Shearer and Gable Take a Dare!
By Lupton Wilkinson
Movie Mirror 3/1939
What's this! Clark a vaudeville hoofer? Norma a phony Russian countess? Can they do it? Read all about "Idiot's Delight," Hollywood's Boldest challenge
TRIPLE threat! When your favorite quarterback huddled his biggest game last fall, you heard that phrase.
Triple challenge! When the greatest team the screen has ever known tackles as tough a story as ever knit a producer's brow, challenge is the word.
Can Norma do it?
Can Clark do it?
Can Metro do it?
Built for laughs, played for laughs. "Idiot's Delight' nevertheless envelops like exploding dynamite two daring personalities, Norma Shearer and Clark Gable. Like the gentleman in Kipling's "If," they make one heap of all their winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch and toss.
When I say “dvnamite," hold your hat and heart. Under the laughs, under the wide-brimmed straw "cady' of Clark and Norma's glamorous blonde wig, behind the six cuties who pick up the grinning Clark in his ham-hoofer's suit and hot-foot around the set, carrying him-behind, under all this, etched with the irony of a great writer, burn the two most important questions in the world today:
'Must my sweetheart or son go to war?”
'How much should we arm him, in case he has to go?"
If you think those questions are not yours, go and see another picture. “Dawn Patrol"; watch, with a catch in your throat, the daily replacements of green young aviators, coming up singing; gallant kids going to sure death.
"Idiot's Delight" is a Pulitzer Prize play that stood Europe's dictators on their heads and roused cries at home of "Pacifist! Pacifist!”
M-G-M's problem was….
(Never mind Metro, for the moment. Let's talk about people.)
When President Roosevelt holds his annual Diplomats' Reception, the men walk in first, each with his gal behind him. Norma, First Lady of the Screen, can wait a couple minutes, now, for Clark.
Clark's largely responsible for the picture being made. He bit off this piece of destiny, this flop-or-he-a-great-actor part, all by his silly self.
In 1935 Clark and Clarence Brown, who begins directing where many directors leave off. flew to New York, just for the fun of it.
They decided to see Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt in 'Idiot's Delight." 'Meet me at the theater," said Brown.
Brown got there.
Traffic lights stopped Clark's taxi and fans (also just for the fun of it) turned the taxi on its side and yelled, “Autograph!”
It was an hour before Clark got away. ("Snob!" said a voice from the crowd. "He's getting high hat!")
Clark reached the theater-the first act was over-and hurried backstage to express compliments plus regrets to Lunt and Fontanne.
When people say Clark has personality, they're being conservative!
Alfred and Lynn whispered to the rest of the cast. Then they walked over and told Clark, who blushed, and Brown, who said, "Son-of-a-gun!" (Edited hr the Hays office.)
The curtain rang down, the theater lightened, darkened again.
Ghostly! A theater after the show. In the orchestra seats, now, sat only two, Gable and Clarence Brown, while the "Idiot's Delight" cast played the entire first act again, for Clark.
"That guy is a sort oil mug," whispered Clark to Brown. "I'm a sort of mug. I could play that."
"Stop mumbling!" said Brown.
Clark skipped the slight fact that the guy was a dancer . . . Mug!
You think it's ducky four the screen's virile he-man to play a fumbling ham-hoofer? Wearing scream-striped suits and a comedy straw hat and aping the Clumsy Jake all the way through?
I think Clark has been itching for a role like this. He's had to walk through a lot of parts. He knows his trade and can out-act a handful of the lad-de-da boys.
But he forgot the dancing!
They reminded him – gently. First, a little matter of six weeks' training, plus all the ribbing one actor ever endured. Nice (indeed!) to' be greeted on the set by gifts including size 11-C dancing dippers, a spangled ballet skirt with your initials on the apron-even a bunch of pansies!
Clark perspired, took the ribbing and the work.
"It's nothing new," he said,, stumbling. "When I was sixteen I was as tall as I am now but skinny as a rail. I had the biggest feet and hands of any youngster in Ohio. I could fall where others glided.”
"When I was a high school freshman I had my first date, and spilled ice-cream down the front of my girl's best dress at a strawberry festival.”
"So she wasn't my girl any more."
Clark's dance routine takes three minutes and fifty seconds on the screen, but it's the jig-time ghost of six terrible weeks.
Toward the end they slipped him the rest of the news. He was to sing while he danced!
Singing while you dance is about equal to the old one of patting your head and at the same time rubbing your tummy with a circular motion. Of course, Astaire does it (I mean the singing and dancing), but nobody accuses Clark of being Astaire.
To make it a little harder, Director Brown fitted him with a trick straw hat and gave him a cane to twirl.
Clark was rueful. "I told you I was a mug!"
Just as the picture itself fronts a serious story with laughs, the making of it was sprinkled with them - mostly at Le Gable's expense.
There was a dog named -Buster. He was supposed to bite Clark in the seat of the pants.
Buster didn't want to bite Clark. He liked him.
Finally the trainer made Buster understand he must do a Basil Rathbone, for the sake of Art.
"'We're ready," said the trainer.
Clark, with a pad in the seat of his breeches, started running across the set.
"Make it realistic !" shouted Brown.
Clark leaped in the air -a couple of times, the pad slipped - and Buster became an actor.
It sounds funny, but the bite was severe enough to require medical attention, and Clark couldn't sit down comfortably for a week.
There's lot more to the part of Harry (Personality) Van than merely hoofing a bit and getting bit (no pun intended) by a dog. The hero, if you can call him that, of "Idiot's Delight" requires definite, strong characterization. "Well." Clark says, "after a lot of years a fellow ought to know something about his trade, and be willing to tackle any job in reason."
This writer believes that Clark will win new respect as Harry Van: it'll do his reputation every bit (there's that word again) as much good as the mythical Rhett Butler.
The first scene shot in "Idiot's Delight" was Harry kissing four girls. The scene required four takes.
After those sixteen kisses Brown cracked, "That's the way all Gable pictures ought to start. Print it." Then he added, "All right, let's have one more take."
"What for?" demanded Clark.
"Oh," chirped Brown innocently, "this one's for the girls!"
There was no leisure time whatever in "Idiot's Delight" for Norma Shearer. To understand just what she has attempted, let's take a one-paragraph peek at the picture's story. A cheap hoofer and theatrical agent meet a cheap little vaudeville actress in Omaha. It's a casual affair. Years later these two meet (the gal is now a phony Russian countess) in an Alpine hotel. In the crash war-maddened world around them, they look into each other's eyes and find something fine-something of spirit under the tinsel.
There's also the story -of war it- self, but Clark and Norma carry the human part of it. They have to carry it against acting competition from an incredible supporting cast that includes Edward Arnold, Charles Coburn, Joseph Schildkraut, Pat Paterson (the exquisite and talented Mrs. Charles Boyer), Laura Hope Crews and Burgess Meredith.
For Norma it's a wrenching departure from a series of roles in which sincerity was the essence. From Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Shakespeare's naive Juliet and Marie Antoinette, it's a breath-taking leap to this completely new type of character who imagines herself "born to be a princess" and successfully apes nobility-until Harry catches up with her.
The bright boys in the M-G-M press department carol: 'This is the Norma Shearer of 'Riptide,' 'Strangers May Kiss' and 'Private Lives’.” Don't believe it for a minute! When Norma greets your eyes in a glamorous blonde wig and bangles de luxe, and assaults your ears with a carefully acquired phony Russian accent, it'll be a brand new characterization. Broader in scope than any other part she has played, it took courage four her to make the plunge.
"I've always tried to put over the sincere parts," she says, "by simplicity. The part of Irene doesn't admit of so un-complex a solution. Clark - and I, who were so serious in - 'A Free Soul' and Strange Interlude,' have to do everything but stand on our heads in 'Idiot's Delight.' We play the piano; we sing; we do a mind-reading act. And every step of the way I have to characterize a flimsy little pretender who acts even to herself.
"You've heard of plays within a play. Irene is a role within a role."
Norma was impressed but not over-awed at the thought of following so distinguished a stage actress as Lynn Fontanne in the role of Irene. "You'll recall," 'she suggested, "that I had the task of following Ina Claire in -'The Last of Mrs. Cheyney,' Jane Cowl in 'Smiling Through' and Katharine Cornell in 'The Barretts of Wimpole Street' and 'Romeo 'and Juliet.' I think an actress should both learn from others who play the same roles, and contribute something of her own.”
There's a little story about that - Russian accent. Some people (not -Norma) whispered that Miss Fontanne's- interpretation of Irene could be regarded as a take-off on Greta Garbo! That's as may be. But- Norma's characterization will not be a take-off - on anybody. She studied for weeks under the direction of a Russian teacher. Irene will caricature only herself! There's been a good deal of chit-chat back and forth as to whether Norma really swung by her teeth in the scene that shows her that way-or whether it was done by doubles or movie mirrors. She did swing, but not for long and not as high as the camera angle makes it look. Everybody had the jitters except Norma, who enjoyed, as any actress does, the chance to prove herself a trouper.
She has set those fine white teeth into the most demanding part of her career and I for one am ready to stand up and cheer.
So many people said that "Idiot's Delight" couldn't be done on the screen that M-G-M's officials must have determined to do it out of plain stubbornness.
To begin with, in its denunciation of egotists who drive or ballyhoo their nations into war, the stage play cussed nations (and leaders, by implication) by name, right out in public. There was nothing anonymous about it.
You read a great deal about Hollywood revising stories "to keep them from being barred from the foreign market." That's only a half-truth. There's something else at stake, too. The motion picture is designed to be an agent of good will-of understanding. What purpose can be served by denouncing whole peoples on the screen? It's part of the Production Code of the motion picture industry that offense shall not be given to nationals of other countries, nor to their traditions or leaders. That's a sound policy. Any small boy can tell you that if you call someone names long enough, you may have to put up your dukes and fight. Much as Americans deplore many things in the world today, we want to keep friendly with every nation-and build ourselves no wars whatever.
With all that in mind, Metro was nevertheless determined not to weaken by a single particle the play's powerful indictment of war in general.
Allied to that "policy" problem was another that occurs in making screen versions of many plays. This time it was especially acute. On the stage, "Idiot's Delight" unfolded on just one set-three acts of it-a hotel lobby in the Alps.
One thing was obvious: much that was only told about on the stage could be, must be, shown to make a good movie.
All the story problems at once were solved by a rash of real executive brains. Instead of a flock of assorted writers, M-G-M brought out Robert Sherwood, author of the play and a great craftsman. His work includes "Reunion in Vienna," "The Road to Rome" and "The Petrified Forest."
Sherwood did all the re-writing, in close conference with Producer Hunt Stromberg and Director Brown. Result: the play is not weakened (many think it's stronger) instead of one set for three acts, there are now 167 scenes using 42 sets; more love and more laughs are covered by the camera's travels (and Clark dances more than Lunt did) ; though the big, final scene builds in the Alpine hotel, even there the action doesn't "sit down." Photographer Bill Daniels estimates that on that one set his camera traveled twenty-six miles. Incidentally that set was built for drama, not for realism, and is a director's dream.
There remained the major problem of how to damn war without damning nations. The Stromberg – Brown - Sherwood brains figured this one out in a way to make an old farmer say, "Well, - I'll be swan." Wherever a character might otherwise be pinned on some specific country, he speaks Esperanto! Get it? I didn't at first. If the man speaks English with an accent, it only makes his probable nationality more apparent. But when he speaks Esperanto, the curse is off. He's Mr. Universal.
The 4,000,000 Esperanto enthusiasts throughout the world are in a dither about the screen's official recognition of their universal language. Joseph R. Scherer, president of the Esperanto Association of North America and technical adviser on "Idiot's Delight," tells me there are 300,000 regular Esperanto-users in the United States.
In case your next sweetie turns out to be one, here are some simple phrases to start you off:
I love you. ~ Mi amas vin.
Hello ~ Inferno (Oh! Oh! Sounds like a pun.)
Nice weather we're having. ~ Bela vetero.
Goodbye. ~ Gis revido.
If things don't go well and you want to say, "Go jump in the lake!" here it is: "Foriru vi granda stultulo!"
With their story problem solved, Stromberg and Brown threw in every sort of production value from dolls to dynamite. The dolls you will hear more about.
Those bright boys at Metro nicknamed them "Gable's Glamour Girls," and they are the ones who carry Gable off stage. "We'll take that 'scene last," Brown ruled. "Then, if they drop Gable, at least the picture will be finished."
The girls are Virginia Grey (born in Hollywood!); Lorraine Krueger, who
was on the stage in her native St. Louis at the age of three, in a song-and-dance act, and. cracked Broadway at ten; Paula Stone, daughter of the beloved Fred Stone; Virginia Dale, of Charlotte, North Carolina; Joan Marsh (the only small-town girl in the lot, from Porterville Calif.) and Bernadene Hayes another. St. Louis girl who graced "Ten Nights in a Bar-room" when she was "going on eleven."
These six girls were picked from more than 200 applicants. M-G-M believes every one of them has leading-lady possibilities. Good luck!
"Idiot's Delight" boasts a monster bombing scene, it's not there for spectacle, but vitally belongs in the story. Brown had some trouble with it, though. Hollywood's two favorite forms of snow, cornflakes and gypsum, just wouldn't act right under thousands of pounds of dynamite. The cornflakes would toast and the gypsum hung in the air, after the explosion, like a fog. So-a trip to the high Sierras!
The director's training as an engineer at the University of Tennessee came in handy when he had to rig forty tons of debris to fall art and around his principals. Forty-eight hours to rig it up and-Boom! -it was down.
Dolls and dynamite, acrobats and hoofers, tawdry love and great stirring of spirit- everything has gone into "Idiot's Delight" to make it super-entertainment.
But while we doff our hats to Metro for the story and directorial skill, many of us will cross our fingers with a private prayer: Can Norma and Clark lick these novel and difficult parts and put a crown of versatility on their great acting record?