Clark Gable — Gable of the Seven Faces (1932) 🇺🇸
Hollywood has a new idol. So America has a new ideal. Or should we say that America has a new ideal, so Hollywood has a new idol? Who knows? Anyhow, Clark Gable is it.
He is packing them in. The girl friend insists on going to see him. The boy friend insists on taking her. And that, my comrades of the back row, is the box-office idea of heaven.
Heaven hasn’t come to Hollywood for a long time — not since Douglas Fairbanks was a boy and Wally Reid was in his prime. Their successors have seldom been bi-sexual in their appeal. Take Valentino. The girls signed for him; but the boys shied from him. They might even have shied at him if they had a chance!
Of course, it wasn’t altogether Rudy’s fault. He did wear a slave bracelet, but he really didn’t wear a corset or wield a powder puff. However, we won’t go into that. The fact is that masculine America would not stand for him, or for his brothers of the slick-backed locks, the hour-glass waistlines and the lambent eyes.
This same masculine America is crazy about Clark Gable.
Why? Well, I’ll tell you. He is one of us. He was born, as all Presidents of the United States and other candidates for popular approval should be, in the All-America state of Ohio. In Cadiz, Ohio. That’s a good start for any American boy. And Gable lives up to it. He is friendly. He is folksey.
“I never think of those early days,” he said to me the last time I saw him, “without smelling tomatoes — or perhaps I should say I never smell tomatoes without thinking of those days. For a long time I couldn’t understand it. Then I remembered that my grandmother was a great hand at making tomato ketchup, and that she was always stirring it in a great black pot.”
He would remember something homey like ketchup. That’s the kind of a boy he is. He belongs. That is the first and greatest reason why men like him.
Another thing in his favor is that he has a funny face. There isn’t a man sitting out there in the dark, squinting at Clark Gable, who doesn’t think that he is a “better looking man than that guy.” And maybe he is. His face may be wider at the temples and thinner at the chin. His ears may be more closely associated with his head. His forehead may not have a dent in it. In short, he may be a darned sight more like the collar advertisements he has accepted as his ideal. And he likes that.
He also likes the fact — anyone who looks at Gable knows it is a fact — that he wouldn’t be a lady-killer in the Valentino sense, even if he had the face to make him so. There is something smoky and clubby and manny about this fellow. There always was. I asked him once, during the brief period when he was playing leads on Broadway, why he always went around with older people, especially older women.
“Do I?” he asked. “I must have gotten that way when I was a kid. My mother died when I was only seven months old, but I spent most of my early life where there weren’t any girls except my grandmother and my stepmother. I learned about women from them.”
“But later?” I ventured.
“Well,” he smiled, “I never did shine very brightly as a social light. I liked girls, but I was afraid of them. Whenever I was with them, I was never quite sure what to do with my feet. I’m not always sure, even now.”
Men sense that about Clark Gable. They like other men who don’t know what to do with their feet! That is another reason why the average man likes this new hero of the screen.
Also, although he doesn’t admit it to himself, he may like him because he knows that if he didn’t, Gable might “knock his block off!”
Which brings us, naturally as it were, to why women like him. I don’t mean that they think he is going to knock their beautiful blocks off. But it is an intriguing thought. I was standing, six back, among the standees at a recent matinee of Possessed, when Gable up and slapped Joan Crawford in the face.
“He’s always slapping his women,” said a sour-faced woman beside me. “I’d be crazy if he did that to me.”
The ribald youth on my other side nudged me.
“Oh, yeah,” he whispered, “she’d be ‘crazy’ all right, if she could get him to do it!”
Whereupon a starry-eyed girl-child, of perhaps eighteen, chimed in demurely :
“I wouldn’t mind.”
That’s it; the girls don’t “mind” Clark Gable. He might slap them ; but there is something in his smile — not exactly gentleness, but something that bats for gentleness — which might protect them from such a fate. You notice I say “might.” In that word, in the annoying, alluring, menacing, challenging doubt that this man raises in the feminine heart, lies the secret of his popularity.
There is a mystery about the man that defies detection, not the mystery of dreamy eyes, of bizarre head-dresses, of shining armors, of flowing robes, but that eternal mystery which ever haunts and troubles and eludes the feminine mind and heart — the mystery of a man.
What Clark is superficially is obvious. And it is not without appeal. Two hundred pound of lumberjack muscle, six feet and an extra inch or two of hard, well-knit youthfulness, profile that has everything that Barrymore has not, shoulders and eyebrows like Jack Dempsey’s — this is the Clark Gable that meets the physical eye. But such a man might be a Charles Bickford or a Victor McLaglen or a Bill Boyd. Gable Isn’t. There is a sweetness about him that makes you doubt his roughness, a softness that makes you doubt his hardness, a sympathy that makes you doubt his cruelty. There is. in short, doubt. The man isn’t handsome. His ears stick out and his cowlick sticks up. He has to be photographed three-quarters or profile to give the illusion of beauty. His gray eyes are set far back under shaggy eyebrows. His mouth is far too big; but when little sunrise rays begin to form around those deep-set eyes, the Gable audience begins to wonder whether the result is to be a smile or a sneer. When that big expressive mouth begins to move, the Gable audience wonders whether it is to be a caress or a curse. And that, as any woman will tell you. is exciting. It is the excitement of doubt.
But complaints or no complaints, the girls love him. They know he is rough; they think he may be bad; they suspect he doesn’t give a darn whether they like him or not. But, in the words of the immortal Eva Tanguay, they “don’t care.” They keep right on singing:
You can throw rocks at my window,
You can put tacks in my shoes;
You can put ground glass in my apple sauce,
But you can’t stop me from loving you.”
It is extraordinary that we do not know more about the man who has aroused all this feminine furore. No actor who has achieved anything like Clark Gable’s prominence has played so many roles in so short a time — twelve, I believe, in twelve months — at least seven of them notably distinct creations. It would seem that he must surely have given himself away in at least one of these vivid characterizations which have milestoned his rapid mad to fame.
Well, perhaps he has. Let’s look at them.
First, there was that matter of the laundryman. You may remember “The Easiest Way” as Frances Starr did it at the old Belasco. It was considered hot in those days, but not so tepid now. Nevertheless, there are some big scenes in it. Some big parts, too — but Gable’s was not one of them.
In the screen version, Constance Bennett had the principal role of Laura Murdock — and how good she was in it!
It was her picture — especially when she donned those cloth-of-gold pajamas! Then there were two featured parts for men. Adolphe Menjou’s as the elderly daddy and Robert Montgomery’s as the heroic young gentleman of the press.
Not much of a chance for a laundry-man in that milieu! And the scenarist didn’t do much to help him out.
Clark’s part was so small he didn’t even get into the printed cast. All he had to do was to deliver “undies” to the golden Connie and get himself married to Anita Page. Neither job, if you ask me, could be called arduous; and for a trained actor like Gable, they constituted a Hollywood holiday. He simply pulled on his overalls, and took them in his stride.
That was the trouble. That is always the trouble with these Clark Cable characterizations. He never seems to be trying. He never seems to be anything or anybody but himself. But he is different every time. So where are you?
But to get hack to “The Easiest Way.” The picture had scarcely passed the preview stage when the mail began to roll in. First an incoming tide of fan-made question marks: “Who is the laundryman?”
To the studio wise-boys, up to now, this Gable had been just a — well, shall we say? — laundryman. But suddenly, after the manner of Hollywood, he had become a personality for whose “discovery” everybody wished to take credit. But Gable didn’t care. While the flock of yes-men on the lot were still telling each other how they had always known that that boy Gable would make good — although most of them had never heard of him before, and those who had were on record as believing that his screen tests were “lousy” — he did make good with the well-known and justly famous vengeance.
Also, with Joan Crawford; with whom, if you ask me, he makes about as good as he is ever likely to make with anybody.
The picture was “Dance, Fools, Dance.” Clark was one of the gangsters, an unsympathetic role if ever there was one, especially as it was part of his job to contemplate taking the beautiful heroine for a “ride.” It gave him a chance, however, to exercise that menacing charm of his, usually with a touch of paprika in it, which had found small chance for expression in the honest laundryman.
Then followed in rapid succession the seven pictures which made his fame. The first was a platinum adventure in which he appeared as a wise-guy reporter with Jean Harlow in “The Secret Six.” This was another gang picture, and a good one, too. But it was no picnic for an aspiring young man in a minor part. No production is a picnic that has in it the two “picture thieves,” Wallace Beery and Lewis Stone.
But Gable wasn’t impressed. He didn’t seem to realize his danger. He gave the old gray fedora another jerk, parked the sinister sneer, pulled the boyish smile, and became straightway quite a different Gable from anything we had seen before; and, incidentally, quite the outstanding figure in every scene in which he appeared.
“The Secret Six” was also useful in demonstrating still further this young man’s unexpected versatility. But in that respect it was merely a preliminary heat, run in the way of training for the greatest Grand Prix in the long history of screen competition: Clark Gables driving finish with Norma Shearer and Lionel Barrymore and Leslie Howard in A Free Soul.
Surely you remember A Free Soul, and what a splendid thing Norma Shearer made of the motherless Jan Ashe, who tried to break life and was nearly broken by it. You remember Lionel Barrymore, Jan’s hard-drinking father, doing the best work of his long career as the lawyer who would protect gamblers but would not have one in his own family. You remember Leslie Howard, that good actor, who made the impeccable lover so very warm and human. You remember how fine they were, all of these splendid artists. And yet, as in the other pictures we have been discussing, you remember most of all the young man who had the unsympathetic part of the gambler, but created something akin to sympathy in even the most virtuous breast.
That amazing ability to make an unsympathetic part stand out, to make it downright likable, in the face of the stiffest acting competition Hollywood or Broadway could offer — that was the quality about our hero which “A Free Soul” emphasized. I don’t say that Clark’s performance was any better than Lionel’s or Leslie’s. The picture was Barrymore’s, anyway you looked at it, and justly so; and the girl was deservedly Howard’s. But the race this broad-shouldered young man put up against these two superlative actors, and in a losing part, undoubtedly did more than any other one thing in his brief picture career to win him the respect and affection of the huge public he now enjoys.
Before we had recovered from the shock of his “Ace” Wilfong, Gable was back as Carl, the Salvation Army lad, with Joan Crawford in “Laughing Sinners.” I almost refused to go to see this picture. But of course I weakened.
As a picture, “Laughing Sinners” was not to be compared with A Free Soul, but it was different; and so far as Clark Gable was concerned, additionally convincing. He had already proved that he could take an incorrigible sinner like “Ace” Wilfong, and save him. Now he proved that he could take a pious youth like Carl, and save him, too. He was, in short, becoming one of our best known and dependable life-savers. It was time that he was rewarded with a really sympathetic part,
But he was not to get it right away. This time, it was a race-track tout named Rid Riddell in a hot stuff Drury Laner called “Sporting Blood.”
However — there’s always a “however about this fellow Gable! — the you race-track tout was so different from the other gangsters in the picture, from the other gangsters in all the other gang pictures, amd especially from the other gangsters that Clark himself had played, that he simply turned Madge Evans’ come-back picture into a come-along picture for himself.
This venture brought into the full glare of the Kleigs another of Gable’s sources of power. I have never seen him play a hero’s part that did not have in it a bit of the sinister, a suggestion of a threat; I have never seen him play a villain that did not grip me either by the heartstrings or by the risibilities. Whatever he is, he is “A good egg.”
After “Sporting Blood” came Garbo’s Susan Lenox. At least, it was supposed to be Garbo’s Susan Lenox; but I saw it three times, and Garbo-mad though I am, the impression that remains with me is that of an unshaven, tousle-locked, terribly intoxicated, but arresting, initiating, challenging — and oh, so youthful! — primitive male.
It took David Graham Phillips two volumes to tell the story of Susan Lenox. It took Garbo and Gable only a couple of looks. It is the old yarn of the little girl who went wrong with the wrong man, or men; too wrong and too many, at least, for her fastidious lover.
It was inevitable, after Susan Lenox, that Clark Gable should be immediately co-starred. And he was, twice: once with Wallace Beery and once with Joan Crawford.
The Beery effort was that badly named picture, Hell Divers, in which our hero played Steve, the younger of two adventure-seeking naval officers.
It was a typical Wallace Beery picture, conceived long before there was any thought of co-starring Cable in the second part. But Clark succeeded in stuffing a definitely live human being into his officer’s uniform. And he photographed prodigiously.
Hell Divers was well enough in its way; but everybody was really waiting for “Possessed.” And everybody wasn’t disappointed. In the first place, Joan was back in her right hair. And in the second place — perhaps, it should have been the first — Clark had a role of really star magnitude. “Possessed” was distinctly a dress-suit picture. So Clark Gable promptly went dress-suit.
It was amazing how much to the manner he seemed born, this farmer’s boy from old Cadiz, who had tramped and trouped and well-nigh starved his way to the Hollywood heights. He was in a velvet atmosphere, so he was all velvet, too. But he lost nothing in the process. He didn’t have to be labeled a gangster to make you realize that there was still plenty of chest expansion under the stiff bosom of his dress shirt!
This Clark Gable of “Possessed” was a blending, a development, perhaps a fulfilment of the other six Clark Gables who had gone before. And yet, he was different from all the others.
Those seven distinct characterizations constitute Clark’s real claim to fame. They constitute also the foundation on which he has built the whole structure of his present success. That it is such a solid structure, that it has been built on achievement rather than eccentricity or pulchritude, suggests that Hollywood has uncovered not just one more popular idol, but that rarer thing, a popular actor who can act.
His history bears out that suggestion. We know that he gave up a twelve-dollar-a day job in his father’s business for a ten-dollar-a-week part in a tank-town theatrical troupe, which went “bust”; that he stranded in Montana and freight-trained to Oregon; that he served his time as a surveyor’s rodman and a practising lumberjack; that he strung telephone wires by day and acted minor parts in the local Little Theatre movement by night; that, he saved his telephone money until he had enough to get him to Los Angeles; that he tired of wearing helmets and shaking sabres in Hollywood mob-scenes; that he stock-companied for a season in Texas; and that he got a job from Arthur Hopkins to play Machinal in New York.
Of course, anyone who knows Clark Gable well, knows a good many more intimate things about him: for example, that he likes his steaks rare, his cigarettes brown, his shoes black, his words short, his smiles wide, his coats double-breasted; that he smokes a pipe, drives a flivver, swims, golfs and sometimes blushes; that he fears neither God nor Garbo. But none of these intriguing facts, though doubtless dear to millions of his admirers, do so much to illumine the reason for his extraordinary success as does the fact that he has crowded into ten or more years of ceaseless trouping and stock-company playing more actual histrionic experience than has been the lot of any other man of his age in the motion-picture colony. In short, it comes back, as it always does with Gable, to performance.
So I say, more power to you, young man from Cadiz, more power — although, as every woman who has ever seen you will testify, you don’t need it!
In “The Easiest Way”, a Connie Bennett picture, Clark was only a laundryman. But what a hit his small part model
Then there was “Laughing Sinners”, in which Clark portrayed the Salvation Army worker and almost stole the picture.
In A Free Soul with Norma Shearer, he made his part as the gambler one of the outstanding bits of the show.
“The Secret Six” demonstrated this young man’s versatility. Then, he was menaced by Jean Harlow’s personality.
Almost any young man would be worried about appearing with Garbo. But not Gable. He just smiled and sailed in.
Then there was that picture, “Sporting Blood.” Clark turned his part as the young racetrack tout into a glorified venture.
In Hell Divers Clark was up against that consistent stealer of pictures, Wally Beery. But Gable gave him a swell race.
Collection: The New Movie Magazine, July 1932