To a Great Guy—Capt. Clark Gable
Motion Picture magazine, February 1944
You’ve never read a story like this before! In fact, it isn’t a story. It’s a letter—but what a letter!
Dear Captain Gable,
I write you this letter because I think that someone who isn’t close to you should tell you frankly what a lot of Americans think of you.
Several important Hollywood stars gave complained to me, off the record, that they never get an honest criticism from their friends. I imagine you have the same difficulty. Because you are Clark Gable, the most important male star in pictures. Some of them are too fond of you to tell you when you’ve given a bum performance, or done something they thought unworthy of you as a person. Others are afraid. A word from you could cost almost anyone on the lot his job.
One of the smartest actresses in Hollywood said to me only the other day, “All my best friends ever do is smear me with the honey of extravagant praise. Not one ever says to me, ‘Oh, nuts!’ or ‘Stop being a ham!’ All I get from them is how beautiful and talented and terrific I am. Nobody is as good as they say I am. I’m like any other woman. I love flattery. But it’s dangerous. If I don’t watch out I’ll be getting a swelled head.”
I don’t think there’s any danger of that in your case, Captain Gable. I was in the crowd of reporters and photographers who greeted you at Pasadena the day you arrived. A few days later I watched you at MGM as you posed for more still pictures.
It may not have occurred to you, Captain gable, but you’ve become something more than a great Hollywood star since you joined the Army.
You’ve become a symbol.
Thousands of war heroes like you are beginning to come home to America now, home from the big, tormented hell that is World War II.
They’re coming back to the farms, the small towns and big cities where only a few years ago they were healthy youngsters going to high school, playing baseball and trying to get up the nerve to kiss their girl-friends.
Some of those fellows, too many of them, have been unlucky. They are the wounded. Their women folks hug them, and try not to cry. Their dads and uncles and older brothers shake hands and pat their backs, and pretend to ignore the crutches, the wheelchairs and the eyes that cannot see.
You were lucky. Fortunately, you came back undented, a little silver in your black hair, but still young Mr. Sex Appeal himself. Hollywood’s top-ranking male star, the big guy with sandpaper in his voice and the unique trick of looking at every woman as though he were in love with her.
You were yourself, as always, in that interview at the Pasadena railway station. Your shoulders look broader than ever in that perfectly fitted Army officer’s uniform. You walked like a man and a soldier, and talked like one.
You told us that you had come back to Hollywood to cut and edit the 50,000 feet of motion picture film your unit of eight men had shot in England and over France and Germany, while the guns blazed and the bombs dropped, while Nazi fighter planes tried to drive our ships off. You told about the five raids you went on personally, to take pictures and bang away at the Luftwaffe from behind a machine gun.
“Sure, I was scared,” you said with a grin. “Frankly, I don’t know if I scored any hits. I put in no claims. I saw a lot of enemy planes go down, but, then, it was hard to tell. So many of our ships went along and we were all firing at them.”
You explained why it is difficult to get satisfactory motion picture film during a raid. You’re on oxygen all of the time, and the camera are always frosting up. And when you’re going four hundred miles an hour, and the other fellow is coming at you just as fast, you just can’t get good pictures.
Finally, you explained what the Army is making the film for, the film you are to cut and edit. “We’re going to show it to the kids training in camps here,” you said, “so they’ll know what it’s like before they get there.”
But the Army wouldn’t let you talk about yourself as a person. Your fans wanted to know what interesting notables you met in England, what you thought of British women, whether there was any truth to the stories printed in the gossip columns about there being a romance between you and beautiful Evelyn Laye, the London stage and screen star. But you’re in the Army now and the brass hats have decreed that officers cannot talk about such things for publication.
You were all right at Pasadena.
But walking on the big MGM lot, in Culver City, was really coming home to you, wasn’t it?
For the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio is where you made that first awful test, in which you wore a tiger skin and had a rose stuck behind your ear.
And it’s where you became a star, first made the world sit up and take notice in “Dance, Fools, Dance” starring Joan Crawford, the unforgettable “A Free Soul”, starring Norma Shearer, and also made great pictures with Garbo, Myrna Loy and the late Jean Harlow.
Each of the photographers shook hands with you. “Glad to see you back, Clark!”
“You look swell, Clark; you seem to thrive on that ack-ack beauty treatment the Germans dish out.”
“Gee, Captain Gable, it’s old home week with you back in Hollywood!”
You just grinned, and said, “Thanks!”
The camera boys went over to the Irving Thalberg building to wait for you and Captain John Lee Mahin, your lanky pal and the brilliant writer who, before Pearl Harbor, wrote so many of your biggest hits.
You came down the street towards us, the studio street over which hangs the MGM service flag. You looked up at it. Nine hundred and ninety-one blue stars are sewed on this big flag—nine hundred and ninety-one blue stars, and four gold ones for men from Hollywood we’ll never see again.
One of those blue stars is for you, Captain Gable.
And didn’t it seem to you swell that, though for years you’ve been the most important actor in pictures, your star was no bigger than those sewed on the flag for the other fellows—carpenters, electricians, grip men, truck drivers, actors, assistant directors and errand boys from MGM?
For this is one time you’d fight against getting top billing. You don’t want it in this show. That’s why you drove the reporters in England crazy. They’d get cables from their editors.
“For heaven’s sake, get something on Clark Gable! How he is living, likes the Army and what about his love life? Get something on Gable, anything!”
But when they finally reached you at the flying fields you’d only talk about those kid airmen you were working with, how terrific they were, how brave, the greatest guys in the world.
Who were the greatest guys in the world? Some youngster from Terre Haute whose family had been on relief for years? A lad from Montana, a farm boy? A little Jew from New York’s East Side who’d peddled newspapers when he was nine? A nice boy from Harvard? All nobodies, until the bugles blew and people began to roll planes and ships and guns off those assembly lines. Then they became the greatest guys in the world. If we don’t think the same way about them after this mess is cleaned up, we deserve to be licked. That’s what you think, Captain Gable, isn’t it? You and me and a lot of other people.
And did you think also of another gold star that hangs in Hollywood, as you looked at that flag? The one that’s sewed on your heart? The gold star for Carole? But maybe I shouldn’t ask that. You’re a big, tough guy, Captain Gable, but we better pass that one.
Do you remember what you said after that plane accident? You said you were going to quit the screen. I think everybody understood that. One moment you had been riding on top of the world. The telephone rang. The happiness you’d had for three years vanished like something you had dreamed up.
You brooded for a while. Then it hit you. My God, there’s a war on, the biggest, roughest, nastiest war the idiocy of men ever plunged this world into. Guys are dying, you said to yourself, while I’m sitting here, feeling sorry for myself.
The Army! That’s for me! You refused a commission. Getting one would have been a lead-pipe cinch, a commission with a fancy uniform! A desk in Washington where they don’t drop bombs on a man. The Army could have used you in Washington. You know a lot about film, and movies are helping fight this war.
You started at the bottom, as a private. Clark Gable, who makes a half-million every year. Clark Gable, over 40, beyond draft age, whom nobody would criticize if he didn’t go.
You joined the Army Air Forces and did you do a burn when they said you were too old to fly! You went to Officer’s Candidate School. You became a lieutenant, then a captain, and you did fly, in the end. From England, over that channel into the bullet-scarred skies of Occupied Europe.
Are you beginning to see what kind of man you seem like to other people? Why I say you’re a symbol now?
I watched you come down that street to meet the photographers again in front of the Irving Thalberg Memorial Building. It took a long time, because this was home and some of the people who work around the corner had to say “Hello!”
A man driving a truck stopped.
“Hello, Clark, you old his-and-that,” he said, beaming from ear to ear.
Your face lighted up. “Why, Pete! How’s the wife and kids?”
“Okeydoke,” Pete told you. “There’s another one coming.”
“What a man you are, Pete! See you soon.”
Yes, this was home and you didn’t sound like a movie star at all. This was home, and there you were just like Ed Smith in Tallahassee, or Ted Johnson of Walla Walla, happy to see the neighbors again.
It took you quite a while to get to the photographers. Men and women kept stopping you to shake hands—the policeman directing traffic on the studio street, a grip, a stenographer, a waitress from the commissary.
You didn’t know, of course, that a reporter was watching you. You could be yourself. These people weren’t hired help to you. They were just people, folks, your friends and fellow-workers.
I saw you afterward posing for pictures with Louis B. Mayer, the biggest big-shot of them all, the man who draws the largest salary of any business executive in the United States. To you, he apparently was the same as the truck driver and the cop, the waitress and the stenographer—a human being you liked. You posed for pictures also with Captain Mahin and Victor Fleming, the director who made most of your big pictures, including “Gone with the Wind.”
Then we all went inside the shop-like office where you posed again, examining film. Blanche Sewell, the cutter, who is going to assist you in editing the Army film, posed with you there. You put your arm around her, hugged her, looked at her as though you were in love with her.
Captain Mahin saw me in the crowd. I beckoned to him. I know Captain Johnny from away back when he was a reporter on a New York paper.
“What about this Evelyn Laye romance?” I asked. “Anything to it?”
Captain Mahin shrugged. “It’s nonsense. The only time he saw her in England was at lunch one day. She was at another table and came over for a moment and chatted with Clark. I don’t know how the story got around. She’s very happily married to Frank Lawton, the English actor.”
‘What about Gable, Johnny?” I asked. “How has the war changed him?”
“Guys like him don’t change. He’s just doing the things now that he did in movies for years. It’s not the same, of course. The best way I can explain is by telling you Clark’s favorite story.
“You know, Leslie Fenton, who was a gangster in Public Enemy and later became a director on this lot, is in the Royal British navy now. He was in that terrible raid on St. Nazaire. A thousand of them went across the channel in P-T boats. Thirty-three came back. Leslie was one of the thirty-three.
“He woke up in the hospital. In the next bed was a man all bandaged up like an Egyptian mummy. Only his eyes and his mouth were not covered by bandages.
“’Weren’t you in the movies years ago?’ the wounded soldier asked Fenton.
“’This must seem much the same sort of thing to you, then?’
“’Well—in a way—‘
“’Only the bullets are real now, aren’t they?’ said the wounded soldier.
“That’s the only change you’ll find in Gable,” Captain Mahin concluded. “He knows the bullets are real now.”
Well, Captain Gable, you’re home now and safe for a while. The only ack-ack bullets you’ll hear or see in Hollywood are make-believe.
Over here, you’ll see some things you like and hear some things that will burn you up. People kicking that the roast beef is getting tougher, that you can’t always get butter and sometimes it’s impossible to get into one’s favorite night club on a Saturday night.
But don’t get too sore at us, Captain Gable, there are a lot of us over here who know that the bullets are real over there.
And that’s about all I have to say, Captain Gable. And maybe now you know why I and millions of other Americans think of you as sort of a symbol of everything that’s brave and decent and fine about our fighting men.
Thanks, Captain Gable. Thanks for becoming that symbol. We needed one. And happy hunting and a safe return when you go back to finish up your job.