Why Gable Wants to Fight
by Elza Schallert
Motion Picture magazine, October 1942
If Gable is Hollywood’s most restless man it’s because he’s at the turning point of his career
No decision had been reached when going to press on the status of Clark Gable’s effort to join the Army. Uncle Sam would like him to continue making pictures. But in the long run Clark’s own wishes would naturally triumph over everything else. You won’t want to miss reading this stirring article of why Gable wants to fight—even tho he joins up—and beats our deadline. –Editor
If this were a time of peace in the world, Clark gable would probably seek escape on a desert island. It would have to be an island that offered excitement, however, because, at heart, Gable is an adventurer, a man who loves the mystery of the unknown, who has lived close to nature and knows her changing moods—a man who has always been able to find satisfaction for his searching spirit by seeking out the rugged trail, the unbeaten path, the winding road.
In Carole Lombard, Gable found the perfect companion to match his own intense temperament, the rare woman with a similar adventurous flair and joy in vagabondia; but with her passing there has been left an expansive void in his life which, from all indications, only considerable time and a new design for living can possibly fill.
Gable, today, is a very restless person. What he is seeking is release. That is the whole keynote of his mental attitude. He would like to get away from it all, from everything, not for a day, not for a month, but for a good long spell. And there isn’t just one reason for this, there are many which have followed, one upon the heels of another, culminating last January 16th with the tragic death of Carole, and its aftermath of sorrow.
But this isn’t peacetime. It’s wartime!
Wherefore, Gable’s desire for the big escape can have a purposeful objective. Right now, as this story goes to press, he is deeply contemplating possibilities of a change from civil to military life. It is, in fact, right now the whole fabric of his existence.
It isn’t that he wants to abandon his career in motion pictures. The one question that stands out foremost in his mind is: “Where can I be of the most service?” Whenever that question is answered there will be a new lift, tempo, impetus, zest (call it what you will) in the Gable life-stream which has been running slow ever since the death of the woman he loved, and which has made him, incidentally, one of the big puzzles of Hollywood.
For six months now, Clark has shunned the public spotlight. He has avoided all interviews, dodged the press, and has made no public appearances except on one occasion—to attend the funeral of John Barrymore.
During this half-year period he has completed one picture for his studio, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, has lived quietly at his ranch house in Encino where he and Carole spent three gay and happy years of wedded life, and, apart from attending to matters of the estates of both Carole and her mother, he has devoted every spare moment to a concentrated effort to get into the service. As a matter of fact, he has made three trips to Washington for that very reason.
A friend and close associate of Clark’s recently said to me:
“Gable has had a big for a long, long, while—even before Pearl Harbor—to enter the service as a fighting man. Carole knew this and was very sympathetic with the idea. The subject always came into the conversation sooner or later because Clark is a man closely attuned to world events. At that time he wanted to enter military life because he was moved by the lure of adventure. Also he was developing very strong feelings about things that were happening, generally, in the affairs of nations. And he wondered where they were leading.
“Then came the fateful day of December 7th—Pearl Harbor! Clark, by then, was incensed with a raging indignation and inspired with fiery patriotism. So was Carole. And he sat down immediately and wrote a letter to President Roosevelt offering his services (and Carole’s) to the country—in any branch of the military, anywhere. Strangely enough, Carole was the first to be drafted for a Bond-selling tour. And then with a dread suddenness—only five weeks later—death struck the blow. Carole was taken.
“That, of course, was the last straw for Clark. From there in, nothing mattered but one thing. To do what he and Carole had so often discussed. Enlist…in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force…in any branch of the service wherever he’d be the most useful.
“That is the reason why Clark is so eager to give up his career—why he is now trying desperately to break the shackles of his Hollywood associations, so that he may humbly offer all that he has, and can give, for the benefit of his country.
“Naturally, no man—no real man—discusses these things. Some of us, however, who are close to Gable sense his feelings. He is stirred not only by patriotism but also by a determination to give up everything that spells Hollywood and become submerged in the Big Fight for the Big Cause.”
Thus far, nothing definite has developed for Clark except watchful waiting and hoping. President Roosevelt even advised him, in response to his letter early in the war, to continue his picture work because he felt, by so doing, Clark would best be serving his country. The President stressed the importance of film entertainment as a morale-builder for soldiers and civilians alike. Indeed, he places anything but a light value upon entertainment as a major war effort. Of course, there is another angle—the financial. The tax earnings and contributions from Gable’s income cannot be ignored.
But for those who know Gable, this sort of assignment is comparable to being sent to Coventry. It gnaws at his heart and spirit. He wants to give more than money, more than a screen performance. He desires, above all, to be in the thick of battle where things are happening. Picture-making at this time is too passive for him. He seeks action—the action that goes with combat.
Gable, in a moment of rebellion a short time ago, exclaimed at the studio:
“What the heck am I doing here when there’s a war going on? Let me get into it right away! I want to be part of this fight! I don’t want a desk job—I want action! In this way I’ll be able to keep my house clean—to live with my conscience—and be able to look people in the eye when the whole mess is over! I’ll know I’ve done my part!”
From all the writer could learn this is one of the few times Clark had really exploded since the death of Carole. Everybody, today, who knows him talks of his growing mellowness and philosophical acceptance of the tragedy which beset his life.
I talked to a woman who is well acquainted with him. She’s the wife of one of his intimate friends. She especially emphasized his deep understanding, which, nowadays, seems revealed as never before. She also referred to a greater tenderness that he exhibits, along with a certain new maturity of viewpoint.
This change hasn’t diminished at all the natural luster of Gable’s personality. Wesley Ruggles, director of Clark’s picture, Somewhere I’ll Find You, recently completed, said to me:
“I’ve known Clark for years but I’ve never realized until this picture what a serious-minded and brilliant man he is. He has a fine sense of values and a most intelligent perspective on the deeper significances of this war, and he is very impatient to do his share in a realistic way.”
Ruggles added: “Incidentally, I don’t believe I have ever known any man who commands a more whole-hearted affection and respect from fellow workers in all groups than Clark.”
I talked to another close associate of Gable’s who said:
“Clark has been very hard hit by the death of Carole. He is only beginning to realize it fully now, and it may be only my personal observation but, rather than becoming more resigned in her passing. I feel he is getting more unsettled all the time. He is a very restless man.
“Not so long ago several of us went out to the Gable ranch house and made him a present of a 16 millimeter copy of Carole’s last picture, To Be or Not To Be. He couldn’t run it off. It was just too much for him. Yet it’s a strange thing that since her passing he has been able to live at the house at all. I think it is because Carole’s death did not take place there, and also because the home is filled with happy memories. After all, they were like a couple of kids, and they were certainly madly in love. Theirs was a really idyllic romance.
“But this restlessness that has taken hold of Clark is more than just a momentary phase. It goes down deep. It is linked with his feeling of the futility of any effort today that isn’t related directly to the war. And until he gets into it, he feels he isn’t doing what he could and should.
“Gable’s a man not given to compromise in any way. He cannot convince himself that, in his instance, giving money, or helping raise money, or making pictures is enough. And I am certain that he will never stop at less than going ‘all out.’, if he possibly can, to aid the American cause, which in his opinion is the cause of humanity in the present crisis.
“If necessary, it would not surprise me to see him enlist as a private because he is becoming more impatient, day by day, to get in there and pitch.” In fact as you read this article he may be with the colors as a private, as a non-com, or as an officer.
But to get back to the subject if why Gable wants to fight, there’s still another person who mentioned to me:
“The last time Clark and I were together he said: ‘How in heck do you think I feel about reading scripts, which after all are an imitation of life, while all around us in the world a very real and very terrible war is raging! While a Rostov falls I’m putting on grease-paint!’
“There is one thing above all to be remembered about Gable,” this party continued, “and that is this. He is a man’s man—despite the fact that he holds a great fascination for the ladies—and he sees all of this present world turmoil as a man’s job—and he wants to be part of it. He’ll never have peace until he is a part of it.”
One wonders under these circumstances if perhaps Clark, for the first time in his life, might regret that he is an actor, since his profession appears to have erected a barrier between himself and the thing he wants most to do. His career might be regarded as a sort of “heavy” in the drama of his personal life.
He has seen dozens of his friends in the film colony gain entry into the service because they happen to be directors, producers, cameramen, technicians, writers, publicists—men of his own age which is forty-one, and men who are older, and in other instances, younger. Apparently, their work in civilian life has fitted them for technically-specialized fields in the various branches of the armed forces. Indeed they appear to be easier to cast in the war program, at least for the time being.
Naturally, Gable understands all of this, only too well but it doesn’t alter one whit the fact that the months have rolled by fast and that as we go to press, he is still waiting to be called. Let’s hope, for Clark’s peace of mind, that he has joined the service even as you read about his mental struggle here.
The big majority of soldiers—enlisted men and draftees, as well—have gone through experiences similar to Gable’s. They know exactly what a drain it is, on the nervous system, to “wait for orders,” to “strain at the leash,” to be “rarin’ to go.”
The difference between them and Gable, however, is that they are relatively free to make the break. Though he has no family ties, Gable is constantly reminded of his “obligation to the public”—that strange, almost mystical bond which is the result of loyalty and devotion of audiences to him everywhere. He is one of those rare idols who symbolizes escape from the realities of life. And what irony, at this juncture, that Gable should represent this fulfillment when the very thing that seeks is an escape from make-believe to reality!
Too, although it may not count as much, there is a star’s fealty to his organization. It is estimated that Gable nets his studio $3,000,000 annually! So his leaving pictures might temporarily mean quite a dent in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer treasury. Furthermore, his protracted absence might cause a loss of luster, which could not easily be renewed. But—there’s one answer to it all—this is wartime!
The truth, as I understand it, is that Mr. E.J. Mannix (one of the high executives of MGM and a very good friend of Gable’s), thinks enough of Clark as a man to give an okay to his entry into military life, if that is what he wishes.
Naturally however, MGM would like to see Clark well established in this new domain if he enters it. They feel, and with justification, that his attainments entitle him to that recognition. Still, they also have to consider the President’s wish that Clark continue on in the field he now occupies. But in the long run Clark’s own wishes will naturally triumph over everything else.
Gable has been a fighter all through his life. He did not arrive at success easily, despite the fact that many people have forgotten that he came up the hard way.
His has been an intelligent type of battling, too, without any of the usual controversies that break out between stars and the studios that guide their destinies. Whatever issues have arisen over the parts Gable was called upon to play have been settled quietly and privately. He has taken some roles which were “not so good” but he has generally exceeded the possibilities of even these poorer assignments.
On the stage, also, Gable attracted attention on one or two occasions in plays that were not exactly winners. Machinal in New York was an example. Of course, he later causes a sensation in Los Angeles by his portrayal of the killer in The Last Mile, but that wasn’t like conquering the audiences in America’s biggest city. The Last Mile, you may remember, was the effort which won him recognition in the films, partly because Lionel Barrymore, who was then a director, happened to see Gable’s performance.
The part Gable played in The Last Mile was one that many actors would have passed up because it projected such a mean “heavy.” Clark took it, however, and made an outstanding hit. But he had to wrestle, subsequently with numerous other cinema villains before he finally emerged as a movie hero. It all spelled a tough tussle before he arrived at the best strategical place for himself in the new film medium.
Gable has accomplished another thing which is remarkable in recent years. He has held, with a vengeance, a place among the Ten Best Stars season after season. He outdates many of them. In fact, his reign is by now the longest ever. And there seems little doubt that he’ll stay at the top, especially if he has such vehicles for his talent as The Sun Is My Undoing, now proposed, and various other ace stories that metro contemplate producing.
Gable is the type of actor who can readily be cast in good pictures, but that doesn’t lessen the prowess he exhibited in actually achieving leadership among the Ten Ace Stars.
Fighting didn’t begin for Gable in this modern era either. It started right back in Cadiz, Ohio, where he was born; in Akron where he spent some of his earlier years, and around Meadville, Pennsylvania.
Some years ago it was my pleasure to write an extensive biography of Gable’s life which appeared serially in various newspapers. It incorporated all those earlier phases of his career. It told of how, as an undernourished young man, he worked in lumber mills, oil fields, and various other occupations that involved hard labor…of how he nearly froze to death during a blizzard while riding the rails from the East to Montana…of how he knocked about Hollywood, and New York, too, with scarcely more than a nod of encouragement…of how he went through two marriages which were unhappy (incidentally, both his ex-wives still admire him) …and of how he was generally buffeted by fate and circumstance.
Most people who survive experiences of this sort usually go soft when they strike an easier period of living. But Clark never really let down even though the first flush of success might temporarily have lifted him off his feet.
His romance with Carole Lombard, the start of which I witnessed at the Mayfair Club party about four or five years ago, and his marriage, proved the settling factors and Clark returned to the ways that were most familiar to him—rugged pastimes to take the place of the rugged times from which he had emerged.
That was Clark’s release. And now that Carole is gone he again wants release, but of a different order. He senses that military life will afford it and, besides, it is the very thing that all of America is thinking about with a greater stir of patriotism day by day—a patriotism Clark, himself, subscribes to.
The proof so far is that he not only has purchased his quota of Bonds for 1941 but also the full complement for 1942. In addition he has given orders for the 1943 consignment. And then, naturally, there is that letter which can never be disregarded—the one he sent to President Roosevelt at the very outset of the war.
Yes, Gable is at a turning point—the crisis of his career. It is the basic cause of his restlessness. It is the reason he shits himself away from the public and keeps silent (for publication) about what is closest to his heart, and what he intends to do.
Maybe he will drift along through the ensuing months trying to “find his place” in a new field without being able to gain the desired opportunity. But if such is the case, this will be due to purely technical obstacles that cannot be surmounted, rather than his own deep personal interest.
There is a rumor abroad, which may only be a legend, which the war will be over much sooner than anybody anticipates. This might eliminate Gable from that picture because his entry, unless he suddenly decides to break all bonds which hold him, will not be swift. Probably the chief reason is that he hasn’t had precisely the kind of training that is required by the various services.
Gable, like many other men, though, has an all-around background. This has given him a great adaptability for all sorts of conditions, which undoubtedly would fit him for active duty better than a great many men. Besides, he has notable health and vigor and is a tireless sort of individual.
If Uncle Sam will permit Gable to serve, he is one who can serve well. In fact, taking it by and large, service has been the whole motif of his life pattern. His is really the “Heads Up” type of insignia implying genuine valiancy.