What I Know About Clark Gable
By Rosalind Russell, as told to Carol Craig
Movies magazine, November 1941
A few evenings before, a Pasadena motorcycle cop had flagged down Bachelor Girl No.1 on the grounds of speeding. With her in the car had been four other people—not to mention an equivalent amount of luggage. They were obviously headed for a fairly distant destination for the weekend. (Just between us, the destination was a dude ranch near Victorville, Calif.)
The officer had noticed the luggage and the good-looking young man sharing the front seat with Roz. And remembering some romance rumors he had read somewhere, the officer leaped to conclusions.
With a grin, he asked Roz (who hadn’t said a word): “When could you appear for a hearing? Would two weeks be all right?”
Roz had said, “Yes, that will be all right,” thinking of how she would be finished with her picture by that time.
The way the newspapers had later got the story, the officer had stopped Rosalind Russell, the movie actress, eloping to Las Vegas—though he had neglected to ask the name of the young man with her. The news services said they had tried to vain to locate “the missing Miss Russell.”
But she hadn’t gone to Las Vegas, had had no intention of going to Las Vegas, and hadn’t told the officer that she was eloping.
Roz, however, didn’t feel like talking about that episode today. Neither did she feel like telling when, and if, she did intend to elope. (“Anything I’d say might be used against me,” she claimed.) Nor did she feel like revealing why, if she did have any marriage plans, she had recently gone to the trouble of adding a sunroom to her house and a large swimming pool and a small bathhouse to her backyard. (“You know me,” she said. “I can’t live in a place without doing things to it.”)
Roz’s house is small, as Beverly Hills houses go. It is a home, not a showplace—English on the outside, and Early American (in a very feminine way) on the inside. And one of its most attractive features is this new sunroom, designed by Roz herself. It is a large room, with two if its walls formed by an ell of the house, a third wall composed entirely of windows, and the fourth wall formed by a long, jointed, many-windowed sliding-door—now pushed out of sight into a specially-built closet, so that the west side of the room, facing the walled-in backyard, is nothing but open air. (Roz keeps a spray-gun handy, to discourage bugs, bees, and flies.) Where it isn’t glassed-in, the room is paneled in a pale, sand-colored wood, with a beamed ceiling to match. The furniture is upholstered bamboo.
Today, on the large table against one wall, there was a flat pile of typewritten letters awaiting her signature—appeals for funds for Bundles for Buddies, a cause in which she is very active. But she didn’t feel like talking about that, either. Nor did she feel like talking about the stack of scripts also on the table, or why, after her current MGM picture, Her Honor, she was becoming a free-lance star. (“Very dull copy,” she said kiddingly. “But you can say that MGM and I haven’t had any ‘difficulties’. I’ll still make pictures at alma mater—I hope—as well as at other studios.”)
She wasn’t in the mood to discuss her marriage plans, if any; of her off-screen activities; or her future career. What was there left to talk about?
“Well,” said Roz, chipperly, “there’s always Clark Gable. The subject of Mr. G. is one of my favorite topics. The fact that I’m no authority on the subject of Clark Gable doesn’t keep me quiet a bit.
“A funny thing—and his fans will probably send it to Ripley: I don’t remember when, or where, I met him for the first time. I think it must have been on the set of Forsaking All Others, my second picture, and the first one in which we were both in the same cast. He was just there, and I was just there. So we met.
“He isn’t the kind of actor, you know, who burst up to you, turning on great flood-lights of personality to dazzle you. He takes people as they come, and he expects to them to take him the same way. That makes it easy to feel acquainted with him at first meeting. And it also makes it easy to forget when, or where, that meeting took place. The first encounter with Mr. G. is no different from any subsequent encounters. The man doesn’t change.
“Me, with my suspicious Irish nature—I wasn’t prepared for that.
“I mean, I worked with him a little in Forsaking All Others—very little, because my part was so small that it was practically invisible, and he and Charles Butterworth and I played cards, and had a lot of laughs between scenes. I worked with him again a few months later in China Seas—and played casino with him, and had some more laughs, between scenes. Then, for a period of six years, until the executives cast us together in They Met in Bombay, I was out of touch with Clark.
“All I knew about him, during those six years, was what I read under various dryers in sundry beauty parlors. And, to put it bluntly, I didn’t think all the hot air could possibly be coming from the dryers.
“According to what I read, and saw in photographs, Gable Was Staying Unspoiled. He loved the simple life. Mr. Sex Appeal, in his spare time, was just a dirt farmer. He plowed, he weeded, he de-bugged. He raised alfalfa, cats, dogs, and—in good years—oranges. That is, when he wasn’t off in the back country, getting close to nature, hunting and fishing and forgetting to shave.
“Turning those pages, and smearing my nail polish, I waxed more and more cynical about this legend that Mr. Gable, the King of the Movies, was Really Regular. Un-egotistical, unaffected, unchanged. Always the good sport. He never forgot an old friend. The type who never talked about Gable, except, perhaps, to make cracks about Gable.
“’It’s a heartwarming role,’ said I, ‘and he’s a good enough actor to play it well.’ But was I looking forward to They Met in Bombay—and the chance to probe the Inner Man with those X-ray eyes of mine! ‘In eight weeks,’ I told myself, ‘I’ll be able to find out exactly how thick they’ve been slicing that ham.’”
Just then, those Russell X-ray eyes (brown) spotted a pair of intrusive flies. Roz reached for the spray-gun and fired a barrage of mist into the air.
“The day I reported for work,” she resumed, “he greeted me not only like an old friend, but like a relative who might leave him some government bonds. That didn’t surprise me a bit. I gave him credit for being smart enough to want me to think he was my No.1 pal.
“I stayed on guard, and waited for him to back me into the camera, or do something else to get his own face in and keep mine out. But the idea didn’t seem to occur to him.
“’This can’t last,’ I said to myself, ‘this easy-going camaraderie. Wait till I have some long speeches, and he has only a few “buts” and “whats” in between. Or wait till he gets a call from Encino that his chickens have sleeping sickness, or his alfalfa has hiccoughs, or something. His disposition hasn’t really had a test yet.’
“But it had a pretty good test, after about two weeks.
“On Monday, he started talking about the next Saturday, which they told him he could have off. He was going to the races, for the first time in a year. All week, he pored over form-charts, building up to those bets he was going to make, come Saturday. But, come Friday, I blew one line right after another. When 6 o’clock finally dragged around, and we still didn’t have the scene, the director said, ‘Clark, you’ll have to come in tomorrow until we get it.’
“I showed up on Saturday morning, fully expecting a frosty reception from him. What I got, instead, was a blitzkrieg of ribbing. It went on and on and on. I laughed so much I didn’t get around to completing my sentences until mid-afternoon. Much too late for Clark to go to Santa Nita. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘it looks like rain, anyway.’
“I bit my lip the entire weekend, over the way Gable had foiled my efforts to show up Gable.”
Some more flies sent Roz into action again with the spray gun.
“But when I reported for work Monday morning,” she continued blithely, “and discovered that ‘Mr. Rugged’ had a violent cold in the head, I knew hope again. In my experience, there was nothing like a touch of laryngitis to bring out a man’s disagreeable qualities.
“To help matters along, the heating system on Stage 2 refused to work about 10 am—and there’s no place draftier on a damp, cold day than an unheated sound-stage. I started packing my make-up kit. It wouldn’t be long now until Gable cracked up.
“I kept watching him. I could see him decomposing before my eyes. He looked worse by the minute. He was a hospital case, if I ever saw one. But came 5:30, and he was STILL on his feet. I was becoming desperate.
“’What are you trying to do,’ I finally asked him, ‘—kill yourself for the sake of The Show Must Go On?’ He retorted, ‘I feel all right.’ I said, ‘You’re mad to go on, just because of a picture schedule.’ His answer to that stopped me for keeps. His answer was: ‘Come on, Russell, play the scene. The hours aren’t bad and the pay’s good.’”
Roz shook her head about the defeat of her cynicism about the Gable legends. “Yes, he’s really worth knowing,” she testified. Thoughtfully, she added, “You know, he has a great balance in his life. I mean, a great balance between business and pleasure. You read, for example, that he never goes to parties. But that isn’t true. He goes to many. Only the parties he goes to are parties in nightclubs on movie sets, where the girls, by the way, are sometimes prettier than in any real nightclubs. In the same way, he does a fine lot of mythical traveling; he gets a taste of the atmosphere of numerous, far-off places. The excitement we all need—the variation from humdrum, everyday things—he gets in pictures.
“He gets a great hoot out of everything he plays. The idea that he walks casually through his scenes is a canard. He’s an easy-going man, but that’s truer of his private life than of his work. He’s always at ease in front of a camera, but he’s a terrifically hard worker. Very conscientious. His wardrobe man, for instance, is probably the most highly-trained in Hollywood—Clark is that particular about having detail of every costume accurate. Or maybe ‘believable’ is the word.
“Normal people have a routine life, and they get excited about vacations. But Clark pours his enthusiasm and imagination into his work. That’s what excites him. And I think it’s one of the important reasons why he has lasted—why any picture with Gable in it is bound to have its moments.
“The fundamental thing you have to have in this business is vitality. It’s the one indispensable thing—for which there’s no substitute. You can’t make a character compelling if you, yourself, are going around with acute inertia. There are times when you have to do a scene twenty times before you get it right, and you have to have reservoirs of vitality so that you can look as fresh on the twentieth take as on the first. And Gable is the lad who has figured that out.
“When he isn’t working, he’s resting—in his own strange fashion. Maybe his idea of resting is to drag a plow around behind a tractor, and anyone will tell you that’s harder work, physically, than acting. The point is, he gives as much of himself to acting as he does to plowing. I know actors who work ten times harder on a golf course than they ever work on a sound stage. But not Gable. He’s smart enough to conserve his energy and use it where it will do the most good.
“He isn’t satisfied, mind you, to look like a man of action. He has to be one. That’s something else I found out about him. Remember that sequence in They Met in Bombay where he did a Sergeant York, and climbed an embankment and wiped out some machine-gun nests, single-handed? Clark insisted on doing that entire sequence, himself, even in the long shots, when the camera couldn’t tell the difference. If he were a nightclub man, besides being an actor, he couldn’t do that sort of thing.
Roz had that spray gun in hand again—this time to drive away a bee.
“He has a rule of never working past 6,” she continued, “and that endears him to any leading woman, because no leading woman should ever work more than twelve hours. It’s physically impossible to get up at 6 am and still look like something human at 6 pm.
“I even enjoyed the poster stills for once—I had so many laughs. You know about poster stills: those carefully posed shots of hero and heroine in an embrace. They always crowd them in sometime during production, usually on the day when you feel about as alluring as you did on that harrowing evening when your best beau came to call and found you in curlers. It was one of those days when they said to Clark and me, ‘Guess we can get in the poster stills today.’ I groaned, and Clark laughed. ‘So,’ said he, ‘is that the way you feel when I put my arms around you?’
“One of Clark’s favorite gags, after a rehearsal, is to go through the motions of sprinkling salt on his forearm and then gnawing it on it as if he’s eating corn. One day he came back from seeing the rushes and told me, ‘If I’m any critic, were’ both lousy.’ I asked him to speak for himself. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘you’re terrible, too.’” I happened to know that Roz saved her answer until after the preview. Then she sent him a wire: “Dear Clark—I want you to be the first to know that I’m going to marry Harry Brandt—Very few regards—Roz.” You remember Harry Brandt, the gent who said that certain stars were box-office poison? She was intimating that the only way she could keep him quiet was to marry him.
“Now, all joking aside,” said Roz, “Clark is one of the most effective actors in the business—and for a very good reason. No matter how disappointed he is in a scene, he plays it with enthusiasm and vitality. I’ve worked with actors who don’t do this, and it makes all the difference in the world. What you feel when the camera records a scene is what is recorded. I’ll argue that point till Doomsday.
“To carry off a scene, you have to attack it with authority, and that’s what Clark does every time. It has nothing to do with his being six-feet-one and built in proportion.”
Roz paused to consider what else she might tell about the man who claims there’ s nothing left to tell—after ten years in Hollywood.
“Between scenes, he likes to talk about anything but acting,” she said. “That’s one way he conserves his energy for his job. Most of us aren’t that smart. He likes to talk about trips—they’re pretty far removed from anything connected with a movie set. He kept flying me back and forth across South America, and into the wilds of Mexico, and up to Vancouver, and across to Boulder Dam. They way he sold those places. With his graphic descriptions, you would have thought he owned stock in a travel agency. Maybe he does.
“He’s a great gadget man. One afternoon they made him shave with an electric razor. (You know, he has to shave twice a day when he’s working, to look the same in mid-afternoon as he did in mid-morning.) ‘I can’t use this thing,’ he said. ‘My beard goes four thousand different ways.’ But after he did use it, he was so enthusiastic about it, that he went out and got himself three different kinds of electric razors, including one for his car. He’s a camera fiend too—a hobby that calls for a million gadgets, more or less.
“One thing I noticed about him: He’s far happier, and he looks as he did six years ago. Every so often, looking at him, I’d find myself thinking, ‘You know what you want from life, and what you can expect—and it isn’t much.’”