Dear Captain Gable
By Maxine Arnold
Stardom magazine, February 1944
An Open Letter Gives a Frank Explanation of Gable’s Popularity
I’ve tried so hard to see you since you’ve been back home.
One morning I even went down to the Army base where you’re stationed. I came pretty close to you then, Captain Gable, for your name was written down just two names above mine in the guard’s book at the gate. I saw it all scrawled out… “Clark Gable”…You’d checked in, but you’d also checked out. You had twenty days leave, the Army said.
Then I tried to reach you at the studio. I called and called, but you weren’t there. U even talked to your friends, but they couldn’t tell me anything, either.
I know how it is, Captain Gable. Believe me, I know how it is. For I’m a reporter and you don’t want to see any reporters. Even when you worked there as Hollywood’s biggest star, you always shunned publicity. Not that you weren’t cooperative, but you really didn’t want tit. And now that you’re signed up with Uncle Sam, you surely don’t want any. You want to be just another soldier. Another Joe.
But that’s what I want to see you about, Captain Gable. To tell you that that’s what you are to the boys over there. And that’s what you are to my Bill.
Then finally one night I did see you, Captain Gable. You didn’t see me. It was in the lobby of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. You were coming to a business meeting of Hollywood stars, to tell them how much the boys appreciated it at those bomber bases in Britain when the stars brought a but of home to them over there.
You parked your gunmetal convertible across the street in a lot by a filling station. And you came very early to miss the crowds. You came in looking pretty dashing in your uniform. A little grayer around the temples. A little heavier of mustache. Eyes that show they’ve seen a lot. You looked mighty handsome, Captain Gable, a little slower on the charm maybe, but mighty handsome. What’s more important…you looked like a heck of a lot of guy. That’s what Bill always calls you. A lot of guy.
You hurried on up to the meeting. You sat on a stage inside the Florentine Room with Lieut. Comm. Robert Montgomery, Bob Hope, Frances Langford, Judith Anderson, Jack Benny, Adolphe Menjou, and James Burke, other stars who’ve been overseas and know what it’s like and what the boys need over there.
The room was jammed. There were four hundred and fifty Hollywood stars and executives sitting in front of you. Hollywood’s top folks. And you felt so funny about being there on a stage in front of so many civvies again. And so nervous. For a minute you even wished you were back in one of those “Forts,” bombs-awaying with the gang over there.
It was Lieut. Comm. Bob Montgomery who introduced you, and you were stirred a little more—touched, but embarrassed by his introduction. For Bob gave a swell navy send-off to an Army guy. “It’s very seldom,” said Bob, “that a Naval officer is awarded the opportunity of telling people how much he respects and feels toward an Army officer. This is my opportunity to say that of a fine fellow not only known to us as a wonderful guy and a fine actor, but one who had maintained that status by becoming a fine Army officer, too. Captain Clark Gable.”
They applauded, and you felt so funny standing out there in front of them, being applauded. Why should they applaud you, you thought.
And so…you made the shortest speech of all. You just said what you had to, and quit. You told them how much it meant to the kids to have celebrities visit them over there. How it occupied their minds so much that instead of thing of the bomber missions they’d been on, or their pals who hadn’t come back, they would think and talk about the stars for weeks before they came and after they’d gone. Talk of nothing else but seeing them, and what they said and did, and how swell it was to see somebody from the States. Somebody from home.
It was short and to the point, Captain Gable. The Army had loaned you to Hollywood for the night to make the speech. And loan you with the provision that reporters like myself wouldn’t be allowed to come. I wasn’t in there. I just heard about it.
And besides…I didn’t go as a reporter, Captain Gable. It’s just like I was telling you…I came because of Bill.
So I decided to write you a letter and tell you about him. And about how I know how hard it was for you to bridge the gulf between that stage and those few steps down to the audience of stars.
I guess it starts way back from the beginning, when you quit your place as Hollywood’s Number One man, and told reporters who bothered you down at Miami Beach, “There’s lots of work to be done now. I want to forget publicity and settle down to it.”
So you settled down to it…and when you graduated twelve weeks later…you told the other grads in your class, “How you look in your uniform is a very important thing. How you wear it is a lot more important!”
When they pinned the silver gunner’s wings on your blouse at the flexible gunnery school, you admitted that the gunnery school was “tough,” but said that when you got through it was easy to see why our gunners are shooting down so many enemy planes.
Well you should know, Captain Gable, you should know. I asked a gunnery officer at a school one time what it took to get those gunner’s wings. “Steady icebox nerves,” he said.
Icebox nerves…that’s what the boys in the Eighth Air Force in Britain say of you. And that opinion also comes to me from Bill.
You were a long way from “washing out” in the eyes of the boys there, Captain. They think you’re pretty wonderful. And just what you wanted them to think…another soldier…another Joe.
That must mean more to you than the ribbons and the Air Medal you got for those five raids over enemy territory. Five raids. “Let the boys talk who’ve had twenty-five,” you said, when you got back here. But the number doesn’t always count. Sometimes there is just one. There wasn’t anything painted on the side of your Forts telling the Jerries, “Movie Star Inside…Please Handle With Care.”
But they didn’t fire the bullet with your name on it. And the Gable luck held. Nary a scratch.
Not a scratch on that one over Antwerp, in the “Eight Ball,” when you guest-manned a gun position in the radio compartment, and fired round after round at attacking Focke-Wulf 190’s that came at you head on. “Gable’s a real guy and means business,” the crew on the “Eight Ball” told reporters after that raid.
Then that big mission over “Flak Valley” at the highest altitude a Fort can fly in a forty-five-below-zero sky. When you stood for hours between the pilot and the co-pilot of the Fort, “Ain’t It Gruesome.” And it sure was, brother, it sure was. That was a hot trip. Five Focke-Wylks attacked the ships while you were trying to get those combat pictures of our boys bombing the industrial section in the Ruhr. “Happy Valley” is what you called it in your first interviews here. “Happy Valley…because there’s never a dull moment. Jerries provide an escort coming and going.”
Another one the next month in the Fortress, “The Duchess,” over Nantes, when the Jerries threw the fastest, loudest, and deadliest stuff they had at you. And you came back agreeing with the kids on the ship that the trip was “busy, but dull.” You doubled on your camera and operating the gun in the waist section of “The Duchess.” You walked away from the ship that was peppered with flak and bullets, with the comment, “I didn’t hit a damn thing.”
On your fifth mission you got a medal. But what was more important to you was whether you got the Jerries on your film.
It was that time somebody asked you the thoughtless question about which was the tougher of the two theaters you’d been in. And you answered that the European theater was the “tougher one.” You thought so then. But actually the toughest performance of all was the one you had to make when you got back home.
It was a big surprise to you to come back and find yourself the biggest news since the bombing of Rome. A pretty painful surprise. You felt like a bit player taking the show away from the stars. And knowing what the kids were still taking over there, it seemed pretty silly to you.
Silly, too…to be mobbed everywhere you went by giggling, gushing women. It was enough to make your silver wings curl up at each end.
But you had to tell the press something. So the Gable sense of humor came back, and you told the boys that you and Captain John Mahin hoped for the best, but didn’t know what you had on film. The long shots were probably all right, but Jerry wouldn’t stop and pose for close-ups. He was a pretty sorry camera subject.
And you tried to tell them what it felt like to be in the air under the fire of those Focke-Wulfs. “The front of the wings gleam like Christmas trees when the open up with their cannon and guns,” you said.
They weren’t the only things that lighted up like Christmas trees, Captain Gable. So do the eyes of all the gals wherever you’ve gone. Silly to you. Yeah.
In the middle of these interviews, just when you were warming up to what you wanted to say about the American kids, what a bunch of boys they were, and how they were taking it over there, somebody would always interrupt and bring it right back to you. That show-stopper. Were you planning to return to pictures? What did they mean? If it wasn’t for the guys you’d been with, and others like them, there wouldn’t be any pictures to return to. Maybe there wouldn’t be anything. That should answer the stray rumors about your plans for acting in or directing Hollywood movies.
How did you feel about the war, Captain Gable? Had the war changed you? What the hell difference did that make, you thought. You were back. You were okay. What mattered was the kids over there.
Sure I know how you feel…the way I felt when a girl stood looking over my shoulder at your picture in the paper the other day. A very pretty girl, and she didn’t mean anything wrong.
“He’s changed!” she said excitedly.
“How?” I asked, prepared for the worst.
“His mustache’s changed,” she said, a little disappointedly. “There’s more of it now.”
Sure…you’ve changed, Captain Gable. But more than a mustache’s worth. I think it’s in your eyes. They look as if they’re based somewhere else. As if they’ve seen too much. They look just like Bill’s.
It was a sort of shock for you to come home and find nothing changed here—just the way it was when you went away. And you thought again of those kids over there fighting so hard to keep it that way. That’s what worries Bill. That’s what he keeps writing about. Wondering if everything here is still the same.
Those are the boys you’re thinking of now, Captain Gable, as you cut your pictures, those guys on that film. The boys who made all those bomb runs over the Ruhr, who know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight hit. Those fifity calibers blazing away. Opening the hatch and kicking ‘em out.
Those are the boys you see in your mind when you read the headlines like that the other day about 5,700 fliers being lost in Britain so far. Cold statistics. But not just numbers to you. You knew a lot of them; swapped yarns with some of them in the American Bar and the Savoy on the few occasions you got into town.
No, they’re not cold statistics to you. They’re the boys riding high in their greenhouses, leased by them at high and low ceilings for the duration. You’ve stood out there on the flying field at the base, and counted them when those greenhouses jutted their noses forward into home. Some coming in, like the song says, on a wing and a prayer. Some on just a prayer. Some of them not coming in.
Hollywood means home for you, but it’s pretty hard for you to come back and fit into a Technicolor town.
It used to seem pretty funny to you and Capt. Mahin over there, I know, when you reminisced a little about the films you’d made together while you were making that one for Uncle Sam. Pictures like “Boom Town.” A different kind of wildcats you were handling then. It was fifty caliber guns from Messerschmitts and 190’s that “spudded” into your ships on those “takes.”
But I can give some mighty good reviews of your production over there. One from a tall, lanky Texas lad who piloted one of those Forts you rode in one a flak-y trip over the Channel. Tex wrote home about you. Said you’re wonderful…so regular…down-to-earth…plenty okay.
Of course, I may be prejudiced, but I guess just about everybody over there in the Air Force is in Texas. The best ones, anyway. You’ve got to really prove yourself to any Texan, Captain Gable. Believe me, the eyes of Texans were upon you on every trip you made over there. And you stacked up plenty. They’d be willing to put your footprint in the Alamo.
Those kids from Texas…from Kansas…from Oregon. Just kids, until they put on their wings and went to war They’re why you’re working so hard overtime now on that film of yours, Captain Gable. They call it a “training film,” but that’s much too cold. It means more than that to you. It’s the record on film of the bunch of swell Joes you knew. You can see them now as you cut and piece the film. They’re all kids you know…swell All-Americans…all heart and blood.
And putting them on film is a mighty big mission for you.
I’m just wondering, Captain Gable, if somewhere in it, maybe, there’s a shot of a boy called Bill.
Maybe you met him over there…slow of drawl, and fast of heat. A lot of guy.
He always called you that. You were always his favorite star. Since way back when we were in Texas in school. Bill is my best pal. We lived near an oil town in Texas, and whenever we went to the show, he’d always be you for the next two days. Always imitated you. Even tried to put the semi-gruff business into his voice. The quizzical way you wrinkled your forehead. And for a few days he’d be tough. You know…no opening of car doors…making me like it or lump it…the way you always did.
Then when I came to Hollywood and started reporting the movie beat, I’d write back home about interviewing you on the sets. And he’d want to know…acting a little indifferent…but so curious…what you really were like.
When he got out of school, he worked in the oil fields, roughnecking in south Texas. Then when the war started, I wanted him to be a marine, but he took the Air Forces. And when you went in, he kidded me about picking a “classy outfit,” the same deal a movie star was in.
It was different over there at first, Captain Gable. That wasn’t motion pictures. That was a different thing. That was war. And…as I was saying…you have to prove yourself to Texans anyway. Oh, Bill didn’t really know you. He saw you one time, I think. But all the boys compared notes the way they always do.
And the next time he wrote back, he made his quote fancier: “You were a hell of a lot of guy,” he said. They all thought you were.
So that’s why I’m writing this, Captain Gable. I just wanted you to know how you stack up with the gang.
Happy Landings Always.