Hollywood’s No. 1 Menace
By Gladys Hall
Movie Mirror magazine, February 1941
Thousands, perhaps millions of words have been written about how “natural” Clark Gable is, how he takes everything with his tongue in his cheek, how he has a complete lack of ego after years of such fame and adulation as have befallen no man save, possibly, Valentino. Directors, bit players, his fellow stars, interviewers, extras, the studio personnel, from Louis B. Mayer down to a junior bus boy in the commissary, chants the one refrain about Gable: “He blows himself down! He horses his own stardom. He gives Gable, the star, the belly laugh.” It’s almost impossible to believe it, but just listen to a couple of the classic examples:
One day the assistant director of “Comrade X” stuck his head into Clark’s portable dressing room. “Hey, Clark,” he yelled. “The pigs are waiting.”
“I’m ready,” said Mr. G.
“Mr. Vidor says,” added the assistant director, “that he can make this scene a long shot and your stand-in can do it, if you’d rather not. It’s going to be pretty messy.”
“Boloney,” said Mr. G., “what’s wrong with pigs?”
And another day, Clark stepped off the set after doing of the big, emotional scenes of the picture. The crew applauded. Hedy Lamarr applauded. Director King Vidor gave his star a hand. The big fellow grinned. “I certainly hammed that one up, didn’t I?” he beamed.
Later, when Clark was safely out of earshot, King Vidor said to me, “I have been in this business a long while. I have directed most of them, oldtimers and newcomers, big stars and bit players. And you can quote me as saying that Gable is the man for my money. Not only because he is a very fine actor, but also because he is the most down-to-earth, easy-to-get-along-with actor I have ever known. This ‘Comrade X’ hasn’t been an easy picture to film. We’ve worked inside a mechanized tank a lot, and close quarters are always difficult. We have worked through fire and smoke and rain and, furthermore, Clark had to ride in a truck which also housed a pen of pigs. I don’t know any other star in the business who wouldn’t have passed that buck. Not Gable. He never complains about anything. We always had a lot of laughs. He’s not a fair-weather guy. He has no conceit whatsoever. What’s more, he has an enormous and lusty relish for kidding himself. Quite a different matter, you know, from a relish for kidding the other fellow. Practically every time he finishes a big scene, and a damn fine one at that, he says what you just heard him say, ‘Well, I certainly hammed that one up.’ And he believes it. How he has managed to stay as he is through the blitzkrieg of fame and favor is, to me, the major mystery of the picture business.”
Hedy had a few words to say on the subject, too. “This is the first time I have felt absolutely at home making a picture,” she told me. “It might have been my hardest one because I wear no glamorous, attractive clothes. I wear an old street car conductor’s uniform, and my hair is all straggly.
“The first day I started to work, I was more afraid than usual. I suddenly realized I was playing opposite the Great Gable, and it froze me. In Boom Town I did not have a big part and was not often on the sets; I did not have much responsibility. But this Comrade X was different. It this, it was Clark and myself!
“He laughed at me for worrying and accused me of thinking motion pictures the most important thing in the world. He kidded me, saying, ‘They are not as important as all that, sister. Relax. Motion pictures will be here long after you and I are both gone.’ He said, ‘Look, baby, his is a picnic, a clambake.’ I did not know what he meant by a ‘clambake’ but I did know I was having fun for the first time since I had been in pictures. I did know that for the first time I relaxed when I worked.
“We would have ‘tea’ every afternoon on the set. The first time Clark invited me to tea, I did not know what to expect. It turned out to be tea made in a old coffee pot and he served it with dozens of five-and-ten cookies!
“He helped me so much by making suggestions entirely for my own benefit. During the filming of a love scene that was to be shot as a large close-up of the two of us, I was supposed to lean over and kiss him quickly on the lips. It seemed rather awkward for me to do. So Clark suggested that he stay to one side, almost out of the close-up, and that I first reach over my hand and touch his cheek, then slowly draw his face to mine for the kiss. That approach was easier and gave me more confidence. It also gave me the close-up! After a while, I forgot we were acting at all. We got down in the dirt and fought like two wildcats for some scenes. I even had to kick him where he sits down, and I wasn’t afraid to kick good and hard because I knew he could take it. That’s how he is.”
I was convinced at last Gable was okay—a natural—but how has he stayed that way, I found myself wondering. Just one man could give me the real answer—Mammy Lombard’s Pappy Gable, himself!
“How come?” I asked him point-blank.
Gable favored me with a large and lavish wink. He said, “I’ve got the answer right at the tip of my tongue. How can you be conceited when you’re so unversatile. I can’t play a pale poet or a languid lover.” He flashed a burlesque leer at me and added,” Not a languid one! I couldn’t, for instance, play Donat’s Mr. Chips!”
“I can’t play anyone with an accent. I’d have to struggle with it. I just can’t do that. If I can’t believe what I’m doing, I can’t make others believe it. That’s not being an actor.”
“You played Boom Town.”
“A man of action. That’s my trouble—I’ve got to have some action somewhere. I can’t play old men. I had a part in Strange Interlude a few years ago and I had to age. They put paint and more paint on my puss, then powder galore and more bags under my eyes than the American Express Company ever carried. It was still Gable! In this picture, I wear a long beard in some scenes—have my map covered with enough hair to keep it warm in an Icelandic blizzard. This, I thought, will fool ‘em. But total strangers took one look at me and said, ‘Hi ya, Gable!’ Even the pigs knew me,” he mourned.
“I can’t get into ‘moods’,” grinned Gable. “What the hell is a mood, anyway? I can’t be one of the fellows who study every move they’re going to make. I don’t think I ever played two takes of the same scene alike. Why, if I figured out in advance what I was going to do in a scene, I’d be so self-conscious, I’d be thinking about my big hands and feet instead of what the scene means.”
“Maybe,” I reflected aloud, “it’s just as well you can’t age. Maybe those looks of yours put you up there.”
“I’m way overpaid when it comes to my looks, honey,” laughed Mr. G.
“But do you really like being an actor?” I asked.
“Sister,” he said, “I certainly wanted to act or I wouldn’t be out here. No one pushed me up on the stage. I walked up there under my own power. I’m just as much of an exhibitionist as the next ham.”
“Well, anyway,” I said impatiently, “I don’t see what not being able to play old men has to do with your still wearing the same size hat.”
“Plenty to do with it. Unless an actor can strut his stuff from slapstick to Shakespeare and back again, he has no reason for bellows in his chest and an oversized hat. You may say that the actor isn’t born who can play everything. There are damn few of them, but I can think of one without trying—John Barrymore. If he should want to make the grandstand gestures, he has the right, he’s earned it. I just play the same fundamental character every time.”
I accused him of false modesty.
Gable laughed. “I’m being serious. I’m suffering from a lot of things (such as the desire to hop in the car with Carole and go far away from Hollywood) but I do not suffer from false modesty.
“Thing is, I’ve got my limitations and I know them. When you’re fenced in with limitations, you can’t rampage like a prize Spanish bull; you might get hurt.”
“Speaking of things Spanish,” I interrupted, “reminds me of that trip of yours to South America. The cheering multitudes, the swooning senoritas and all that kind of dilates the inner man, doesn’t it?”
“Say, do you remember reading the newspaper accounts of Will Rogers’ trip to South America?” countered Clark. “And Bob Taylor’s? And Ty Power’s? The multitudes cheer and the senoritas swoon over anyone with a name who goes down there. Something pretty swell about it, too, but nothing individual. That’s what I mean. Why anyone should think he is any different from anyone else is beyond me. If a man does something no other mortal man has ever done, that’s something else again. But that’s not true of actors, by and large. The fan mail comes into the studio and is sorted alphabetically. Get the idea? The crowd follows me out of a restaurant or theatre, then turns around and follows Taylor. Same crowd. In pictures, everyone has a niche and I have mine. But how does that make me better than the fellow in the next niche? Follow me?
“No, honey, I can’t get up the wind over this business of being a movie star. An actor sells himself, sure, but only if he gets the material. A story can make a star, a star can’t make a story; ever think of that? Then, you’ve got to have a director who knows what you do best and helps you to do it. The producer does pretty much the same for you. A cameraman can like you and fix you pretty or he can hate the shape of your nose and screw you up so that you can ham your fool head off—right on the cutting room floor. It’s certainly not a personal success. That’s why I can’t understand why anyone in movies should feel he is an Institution, let alone an invaluable one.
“I’m glad to have a chance to discuss this, though. I really am. It’s a funny thing, but with all the stuff written about me since I came to Hollywood, I don’t believe anyone ever asked me to explain me. I’ve read a lot about this ‘being natural’ business, and it doesn’t seem a matter of much importance to me or one that should require any explanation. But if people are interested in why I haven’t blown my hat, I’ll tell ‘em: It was already blown before I came to Hollywood! There’s your answer in a great big nutshell.
“I guess everybody, at one time or another, gets to thinking he’s pretty good, especially if he’s an actor.
“I went through it when I was a pink kid and had a job with a stock company. The leading man quit and the company couldn’t afford a bigger name, so they put me in to play his parts. With the help of the company and the director, I made good. Of course, I thought I was doing it all myself. I got so not a hat I owned fitted me. That was youth, inexperience. To top it, I played in ‘Machinal’ on the New York stage, and that went over well. Then I knew no one in the world could top me. After that, I had nothing but flops for two whole years. I was even taken out of a couple of shows so that the shows could go on.
“Somewhere during this period David Belasco made it clear to me that I hadn’t the semblance of an idea about acting. He said he didn’t know that I’d ever make it. Then I went to the other extreme, depression, melancholy, but I came out of that, too, onto middle ground. Am I glad Belasco blew me down like that? Damn right I am.
“What I am getting at is this—and it’s something no one ever knew or, for that matter, cared about: I came to Hollywood with humiliation. When I came, in a pretty potent play, ‘The Last Mile,’ I had no idea of getting into pictures. Lionel Barrymore saw me and spoke for me. Get it? I wasn’t rushed out by a chartered plane from New York because Hollywood hungered for Gable.
“I was no ‘overnight’ success after that either. I think it’s pretty well-known that at first I couldn’t even get a job as an extra. When I did break in, I got very small parts. A laundryman was one of my first assignments. I played a chauffeur at Warner Brothers. I had a small part with Jean Harlow in The Secret Six. Both of u spent our time wondering whether we’d ever get another job! I made any number of ‘B’ pictures. Yep, it took me two years to get started after I appeared in that first film. Got my first recognition as the heavy in Dance Fools Dance. And why? Because the man I played was a potent guy who bumped off a brace of men and then sat in tails in a drawing room and played soft music on the piano. Why, the boy was a ‘natural’ when the author’s brain conceived him!
“You can’t figure stardom. That’s why you can’t take the bows for it. Like when I played the gangster with Norma Shearer in A Free Soul. I hadn’t picked that part for myself with rare acumen—I played it only because every other actor in Hollywood turned it down. Too small for them, they said, too risky. When I socked Norma across the jaw in that picture, it might have done for me, but the women applauded the scene and the goose hung high! What makes a man a star is your guess as well as mine. But I don’t have a standing order at the florist to send myself bouquets because I engineered the breaks I’ve had, for myself!
“When Claudette and I made It Happened One Night, we were both being ‘punished’ by our studios. I forget what for. The thing wouldn’t be any good, it was thought, so we’d just rip through it, have some laughs, let it go at that. You know how that panned out.
“So, again I say, why should anyone take bows for being a part of a good motion picture? Conceit is a disease of the very young.”
The assistant director looked in on us again. “We’re through for the night, Clark,” he said. “See you tomorrow.”
Clark reached for his hat. A gray fedora; old, battered, somewhat out of shape.
“Ten years old, this topper,” he grinned.
He put it on his head. It fit. Perfectly.