Tyrone Learns from Clark
by Adela Rogers St. Johns
Photoplay magazine, September 1939
A story of hero worship in Hollywood—of Gable, “the greatest guy in movies,” and Power, who found a way to happiness
This, as Mr. Kipling would have said, is a plain tale. I don’t know exactly why I tell it at all. Except that it gives me a lump in my throat, and a warm feeling way down inside me whenever I think of it. Maybe that’s reason enough for telling any story, even if not very much happens.
You hear a lot of mean things about Hollywood sometimes. How jealousy and envy are rampant, and every star has a tomahawk out for every other star. Not so much about the fine things that you can hold as a shield around the candle of your own hero worship, when some figure from the silver sheet stirs your dreams or your desires, or seems to befriend you in your loneliness.
So it gave me a terrific kick to find out about Tyrone Power and Clark Gable.
Sitting her in my workroom, with the big Pacific just outside my window, I say to myself—Tyrone Power’s got a hero, too. Somebody he’d give anything to be like, somebody who sort of personifies all he’d like to be himself. Funny, how much alike we all are way down underneath. Me, thinking how I’d like to write the way Edna Ferber does, and be as gracious and big as Eleanor Roosevelt, and look like Alice Faye. You, wanting to shoot like Cagney, or dress like Myrna Loy, or skate like Sonja Henie. And all the time, an idol like Tyrone Power wanting to be, in person, just like Clark Gable.
Tyrone Power and I met for the first time with considerable doubt and a lot of embarrassment.
It had been my ill-luck to comment harshly in print upon Mr. Power’s radio career, which I thought was slovenly and careless. I have a phobia about careless work, because it seems to me you can, at least, always do your best. Since this passing critique brought down upon me the wrath of all the feminine members of my family—my daughter trumped my ace the very next night, in spite of being my partner, and my daughter-in-law didn’t bring my grandson to call for two days—I heartily wished I had, for once, skipped doing my duty as I seen it. I wished it even more when Mr. Power magnanimously asked me to lunch. (I thought it was magnanimously, but you’ll see pretty soon that it wasn’t.)
You cannot imagine how hot and pink around the ears you feel when you first meet, face to face, a pleasant young gent whom you have roasted roundly, in the blissful conviction that you’ll never see the guy in this world.
Just what I had expected to Mr. Power to be like, if he was like anything, I don’t know. On the screen he seemed to me to be an able young actor, good-looking in a fine masculine way, and with a sure instinct for drama. Also, he had an aura of sincerity. So far, that description, like a police circular, would fit most of the young leading men of the cinema.
No sooner had we managed our nervous greetings, and sat us down to scrambled eggs and coffee, than I saw why Mr. Power had so far outstripped his field.
Here, said my weather eye and my reporter’s instinct, here is a favorite of the gods. Once in a while it happens. What a big time Fate has had spilling most of the treasures of the world at his feet. How gaily Fortune has picked him for her own. Fame, wealth, friends, work he adores, the affection of all those who surround him—for from the gatekeeper’s little white house, up to Darryl Zanuck’s office, everyone on the 20th Century Fix lot says, “He’s our boy. Tyrone Power’s our boy.”
I think I had the impression that such a golden youth might be a little irritating, somewhat self-satisfied, and, even though kindly, a little condescending to the rest of us poor mortals.
He wasn’t. My first cup of coffee wasn’t drunk before I had yielded to what I can only call his niceness. Or before I had discovered that Mr. Power, that favorite of the gods, was very young, very unsure of himself and pretty much confused about it all.
And that was because he had ideals, he had a supersensitive imagination and a lot more brains than his Prince Charming exterior suggested. After all this time, I should have learned the fallacy of trying to match people’s insides and outsides, but somehow you never do.
Plainly, this boy was a bit dizzy walking under the spotlight of movie fame, and he wondered what was going to come of it all. You could see, almost had once, why he had bought an island off the coast of Mexico. It was, he told me, rather like playing the game of what I’d do if somebody left me a million dollars—and then having it actually happen. Lots of fun, but a sock in the solar plexus just the same.
“When,” said Mr. Power, “everybody knows everything you do, and you’re just an ordinary guy like everybody else, and want the same kind of things, and then there’s the press and radio and people you meet and the parts—whether you should play them or not—like Jesse James—“
He stopped and looked at me to see if I knew what he meant. As it happened, I did. I’ve seen a good many cases of it in Hollywood. You might call it Star Fever. It lingers in the swamps between the pinnacles of fame—the possibility of being misunderstood, the magnifying of simple, normal actions, the fear of mistakes which all the world will see, the fear of being though high-hat on one side, or of exposing yourself to a lot of bother and trials on the other.
“How,” Mr. Power wanted to know, “can you be sure what’s the right thing to do? How can you always hit the right thing to say, when you’ve just been an ordinary, run-of-the-mill sort of guy all your life and not very—well, articulate? Say, I like life and people and doing things, but it’s an awful funny feeling to find that every careless word you say swells up into something you didn’t mean, and every little thing you do is apt to look phony—“
Star Fever. Some of them—a good many of them—haven’t survived it.
“We have so much to lose,” said Mr. Power, “you’re sort of teetering way up there, all of a sudden. It was an awful surprise to me. You know, I thought maybe someday, if I worked hard enough, I might get somewhere—and then everybody was so kind—and you want to live up to it all and have them think you’re a right guy—I don’t know. It’s hard to tell. They can make an awful bum out of you in about twenty minutes, at that.”
So I said what I actually believed. “Well, if I were a young man and had just been crowned King of Hollywood, or whatever it was, I wouldn’t do anything except to study Mr. Clark Gable. That’s all I’d do. I’d try to get to know him well, and learn how he conducts himself in difficult situations.”
So now we come, in this plain little tale of two men, to Mr. Gable. It isn’t a personal appearance until later and not much of one then, but Mr. Gable doesn’t have to put in a personal appearance to make himself felt.
For it seems, as I found out that day, that Mr. Gable is a prophet with so much honor in his own country that the mere mention of his name is magic.
Years ago I was at an airport in Los Angeles when a group of boys, kind of Angels-with-Dirty-Faces boys, stood waiting for America’s Lone Eagle, Charles Lindbergh, to come down out of the skies. The plane slipped down from the clouds and landed and the tall, blond young pilot climbed out and strode across the field. Right through the group of dirty-faced, tough little guys he walked, so close that one of them reached out a hand and touched him.
“I touched him,” one of them croaked. “Say, you bums I did—“
I never forgot the look in the eyes of those kids as they looked at Lindy.
Now I saw it again, the very same look, come into Tyrone Power’s fine brown eyes when I mentioned Clark.
“I guess there isn’t anybody else like him,” Ty said. “I don’t mean I want to be like him on the screen, because we’re so different. But I wish I knew how he manages to make every single soul he ever meets think he’s the absolute tops. I wish I knew how he makes newspapermen, every single one of them, think everything he does is just right. Why, that guy can say no, and make people like it better than anyone else can when they say yes. Did you ever hear Spencer Tracy when he calls him Big Moose? They say friendship between men is one of the greatest things in the world. I guess Clark Gable has more men friends that feel about him the way Spencer Tracy sounds when he calls him Big Moose, than any other man I ever heard of. I don’t know him very well, but I think I’d rather get to be his friend than anything else—but I don’t think it’d do any good to study him. It’s just something he has himself that nobody else has ever had, that’s ever been in Hollywood. What do you think it is—or can you tell?”
I thought I could but I wondered.
Three or four other men joined our lunch table as we talked. There was Sidney Lanfield, the famous director; Harry Brand, publicity director of 20th Century Fox—troubleshooter and see-it-through gent, since the days we were kid reporters together; a hard-boiled, young actors’ agent, who looked like a North Beach gangster. There was Sonja Henie, before we finished, as bubbling and pretty and refreshing a small person as ever I saw.
There wasn’t a dissenting voice on Ty Power’s idol. Gable was the Greatest Guy who ever came to Hollywood.
Tyrone Power’s face lighted up like a young father regarding his offspring showing off to advantage. Honestly, he took a personal pride in the sort of gay and gallant salutes that were being offered to the absent Mr. Gable.
I was achieving more and more of a maternal complex about Mr. Power every minute. I thought: It’s a good thing he’s got a job and all, or I’d have another adopted son any minute, and I’ve really got enough as it is, what with two grandsons and another one expected before long. But I did want to do something about the way he felt about Gable.
So I said, “Well, look, this is it. I’ve met, in my business, a lot of the great men of our time. I’ve met several presidents of the United States, and Colonel Lindbergh, and Jack London, and Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, and I knew Valentino—and well, anyway, most of the famous one. But I think Clark Gable is the only completely natural human being I have ever met in my life. And that’s something to say about an actor. That’s why he’s always on balance, that’s why he always does the right thing at the right time for the right people, because he’s natural.”
I was thinking over the years that I’ve known Clark and, as I thought, it became truer and truer.
“That’s it,” Tyrone Power said. “I wish I could be just like him. I wish I knew how he does it.”
So I thought I’d ask him.
The next day over at MGM, I went out on the set to watch Spencer Tracy working. When the called lunch, Spencer said, “Well, come on, let’s go eat.”
And I said, “Thanks a lot, but I’m going over to lunch with Clark.”
He nodded. “That’s the way it always is,” he said. “They come out on my set and sit around, maybe, but they’re always going to see the Big Moose. ‘Sall right with me.”
As I walked over to Clark’s dressing room, I thought: What would I do if he ever changed? Almost everybody else changes. Almost everybody else gets worried or harassed or self-centered or something, nowadays, and especially here. He’s been through a great deal lately and his life has changed. But I don’t think it would be fair if Clark ever changed.
But when we were talking, he said something I shall never forget. I asked him, in a sort of roundabout way, if sometimes he didn’t get a little worried, or if he hasn’t been through changes that were difficult—as we all have.
“Oh, sure”, he said. “Sure. Right after Parnell, I had a hell of a time. Then—then I sat down with myself one day and I said: Look here, Gable, you had something people liked. You were a guy that was lucky enough to get along. You had a tough struggle, but you made it, you lucky stiff. Now, what did you have? You go back and find that guy you were, because even if you don’t know what it was he had that finally got there, he did have it and if you just always go back and find the real guy you were, you’ll always have it, too, see?”
I liked that. Back to the beginnings. Back to natural.
“Sure”, Clark Gable said, “you get confused. You get sort of bewildered. But I’ve found out most of it’s pretty unimportant. A fellow named Emerson said once that we—let’s see-that we miscreate most of our own evil. Maybe it’s just being lazy, but doggone if folks don’t make life mighty complicated. They think too much about little things, think things are important that aren’t at all.”
“Life’s a kind of a funny circle. Look how people are now. Once our forefathers didn’t have anything but fireplaces—they were the natural thing. Now, you have to earn a lot of money to be able to afford fireplaces. Then, we get the telephone, and it’s a great invention, and then everybody tries to make enough dough to get somebody to answer the telephone for ‘em. We used to all live in the country and far apart and have farms and such, and then we got bigger and bigger cities, and only the rich could live out in the country, and they had to move farther and farther to get there—and then they made faster and faster automobiles so they wouldn’t be so far away—and it’s like a circle. But you always go back, if you can, to the natural things. So you go back to the natural man in you, when you’ve battled around a while, then you’re all right.”
And he grinned and said, “Have some more salad,” and we talked about airplane travel in South America. But I did talk about Tyrone Power and how much I had liked him.
“Good kid,” said Gable. “Hell of a good actor. Good boy in a pinch, or I’ll miss my guess. I like men that are there in a pinch. I bet he would be.”
“Yes,” I said, “I think so. H’s—he’s got buck fever, a little. You know how it is. Suddenly finding yourself in the spotlight, suddenly feeling that great responsibility of being a star, scared to death about your future, and your parts and being misunderstood—you know.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Gable. “I know.”
“I just thought I’d mention it in passing,” I said.
Well, that’s really all there is to the story.
Except that a couple of weeks later, I was in the Café Lamaze with my brother and his wife, listening to Matty Malneck’s orchestra and I looked across the room and there was Tyrone Power and his wife, Annabella. And who do you think was with them? All right. You win. Mr. and Mrs. Clark Gable.
That’s really all there is to the story, except that it still makes me feel sort of nice and warm insde to know that there’s that kind of fine, boyish hero worship in a young movie star like Tyrone Power, for another young movie star like the Greatest Guy in Hollywood—Clark Gable. That the Big Fellow had the kind of a liking for the boy some might consider his rival, the kind of liking that maybe made him sort of go out of his way to make friends with him, and sort of steer him a little bit.
I liked it a lot. I hope you do.