Clark’s Still “The King”
By Fredda Dudley
Silver Screen magazine, August 1947
At Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, they still call him “The King.” In case you came in late, the origin of the title: About twelve years ago, Clark Gable was designated “King of the Box Office” by an association of grateful theatre owners and distributers who had learned that no matter how rough the box office profit situation looked, all they had to do was run a Gable picture and mama could have a mink for Christmas. Even such celluloid nightmares as “Parnell” and “Adventure” paid off handsomely. And, in interesting contrast to the usual matinee idol rule that the box office gross piled up in the afternoon but was off in the evening, Mr. Gable drew the customers even more heavily after six o’clock than before. In short, men admired him as much as women fancy him, a rare and enviable trait.
When news of “The King” accolade was received at MGM, Clark’s best friend and most resourceful critic, Spencer Tracy, decided that so signal an honor should not be allowed to remain intangible. Something concrete and visible was needed to greet the occasion. So Spencer had Clark’s big leather chair removed from his dressing room, and a towering gilt throne installed, courtesy of the prop department. Swags of purple velvet were festooned against the walls, and an appropriate red carpet was unrolled from set entrance to dressing room. There were placards too, of course: “Long Live the King,” “The King Can Do No Wrong,” “Make Way For the King,” and other standard slogans.
From that day on, inevitably, Clark Gable was “The King”. At first it was merely an extension of a good gag, but eventually it became part of Hollywood language. The name Clark Gable is almost impossible to nickname, so Clark’s friends soon fell into the comfortable habit—in moments of comradeship—of saying, “Okay, King,” or “See you later, King,” or “That suits me, King.” It became the motion picture equivalent of the sports world’s calling Joe Louis, “Champ.”
In some ways, this monarchical nickname is inexact. Flattery, traditionally, a royal right, bores Mr. Gable beyond description, and the insistent attention of giggling women is something he can do without for the next thousand years. He expects no special favors and is embarrassed if they are tendered. He regards himself as an average guy and this viewpoint of himself is reinforced by his announced choice of his favorite role to date. Not the lusty gambler of “San Francisco,” not the hardboiled rigger of “Boom Town,” not even the prize role of a lifetime, Rhett Butler, gave Clark Gable the satisfaction that he derived from creating the easy-going, humorous, impressionable hero of “It Happened One Night.”
This may be Clark Gable’s impression of himself, but to the observer the type in current life which he most clearly resembles is that of American corporate president, a position he would undoubtedly hold at the present if he had gone into industrial, rather than theatrical, life.
One of his salient traits is efficiency. People who have worked with him for years cannot remember a time when he has been late on the set. He always knows his lines and when new dialogue is tossed at him, he tackles it in business-like fashion and is ready for a take in record time. The whole business of making motion pictures is a job to him, not la-de-da art, and he approaches it in the earnest manner of an insurance statistician preparing an actuarial table.
On the “Adventure” set one afternoon, director Victor Fleming was dissatisfied with Clark’s choice of clothing.
“I don’t know what’s wrong exactly,” he complained, “but your outfit just isn’t right for this guy you’re playing. Maybe it’s something about your shirt.”
Clark asked quickly, “Would it be better for this scene if I wore a sweater instead of a shirt? Maybe that black sweatshirt I wear around the house?”
Mr. Fleming snapped his fingers. “That’s the one. That will give me the rough appearance this guy should have.”
“Be right back,” said Clark. He hopped into his car, drove twenty-five miles out to the ranch, changed clothes, drove the twenty-five miles back, and was ready for rehearsal and take. Hollywood is filled with actors who would have said, “Tomorrow, I’ll show up for nine o’clock shooting in that outfit, but anybody who thinks I’m going to drive fifty miles through afternoon traffic just to change my shirt is crazy.”
Not Clark Gable. He was part of a corporation trying to make a good picture, and—like any conscientious workman—was ready to do anything necessary.
It would be pleasant to mention names in the ensuing anecdote, but tact demands secrecy. At any rate, Clark was working with an all-star cast, one member of which was completely taken up with personal importance. This person delayed sequences while makeup was adjusted, costumes were altered, dialogue was rewritten. There were a thousand delays and complaints; there were hesitancies, disagreements, outbursts of temperament.
Mr. Gable, the headliner, continued his even pace without a break. He rehearsed when dialogue was rewritten, reassured when costumes were questioned, refrained from comment when technicians—who know their business—were subjected to criticism. Finally, after two months and a particularly infuriating day of this, he let himself go. From the corner of his mouth he said to a sympathetic friend, “For the love of Mike!”
Everyone else in the studio had been ready to slaughter the temperamental artist, but when the report of Clark’s mild explosion got around—as such reports always do—the situation was saved. The idea was that if Clark, who had suffered the greatest exasperation, could pass it off with a cream cheese sentence, everyone else could afford to be smooth, too. For awhile every major catastrophe in the studio, from a mashed thumb to a mangled truck, was passed off with the quote, “For the love of Mike!”
Don’t get the impression from this that Clark Gable is sunnily without temper. He has plenty of ire, but it is always under control. A man who knew Clark in Hollywood before the war and who served with him in the Eighth Air Force in England says that he has seen Clark really annoyed beyond the gasket-blowing point only once. That was when he was a captain in charge of a photographic unit which was assembling film which recorded each mission and was of enormous importance for a number of reasons. Some of the men in his command gave Captain Gable the appearance of gold bricking, whereupon he delivered a brief speech consisting mainly of one-syllable words. After that, the work of Captain Gable’s unit was always among the first forwarded to the Colonel.
Incidentally, there was one character in England who wasn’t in the least awed by Captain Gable’s efficient tone and manner. This was a tom cat named Freddy. Freddy was about two cats long and three cats high, with the coat of a silver fox, and the courage of a bill. He had to be tough because he was in full charge of the local rat situation, which almost got out of hand when the rats, in pairs, began to carry off foot lockers.
Freddy made few friends among military personnel on the premise that he was the sworn enemy of rats so he couldn’t be too careful. However, he came marching up to Clark one day, making noises like a Model A on a 20 degree grade, and rubbed his back against the Captain’s O.D.’s. Clark leaned down and expertly rubbed the back of Freddy’s ears, following this with a Swedish massage along Freddy’s backbone.
That did it. From then on Freddy slept on the foot of Clark’s bed, a colossal boon during the bitter winter months.
Clark Gable’s salient trait, immediately pointed out by his best friends, is his great personal dignity. He is one of the few world-famous people who can go to New York without suffering a contused person and a tattered wardrobe. He never gives autographs, a fact so widely known among the pen-scream-and-notebook clan, that he is never pestered. He can stroll out of a hotel lobby and wait for the doorman to call a taxi without having his way blocked and his plans halted for hours, but he does it with such reliance upon the decency of his fans that they love him more than ever for his courteous aloofness.
Still told with relish in Hollywood circles is the story about Clark Gable and the rest of the “Gone with the Wind” cast stopping at a metropolitan airport on their way to Atlanta for the picture’s premiere. The airport was mobbed by thousands of howling, screaming fans, fighting for places from which they could glimpse a billion dollars worth of acting talent. The tour supervisor, blanching at sight of the roaring mob, closed the plane door with the stark statement, ‘We don’t dare get out of the plane. We’ll be torn to pieces.”
“I want some coffee, and I’m going to get it in the terminal,” said Rhett B. Gable. He stepped to the plane door, cupped his mouth, and said, “Folks, we have just ten minutes to get a cup of coffee, before we have to take off. Now you aren’t going to keep us from getting a cup of coffee, are you?” A path through the throng opened up as if dissolved by a ray gun, and the cast had their coffee, unmolested, in the terminal lunch room. Incidentally, there was more coffee in the saucers than in the cups because of the waitresses’ excitement.
There is an old Spanish proverb which goes, “Take what you want, says God, but pay for it.” The price of fame in the motion picture business, at least, is constant turmoil and the clutching of a million pairs of hands—all wanting something. A recognition of this fact has developed Clark’s character in another way: he has come to prize his leisure and his privacy above all else.
On the Johnston Office list of accredited writers about Hollywood, there are about 500 names. The instant Clark starts to work in such a picture as “The Hucksters,” practically each of these writers receives an assignment from a distant editor demanding a Gable story. Presuming a shooting schedule of seventy days, sheer mathematics would present Clark with 7 and 1/7 visitors PER DAY. Each writer would like to chat thirty minutes to an hour.
In addition to these legitimate workmen, Clark is beset by visiting firemen. The cousin of a theatre-owner in Last Gasp, Patagonia, is in town with her seven relatives and simply MUST visit “The Hucksters” set. The aunt of a tech sergeant who served in the Eighth Air Force (with thousands of other men) has her family in Hollywood and just wants to say “Hello” to Clark on the strength of this fragile relationship.
Then there are the dynamic salesmen. One chap wants to sell Mr. Gable a Civil War pistol; another is offering ten acres of choice hillside at Acapulco; a third is vending a custom-built foreign car.
Meanwhile, bear in mind, Clark’s business is acting. He is expected to give a sharply etched performance, remembering—between takes and set-ups—the mood and essence of the previous sequence. He is supposed to keep pages of dialogue at tongue’s tip, and be ready with a moment’s preparation to reflect the behavior of a fictitious character whose response is markedly foreign from the natural Gable reactions.
No wonder that, when recalling his trips to South America where the pace is relaxed and time is regarded as a servant, not a master, Clark says wistfully, “The people really know how to live down there. It’s wonderful. I’m going back as soon as I can arrange it.”
He is acutely sensitive and is able to pick up unspoken attitudes of those about him, an unexpected talent in an extroverted, highly successful man.
Having spent years in the easy fraternal spirit of Hollywood, Clark tried to enter into the sports events at whatever Army post he was based. He liked to get out in the evening and play softball at which he was terrific, even in competition with men ten years his junior. Constant workouts and keeping in moderate training did that for him. However, he began to sense an unwillingness of some of the men to play softball when he was on the field. Although others were unaware of it, Clark noticed that some of the men—particularly the youngsters—would check to see if he was around; when they saw him, they withdrew quietly. So Clark stopped playing softball.
He is warmly sympathetic when he is assured that his kindliness will not be abused. There are hundreds of instances of his expressing this trait in his Hollywood dealings, but the one most recounted by his friends has to do with a little woman in no way connected with the picture industry. While Clark was on leave, when based in Colorado, he and a friend spent the time at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. One of the bell boys told Clark, grinning, that there was an elderly guest in the hotel who was hopelessly ill.
“She keeps saying that she could die happy if she could just meet you,” Clark was told.
The next afternoon he sent the boy to ask if he might call on the ailing grandmother. You can imagine her surprise and delight. She turned out to be a gay and amusing woman, filled with courage despite her illness, so Clark spent thirty or forty minutes with her every afternoon while he remained at the hotel.
He is gregarious.
Because of his position as zenith star on the MGM lot he could have his luncheon served in his dressing room every day, or he could dine in the sacrosanct executive dining room where no waitress enters unless summoned. Not Clark. He has luncheon in the riotous, chaotic commissary at the writers-directors table—a littered board about twenty feet long where conversation is fast, loud and furious. The wit is swift and subtle and the repartee harder to return than a hand grenade. He likes to spin yarns personally, and is the world’s best audience for a tall tale told against credible background. Something in his nature is a throwback to the days when men sat around tribal fires to illumine the folklore of a people, to the days when the wandering minstrel brought merry gossip from far places.
He likes flowers, a taste that has been cultivated by his father, Bill Gable. Mr. Gable, Sr., is a camellia fancier and boasts one of the finest collections of specimen plants in the West. It is his habit to cut a choice sample of blossoms and to arrange them in artistic clumps in the living room. Then, without comment, he will wait for Clark to notice the floral decorations.
Clark never disappoints his father. An observant man (even if his father weren’t standing in one corner looking expectant) he appreciates this House Beautiful touch.
“By golly, Pop, those are swell flowers,” he will say. “They’re better this season than they’ve ever been. Is this a new variety?”
Such conversation usually brings on a concise lecture upon the merits of the new type of camellia.
Bill Gable’s opinions are not confined to gardening; he has notions about the proper making of motion pictures, too, and it is nothing unusual for him to go into a long discussion of any recent movie he has seen, explaining to Clark exactly what was wrong with it.
Clark takes this very seriously, listening with care and saying occasionally, “There’s a lot in what you say, Pop.”
A neighbor of the Gables, who moved into a nearby ranch after Clark had gone to war, likes to tell this story. Mr. Gable, Sr., struck up a friendship with this neighbor, who is also a camellia-fancier. The whole thing happened so casually that only first names were exchanged, along with slips for different plants.
One Sunday the householder met Bill Gable at the local drugstore and commented on the war news, saying, “My wife and I worry a good deal. Our boy is in the South Pacific.”
Bill Gable nodded understandingly. “My son’s in service, too,” he acknowledged. “Eighth Air Force in England.”
After that the two fathers exchanged occasional war notes. The neighbor’s son was given rest leave in Australia. Bill’s boy went up to London. Came the day when the neighbor announced that his son was being reassigned. Answered Bill Gable, “Well, my kid’s home, finally. I imagine you saw his picture in the paper this morning. He’s going to be discharged as a major. Yes sir, Major Clark Gable.”
The neighbor felt like one of those comic strip characters whose eyes become crossed, and whose feet disappear out of the picture accompanied by exclamation points.
The most difficult thing for a successful man to retain, not only in Hollywood but anywhere in the world, is his personal balance and his sensible relationship with other human beings.
Here are two illustrations, out of the dozen available, of the fact that Clark Gable has no delusions about himself or anyone else. When he was shipped overseas, he knew that he was on the spot. Not only were there markedly unfriendly natives in the territory over which he was flying, but the men in his own outfit viewed him with an aching eye. After his first mission, one of the boys in the same flight asked a close friend of Clark’s, “Isn’t that all for him? One mission and that’s it?”
The friend looked smug. “Suppose you wait and see,” was all he had to say.
The second mission was a seven-hour run at thirty thousand feet, during which the gunners remained standing, alerted. Buckaroos of twenty-two climbed out of the planes after that one, and fell flat on their faces. Clark, a veteran party of considerably greater years, walked away from the ship, but he had “the bends” as a trophy.
Yet that flight made him a member of the club. Thereafter, the kids began to drop into his quarters for conversation, of which there was always plenty, and tacitly admitted that he was forgiven his prominence, his double bars, and his Hollywood address.
When given his first leave, Clark wanted to go up to London. With a gang hanging around his quarters, he tried to make reservations for the entire group. He called the Claridge, the Ritz, and several other celebrated hostelries, saying, “I’d like reservations over the weekend for four. This is Captain Gable.” No luck. The hotels were booked solidly. Finally, wistfully, trying the last thing he could think of, Clark called a hotel and said, “This is Captain CLARK Gable; I’d like to make reservations…” That hotel, like all the others, was without available space, even for Captain CLARK Gable.
The boys never let him forget it.
His continuing distrust in the magic of the name “Clark Gable” was emphasized only a few weeks ago when friends brought him news of the brilliance of his performance in “The Hucksters.” Clark never sees his own rushes, and sometimes never even sees his completed pictures.
One of his intimate coterie of friends slapped his shoulder and announced, “Boy, that picture is great—really great. It’s as smooth as a cue ball and packs the wallop of a Louis right.”
“Thanks,” said everyone’s favorite actor, “I appreciate the encouragement. But don’t forget that everyone said the same thing about ‘Adventure.’”
The King is still King.