Behind the Scenes with Jean and Clark
By Anita Loos
This popular writer knows her Hollywood thoroughly and she was actually on the set all during the filming of “Hold Your Man” which she wrote for Jean Harlow and Clark Gable. She also gave you “The Barbarian,” “Ladies of the Night”—and loads of grand dialogue for other MGM films
One bright day in April I was sitting in my office looking at the new guaranteed earthquake-proof ceiling and speculating whether it would be better to be hit by chunks of plaster from an old-fashioned non-earthquake-proof ceiling or by the entire unbreakable one-piece roof which now protects the scenario brains of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Suddenly the telephone rang. It was Bernie Hyman, producer of the Harlow-Gable picture just starting production.
“We’re ready to shoot,” said Bernie, “and we begin with the battle stuff. Thought perhaps you’d like to come over.”
“Battle stuff?” What was Bernie trying to put over on me? I rushed to the stage and arrived just in time for the carnage.
Dainty brunette Dorothy Burgess leaves the imprint of her open hand on the delicate cheek of Jean Harlow. Jean doesn’t bat an eye. With studied deliberation she doubles up a fist the size of a blue point oyster and—
Dorothy takes it staggeringly on her dimpled chin. This was the “battle stuff.” Just two Janes battling for the love of Clark Gable in “Hold Your Man.” The scene is in Clark’s bachelor apartment where neither lady had a right to be, according to the rules laid down in Hill’s Manual of Social Forms, published in 1882.
This being the first day’s shooting, a goodly crowd was there to see the girls fight it out to a clean decision.
However, almost every day is a gala day on the set of a Harlow-Gable picture. Jean and Clark are such capable troopers and such good sports that work is play to both of them. Jean’s phonograph, placed as near the “set up” as possible, plays every instant the camera isn’t going. A large, free-for-all jigsaw puzzle is on a nearby table in process of being “licked”—with every member of the company, from the “props” on up taking a go at it.
There is a lot of speculation on the part of the public as to just how actors and actresses differ from other human beings whose actions are not subject to keyhole scrutiny.
Not infrequently a mediocre actress tries to foist herself on the public as the real thing by having herself pictured in the Sunday supplements attired in dainty lounging pajamas, gracefully reposing on a chaise-lounge with a volume of Wordsworth open on her horizontal stomach. Probably under her pillow, won on the pleasure pier in Venice, is secreted a contraband copy of Chic Sale’s immortal work.
Mr. Einstein, who knows everything, will tell you that a pair of silk pajamas and a book don’t make you an actress. Other things are required in pictures nowadays—for instance, brains.
And of brains Jean and Clark both have plenty.
The public naturally longs to inspect its screen favorites in the “raw;” to catch them off-guard, that their whims, foibles and general characteristics may stand out like the weatherbeaten thumb of a hitch-hiker. It is on the set, between the grinds of the camera, that the actor becomes more himself than he is at home or in his club. Having been keyed up during tiresome and exacting scenes, he welcomes a respite. Artificiality is tossed to the winds and he lets himself go.
It may be something of a revelation to see two of the world’s most inflammable “neckers,” Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, at their job of swapping sex appeal. What happens, for instance, when these two red hot numbers come out of an embrace? I’ll tell you. They razz the face off each other. Underneath their sharp jibes lies deep friendship and respect, but one would never guess it from their incessant exchange of hot shot.
Jean and Clark are really enthusiastic in their praise of each other. If one should make a slighting remark about Jean in the presence of Clark, six foot one inch of masculine prowess would flatten him to the earth. Jean would resent any unfavorable criticism of her co-worker by hurling a shoe at the offender, as she sits around between scenes with her footgear off. (Jean, by the way, is not fond of being “dressed up.” Beach slippers are her favorite footwear and her pet “ensemble” consists of a pair of yellow flannel pajamas with a patch on the rear, and an old green turtleneck sweater.)
One morning Jean was late in making her appearance on the stage. I happened to be there and Clark was plainly concerned.
“I am worried for fear Jean’s sick,” he said. “She’s never late unless something’s wrong. Do you know,” he continued, “I can’t understand how that tiny kid stands up under such strenuous work. She only weighs one hundred and nine pounds, but she seems to have the endurance of a prize-fighter. She is a brave little trooper—and can she act? Say, she sets a pace for me that keeps me on my toes every minute
She anticipates every move and –halfway. When it comes to weighing dramatic values, Jean’s scales need no adjusting. She ought to be a source of delight to directors—I know she is to Sam Wood. Sam says she is a mind-reader and kidnaps his thoughts before he can express them. Gee, I hope the kid isn’t sick!” And Clark heaved a genuine sigh.
I looked up over Clark’s shoulder. Tiptoeing toward us came Jean, forefinger to her lips.
While his back was turned toward her, Clark glimpsed her approach out of the tail of his eye but showed no indication that he was aware of her presence. He resumed conversation in a louder tone.
“The trouble with Harlow is that she’s mean. She plays her own stuff for all it’s worth but she certainly crabs my best scenes. I can’t call her down because she is a woman, but some day I’ll forget myself. Have you noticed her sitting around with her shoes off? Well, she does that because she can’t think without twiddling her toes, Her brains are in her feet.”
Jean stopped and listened.
“And what about a dame that can’t live without a gramophone going?” Clark continued. “Besides this one on the set she has one in her dressing room and three in her house with radio attachments. She lays the record of ‘Night and Day’ day and night—until I’m going nuts. Thinks she can crab my performance! Huh! The poor sap—she doesn’t seem to realize that if I don’t give a good performance in this picture there won’t be anything for the audience to see.”
At this point Jean confronted her traducer, and with hands on her hips. “My pal!” she remarked.
Feigning surprise, Clark jumped to his feet. “Well, well, how’s my little chromium blonde this morning? I was worried about you being late.”
“You big Ohio hillbilly!” blazed Jean. “I heard what you said behind my back!”
“Well, did you ever hear that old crack about eavesdroppers never hearing any good of themselves?” he asked.
The he-man of the films dodged just in time to miss Jean’s beach slipper as he fled.
“What a man, what a man!” grinned Jean as he left. “He razzes me every minute in hopes of getting my goat—and sometimes he does. In a big hot love scene the other day, he whispered, ‘Jean, you’ve got your eyebrows on upside down.’ So I ups to him and said I could hardly wait for him to grow old and gray as I was just crazy about Gray Gables. If he will go in for ancient wheezes, I can not only take ‘em—but I can hand ‘em right back.”
“Do you like working with Clark?” I asked.
“Well, I should say I do! I am never the least bit nervous with him. He is so sure—and dependable. All the time.”
“What would you think of Clark as a lover? I asked.
“He’d be great,” said Jean without any hesitation. “The type that doesn’t always want to be mooshing about with you. But if you did get sentimental he’d break down and meet you halfway. However, he’s in love with his wife and my big yen at the moment is for a Duesenberg car, so I don’t think we’ll get together this year.”
At this instant up hove Clark.
“Well,” said Jean loudly, “now I’ll have to be pawed over by that big lummox Gable for an hour. If I get a chance I’ll bite his ear off!”
Every day at tea time either Clark or Jean treats the company to tea and cake. While on a picture Jean scarcely eats anything, because she has an idea that food instantly makes her fat and can change her contour in the length of time it takes to swallow it. If she allows herself an infinitesimal cookie at tea, she swears that it can be seen in the following shot.
Jean has a “double” who is not on the payroll at MGM. It is her mother. Jean’s nickname for her is “Angel.” “Angel” generally shows up at the end of the day to take Jean home. They adore each other and are so much alike in appearance that any of Jean’s fans would know her mother instantly if they should meet her. She has the same natural silvery blonde hair as her daughter and exactly the same features.
Incidentally, Jean rarely uses slang, except when she is scrapping with the gentleman she sometimes calls “Roughneck Gable.” This only one of her numerous pet names for Clark.
Both Jean and Clark are very agreeable to allowing strangers on the set while they are working. However, it is a studio rule for the guide always to ask the stars before they show visitors on the set.
One day during the shooting of “Hold Your Man,” Jean had had a very exacting morning. She had been working with a bad case of the flu and was worn out. The guide came in and asked her if she minded having visitors.
Jean, very weary, said, “Well I don’t know. How many are there?”
“There are six of them.”
“Six!” said Jean wearily.
“Yes,” answered the guide, “but they are all very small.”
Jean laughed so heartily that she couldn’t refuse his request. When the guide came back he had six little Japs in tow.
The Gable-Harlow set is noted for having no “yes” people. Everybody “no’s” everybody else, making a very healthy atmosphere. Sam Wood, director, wields no blacksnake, but he gets what he wants by asking for it in a tone as gentle as he would use in asking for a cup of tea at a church fair.
Clark and Jean appeared together for the first time on the very stage on which they are now working. The picture was “The Secret Six,” and the popularity they each enjoyed later might have had something to do with the public’s desire to see them together again.
Jean is probably today the world’s ideal of exactly what a siren should be. Her name has grown to be almost a synonym for sex. And in this—as in a few other weighty matters, I fear the world is wrong. Jean, as a type, is what I would call a mental tomboy. Her attitude toward me is one of frank comradeship. She’d rather laugh than flirt any day. She’d rather be comfortable in old clothes than alluringly dolled up. She likes men better than women, I think. Women will always be a little resentful of Jean because of her striking beauty, and perhaps she senses this. Men are drawn to her, not only for her beauty, but for her unfailing comradeship and wit—and this she likes. A vampire she certainly is not, and does not want to be.
But when the cameras start to grind—particularly when she’s playing opposite Clark Gable as in “The Secret Six” and “Red Dust”—it’s different.
Just wait till you see some of those scenes I watched in “Hold Your Man!”