“I’m Not So Sure,” Says Clark Gable
By Ruth Biery
Photoplay magazine, January 1932
Because the higher the pedestal the better target you make for the Hollywood sharpshooters
Has he been married twice, three times or four? What is his true background?
Every writer in Hollywood is trying to find answers to these questions. Some have printed stories without waiting to get the truth.
It’s a very old Hollywood custom.
But a custom which Clark, a newcomer, is incapable of understanding.
“Why don’t they come to me,” he demands, “and ask me? My stepdaughter is sixteen years old. My stepson twelve. They are the children of my present wife.
“No one has asked me about this, to date. I would have been glad to tell them. If I had any children of my own I would be proud to say so.”
The bare facts of Clark Gable’s life have been written before. But what was happening inside the lad’s head and his heart has never been told.
Cadiz, Ohio, is a droning hamlet less than twenty miles from the galloping city of Wheeling, West Virginia. The adult inhabitants of Cadiz peer indolently from there vine-covered piazzas toward the smoke curling from the buzzing factories of the city and congratulate themselves on the peaceful contentment they have inherited. The youths of Cadiz look at the same smoke with yearning and impatiently count the years until they will be old enough to go to the city.
Cadiz is Clark Gable’s home, and in only one way did he differ from the other youngsters there. He was incapable of cruelty. Trapping was the chief sport. Clark would set his traps as eagerly as the others. But when it was time to collect his prey, he couldn’t bear to kill the animal. The boys didn’t dare call him yellow, because he had two good fists and had proven he could use them.
The heart of a poet, the physique of a Dempsey, was Clark’s inheritance. His mother was an artist. Although he doesn’t remember her (she died when he was an infant), he knows that she never gave up her efforts to improve artistically. She was a dreamer, a beauty worshipper.
But his father was a product of the oil fields. Rough, hard, a man among men.
Clark’s stepmother did a remarkable thing. She learned to know the boy’s mother’s people, and reared the lad as his own mother would have. But his great sensitivity to art and beauty was always warring with the two-fisted training of his father!
His first struggle came when he was sixteen, and his father bought a farm in Northern Ohio. It was a funny, little farm in a funny, little community. The people were entirely different from those whom he had left. He missed the gay camaraderie of Cadiz and, trying to make friends with the farmer folk, discovered they had nothing in common. He was thrown upon his own resources. “I learned to live with myself instead of with others,” he says.
He turned to long tramps in the country. His constant companion was his dog, and during those lonely hours he learned there was something within him that demanded expression. He played with the idea of becoming an artist, a writer, an actor, a doctor.
One of his Cadiz friends wrote that he was going to Akron to work. Clark begged his father to be allowed to join him. Those were the exciting days at the end of the war. Getting a job was easy. He went to work in the office of a rubber company. The first day he fell asleep! Filing papers was a dull task yet he had to keep his job because of the money, but he stopped night school where he had studied dentistry.
Frantically he sought something that would reveal the magic of life. It was watching a dingy little stock company play all the old theatrical chestnuts that seemed to lift him out of himself.
He was a gawky, country boy, almost alone in his first big city. He was afraid of girls so his adolescent dreams turned to the theater. And, having been introduced to one of the actors, he hung around backstage until they finally gave him the job of calling the cast for their cues. He received no money. To smell grease paint was reward enough! Eventually, they gave him some walk-on parts. “Your carriage awaits, madame—“ was the longest line he spoke. That didn’t matter. It was the crepe hair, the spirit gum, the paint, the powder and the language of the stage which held him.
He kept his office job as a temporary livelihood, but cultivated the stage as vocation.
Undoubtedly, Clark would have become a bona fide member of the Akron Stock Company if his father had not come to Akron, following his wife’s death, and requested that his only son join him in the oil fields of Oklahoma. He talked of the money to be earned in oil. I doubt if that tempted Clark but he appreciated his father’s loneliness and, inspired by duty, followed his father to Oklahoma.
Clark hated Oklahoma; he hated his work as a tool dresser. He says, “I had learned how to live with myself on the farm and now I learned that I must live for myself. It was a terrific struggle. My father couldn’t understand. Parents often don’t, I have learned since. I was young, impulsive, hotheaded. I told him my feelings—‘I do not like this situation so it is not for me.’ I left immediately.”
This experience was the turning point in Clark Gable’s life. Had he remained in Oklahoma he would have become accustomed to living under conditions which he did not enjoy. He would have accepted them mutinously at first, later with resignation. But when Clark took the train for Kansas City he left resignation behind. He decided to live his own life; he has not swerved from that decision. The words which he told his father then, have been his motto since: “I do not like this situation so it is not for me!”
Clark spent the next two years with one of those little road shows. The largest amount he made in any week was ten dollars. If he was fortunate he had three meals a day, but there were times when a cup of coffee and a doughnut served for all.
Clark sincerely wanted to be an actor but ego held him to this little band of troupers. At that time he thought he knew all the Thespian tricks and that only lack of opportunity kept him from being the toast of Broadway and Paris.
I wonder what would have happened to Clark Gable if that company had not gone flat broke in Butte, Montana. His pride took a terrific right to the chin when he found himself in Butte with seven cents and one extra suit of clothes. PHOTOPLAY has already told you how he pawned that suit for seven dollars and rode the rods to Bend, Oregon. When he tells of that ride, which turned out to be a battle with death, he always recalls the beauty of the frozen Snake River glistening in the moonlight.
And his first words of his landing place, Bend, Oregon, are a description of the town nestled at the foot of the three sister mountains. He says the moon was a beacon light of welcome to a lonely wanderer. This is typical of the little known side of Clark Gable.
He toted lumber for three dollars a day. He says: “That three dollars didn’t mean anything; it wouldn’t have meant anything if it had been twenty. It merely kept me from starving. The job wasn’t what I wanted to do, so the pay was unimportant.”
Before he could save money enough to get to Portland, which had become his objective, he joined a wandering stock company that played the lumber communities. He landed in Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River. I give you his exact description:
“Danes, Norwegians. Funny little boats; gorgeous, colorful sunsets. Men pulling in their fish from the boats to the sand. Kids waiting on the beach for their daddies. Washings hanging on the line. Tiny huts. Women cooking. The entire panorama a marvel of contentment.”
In Portland there were no stock company jobs, so he joined a group of civil engineers and went back into Southern Oregon as a line man. The part of this experience which he remembers is sleeping under great, warm blankets beneath star-lit skies, and exchanging jokes with a group of Eastern university fellows. Clark, again, stayed only until he had money enough to get back to Portland and make another try at the theater.
But once again he was forced unto an undesirable job, to avoid starvation. He piled lumber in Silverton, Oregon. When the big Swede, whose helper he was to be, saw this callow lad he said, “I quit right now.” He was as good as his word. This piqued Clark Gable. And he did not leave this job until the same Swede came back and willingly took his place beside him seven months later.
“I found a man has two things from which he can make a living—his brain, his body,” said Clark. While he was piling lumber he did not use his brain—only his physical strength. When he quit he weighed one hundred and ninety pounds.
When Clark returned to Portland, he took stock of himself. He decided that there must be something wrong with his acting or he’d be acting instead of hunting another job.
The time had come for him to give serious thought to the stage. His next two jobs, one with the advertising department of a newspaper and the other with the telephone company, gave him a good salary and made it possible for him to study. He located a dramatic school. His teacher was the woman who later became the first Mrs. Gable.
Although Clark doesn’t wish to discuss this romance (the first Mrs. Gable is now a school teacher in Los Angeles), it is not difficult to picture what happened. He had decided that acting was the only profession that could satisfy him. He had worked hard for more than three years, but he had worked aimlessly. Then, he met a woman who knew dramatic values. She was the first person who said, “I will teach you!” She showed the country boy from Cadiz how he might be released from life’s dull monotony.
It took infinite patience. The conceit built during those two years of association with other self-centered troupers had left its mark upon Gable. She must give him a new viewpoint before she could teach him at all. This woman was several years older than Clark. A younger woman would not have had the understanding to give this boy what he needed and sought.
When she left Portland and went to Los Angeles, Clark soon followed. They were married in the Southern city, and Gable turned his eyes toward Hollywood, but he was shrewd enough to see that extra work got him nowhere. By now Clark wanted something definite. Gone were the pig-in-a-poke days!
He turned to the stage and seized the chance to play an infinitesimal role with Jane Cowl in “Romeo and Juliet,” and with this company returned to Portland.
Although he had progressed very little, professionally, he had gone a long way as a person. He says of this appearance with Jane Cowl: “I realized how little I amounted to. They could have put anyone in my place at any time and he would have done as well. But I was thrilled because I was with a worthwhile company of fine actors and actresses. I knew that it was the first definite opportunity I had been given on the stage to learn something from watching others. I laughed at myself when I remembered how much I thought I had known in that little stock company!
“I very suddenly found my sublime ego turned into an inferiority complex. I began to believe that I would never make good in the profession that meant more than anything else in the world to me.”
We all have our periods of false prosperity when we optimistically believe that the struggles of life are behind us and Utopia before us. That period came to Clark when he returned to Los Angeles. Jane Cowl handed him a complimentary letter to producer Louis O. Macloon.
He played “What Price Glory?”, “The Copperhead” with Lionel Barrymore, “Madame X” with Pauline Frederick, a drunken sailor in “Lullaby” and the comedy lead opposite Nancy Carroll in “Chicago.” Between stage engagements he was a movie extra. He made several screen tests. But producers told him that his ears were too big and his personality unsuited to pictures. Now, these same producers are using language so strong that it can’t be printed, every time they pick up their newspapers and read about Clark’s success.
With the closing of “Chicago” he found he could secure no more engagements.
Troubles are like ants; they never come singly. Domestic worries came alone with his unemployment.
Refusing to discuss the reasons for the separation from his wife, he merely repeats the slogan he adopted when he left the detested oil fields of Oklahoma. “I do not like this situation, so it is not for me.”
Clark joined a stock company in Houston, Texas. For the first twelve weeks he was second man and heavy; but for the remainder of the thirty-seven weeks engagement he was the leading man. Of course, he should have been the matinee idol of that city. But the simple truth is, he wasn’t. He doesn’t seem to have caused one spectacular heartthrob among the girls of Houston.
Broadway is the common objective of all stage novices. As soon as Clark has saved enough from his two-hundred-dollar-a-week Houston salary he headed for New York. Lady Luck wore her most benign smile the week of his arrival. She gave him the lead immediately in “Machinal,” under the direction of Arthur Hopkins.
He says, “I had done nothing to deserve such a role but I happened to look the part.” When he had completed this, Lady Luck again held out her hand and led him directly into “Conflict.”
While he was working in this latter production Mrs. Gable secured a divorce in California.
There were other New York productions. And during one of them the present Mrs. Gable came backstage. She did not come to see Clark; she was with a group of friends who knew other actors. The two met accidentally. Contrary to erroneous reports, she was not an actress, and has no desire to be.
They were married in New York, before the first Mrs. Gable’s divorce was final in California. How little either realized then the complications which were to follow! They were legally wed in New York but not in California, where one cannot remarry until a year after a divorce. They figured that was all right since they had no intention of going to California.
But fate does not pause to remember America’s strange divorce laws. Just when Clark was closing in “Love, Honor and Betray,” with Alice Brady and the late Robert Williams, Macloon telegraphed him to come to California for “The Last Mile.” Gable took an airplane and paid his own expenses to make certain he would arrive in time to accept the engagement!
Gangsters had become the vogue in pictures. Clark was stalwart and he was suave; he was handsome, as producers visualized gangsters to be handsome. He made several tests and accepted the role of a cowboy heavy in “The Painted Desert,” at Pathe. While working on that he signed a contract with Warner Bros. to make “The Finger Points” and “Night Nurse.” It has been said that MGM loaned him for these parts before they knew the sensation he was to become. This is untrue. He signed for these roles before he went to MGM.
While waiting for these to go into production he played a bit in “The Easiest Way,” with Constance Bennett at MGM. Then in Joan Crawford’s “Dance, Fools, Dance.”
You know the rest of the story. No one, including Louis B. Mayer, head of the studio, and Clark Gable himself, could see what was to happen. The success of Garbo was an accident—so was that of Valentino. Millions have been spent on making Hollywood stars. But the greatest of them all have been created without forethought and without investment.
Almost overnight, this Gable boy from the little town of Cadiz became the great screen lover. Fame simply leapt up and claimed him.
Fame has its penalties. Right now Clark is trying to beat the sure law of compensation. If fame is to bring tribulations in excess of its rewards—he believes he is ready to sacrifice fame.
He had his first taste of fame’s demand when he had been in Hollywood only a short time. A newspaper man told him he was not legally married. He rushed to Santa Ana for a second ceremony as soon as the first Mrs. Gable’s divorce became final. MGM sent representatives along to see that all the details were according to the California laws governing matrimony.
Then Clark read that he had been married three times; that he had a child in hiding. He discovered ambitious writers were trying to unearth sensations about the new film lover. His wife’s age was front page copy. Now, Clark gad the old fashioned idea that the age of his wife is nobody’s business.
He wanted to hit somebody in the haw to show his opinion of people who pried into his private business.
“You can’t do this; you can’t do that,” his studio and his friends told him.
“When I was here before, I could have walked down Hollywood Boulevard on my hands and nobody would have paid any attention. I wouldn’t dare walk down the same boulevard now with my aunt. They would say I had fallen in love with another older woman.”
Which is the reason he was angry the evening he came to see me. He is in the mood, now, to say, “To hell with it all!” He sincerely believes that he can go back to the stage or a lumber yard or a telephone company and be happy, if the penalties of fame over balance the compensations.
“If I find I do not like this situation it will not be for me,” is still his slogan.
This is a sincere attitude, but not a true one. Clark thinks it is true because he is baffled and totally unprepared for what has happened. I do not mean that he is not prepared for his profession. I mean that he is not personally prepared for this Hollywood.
But I doubt that he will leave Hollywood. When he took his seat in that little Akron theater and saw that stuffy stock company for the first time, a new world opened before him. But he was merely an on-looker. A boy standing on the wrong side of a plate glass window.
Today he is on the right side. And down underneath, even though he does not recognize it, he adores the tinsel and bright bubbles of fame. That is human nature.
The other evening I attended the opening of “Consolation Marriage.” Huge crowds thronged the sidewalks to pay homage to the famous. Suddenly, there was a hush. Then an uproar so great that I thought Greta Garbo must be entering. It was Clark Gable.
When the show was completed, Pat O’Brien, Irene Dunne’s leading man, came onto the stage and said, “The actor who says he doesn’t like this adulation is a sucker. I love it. We all love it. I only hope it happens to me again.”
Clark is not a sucker. The very fact that he was there shows he likes it. If anyone had pictured to the little boy in Cadiz that opening the other evening with the liveried chauffeur, the high opera hat and the cheering thousands, he would have said, “Gosh! Lead me to it!”
He will become adjusted to the chaos of screen fame. And just as he proved to the big Swede piler that he could do this job, so he will prove to the world that he can learn to accept Hollywood’s success and its idiosyncrasies.