Just Call Him King
By Loretta Young
Screenland magazine, February 1950
“The years have brought changes within Clark Gable. He’s a better actor now than ever, a wiser human being.”
I first met Clark Gable about twelve years ago when we co-starred in a woodsy drama entitled “The Call of the Wild.” Although we were given top billing, the real star of the picture was a massive dog named Buck. The rest of us, compared to the instant attention Buck’s slightest bark commanded, were no more impressive than a chorus of gnats.
Buck lived in a steam-heated trailer; the rest of us shivered in the Summer quarters of a rustic hotel whose Winter quarters had burned the previous year.
When our picture company was marooned for nine days by twenty-one feet of snow, Buck was accorded the steaks our larder afforded whereas the rest of us were reduced to crackers, scrambled eggs and breakfast cereal.
After the storm had abated, we went to work in temperatures which ranged from ten to thirty degrees below zero. This is the way the scenes were worked out: the human members of the company were sent for, rehearsed, and stationed in their places. THEN the word would be sent out for Buck to be rushed from his cosy quarters into camera range. He would do his bit. The instant the camera stopped turning, Buck would be hurried back to his plush apartment while we chilblained actors flailed ourselves with our arms to keep from congealing. We also smiled wanly in Buck’s direction just to keep our facial muscles from freezing.
Throughout this murderous situation, the only person who never lost his temper, and who never looked at Buck and wondered how Huskie steaks would taste, was Clark Gable. No matter how trying the working and living conditions became, he was always the affable gentleman, who made no demands upon his fellow workers. He expected no favors—although he was a big star even then—and when tempers flared he would say peaceably, “We won’t remember what this was all about in a hundred years. Let’s get going and get this thing finished.”
I remember that he had brought along a supply of books and magazines, adventure stories, sports stories, westerns and the like, and that he served as a one-man library. At the end of nine days of enforced inactivity and imprisonment we would all have had what is known as “Cabin Fever” (the urge to kill) if it hasn’t been for that reading matter.
He could also be depended upon to start a card game when people became short-tempered and restless. He would play anything, could win when he wanted to, could lose when it seemed diplomatic.
Although I was only a careless youngster at the time—spending most of the time at the window waiting for the messenger boy, on snowshoes, to bring the mail in which I thought there might be a letter from a lad in Los Angeles in whom I was deeply interested—I was aware of the great diplomatic ability and keen sportsmanship of Clark Gable.
During the intervening years between the making of “The Call of the Wild” and the rolling of cameras for “Key to the City,” the comedy which Clark and I have just completed for MGM, I saw very little of him. I know this will seem odd to people in other parts of the country, but the fact is that distances in Southern California are great, and one’s most-frequently-seen friends are likely to be those living in the same vicinity. For many years, Clark has lived on a ranch in Encino (in the San Fernando Valley), whereas Tom and I have always lived in Beverly Hills. Also, we have worked at different studios. The result has been that our only exchange through the years has been a mutually-tossed greeting across a crowded room at a big party.
Of course I had seen most of the Gable pictures in the meanwhile, so I knew that he had gained steadily in stature as an actor. Rumor told me that he had increased in wisdom and worth as a human being.
Even so, when I went to MGM and—during the first day of shooting “Key to the City”—I heard someone call him “King,” I thought at first it was a type of kidding. I smiled and looked at Clark, waiting for him to react. He grinned back at me and shrugged slightly in a gesture which said, “Look, Loretta, people are wonderful to me around here. I’m grateful for it, even though it is sometimes embarrassing.”
As the weeks went by, Tom and I had Clark as a guest in our home several times. We discovered what everyone who knows Clark well has known for years: the man now called “King” at one of the most powerful studios in town, is still the easy-going, unpretentious, sports-minded, real human being who—twelve years ago—found it funny instead of infuriating to be playing second lead to a Huskie dog.
Another thing I discovered about Clark is that he is a man of tradition. On the first day of the picture, he sent me, as he sends each of his co-stars, a magnificent arrangement of red roses. He enclosed a card on which he had written, “Good Luck to My Leading Lady.” This line derives from Clark’s stage training. In a theatrical company, the leading lady is always the person of first importance. Clark has made it a habit for several years, since he became supreme on his own lot, to send this card with roses to those actresses who have been cast opposite him. It is his way of paying a high compliment; his way of tactily describing himself as a supporting player! Such humorous humility is a rare thing in any profession, but it is particularly rare among theatrical folk who usually must fight for every possible professional advancement.
When I was in the hospital (in the midst of the picture schedule) Clark sent another arrangement of red roses; when I returned to the studio I received red roses, and whenever Clark has been a guest I our home he has sent red roses the following day as a thank-you note. It goes without saying, of course, that Clark has always been tremendously popular with women (both those in audiences and those he meets in private life), but he is also that rare creature, a “matinee idol” who is a favorite with men. It is easy to understand why.
Another ingratiating Gable quality is that he is always willing to do what a friend, or a crowd, wants to do. He is supremely the good scout. At our house one evening, a group of guests were gathered around the pool enjoying a cocktail before dinner. One of the men who had just arrived from a blistering day on location, suggested that everyone pop into bathing suits and have a quick dip in the pool before the buffet table was ready.
This ambitious swimmer was laughingly refused by all the other guests until he turned to Clark. “Sure I’ll go in with you if it’s company you want,” said that amiable gentleman.
Although I have read occasionally about the charities of other actors, I don’t believe I have ever read more than a brief paragraph or two about Clark’s kindnesses. He always does a friend a favor as if it were disgraceful. During the making of our picture, I learned in a round-about way that one of the technicians had suffered two tragedies in succession. We were planning to do something helpful when we were told that need for aid no longer existed. “It’s already been taken care of,” we were told. No names were given.
Being the curious type (my sex gives me the right) I inquired among those who seemed to know what had been going on. Eventually I learned that Clark had passed the man on the set and had slipped a generous sum of money into the man’s shirt pocket, then had rushed away as if he, Clark, had committed a crime.
This past year has been, in many ways, a sad one for Clark. Although he is always in perfect control of himself, he has suffered some serious losses. In January, Victor Fleming passes away. Mr. Fleming was the director who guided Clark through “Gone with the Wind” and many other outstanding successes. He and Clark were not only comfortable co-workers, but understanding friends.
The loss of Frank Morgan was another severe blow. I remember that I came home from a radio broadcast, bubbling about some of the minor miscues that sometimes occur over the air. Clark and several others were to be our dinner guests that night, so Clark was sitting on the terrace with Tom (my husband) and one or two others.
At first I was so busy telling the story of my day that I didn’t notice their air of restrained dejection. They tried to enter into the spirit of my recital.
Finally, when I had dropped into a chair with a long sigh, Tom said, “Clark has something to tell you, dear.”
Clark said, “I’m afraid this is going to be a terrible shock. Do you feel all right?”
Even at that moment, when he was torn up inside, he had the natural chivalry to be thoughtful of me.
“Tell me,” I insisted. “I’d rather know quickly.”
“Frank died this afternoon,” he said quietly.
I simply stared at him. “Frank who?” I asked. Not for an instant did it occur to me that it was Frank Morgan. I had talked to him the previous day, and he had been full of plans for the future. Having finished the picture with us, he was discussing a new script, making plans for another boat trip, keeping himself happy and busy—two of his chief characteristics.
“One more,” Clark said heavily. “One more gone.”
He served as one of the pallbearers. Three days later he served as a pallbearer for another old and beloved friend, Sam Wood.
According to a friend who knows Clark well, he still carries a locket in which there is a soft, blonde curl—Carole Lombard’s.
The years have brought changes around Clark Gable, and they have brought changes within him. He is a better actor now than ever, and a wiser human being.
Before we started the picture, I had a print of that wonderful old picture, “It Happened One Night,” run for me so that I could study Clark’s comedy technique. He was impressive. However, when I saw the rushes of “Key to the City” I realized that he was even better than ever in the first comedy role he has assayed since “It Happened One Night.”
In closing, I would like to say that the Clark Gable who is called “King” in his studio is something far more important than a king to his fellow Americans: he is a real man.