Jean and Clark Expose Each Other
By Gladys Hall
Movie Classic, May 1936
Six years ago, Jean Harlow, with Hell’s Angels behind her as her single screen appearance; and Clark Gable, with small parts in Painted Desert, Easiest Way and Dance Fools Dance behind him, met for the first time in The Secret Six, an MGM production which starred Wallace Beery and Lewis Stone. Beginners both.
The other day I talked with them on the set of Wife vs. Secretary.
We sat, the three of us, in Jean’s portable dressing room on the set. Near enough to the ice palace which had been constructed for the picture to hear the band playing, the clink of skates as professional skaters engaged for the sequence described arcs and figure eights and other geometric designs on the “ice” of the rink.
Jean wore ice skates and a blue skating outfit. Clark wore ice skates and brown tweeds. They had just shot a scene in which both had taken a “brodie” and had come up laughing. They had taken the brodie, too. Not once but several times. Meanwhile, their stand-ins stood comfortably to one side watching the stars seeing stars and risking bruises.
I said to Jean and Clark, “What I want to know is this—what dreams did you two dream when you were making your first picture together back in the Neolithic age? Did you dream that it would come to…this?”
And I indicated, comprehensively, the small deluxe dressing room. Jean’s maid hovering in readiness, Clark’s man proffering him a gold cigarette case, the stand-ins standing at attention—the whole luxurious frame of stardom…
And before the question was out of my mouth they answered in union, “We didn’t!”
“Nope,” said Clark, “I can answer for both of us and if I’m wrong Jean can stop me. We didn’t have a dream in our heads. We didn’t even think about a tomorrow but only of the day itself. We never thought about being stars. We knew that there were such animals and we admired them, respectfully, but at a distance. For never once did we think of ourselves as potential stars, or any kind of stars at all. Fact is, we didn’t think about it all. While as for dreaming…well, dreams don’t sit so well on an empty stomach.”
“I still can’t think of myself as a star,” said Jean, “sounds silly but it’s a fact that I never think of me as a star. I find myself thinking of Garbo and Dietrich and Colbert and Crawford and others as big stars, and then the thought comes, ‘but you’re a star, too’—and it doesn’t ring the bell. It doesn’t see, to be real!”
“Doesn’t sound silly to me,” Clark said, “because I feel the same way myself. Always have and always will.”
“Clark hasn’t changed one mite,” Jean said, with an affectionate smile and her fellow star, “since his almost unparalleled success came to him. He’s just the same today as he was that first day in The Secret Six. My chief recollection of him then is the way he threw hard rolls at me in one of the scenes—and then between the scenes, ‘just for fun’…FUN! He got realism into those rolls, believe me. He aimed ‘em with deadly precision. He gets realism into falling on the ice, too, as my fair limbs will doubtless bear witness tomorrow. What I mean is, we fall—and fall again…”
“And Jean hasn’t changed either,” Clark said. “In the beginning she wouldn’t have thought of allowing anyone to take the blows for her. She doesn’t think today of having anyone take the falls for her…
“No, you see in the days of The Secret Six we just thought, Jean and I, that we had jobs and were darned lucky to have ‘em. Our only hope was that there would be another job for us when the current one was finished. We never got beyond that point…”
“At the risk of being called an Elsie Dinsmore or something,” Jean broke in, “I was really thinking only of my mother then…of the sacrifices she had made, of the family opposition she faced when we came to Hollywood. I was just hoping, from hour to hour, that I would be allowed to keep on working, for her sake. Just as I would have felt if I’d been a stenographer or had any other kind of a job. I also had the hope that after a good many years and a lot of hard work I might develop into the kind of an actress I’d like to be. But of stardom, of great success, of all the glamour that went with the Garbos and the Loys I never had a thought or a dream. I just didn’t place myself in their category at all. I didn’t have time to dream…”
“I was thinking of my tummy,” grinned Clark, “and what steady jobs could mean to it!”
“But it was fun,” Jean said, blue eyes wistful, almost wishful for the departed days when she and her mother shared a modest home and a very modest hopes; when Clark used shoe leather instead of a new Dusenberg for transportation.
“Well,” I commented, “I have picked two honies! If you don’t dream of stardom for yourselves, individually, didn’t you think of it for each other?”
“Whad’d you mean?” asked Clark, blankly.
“I mean, didn’t you, Clark, gaze upon the platinum blonde glory that was Jean and say to yourself, ‘Here is the next big box office Glamour Girl! Here is a rising star! Here is the studio’s next gift to the fans?’”
“I did NOT,” retorted Clark, with the ruthless and unprettified honesty which characterizes everything he says, “I thought she was a nice kid but a rotten actress and that was as far as I went in thinking about her at all.”
“And you?” I turned to her, “did you think when you looked at Clark that he was to be the biggest star sensation since Valentino? Did you know…?”
“Imagine my embarrassment,” grinned Jean (they reminded me, the two of them, of high school kids playing Truth), “but honestly—NO! I didn’t think about him at all. I mean, I thought that he was just another actor, and not such a hot one at that, with a job. I thought he was a lot of fun and I took his advice only because I always take advice from everyone…”
“It wasn’t until we made Red Dust together,” Clark cut in, “that I realized Jean was an actress to be reckoned with, a comer, a star…she had improved so vastly by that time that even a blind man could get a glimmer of the glamour…a glamour of the glimmer…y’know.”
“Thanks for that, Mr. G.,” chirped Jean, “and right back at you—while we were working together I didn’t recognize you for what you were. I didn’t ‘get’ you. But when I saw you on the screen—well, then I did get the full impact of the Gable personality. I did then. I still do. When we’re actually in production, working together, I just know you’re a good scout and a lot of fun. That’s all. But when I get a look at you on the screen I think, ‘For goodness’ sake, didn’t I even try to make a date with that?”
“I don’t know, I think I must always have felt in my bones, even if I didn’t consciously think it, that Clark was a grand actor. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have taken his advice quite so seriously all these years. Even in this picture I read my lines over to him and he suggests that I stress this line or emphasize that word and I always do what he tells me to do, and he’s always right.”
“And thanks for that, Miss H.,” said Clark with an aw-cut-it-out-now expression–”and here’s back at you. One of the reasons why Jean is a star is that she’s never got beyond believing that she can learn from others. She never has been “teched” with the know-it-all malady.”
“You see,” Jean cut in, wearing an aw-cut-it-out-now expression in her turn. “we were very unimportant persons then. Wally Beery and Lewis Stone were the stars. And very kind they were to both of us. They helped us read lines. They taught us camera tricks. They gave us advice and encouragement and everything in their power to give. They really cared about us…”
“And that,” said Clark, “is the one outstanding thing about those earlier days—how kind everyone was to me. If I dreamed any dream at all it was that there might be such a thing as the brotherhood of man—and movie actors. It was so different from the theatre where all of the stars—especially the big women stars—are the prima donnas and the rest of the cast cattle. Boy, they could make things sizzle for you, some of those babies! There was none of that temperament stuff out here and I couldn’t get over it. I’ve never yet had any experience with any star or player trying to hog things, to give the other fellow a shove—down.”
“D’you remember, Clark,” Jean laughed, “the funny little dressing room you had, tucked away at the end of nowhere?”
“Just enough room to change my coat and vest,” said Clark, “well, it was all I needed. Matter of fact, it’s all I need now.”
“We weren’t allowed to see the rushes,” Jean reminisced.
“And now we don’t want to,” said Clark.
“The rushes,” said Jean, “were only for important people. We just did our days work and went home. We went to the commissary for lunch and if there wasn’t any empty table, which there often wasn’t, we sat at the lunch counter and very glad to be there, too.”
“Very glad to be eating at all,” said Clark, “that was me. I was dreaming of the day, if you must have a dream, when I could let out my belt a notch or two…”
“We never studied our scripts,” mused Jean.
“For a darned good reason,” laughed Clark, “we didn’t have any scripts to study. We weren’t important enough for that—or perhaps they thought we couldn’t read! We arrived on the set with painstaking punctuality and the director told us what to do and we did it, to the best of our abilities.”
“Did you work awfully hard?” I asked. “Were you under a strain and nervous all the time?”
“No,” said Jean, “we weren’t important enough for that. What we did or did not do was of such little consequence. The picture didn’t in any sense depend on us, you know. It’s only when you carry responsibility that you carry the ‘white man’s burden’…”
“We still don’t see the rushes,” said Clark, “we haven’t seen a foot of this film. I didn’t see half a foot of Mutiny until it was previewed. What’s the use? It’s all ‘in the box’ by that time. There’s nothing we can do about it. And if anything is seriously amiss they’ll call us back for retakes fast enough.”
“But you must have had amibitions in those days,” I persisted, “if not dreams. After all, you must have known that other beginners had become stars, and you must have thought…”
“I didn’t,” said Clark, “I don’t know what that makes me, but I didn’t, I’d had other jobs before—in lumber camps, in the oil fields, on farms, on the stage. I’d never thought, when I had them, of becoming the ‘Big Boss.’ I carried a spear in a play with Jane Cowl. I just hoped that I’d carry that spear sufficiently well to be allowed to keep on carrying it. Ambition doesn’t rear its ugly head in my breast, I guess. I make very few demands in life, have very few wants. And so the movie work was just another job to me. I hoped I wouldn’t be fired. I dreamed of three squares a day and a decent place to sleep. I never got beyond it…”
“Me, too,” agreed Jean, “you see, I knew that Hell’s Angels was just one of those accidents—it was absolutely that, a fluke. It didn’t give me any reason to suppose that it would lead to anything important. I didn’t think I could act. I was so absorbed in having a job and in hoping for a follow-up that I didn’t have time to think where a follow-up might lead.”
And they both mean what they say. If they don’t they’ve been lying to me all these years. For I’ve talked with Clark and Jean frequently since the days when they were unknown beginners. And of all the stars I know they are the most genuinely, the most honestly, unaffected by success. They are the most honest and sincere, and humble in their own self-esteem.
Clark was glad he “had a job” when he played in The Secret Six. As a star of Wife vs. Secretary, he’s still glad he has a job.
Jean hoped, when she played in The Secret Six that one day she might be the actress she aspired to be. As a star of Wife vs. Secretary she still hopes that she will be the actress she aspires to be,
I honestly believe that of all of the top-notch stars in Hollywood today, these two have the largest and most loyal legions of personal friends. Neither has lost perspective, neither has lost the ability to remember the days of poverty and struggle. And to my own knowledge, those memories have made them keen to realize the problems of others. I could cite innumerable instances to show their willingness to help. But neither would appreciate the broadcasting of such good deeds. They are two stars who do not look down upon the good earth.