Life Ends at Forty!
By Eleanor Packer
Modern Screen magazine, January 1937
Yes, Clark Gable actually believes this and gives his reasons for saying so.
“When I’m forty and my work in motion pictures is finished, what will be left for me in life?” Clark Gable asked that question and his gray eyes were dark with honest worry and bewilderment.
Only in Hollywood could a young, successful man in his middle thirties ask that question. Only there could he face the problem which Clark must solve when he reaches the forty milestone. In all other places and in all other businesses the average man of forty is just beginning to taste his real success. But, for Clark, that birthday means the end, of the beginning of the end, of his professional life.
“I don’t like to think of that time. It frightens me,” Clark said. “So far as I can see now, there will be nothing left for me in this life. I’ll have to find new interests, an entirely new scheme of living. I won’t have my work. And I’m sure that I don’t want to stop working when I’m still fairly young. But I’m afraid that I’ll be too old to begin at the bottom in some new field.”
“People say that ‘life begins at forty’. They tell us that the years before that age are merely a preparation, that our forties are the golden years when we will have adjusted all our values of living and can honestly enjoy life. That’s probably true in the life of the average business man. During his forties he eats the financial fruits of the work he has done during his twenties and thirties, while he goes on building toward more mature successes.”
“But it won’t be that way with me. My career will be ended. There will be no place to go in pictures, except down the ladder. And I don’t want to do that. I hope I’ll have the sense to leave Hollywood and the screen while I’m at least fairly successful. And, if I do that, the life I know today will end most certainly at forty.”
I looked at Clark, and his words seemed almost fantastic. He looked so young and vital, slouching comfortably in the low red leather chair in his paneled dressing room on the “Love on the Run” set. It seemed ridiculous for him to talk about his life’s ending at forty, or at any other definite time.
Then, suddenly, I thought of the truly tragic figures of Hollywood, the one-time stars, men and women still young in years but veterans in experience, who are walking the streets, alone and forgotten, pathetically hunting for work, any kind of work, in the studios. In one of Clark’s pictures, “San Francisco,” there were a half dozen one-time stars, still young in their forties, but old and finished in fame. Then I understood why Clark shuddered at the thought of staying in Hollywood when the heyday of his stardom is ended.
“The worst of it is that I’ll probably never have enough money to enjoy the long years of leisure when they’re forced upon me,” he went on slowly. “The good old days, when Chaplin and Fairbanks and Lloyd were founded, are gone forever. Today, after we pay our taxes to the government and our fees to agents and a dozen other expenses necessary to this particular business, there isn’t much left to save for the rainy day of the workless years. I live very simply. I don’t even own my own home and I do very little entertaining. But, even though I save every possible penny and invest as wisely and safely as I can, I don’t see how I’m going to put away enough money during the next few years to take care of myself during that long, after-forty period.”
“Understand, I’m not complaining. I thank Heaven every day that I was given my break in pictures. I’m grateful to Hollywood for all that it has given me. I’d do it all over again, if I had the chance. What would I have been, if I hadn’t found a place on the stage or screen? A truck driver, maybe. Or an oil driller. I worked at that once, you know. I have no illusions about my abilities and capabilities. I know I’m just a lucky fool. Life dealt me all the aces. But, I’ll confess, the future worries me.”
“I know I’m good for only so many years. Then I’m through. And what happens next? For the last year or two I’ve doing all the things which I should be looking forward to doing in the next ten or fifteen years. I’ve had freedom from financial worries, a comfortable home, enough leisure to hunt and fish when the spirit moved me and to do some travelling. If my life were like that of the normal, average man, all that would be before me, instead of behind me, when they put the forty candles on my birthday cake.”
“I’m not a business man and I have no profession or training except for the stage and screen. So, I don’t know what kind of work I can do when I’m washed up in the only line I know. In this age of specialization it’s the experienced men, not the rank amateurs, who are in demand. And it’s hard to begin something new after forty.”
“I’ll tell you a little secret. Each year the old, simple country life, the very kind of living from which I once ran away to escape, becomes more and more attractive to me. I guess I’m still a farm boy at heart. As I grow older, it seems to be taking hold of me. When I look around at all the hectic worry and work of Hollywood, I long for the time when I can get away from it all and go back to peace and quiet, where no one knows or cares about movie stars and pictures and contracts and options.”
“However, I’m wondering whether, when that time finally comes, I’ll still be so crazy about it. The grass on the other side of the fence is always greener, you know. Maybe if I go back to the farm, it will turn out to be as monotonous as it was before and I’ll want to break away again.”
His years of Hollywood success have done a great deal for Clark and he is honestly and sincerely grateful. He tries to prove his gratitude by doing his best possible work in every picture and by registering no complaints when he is assigned roles which he does not like. Other actors, not so wise as Clark, have protested violently against pictures and parts which they did not wish to play. Many of them have fallen by the wayside, while Clark has plodded steadily and surely onward and upward.
“I’m paid to work in pictures, not to run the studio,” Clark told me once, speaking with the sane, sturdy wisdom of his Pennsylvania and Ohio ancestors.
Clark is one of the fortunate few who has kept his head and managed to be in Hollywood without becoming a part of it. He has taken only the best from town and has wisely discarded the empty glitter. Hollywood has given him success and money, a smoothly polished exterior, an easy inward poise, which he never could have gained elsewhere. But it has not turned his head or made him forget that his day of glory is tragically short.
He has many acquaintances but very few intimate friends in the picture colony. He has never had any desire for social success. He has always enjoyed the simpler things like small groups of congenial spirits around a blazing fire, hunting and fishing trips, long week-ends in the mountains or on the desert. He has established a well-balanced plan of living, work and play, occasional gay parties, frequent quiet week-ends, away from Hollywood where he doesn’t have to shave or wear a collar from Friday night to Monday morning.
Before his separation from Ria Gable, they entertained frequently in their lovely, dignified Hollywood home and they were entertained by people whom they liked and enjoyed. Since the separation Clark has been living quietly in a Beverly Hills hotel, but his way of living has not been greatly changed. He still goes places now and then, usually escorting the blonde and gay Carole Lombard, and he still slips away alone for his long week-ends of hunting, fishing or camping.
One rainy Saturday night a short time ago one of the men from Clark’s studio was driving to his mountain cabin. He stopped in a forlorn little restaurant in an even more forlorn little village along the way. There, to his surprise, he found Clark gable, sitting with the shirt-sleeved proprietor, talking and drinking coffee. No one in Hollywood knew where Clark was. He said that he intended to drive on through the rain until he was tired and then [tried to] find a place to sleep.
Down in Hollywood, on the other side of that curtain of rain, there were a dozen gay and sparkling parties, where Clark would have been more than welcome. But Clark was sitting at an oilcloth-covered table, drinking hot, strong coffee from a thick cup and swapping yarns with a middle-aged man, who didn’t know or care that the tall, dark man in the rough gray sweater and the cap was one of the world’s greatest screen idols.
But, when Clark doesn’t have to come back to Hollywood on Sunday night or Monday morning, when he has unlimited time to hunt and fish and explore strange places, will he enjoy them as much as he does now, when he is stealing them from the busy excitement of his working life?
That’s what Clark is wondering too. His present contract will be ended when he is thirty-eight. He never wants to sign another like it. He hopes to make one of two pictures a year, good pictures, for two or three years. Then he believes that his day will be done. And before him will stretch the long, golden, empty years.
“All I hope is that I shall be able to find some enjoyable and profitable way to fill them,” Clark said. “I don’t want, and I can’t afford, to be just an idler.”