By Katharine Hartley
Movie Mirror magazine, October 1938
That’s the last name you might think of giving to Clark but it’s the first adjective that leaps to the minds of his intimate friends—who certainly have their reasons!
Gentle is the one adjective in the word that you, perhaps, would never think of applying to him, yet those of us in Hollywood who know Clark Gable best it is not only apt, but preeminently so. You may insist that it is exactly because he isn’t gentle that his particular type of manliness has such an appeal on the screen—but Gable isn’t always the swaggering Gable of “San Francisco,” the blatant hard Gable of “Test Pilot,” the blustering Gable of “Too Hot to Handle.” In the Gable who is known around town, the gentleness is there all right—and very often, too. In countless moments and manners it is there, so strong that it routs out all traces of the other Gable which you have known about for years. It’s time that the public, too, learns a little of this particular Gable side; the most—to us, at least—winning and personable of all.
Out on the back lot at Metro not so long ago, a scene took place which made the cameraman ache. In that one scene there were all the elements of a perfect shot—color, composition, overwhelming human character—but unfortunately the scene wasn’t in the script, and hence the aching. Six ragged Chinese boys, extra children, were gathered around Clark as he sat cross-legged on the floor of a demolished Chinese hut. They held out small sticks of wood on which they had been whittling and Clark, knife in hand, was showing them a few tricks of that particular trade. Several times he found the wood lacking; it was too hard or too soft, too something, and then he would get up to go searching for a better piece among the ruins of the set, all six of the barefoot urchins straggling after him. Back to the hut again, and the whittling session would go on. “That’s a nice turn you have there, fella,” Gable would remark now and then. His tone to the boys was not patronizing, as that of a big star bent on entertaining the little fellows. His tone was one of utter enjoyment, mutually shared. Nor were the boys over awed or over impressed. Foreigners though they were, they were at home with a man who spoke and understood their language, the language among children being the same in any world.
On the Gable face as he sat there, there was something seldom seen on the screen, but an expression we have learned to know and love here in Hollywood. It is an expression of sensitiveness and kindness which springs to the fore most often when he comes in contact with the two groups of human beings to whom he is most irresistibly drawn. One group includes all older women, mostly mothers of his friends; the other is made up of kids, usually little boys, His own mother died when he was a baby, and this of course accounts for the magnet in this direction. As for his interest in children, this too may be chalked up to the lack in his own life—a boy of his own being the one thing he has always wanted above everything else.
To take one group at a time, not so long ago a publicity man on the lot happened to mention that his mother was in the hospital. Gable heard about it and said, “I guess she’d like a little cheering, wouldn’t she? Mind telling me where she is?” The publicity man thought that he probably meant to send flowers, and was amazed at even such a gesture, but when his mother’s nurse phoned later to say that Mr. Gable had actually come to the hospital himself, it was almost beyond belief. Yet Gable is constantly doing things like that; and they’re truly surprising, because for some reason you don’t expect them of him.
Nor would anyone expect him, to take time out, away from his own problems, to sit down for hours at a time, every few months, and talk about a little shaver whom he has never seen, a little fellow named Bobby. Yet his understanding of children and their interests is so real to him that it stretches farther than the mere lessons in whittling that he can give to extra children on the set. Gable first became interested in Bobby when he met Bobby’s mother in one of the Metro offices several years ago, and discovered that she was both mother and father to the boy, because Bobby no longer had a father. That interested Gable from the beginning; at once he began fretting and worrying, cautioning the mother not to spoil the boy in an effort to make up for the father-loss.
“That’s the temptation with you women anyway,” he said. ‘I’m going to make it my responsibility from now on that you don’t make a little sissy out of him.” The mother thought it over and a few months later she put the boy in military school. But when Gable heard that, he was more upset than before. “You didn’t get the idea, honey. I didn’t mean that. From what you’ve told me about him he’s not the type for military school, not at all. He’s too much of an individualist for that. He doesn’t like it, does he?” And the mother, also a little worried, had to admit that he didn’t like it at all; that he hated it in fact. “But what’ll I do? Take him out?” she asked.
Gable thought about it for a long time. It’s characteristic of him that his consideration of everything, even a little fellow’s problem, is carefully weighed. “No,” he said finally, “make him stick it out; that’ll be a lesson in itself. Anything once started must be finished. But when this year’s over, you just push him out. Let him fend for himself, then. It’s time. He’s almost nine, isn’t he?”
At nine now, Bobby is in public school. He sits with a Mexican on one side of him and a midget on the other, and he gets in at least three fights a day, and Gable, every time he is in the office, listens to a blow-by-blow account of them, and both mother and movie star seem to gloat over the recital. “That’ll do it,” Gable nods in complete satisfaction. “That’ll make a man of him. Well, tell him I said ‘hello!’”
That’s a very simple story. There are no surprising twists to it. Gable did not send the boy electric trains, a three-gear bicycle, or anything of the sort; but what he has sent to him, via the mother, is far more important than any of these.
Then there is that surprising element, too, in his manner toward Carole Lombard. These two may have laughed and joked their way to a close friendship, but behind the hilarity there is also a great tenderness. You may not have thought of the rugged and virile Gable in the light of a human, fretted and fretting man, who worried because “Carole runs herself ragged; Carole never wears warm enough clothes; Carole eats like a bird; Carole never will put any meat on her!” Yet that Gable is there too—fluttering, hovering, admonishing, urging, gentle as a father with a helpless baby on his hands. To a girl who has been so independent all her life, battling her own way alone, this angle naturally has its appeal; it’s a treat to be spoiled and worried over for a change, and that’s what Gable does. And no one, seeing them together, can doubt that he feels himself her protector; and he does his protecting, not with brawn and muscle, but with tenderness and thought. Also he’s a man who goes gentle over the most unexpected things; almost softie; as he did over the fog lights for his station wagon when Carole gave them to him as a present not so long ago. Fog lights! You’d have thought they were sapphire-studded platinum instead of the chromium and glass objects that they are, the way he fondled the thought of them. The Gable you think of may be the Gable who “gets” you—but Gable is also a man who may be “got.”
No one who was at Clark’s house that Sunday afternoon when his pet chow was run over will ever forget the misery he suffered when the dog dragged himself in from the road. Clark heard his whimpering, and found him, bleeding and torn, at the back steps. There he sat with the dog in his arms, rocking it back and forth; the shouts and laughter in the front part of the house unheeded. At first a few thoughtless souls tried to drag him inside, back to being jovial host again, telling him that he could always buy a new dog. But eventually they understood that this was something which had cut really deep into the Gable heart. They saw that his sadness was not “show,” not synthetic, that the man was really as close to tears as a strong man can be. They left him then, straggled away; there was no more spirit for gaiety; the party was over; and all that was left was a man with his dog dying in his arms. Clark held him close until the life was gone. With dogs, with calves, with colts and horses it is always the same; a man who is not too famous or too prosperous or too successful to have time and heart for sick and hurt things.
Gable is known out Valley-way as one man who will never turn a tramp away. Countless numbers of them stop there at his ranch, ask for food; and if Clark is there they never go away unfed. Nor are they fed just anything that the cook happens to have on hand. “Give ‘em steak,” he orders; and to us he has explained, “When you’ve been hungry in your life as I have, then you know that hunger produces only one dream, one beautifully sizzling, marvelously-smelling dream—a big, thick, juicy, half-raw steak! So why not give them what they really want? Then you not only fill them up but satisfy their dreams. In fact that’s why I practically exist on steak today. I dreamed about it myself for so long that now it seems I can’t get enough of it.” But not only does he give his uninvited guests steak; his keen eye may detect that they could do with a little more warmth under their thread-bare coats, and thus many of his best sport sweaters hit the tramp trail themselves. A salesman in a Hollywood sport shop once remarked a bit disgustedly that he didn’t know how Gable could possibly wear all the sweaters he buys, but now he may understand.
Perhaps it’s because Gable always sees the other fellow’s point of view, or tries to see it, that he is such a personal success with everyone he knows, everyone with whom he has the slightest contact. There is, for example, the story of the way in which he has championed Lew Brown, who is now his stand-in. For years Lew worked behind the soda fountain in the Metro commissary, and Gable, during that time, had many a double chocolate soda stirred up by his hands. Gable told Lew that some day he was going to get him a better job, and the opportunity finally came when a new Gable stand-in was needed. But he went even farther. When Gable isn’t working, naturally there is no studio paycheck for Lew, either, so Gable has arranged to have him do extra work when he’s not standing-in. Lew had acting jobs in both “Yellow Jack” and “Shopworn Angel” recently, and he was getting along so well with his acting that Gable, observing him, wondered if Lew might not prefer acting full time. He put it up to him tactfully, explaining frankly that Lew need not feel duty bound to stay with him, that he could easily ditch the stand-in job without any misunderstanding or hard feeling. That was seeing the other fellow’s side, again—but Lew was pretty definite about wanting to carry on. “I’d rather be with you any day,” he said honestly. And you can know that when a boy prefers standing-in to acting, then it must be a good guy he’s standing-in for!
Most enlightening of all, however, is the lamb-like way in which the lion Gable accepts any and all kidding. His capacity for humor is unlimited; not only when it comes to personal jokes and gags, but also in connection with his career–and teasing a star about his career mistakes is the last thing that most of us out here would dare to do. But with Gable it is different. He never turns on you or snaps at you, no matter how close to the quick you may cut. He takes it all with a quiet, gentle smile; even the ribbing about “Parnell.” Why that picture was a flop no one exactly knows, but it was, and Gable will never be permitted to forget it. The great gag around Metro is to tip off any visitor or interviewer, who will have a chance to talk to him; to advise them, “Now, when you meet Clark say that you liked him all right in “Test Pilot,” but that your favorite picture of all time was really ‘Parnell.’ And then do a little heavy raving about that—and just watch the expression his face.” So once every week or so, at least, Gable has this particular ribbing to his face.” Sometimes his pals make a special point of it too, as recently when Clark had a birthday, and they gave him a party on the set. There among the guests was Lew Brown dressed as “Parnell” just to bring the closet-skeleton to light once again. This would be heresy if you did it to anyone else, but Gable’s good humor being the mild, appreciative humor that it is, you not only dare, but do.
In fact, you have only to put something up to him in a human, humorous way, and he reacts immediately, Appeal to him without artifice, without flattery, and you always get a response—an understanding one, too. Not so long ago, another one of the studio employees, also a girl, who has known Gable for a long time, took some out-of-town visitors to the House of Murphy one night, and there at the back of the room at a table was Clark with Carole Lombard. The girls also knew Carole and she waved across the room to them, and they waved back. One of the girl’s guests, a pretty little thing from Texas, shivered and shook deliciously and said, “Oh, do you know Clark Gable? Why I’d give my eye teeth to meet him!” A little alter the girl from the studio surreptitiously slipped a note to Gable, via the waiter. In that one little note was the most complete revelation of the Gable character that has ever been made. What the note said simply was, “Hey gazabo, come over to my table. I want to show off!”And five minutes later, as though quite of his own volition, he was there. Sure, she wanted to show off. If she had put it on any other grounds, it would have been only pretense. Gable, being plain and simple himself, could understand and respond to this simple appeal from a co-worker. He always has that amazing quality of being able to do the nice thing at the nice time, just to please somebody.
On the set he never refuses to greet visitors; never begs off; always comes forth graciously and kindly, gives them a rugged handshake, a few smiling words. If he does have his grumpy spells—and what person doesn’t?—then at least he is kind enough, and wise enough, to keep himself out of sight during such times. “The best thing for me at such times,” he has admitted, “is just to get in my car, all by myself, and take a long ride. Then it’s only the tires and the brakes which take a beating—but they at least can be replaced. It’s not so easy to replace friends, or take back words.”
There is, however, another thought to this particular angle. Clark may find it simple enough to escape his own unpleasantness on a smooth road at high speed, but sometimes he comes face to face with the unpleasantness of others, and can’t run away. Not so long ago a hard-boiled newspaper sob-sister cornered him on the set and asked a too-personal question about his separation from Mrs. Gable. Clark seemed stunned and surprised, believed for the moment he hasn’t heard her right. He didn’t answer. That annoyed her, and she said crisply and sarcastically, “Oh, well, of course if you won’t talk! But I think you ought to be decent enough to give me a break—“and she repeated the question. At that point many another star would have let his temper and his bad manners loose, but now Clark only smiled. Very slowly he leaned closer to her. “Haven’t you got a little egg on your chin, honey?” he said quietly. Which was just his tempered way of suggesting that maybe; just maybe, she was a little out of line, wasn’t she? The newsgirl had to laugh then, and admit her error, and after that they became good friends. After that, too, the saying became quite a by-word around Hollywood. Now you’ll hear numerous good citizens of Hollywood using it whenever a subject is in need of changing.
Simple, human, kindly and gentle then is this husky, he-man Gable, and that is what gives sensitiveness to his acting as well as charm to his personality. We have had lots of brutish heroes in our time, but few to whom the word gentle could be applied as well. The application in some cases would only detract, but in Gable’s case it is a plus. As has often been said in connection with big important men, “the bigger they are the kinder they are,” and Clark, above everything else, is an infallible proof of this rule.