Gable Debunks Stardom
By James Reid
Screen Book magazine, June 1939
Gable’s unique capacity for debunking himself is one reason for his universal popularity—read SCREEN BOOK Magazine’s interview on Clark
Readers of Gone with the Wind had two years to make up their minds, but they couldn’t decide what actress should play Scarlett O’Hara in the movie. That was one reason why an English girl named Vivien Leigh, a virtual unknown in America, was finally handed the role. But from the beginning they knew what actor should play Rhett Butler. Almost unanimously they said: “No one but Clark Gable.”
In the pages of the book they kept seeing Rhett as Clark. And, in the movie, they wanted to see Clark as Rhett.
They were asked, by author Margaret Mitchell, to think of Rhett as “at least thirty-five…a tall man, powerfully built.” He had wide shoulders, heavy with muscles, “almost too heavy for gentility.” He was “dark of face, swarthy as a pirate.” Yet, undeniably, he had “good blood.” It showed in his full red lips, his high forehead, his wide-set eyes. Eyes that were bold, impertinent. There was a cool recklessness in his face and a cynical humor in his mouth as he smiled. And above his smile was “a close-clipped black mustache.”
How could they help thinking of him as Clark, dressed in the clothes of the 1860’s? Especially as he also did things that made them think of Clark.
He could make an attractive woman look at him twice because of the embarrassing candor with which he looked at her. Yet he was completely a man’s man, who could take care of himself in any masculine company. He was impregnable to embarrassments, himself. He intended to live his own life, no matter what happened or what the herd thought. His own thoughts were humorously blunt. He was a realist about life—a man of action, not a dreamer. He wasn’t given to fancy illusions.
He was more ruthless, less a gentleman than Clark—but certain of their characteristics were the same. No one could overlook the resemblance.
Yet everyone overlooked their strongest mutual trait. At least, no one has called attention to it.
By profession, Rhett was a blockade runner—the most successful the South had. By magic, he brought his ships, laden with goods the South needed, into ports besieged by Federal gunboats. As his success continued, and obviously wasn’t a matter of luck, he could have become an even more glamorous hero. But no. He kept debunking the business of blockade running.
By profession, Clark is a movie star—the most successful male star in Hollywood. By magic, he always comes through as Box Office Male No.1, no matter how some of his pictures may be sniped at by critics. Because of his continuing success, which luck alone doesn’t explain, he could surround himself with more and more glamour. But no. He keeps debunking the business of stardom.
Rhett’s self-debunking was a trait that his glorifier, Margaret Mitchell, constantly stressed. Clark’s self-debunking is a trait that his glorifiers, the bright young publicity men of MGM, don’t stress. But it’s there just the same.
And it’s one of the most pleasant things about him.
When you think of practically any movie star, you think of a poised individual, who consciously or sub-consciously thrives on others’ awe of his success. He lives in a showplace, rides in a limousine, has only important people for friends, ornaments the most exclusive parties and in general has a luxurious time of it. Not only in what he is, but in what he has and what he does, he encourages envy.
But not Clark.
When he married wealthy Maria Langham in 1931, and almost simultaneously became a screen sensation (with a salary to match), he lived in a 7-room house among other 7-room houses in Brentwood. His studio wanted him to take a more impressive place, a place more befitting a star. He reneged. That place was big enough for him.
After he and Ria separated in 1935, he lived in a modest apartment. Then he acquired a ranch in the Valley. You’ve read of “Gable’s ranch.” And, perhaps, you’ve pictured him as lord of a manor, king of a feudal domain. Do you know what that first “ranch” was? A two-acre plot, among other two-acre suburban plots, in a built-up section of North Hollywood. The house only had six rooms and wasn’t fifty feet back from the street. There was nothing about it to indicate that a movie star lived there. No high hedge or wall, no electrically-operated gate to the driveway, no swimming pool or tennis court. And, as a “ranch” (as the press agents insisted on calling the place), it lacked even a corral or an orchard. What it had was a lawn and flowers—like the neighbors’ places.
Last year, when it began to look as if he might finally become free to marry Carole Lombard, he brought a big, honest-to-God farm, farther out, in the Encino hills. As you may or may not know, Encino is the valley spot that movie stars have turned into a showplace with luxurious country homes. But the Gable-Lombard establishment will never be pointed out to tourists. It’s up a long lane, over a hill, out of sight.
A few years ago, Clark acquired a long, rangy Duesenberg roadster. Now, a Duesenberg is a car that no ordinary person can afford. And, as such, it has glamour. But that wasn’t why he let his studio (which offered to pay half the cost) persuade him into getting one. Fast driving is a vice of his, and he wanted to find out what it was like to go 125 miles an hour on wheels. He would sneak up on Muroc Dry Lake weekends to experiment. But he didn’t keep the Duesenberg long. The attention it attracted delighted the studio—but it was too much for him. I saw him in Beverly Hills the other day, driving a Ford coupe. I had to look again to make sure it was Clark. He was that unimpressive, for a movie star.
You’ve read a great deal about his friendship with Robert Taylor and Spencer Tracy. The impression is abroad that they are inseparable. Sure, they’re good friends. But he seldom sees Tracy outside the studio, and he sees Taylor only infrequently—usually on jaunts to a gun club near Oxnard, of which they’re both members. His closest actor-friend is Andy Devine. He also pals around with producer Eddie Mannix and directors Jack Conway and Victor Fleming. And that about exhausts the roster of important people he associates with. He has discovered that most of the important people don’t like to do the things he likes to do. So to blazes with them.
That’s why he rarely goes to those swanky Hollywood rendezvous, where everybody who is anybody automatically goes, to be seen by columnists and photographers. He is invited to more exclusive parties than any other man in Hollywood. But he seldom attends. One party a year is about all he can fake, judging by his attendance record of the past two years.
Like every other MGM star, he has been given a luxurious dressing room on wheels, in which he can have “starrish” seclusion. The only time he uses it is when he has time for a nap. Usually, between scenes, you’ll find him parked in a camp-chair at the side of the set. There’s nothing exclusive about Gable.
All these things are passive proofs of his debunking of stardom. Things that say, as plainly as words, “This stardom isn’t going to last forever. Why try to kid myself? Why take on a load of star-complexes?”
But all his debunking isn’t passive. Some of it is plenty active.
His actions between pictures tell bluntly what he thinks of the alleged importance of keeping everlastingly in the Public Eye. He disappears, gets completely away from Hollywood and everything connected with stardom. Weeks later, he will reappear, and tell of some new place in the back country of New Mexico, or Oregon, or Utah that he has discovered—where nobody recognized him. Most stars wouldn’t think any more of seeking such oblivion than they would think of jumping off the Trylon at the World’s Fair.
Between the new farm and marriage to Carole Lombard, he probably won’t be going off on so many hideaway jaunts in the future. But right in Encino he’ll do plenty of hiding away. You can bet on that. Carole isn’t going to change him in that respect.
If anything, he has changed Carole. She used to be the belle of Hollywood, visible in a different place each night. But since going with Clark she has become, off-screen, The Invisible Woman.
The thing that attracted Clark to Carole was the same thing that attracted Rhett to Scarlett—her frankness. Not many men, especially if aware of their appeal to other women, could long take Carole’s brand of bluntness. It’s devastating. It’s barbed. It’s dignity-puncturing. But Clark has been thriving on it for three years.
He delights in her pet name for him: “Moose.”
That’s another thing about Clark. He violates one of the foremost rules of stardom: “If other people seriously think you’re the handsomest thing on two legs, don’t laugh, yourself. And never guffaw.” Clark guffaws.
Offhand, you would suspect that any man of great physical appeal would be an insufferable egotist—determined to encourage no one to make quips at his expense. But Clark makes quips, himself, about his ears.
Carole presented him with a mule named Bessie for his birthday. The other day, a still photographer was out at the new farm, getting some candid-camera art of Gable, the farmer. One of the shots had Clark tete-a-tete with Bessie. In an aside to the photographer, he cracked, “You don’t have to tell me—I know who’s got the biggest ears.”
He happened to mention to Carole that he hoped they could escape the curiosity-seekers on their honeymoon. She said, “You’ll never be able to hide from the curiosity-seekers—not with those ears.” Clark’s loud guffaws were heard in the next county.
After a man has been Male Star No. 1 for three or four consecutive years, he can safely command respect as an actor. (Physical appeal alone doesn’t explain such success.) But Clark, while he is serious about acting, makes a point of stating that he’d like to be “half as good as Tracy.” More than that. He lampoons himself as an actor.
Perhaps you remember the scene in Idiot’s Delight, in which a dog nipped him in the seat of the pants. Confidentially, the dog was a highly trained animal, which could be depended on to fasten his fangs onto a leather strap, part of a harness that Clark was wearing under his clothes. But as Clark started running, with the dog in pursuit, the harness slipped. The dog leaped for the precise spot where the strap was supposed to be, and closed his jaws—whereupon Mr. Gable emitted an unavoidable yowl. When he was able to comment on the mishap, his rueful comment was: “I guess the mutt must have tasted ham before, and liked it.”
During the same picture, while struggling through the shuffle-off-to-Buffalo number that later convulsed audiences, he made the immortal crack: “I sure look like I’ve got egg on my face in this role.”
Speaking of eggs, he still takes a kidding about the one he laid as Parnell, and still kids himself about it. It’s sort of a running gag always good for a laugh. Tyrone Power, after his trip to South America, was telling Clark about a quaint custom he came across in certain theatres way down yonder. If the audience didn’t like the picture flashed on the screen, they would start lighting matches, holding them up in the darkness—as a signal to the manager that if he didn’t yank the picture off, and put on another, they’d start tearing out the seats. Gable chortled, “Can’t you imagine the conflagration the night they showed Parnell?”
His self-kidding about his screen feats once almost cost him his life. (This is a long-suppressed story.) During the making of Hell Divers, he started joking about what a daredevil flier he would be in the film, without ever having left the ground during production. The late George Hill, directing, decided to have a little fun with Clark. He dared him to go up with one of the Navy fliers, between scenes, on an “observation flight.” Clark was game. But he didn’t know that Hill, on the side, had told the Navy pilot to give him “the works.”
Clark expected the flight—his first—to be a quick tour of the San Diego air lanes. Instead, he was in the air a half-hour, going through all the maneuvers in the catalogue, from barrel-rolls to tailspins. As the big climax, the pilot went into a power dive—and nearly didn’t come out of it…
A year and a half ago, he did something that few stars would have had the courage to do. A woman had been writing him half-pleading, half-threatening letters, asking him to support her child, which she claimed was also his. Puttering down as a crank, he ignored her letters for a long time. Then the blackmail became more pointed. He didn’t do what many stars, at that time, would have done to protect their stardom from unsavory publicity; he didn’t pay any hush money. He turned the letter over to authorities. The woman was arrested, put on trial. But from the way the newspapers played up the case, you would have thought that Clark was on trial. He had to prove he wasn’t the father of the woman’s child. He did prove it. The woman was convicted of attempted fraud.
It would have been much easier for Clark to pay hush money than to go through that ordeal. But the fact that he was a star who ought to think of his publicity wasn’t half so important as that he was an intended victim of a racket. What was fame worth if he had to live it in fear?
Most stars are afraid of innumerable things—having pictures stolen from them, being photographed on their “wrong” sides, having their options dropped, not getting in So-and-So’s column, being laughed at, not being seen with the right people at the right places at the right time, giving away the fact that, underneath their glamour, they are ordinary human beings. Innumerable things that don’t worry Clark Gable at all.
He debunks the business of being a star.
And he’s free from star-complexes.