Captain Gable, “Grim and Gay”
By Hettie Grimstead
Screenland magazine, December 1943
Exclusive! Our British correspondent gives you a firsthand report on the former movie idol now serving his country in the Air Corps.
Overhead a great flying Fortress roared up toward the white-flecked sky as it set off from its English airfield for a raid over Nazi territory. Clark Gable stood beside me watching it leave, his tall figure loose and shapeless in his flying suit and yellow life preserver vest. The pale morning sun caught streaks of grey in his crisp black hair, reflecting again in his eyes as he shaded them with an oil-stained hand.
“It’s a grand job,” he pronounced, “I’m proud to be helping with it.”
He said it with quiet sincerity that needed no emphasis, for the long unpublicized trip that brought him across the Atlantic was his own choice, just as he originally decided to give up the second highest screen salary in America in order to become Captain Gable of the U.S. Army Air Corps, gunnery instructor on a heavy bomber station and merely “one of the boys” there.
Last summer General Luther Smith, who directs the Air Corps Training, asked Clark if he felt he could undertake a special assignment. It was believed that a film actually taken on operations would teach battle tactics to trainees far more effectively than lectures alone and lead to many improvements in the difficult art of gunnery technique in the air. Would Captain Gable like to help?
When Clark agreed, he was sent to England with two old friends from Hollywood, Lieutenant A.J. McIntyre who was the cameraman for “Test Pilot” and Lieutenant George Mahin, the script writer of “Boom Town” and now of this new film which none of Clark’s women fans will ever see. It has more thrills packed into it than anything ever conceived in a studio, for this is reality, the hard grim stuff of war in its fiercest and bitterest phase.
Its stars are the pilots, the navigators, the gunners and the radio operators—men who have come back from scores of Fortress raids on Germany, sometimes bruised and bleeding with their craft battered too. Clark is the narrator and he appears in some of the actual flying sequences. To gain the active experience necessary, he went on a recent mission but nothing will persuade him to describe it. He does not consider it looms important beside the many operations which most of the other airmen on the station have done.
“There was a lot of flak,” he remarked, “I’m told there always is. We were up around 23,000 feet, I guess. The only thing that bothered me was when I felt hungry coming back and opened the sandwich-box. Nothing in it—the other boys had felt hungry first!”
Clark is pleased for you to meet his crew, for he believes they should steal the picture, not himself. These tough young men grin unaffectedly as they grasp your hand. Like the rest of the Air Corps, they take Captain Gable on his merit as a man, uninfluenced by the fact that he was the movie idol of millions not so long ago. Fliers live for the job and they do not make personal inquiries when a captain of gunnery comes to the airfield. “Has he got the gen?” they ask, in the picturesque phrase they have borrowed from the R.A.F. Sure, this one knows all the technical stuff and he’s a good guy. O.K. then. He’s in the fight.
So it’s a world away from Clark Gable of the honeyed screen dialogue and the romantic background to this tall tough airman in the leather coat and the heavy brown shoes, standing in the shadow of his Fortress and talking about its points. He clambers into the cockpit to demonstrate the instruments, explains an intricate detail of the machine-gun sighting, grins at a passing sergeant who once baled out when the ship was a complete wreck and dropped 4000 feet before he could parachute. This Gable is serious and efficient, like well-tempered steel, waiting to strike when the signal shall be given.
He lives just like the rest of the air-crews, in his own little section of a wooden hut, with a narrow iron bed covered with Army blankets, a bare bureau and the inevitable stove in the center of the room. He eats with the other boys at a long table in the mess, using the hard-wearing blue and white Service crockery and helping himself from the generously heaped metal containers the white-coated cooks carry in. maybe it reminds Clark of the days when he was an aspiring extra, eating at the studio cafeteria and reckoning out how much he could afford to spend for lunch that morning.
There are no towns near the airfield, set apart amid the rolling green fields and woods of an eastern county which the Nazis have many times scarred with their bombs. So Clark could not see a movie even if he wanted to, for the local theater is miles away and, always provided he could borrow one of the few precious bicycles on the station, he still couldn’t make it in the short evening break which is all an airman on service is permitted while he is detailed for duty.
Along with his friends from the crews, Clark occasionally walks through the winding dusty lanes to the little village under the hill and has an evening glass of beer at the inn, which he has learned to call “the pub” in proper English fashion. They drink in a small low-roofed parlor, sitting on square old-fashioned benches, with a tall oak grandfather’s clock solemnly ticking away the time in the corner as it has done for more than a hundred years. The sturdy red-faced landlord beams at them paternally from over the brass-railed bar and the scent of the garden roses and the verbena comes drifting to them through the open casement. The talk about flying, exclusively and whole-heartedly. Their companions are the farmers and the woodsmen who have lived all their lives in this quiet corner of England, with sometimes a couple of green-sweatered Land Army girls, contentedly weary after their long day’s work on some neighboring farm.
Clark never talks with the girls in the pub, as some of his fellow-fliers do. He does not seem conscious that women exist in the world of today, so utterly engrossed is he in this arduous dangerous job he has chosen for himself as his contribution to the war effort. Man of the Fortresses on the airfield have tenderly reminiscent names painted on their noses—there is “My Girl Jean” and “Lovely Laura” and simply “Gertie,” with a snapshot of that pretty brunette, back home in Pittsburgh, carefully fastened in the cockpit. Clark’s plane is christened “Belly Gun,” cold but appropriate for its fat body bristles with machine guns. When he does write his brief air-mail letters to his friends back home, Clark’s news is bald and hardly personal, the same for the women as the men. There is no lovely screen star in Hollywood who can truthfully boast that Clark Gable sends her regular mail or keeps her photograph beside his cot.
Making this new film for the officers and men of the Air Corps means considerably more than acting and talking for Captain Clark Gable. He has to interrogate the combat crews for ideas about equipment and clothing, listen to their views on air strategy, take down notes of their experiences when they return from their missions, often in the cold dark hours of the early morning. Sometimes he must travel to London to consult with the senior staffs there, and only then does he get a few hours of relaxation before returning to the job in hand.
One hot day Captain Clark Gable did see a movie, “Casablanca,” at the Regal Theater. Then with a couple of officer friends, he walked across Mayfair to dinner at a restaurant which has become exceedingly popular with U.S. personnel, probably because they like its gracious paneled walls and soft green carpets and courteous elderly waiters and general atmosphere of quiet distinction. They had soup and roast pork, with fried potatoes and cauliflower, and then it was pointed out to them that they had reached the five shilling limit laid down under food laws so they had to do without dessert.
It is a strange life for a famous screen star, so long accustomed to the brilliance and the glamour and the luxury and the wild adoring crowds. Yet Clark seems as cheerful and content as any man could be; stimulated by the certain knowledge he is playing his fine worthwhile part during these breathless days of history.
Every morning he finds time to read “Stars & Stripes,” the U.S. Army newspaper in England, so he knows something of what film folks are doing both in London and at home. I talked to him about Burgess Meredith and Gene Raymond, both over here wearing khaki like himself, and then we discussed “The Shipbuilders,” a new British movie in which Clive Brook and Margot Grahame are playing, and Clark laughed understandingly when I told him how Vivien Leigh, posing in a classic white chiffon gown for her portrait by famous Augustus John, complained it made her feel like Scarlett O’Hara as an angel!
When conversation passed to Laurence Olivier, producing and directing “Henry V,” with all Shakespeare’s peerless prose so faithfully reproducing the Battle of Agincourt, Clark’s eyes gleamed with a sudden new light. “That’s what I mean to do after the war,” he said. “It’s the man back of the cameras who makes the film—I’ve learned that these last few weeks.”
So when Captain Clark Gable has finished his job and goes home to Hollywood, maybe he will take up an entirely new role in the studio. That is only a dim speculation at the moment for he cannot spare the time or energy to dream ahead when the demands of the present are so vitally possessive. Tough and vigorous, patient and determined, Gable today typifies everything that Winston Churchill had in mind when he spoke of the warrior who is “grim and gay,” the resolute fighting man who thinks of his country first and foremost.
Editor’s Note: As we go to press we hear that Captain Gable has won the 5-Star Air Medal for “exceptionally meritorious achievement while participating in five separate bomber combat missions” over enemy territory.