I’ve Lived a Lifetime in Five Years—says Clark Gable
By Eleanor Packer
Motion Picture magazine, February 1936
Sometimes, looking at Clark Gable today, it is almost impossible to believe that he is the same young man who walked into the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studio, five years ago last fall. He has changed, mellowed, matured so amazingly. Hollywood has watched both the triumphant stepping forward and the tragic sliding backward of its people. But never has it seen a more startling change than the which the last five years have wrought in the young man from Cadiz, Ohio, and all points east and west.
I’m not talking about Clark Gable, the actor. He has made upward strides in his work, of course. He has become more sure of himself, more easily poised, before the cameras. But I don’t believe that he will ever turn in a better performance than he did as the piano-playing gangster, Jake Luva, in Dance Fools Dance, the picture which started him on his way to fame, or as the gambler, Ace Wilfong, in A Free Soul, when he had those two veterans, Norma Shearer and Lionel Barrymore, for competition.
Clark, too, is a vertan of the sound stages now, with all the tricks of the trade at his command. But the Gable screen personality is the same as it was five years ago—rugged, heartily masculine, husky-voiced. So let’s forget Clark Gable, the actor, and consider the case of Clark Gable, the man. It is the off-screen Clark that the last few years have made the most important changes.
“I honestly believe that I have lived a lifetime since I landed in Hollywood,” Clark told me one day, “I know that I have crammed an average lifetime of experiences, emotions and education into these last five years. I may look like the same man, outwardly. But inwardly, I’m changed. I think differently, react differently to the people around me, have a completely different viewpoint on life.
“For a little while, Hollywood almost ‘got’ me,” Clark added, pausing a moment. His eyes were smiling with his memories. “The sudden applause and flatterly went to my head. I wasn’t used to it or the fact that, for the first time in my life, I had the money to buy the things I wanted. I went a little haywire, I’m afraid. But, thank Heaven, it didn’t last long. And I’m glad it happened—that short period of self-satisfaction—big-headedness, they call it in high school language. It was one of those experiences that most people live through at some time or another. It was part of my education. I don’t believe that it can ever happen again. I can smile now at the Clark Gable who thought that he was a big shot, that the world was his oyster, because he saw his name in electric lights and read highly romanticized stories about himself in the magazines.”
I looked at smiling, poised man who was talking and I thought of the Clark of five years ago—unsure, a little awkward, unfinished. Clark has changed outwardly, as well as inwardly. His face has leaner and more mature lines. He wears his clothes with a careless smartness and ease, a far cry from the self-conscious slouchiness of the too-careful tailoring of his early studio days. Hollywood has smoothes the outer man, rounded the rough corners, added a polish of poise.
One day, about four years ago, I happened to be sitting in a studio office when both Clark and Bob Montgomery came into the room. At that time, Bob was on the top rung of the ladder of popularity and Clark was climbing rapidly to stand beside him. Clark was surprised, amazed, at his sudden fame. He wasn’t ready for it and it stunned him a little. Bob was easily friendly and courtesous, sure of himself, unembarrassed. He talked fluently and with sudden flashes of the sparkling Montgomery wit. Clark ate peanuts from a paper sack and listened. Bob held the center of the stage. Clark was a slightly ill-at-ease onlooker.
That couldn’t happen today. Clark is as fluent, as sure of himself, as poised as Bob. For a time, he tried to add the spice of wit to his conversation. But he has given that up. Clark is not a cleverly spontaneous conversationalist. So, wisely, he sticks to his own line, a pleasant, intelligent, common-sense interest in all of life, and leaves the wit and brilliance to Bob and the others, who were born with a gift for sparkle.
“I have Mrs. Gable to thank for the smoothing of most of the rough edges,” Clark said, “and Hollywood for the rest of my education. In the early days, I assumed a bluff and rough heartiness which I didn’t always feel. It covered up my real timidity, I guess you might call it. I wasn’t afraid of life, itself. I knew that, if the balloon in which I was floating collapsed, I could always earn a living. I had done it before when I worked at everything from lumber jacking to laying pipe lines in oil fields. But I was afraid of the whole business of making motion pictures, of the cameras, and the microphones, the other people who knew so much more about the work than I did, the interviewers who came to talk to me.”
The Clark Gable of those days was a source of great worry to the publicity department. His fame was spreading by leaps and bounds. The public demanded to know about this new young men who had struck a new note in masculine appeal. He was besieged by interviewers. Clark was anxious and eager to please and to cooperate, but he had not yet found the secret of being “good copy.”
His sincerity and his armor of bluff heartiness carried him successfully through those trying days. Now he doesn’t need any armor. He has become that gift to the ladies and gentlemen of the press—“good copy.” He talks simply and easily about himself and his work and his ideas. He seems always to know the right thing to say at the right moment. And that is an art which many people fail to learn in an entire lifetime. Clark has acquired it in five years.
When Clark first touched the fringes of fame, he avoided parties and admitted that he was uncomfortable in dress clothes. He appeared only at the important places where the studio requested him to go. I well remember seeing him at the premier of Grand Hotel in one of his rare personal appearances. During the intermission, Clark was surrounded by eager autograph seekers. He stood in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, flushed and perspiring, his immaculate collar slowly but surely wilting to a shapeless mass. He was a living picture of a man undergoing his most embarrassing and uncomfortable moment.
The Clark Gable of today’s public appearance is a very different person. Even the crowds, which tore the buttons from his clothes and the handkerchiefs from his coat pockets, couldn’t ruffle his calm and sincere charm. Today he talks, he laughs, he answers questions and signs papers without one flush—except the flush of genuine gratitude.
Clark is no longer afraid of the business of making pictures. He takes his work seriously, but not too seriously. It is a job to him, a job which must be done to the best of his ability. He accepts the parts which are given him, without one word of complaint, even when he doesn’t like them. “ ‘The Front Office’ knows what it wants,” he says. “They pay me to work in front of the cameras, not to select the casts of the pictures.”
One day on the stage, when he was making and re-making a scene for Mutiny on the Bounty, a scene which required intricate camera work but which demanded only that Clark smile and say a few words, he suddenly turned to a group of onlookers.
“This is a swell way for a grown man to earn a living, isn’t it?” he chuckled. “Just standing around for hours with a smirk on my map and getting paid for it.” But later, when the scene was finished, he said seriously, “I realize what a lucky guy I am to fall into a job like this. Where else could I earn as good a living? What could I be, if I weren’t an actor? A truck driver, maybe, or an oil field worker. Boy, the cards sure were stacked in my favor.”
That’s a refreshing attitude in a town which takes itself and its talents with such terrific seriousness. No wonder Hollywood points with pride to the unassuming Mr. Gable who has kept his feet so firmly on the ground.
“The years before Hollywood were a sort of prep school course,” Clark said once, “Hollywood has been my college education. It has taught me to think seriously and I hope, sanely. Before I came into pictures, I didn’t give much thought to the future. I enjoyed gambling with life, living each day as it came along and not worrying about the tomorrows. Something was bound to turn up. It always had.
“But in Hollywood, I began to realize the shortness of the years of success and of youth. Today, you’re on top. Tomorrow, you’re forgotten. So now I am planning for that tomorrow as well as anyone can plan anything in this topsy-turvy world. I know that some day I’ll be washed up in pictures. Then what am I going to do? That’s what I’m trying to figure out.
“For a while, in my early Hollywood months, I concentrated on hunting and fishing, roughing it in the wilds away from people and all forms of civilization. Then, suddenly, I began to realize that social contact with other people was a vital and necessary part of living,” Gable said.
Finally, today, he has become himself—a frank, unassuming, honest and vital Clark Gable with the eager enthusiasms of the young Bill Gable of Hopedale, Ohio, and the mellow tolerance of a successful man of the business and social world. In these last, short five years he has completed a lifetime.