Humor is a Habit with Gable
By Harry Lang
Motion Picture magazine, August 1936
This story gives the reason for that “Clark Gable look”—and why you go for him in a great big way
I know a fellow in Hollywood who just razzes the stuffing out of Clark Gable. He knows Gable, too. It’s not a case of one of these jealous guys on the sidelines, taking offhanded cracks at a movie star. He knows him well—so well, in fact, that he can (and DOES!) tell the darnedest stories on Mr. Gable.
Every time Clark is inclined to feel a case of Hollywood swell-head-it is coming on him, this fellow punctures him. Gable’s fame, not even Gable’s hefty six-feet-plus of bone and muscle, awe this chap. To him, Gable’s just a big lunk from Ohio who’s had a lot of luck, and any time Gable feels differently about it, this chap tells him off—either to his face, or to someone else who can make Gable feel like two cents, if necessary. He told me, for instance, about what a Big Shot hunter Gable really isn’t…!
You’ve read all this ballyhoo, haven’t you, about Gable the Great Nimrod? How he goes here and there between pictures and, with his guns, knocks off cougars and bucks and, maybe, a few dozen lions an’ other awful things. Well listen here, then, to this silly story of Gable’s hunting trip into Arizona: the best place to begin is the little junction in the Kaibab forest preserve, where the hunters arrive. One day, there appeared before the astounded eyes of the natives, a strange apparition, indeed! It seems the boys were sittin’ around, six-shootin’ away at an old tin can a few hundred yards down the lower acre. They were spittin’ tobacco-juice here and there, and didn’t care much if the wind drove it right smack back onto their hover-hauls! They were that kind of men, there guides of the great outdoors.
So suddenly, there appears this glossified version of a what-is-it! He was just so durn good-lookin’ that it hurt. He had on highly polished English riding boots, and a pair of peg-top English riding breeches. Atop this was a white sweater with one of them there turtle-necks the Hollywood boys wear! He was the loveliest thing…! “Look,” grunted one of the guides, “what just flew in, fellers!” They stopped shooting at the tin can and looked. Then, with one accord, they burst out into a wild-western guffaw. After a long sizenin’ up, one of them said to the newcomer: “Well, sweetheart, what d’yer want here?”
“Wally Beery sent me,” it said. That started a brand new outburst of hoss-laughing. When it subsided, the newcomer went on. “My name is Clark Gable. I’m from Hollywood.”
“We’d a knowed it,” said a guide, so they all laughed some more.
“I want to go hunting,” said the newcomer, finally. They all laughed again naturally, but the fellow who said he was Gable (it really was Gable!) insisted. So they drew lots, and one of the guides took him out hunting next day. High on a mountain ledge, astride horses, they stopped. The guide spat a thin line of brown over the edge towards a stream, many feet below. “Thar’s y’r buck,” he said. Gable looked timidly down. He saw nothing except a stream, far, far below. He said so.
“Heck,” grunted the guide; “Thar’s two bucks down thar. Wait—I guess I’ll drop a slug betwixt ‘em and when they jump, you can see ‘em.” In his voice was vast disdain. He drew his gun, fired once. A bullet splashed, and two bucks, who’d blended like magic into the background, sprang. One vanished; the other headed up the opposite slope.
Gable had his rifle out. He sent a shot at the buck. Nothing happened. He sent another. The same nothing happened. He fired, in all, seventeen bullets after that buck! And still nothing happened. Finally Gable lost him. “He’s right over thar,” the guide grunted.
“Aw, hell!” the guide turned in his saddle and glared at the tenderfoot. “Look, son,” he said, “can you see that white tree-trunk over there, about 500 yards orf?”
“Well, y’r buck’s standin’ right behind it. Now listen, just draw your gun down on that tree, aim three inches to this side of it, and pull the trigger, and you’ll get y’r buck.”
Gable followed. His dude eyes saw no buck, so perfectly does nature color its beasts. But he shot alongside the tree. He IS a good shot. That’s why, when he pulled the trigger, there was one compulsive leap—and then Clark Gable’s first buck fell dead. And that’s the silly story of how Gable, The Great Hunter, Got His First Buck.
Know who told me that? Well, I’ll tell you the name of the guy who spends half his time kidding the self-importance out of Clark Gable. The name of the man who told me that story—and plenty others on Clark—was and is CLARK GABLE. And that, take it from me, is the one fundamental answer to the question: how does Clark Gable remain Hollywood’s most popular star? It’s because he won’t take himself seriously. I doubt if he can. Any time you can get Clark to taking about himself, you can depend on it that he’s kidding himself thoroughly, relentlessly, fiercely,
You know that typical Clark Gable expression that’s always on his face? A sort of grinning bewilderment? Mixed with a certain surprise and incredulity? Plus a dash of secret ridicule? Well, that “Clark Gable look” is perfectly indicative of what he thinks of himself. He’s constantly mystified at all the fame and good luck and popularity that stays with him, and he’s laughing at himself for it. He can’t take himself seriously.
He can’t ever forget the days he was so broke that he rode the brake-rods on freight cars, and starved. “I could have lost my sense of humor then,” he admits, “and I’d have stopped being Clark Gable and might have landed in the gutter or become a radical or something like that. But my sense of humor was all I had. And I clung to it desperately. I must have had some inward sense that once I lost it, I was done for. I didn’t lose it. And today, it’s a habit with me. I can’t look at me in a mirror, or consider Clark Gable, the star, without that sense of humor saving me from something that would have been worse—yeah, even worse than the gutter.”
I know certain stars in Hollywood who have their own pictures, portraits in oil or camera, hung in their homes and dressing-rooms. Gable’s dressing-room walls are lined with caricatures of himself—the most grotesque possible ones—the kind that show his ears, and his funny grin and accentuate the other points that make him anything, but handsome.
Of affectation, of poses, of snootiness, there’s no more in Clark Gable than there is in Li’l Orphan Annie. Even less. Whatever he does, it’s because he likes to do it. Whatever he doesn’t do, it’s because he doesn’t feel like it. Never does he do or NOT do something merely because “it’s the thing to do—or not do.”
Try to find unusual things to write about Gable, and a writer’s sunk. He’s so ordinary, so matter-of-fact, so regular, that there’s no “trick stuff” you can write about him. He’s just a sort of swell young fellow who lives in Hollywood and works in movies. And that’s the works. Somehow, naturally, you regard him as the personification of romance. You imagine, if you don’t know better, that his days and nights are just a 24-hour-round of “lady-killing.” You rather fancy he’s got luscious blondes, caloric redheads, smoldering brunettes heaped up in all manner of places. You’re surprised to find that he’s less involved with women than ninety-nine out of a hundred other stars—single or married! It’s so true that the studio, which really has to keep him billed up as America’s Great Lover, has to invent romancing for him, via the press agent routine.
Just now, they’re kind of pumping up the Carole Lombard angle for all they’re worth. Carole’s a swell gal, if ever there was one, so she goes for it. Clark helps out. And the publicity boys can write and whisper romantic rumors about Clark and Carole. And Clark and Carole grin and have fun—being friends. Their biggest help to the campaign was that trick auto Carole sent Clark, remember?
For $25 or so, she picked up an ancient Ford runabout on a second-hand lot one night, had two big hearts painted on it with hers and Clark’s initials, and sent it around to his hotel, Clark had an awful time, They threatened to throw either him or the car out unless he did something. He did. The aftermath came the other day, when I drove into the Ford agency in Hollywood where I have to pay every month or they’ll take my giloppy away. There, in the workroom, stood Gable. He was dressed from head to foot in white—white shoes, white flannel trousers, white sweater. But the pretty white was all be-greased and be-grimed. He was helping the Ford experts put the finishing touches on the car Carole had sent him. He’d spent hundreds of dollars on it—new motor, new works, brand new all-white paint job, lots of new fitments including even an electric fan on the steering wheel to cool him while driving, new tires and new top. Must have cost him double what a new one would have. But he had a perfect little car—and now he uses it for his hunting and location car. It runs like a 17-jewel watch. And is Carole laughing?
I grinned at him, that day in the Ford place. He grinned back. “Isn’t she a honey?” he asked, patting the car. I didn’t ask him whether he meant the rebuilt car—or Carole. As a matter of fact, a practical joke like that—one worked out with infinite effort and pain, is a delight to Clark. Jeannette MacDonald can tell you. It was while they were on location, making San Francisco. Jeanette planned a “rib” on Director Woody Van Dyke, co-star Clark Gable, and the company. The gag was this: Van Dyke called all ready. MacDonald didn’t appear. Finally a stooge told Van Dyke that she’d been taken suddenly ill and had to go home.
Woody tore his hair. Gable smelled a rat. He investigated. He discovered that Jeanette had hidden out in a little tent on the location lot. He came back and told Woody. Then Gable took a double-barreled shotgun they were using in the sequence, and Woody got a smoke-pot. He lit it and flung it into the hideout tent, and the same instant, Gable, in back of the tent, let go both barrels of the shotgun with a horrendous roar. Out the flap flew Jeanette, scared stiff. She was so scared that she was nearly sick enough to make the original gag come true. But Gable’s laugh cured her.
What eels I can tell you about the man?—well, there are a few things that may interest, or amuse, or astound you. He’s the personification of the modern man, yet he’s old-fashioned enough to shave with an old-fashioned straight razor! He writes left-handed, despite the fact that he does nothing else left-handed. His favorite sport is skeet-shooting, and he’s such a good shot that he’ll average 90 out of a hundred. He has to watch his diet carefully, or he’ll develop an equator. So his philosophy of housekeeping is that “the cook’s the most important factor in the ménage.”
He’s rather nuts about flying, but despite the fact that he can pilot a plane, he insists he’ll never buy one. “Why should I?—No small private job can ever compare in safety, comfort and dependability with the big commercial transports,” he says. He dislikes wing collars and the kind of parties where people sit around all night talking themselves to death yet never really saying anything. He holds there are only two kinds of people: “the kind who like me, and the kind who don’t.”
The smell of cooking tomatoes gives him acute nostalgia for the fields of Ohio, where he was born, He doesn’t remember his mother. She died when he was about seven months old, and there’s absolutely no mother-memory in him, which he regrets more than any other single factor in his life. His Dad is still alive and hearty. He’s an oil contractor in Ohio—William H. Gable. It was only a few days ago that Papa Gable for the first time beheld his son at work acting. He was visiting Clark out here in Hollywood, and Clark talked the old man into coming to the studio.
Gable Senior watched his son do some stuff for San Francisco. He watched a brick wall fall on and bury Clark, in the earthquake sequence. He saw Clark dug out, torn-clothed and grime-black. At that moment, someone asked Gable Senior, what he thought of his son being the great Clark Gable, movie hero. “Well,” said the old man, “I always did want him to be along with me in the oil business…but he wouldn’t hear of it—I guess he brought this on himself!”