximately what it would have been if the Golden Gate Bridge had suddenly toppled into the bay and sunk quietly out of sight.
You’re riding Culver City’s Washington Boulevard with him in that Jaguar he loves so much, when you come to a traffic light. A cop heaves up alongside to wait for the green.
“Hi ya, Clark,” he says.
“Hello hot shot,” Gable grins. “Wanta race?”
So they make a date for the following Sunday morning for a closed-course run, just for the fun of it. (Clark left him so far behind that the cop asked for a try at the wheel. He got the Jag past 120, which is faster than Clark has revved it.)
“The ground comes at you awful fast when you pass 100,” Clark says. “Anyhow,” he adds, “I didn’t get the Jag for speed. I just love to look at the thing. Real purty, that car.”
Once in a while, though, he takes it out on the Culver City track for a quick workout. Track officials and race drivers line up to watch him, because they like the way he handles a car. If you were ever with him on such a run, you’d be wise to skip breakfast. But glancing at him out of the corner of a cautious eye, you’d know at once that he was in complete charge of the buggy. The guy can drive.
Sit in Clark’s dressing room, and what does he talk about? Well, a grip pushes his head in. “They’re biting up in Oregon, King.”
“Yeah, they’re biting for you,” Clark answers. “But will they bite for me? You got magic, Eddie, I haven’t.”
An extra peers in. “Hey, King,” he says. “Thanks for that tip about Warners. I got seven days work. I even got a couple of lines. Thanks to you, King.”
“Get any laughs?” counters Clark. He hates to be thanked.
A publicity man for whom he got a job tries to thank him.
“Will you stop it?” Clark answers. “We need good men here. The company got a break, not you.”
Sit in his dressing room while he starts changing for the next scene. His actions are quick, efficient. Off comes the shirt, revealing a well-knit set of shoulders and a chest that is massive and solid. His thighs and legs are still those of the vigorous, outdoor worker.
“Go out and kill the people,” Brownie, his personal wardrobe man and pals says as Clark heads for the cameras.
“I’ll murder ’em,” Clark smiles.
On location a fresh guy, wanting to get fresher, offers: “Pretty soft bein’ a movie actor, huh?”
Clark smiles. “You work steady and the hours are good. Where could a guy like me make a softer touch?” The fresh guy doesn’t get fresher.
He has a modesty and respect for others’ feeling that is fantastic.
Once a Gable-struck girl left her escort at a Sunset Strip spot to gush over Clark. He felt sorry for the girl but felt a lot sorrier for her date. Passing her, he made his way to the embarrassed guy’s table. The girl followed.
“Tell me about yourself,” he asked the man. “What’s your name? You remind me of a friend I had back in the oil fields.”
He ignored the girl completely. It was his way of showing her some simple manners.
Actions through the years often mellow a man, but Clark seems to have been mellow from the beginning.
Few fathers and sons had the wonderful camaraderie shared by Clark and his dad, the late Bill Gable. Bill passed away nearly three years ago, and it’s Clark’s greatest regret that he wasn’t able to say a few last words to him. At the time, Clark was taking his first and only pleasure trip to Europe. He was touring the Continent by car when he got word of his father’s death.
Completely shattered, he left the car in the little French town where he got the cablegram, rushed to Cherbourg and vainly sought passage on a boat. (He hasn’t flown commercial lines since Carole Lombard’s tragic death.)
All space was taken, so Spencer Tracy (who named his “King”) asked Clark to share his stateroom for the sad trip home.
Bill didn’t live with Clark, but occupied a neat small home in Encino, a scant mile from his boy. However, he did move into Clark’s place when his son went off on trips, in order to keep a watchful eye on the ranch.
“My dad,” Clark remembers, “once said something to me I’ve never forgotten.’Son,’ he said, ‘I’m too old for the girls. I’ll leave them to you. But remember one thing. You can’t tell a package by its wrapper. The truly attractive girl is the one whose good looks start here'” (and Clark indicated his heart.)
Clark and Sylvia had what amounted to a third honeymoon during his long location at Durango, Colorado, for Across the Wide Missouri. He had his Ford up there, and his driving proved a little too fast for Lady Ashley, who used studio cars. Apart from their transportation, they were inseparable.
And that Ford turned out just great for Mrs. G. when she had errands for Clark. Driving like mad along the deserted country roads, Clark whisked into town, some 30 miles distant, time after time to pick up curtain material, fancy work (she’s always sewing), and hotdogs for their midnight snacks.
“What the heck,” he’d grin. “What’s a few errands for the lady you love?”
He found her a hot plate, a tiny icebox and some of the best dime store napkins on the market for those midnight feasts. And after they were through, Clark donned an apron and lit into those dishes. “Show me,” he says, “a couple who do dishes together and I’ll show you a happy couple.”
Durango is eleven thousand feet in the clouds. It’s cold up there and the air is thin, and Clark’s day on Across the Wide Missouri was from five thirty in the morning until dark. His work was hard and exacting; leaving him fairly exhausted each evening.
Yet, on his first day free from cameras, he went into town to lead a parade for a show that would benefit poor kids. And he spent whatever other free time he had mingling with the townspeople, handing out autographs and being altogether charming to a star-starved populace.
One day he came out of a dime store loaded with knick-knacks Sylvia had asked him to get for the house. His arms were filled with the gadgets, but just outside the store a bunch of people had gathered, eager for his autograph. Very carefully he everything down on the sidewalk, signed approximately a hundred books, gathered up his parcels and went on his way.
Nothing? That’s right. It was nothing, perhaps, but I can name you a hundred stars today who wouldn’t have allowed themselves to be bothered.
It was my great good fortune to be his guest at last year’s Indianapolis Motor Speedway where, with Barbara Stanwyck, he was making MGM’s To Please a Lady.
The crowds were unbelievable. The fans who stormed Clark were not only insistent but panicky. Indianapolis, where it can get really hot, was having its hottest summer in years.
Bareheaded, always smiling, Clark stood for hours autographing hats, gloves, scraps of paper, souvenir programs, any and everything that was shoved his way.
Finally, a Speedway guard decided that Clark had done enough. He and a couple of burly fellow officers started shoving them back, muttering something about why didn’t the bums leave Clark alone.
Clark heard him, stopped him, and pulling him aside, told him quietly: “First of all, these people aren’t bums, they’re my friends. If I’m anywhere at all, it’s they who are responsible. And as for leaving me alone, my worries will start when they decide to do just that.”
Clark Gable has true humility. In a way he’s still the farmboy who learned long ago that it’s the man or woman, not their clothes or social standing, that counts. Clark abhors sham.
I remember years ago when one of the industry’s greatest directors and also one of its greatest bullies, got the complete Gable treatment.
This director (and you’d know him in a flash) was the type who was careful to never bawl out a star of Clark’s caliber. He saved his sarcasm and temper for the bit players and extras who couldn’t strike back. Every working man and woman in the business loathed him. His only saving grace was that he did make good movies.
On that particular day Clark wasn’t in the scene, but sat on the sidelines studying the script. A very talented and highly nervous girl was before the cameras. With absolutely no guidance from the director, she went through her scene from start to finish. After each take, the director would simply say, “Do it again.”
After the tenth or twelfth take, with the director ordering another, the girl finally broke down. Between sobs she asked: “What am I doing wrong? What is it that you want?”
“What I want,” sneered the great man, “is an actress. Who ever said you could act?” And with that he stalked off the set, leaving a bewildered, frightened, and completely shattered girl to face a crew of 30 men.
Now there wasn’t a man in that crew who wasn’t on the girl’s side. They knew she was not only an actress, but a good one. Yet no one was in a position to tell off the egomaniac who had caused her tears–no one, that is, except Clark. And he would have done it, I’m sure, even if he’d been an extra.
Following the raging director, he grabbed him by the shoulder, wheeled him about and in a very Gable-esque language (and brother, he knows a few words!) he let him have it right between the eyes. He wasn’t being the big man. He was just being human.
Clark has been a star for 18 of his 20 years in Hollywood. He has earned his bosses in excess of $240,000,000. He’s seen literally hundreds of men and women skyrocket to stardom, sputter and fizzle out. Through it all, he has remained simple, honest and straight-shooting.
It’s no trick for a newcomer in films to be humble and thankful when the man with the money hands him that first contract. They’re all humble then. But, with that second and third option renewal, something happens, not to all, but to too many of them. Their scripts, they say, don’t do them justice. . Their directors, they swear, are oafs. Their leading ladies, they insist, not only can’t act, but should be hustled back to Bent Pin, Arkansas.
To intimates Gable is apt to say, “I don’t get it. These jokers come to town with one pair of pants and a paper suitcase, and in nothing flat they’re telling the studios how to run their business.”
Clark Gable has the un-Hollywood theory that his bosses know their business. He knows mistakes have been made along the line, but he also knows that to err is human and that there isn’t a big business in the world with a perfect record.
“One time,” he’s fond of telling, “one of Henry Kaiser’s lieutenants, a new man, lost a million dollars for the company on his first deal. Did Kaiser fire him? Not exactly. Going to the frightened executive he grasped his hand. ‘If I’d done it,’ he said, ‘I’d have lost at least two million. Now let’s all get back to work.'”
I say Gable is greater than ever because he has today the same humility he had in his no-cash-to-carry days. He’ll even tell you he doesn’t know anything about his number one hobby–fast cars. Yet I’ve seen grimy and sleep-starved grease monkeys, who were trying to coax enough speed out of their racing cars to qualify at Indianapolis, turn to him for driving advice.
He could have hob-knobbed with the great racing figures at Indianapolis; the Johnny Parsons, Mauri Roses, Bill Hollands, Joie Chitwoods and the others. Instead, I remember him in the highly restricted garage area giving a word of advice here, some badly needed encouragement there, to the boys who had come thousands of miles with their homemade beat-up boilers called racing cars, with the fond hope of making a buck. These were the guys he knew. These were the ones who spoke his language.
He knew their cars wouldn’t even qualify in that world’s fastest company. But not by the flick of an eyelash did he reveal it. One day he found a few young hopefuls who had brought their hopped-up jalopies clear from California to meet the big test. And as he got to know them he found they weren’t eating, unless you can call mush three times a day, eating.
“What’s the matter with you guys? Put it all on the car?” Clark asked.
Sheepishly, they said they simply weren’t hungry. Gable let it go at that. But just somehow that crew of forlorn Californians had paid-up meal tickets at the track restaurant for the three weeks preceding the race. Gable swears he doesn’t know how it happened, just as he swears he doesn’t know how suddenly they found enough money in their garage to get home on, and then some.
Greatness is a word that can be defined a hundred different ways by a hundred different people. Maybe you wouldn’t call Gable great. I would. I know there’s not another guy in the world quite like him.