CLARK GABLE'S SECRET WISH
By John Erskine
When I went to see Clark Gable this autumn he was working on his new film, Strange Cargo, and we talked between the shots. The scene at the moment showed a score of men in the sort of barracks you might expect on Devil's Island, and the men stretched on their cots idly talking were the characters you'd look for in such a place. Clark Gable would answer the camera call, step into the light, portray for a few seconds the tough character he was impersonating, then return to where I waited, resuming at once the alert and charming personality which is his own. It was a range of versatility which hitherto he has not exhibited on the screen.
I wanted to ask him some questions about a tendency of Hollywood which seems worth watching: the tendency to confine the stars to a narrower and narrower type of acting, not only to make them stand for a type but to narrow that type. The causes of that tendency lie, I think, much deeper than critics of Hollywood realize. The principal cause is probably the present taste of the people who support the films. They wish their favorites to remain the same in picture after picture, and the pressure is upon the stars to concentrate on whatever core of their personality all varieties of taste agree in admiring.
The same is true of actors in radio serials. The audience, depending exclusively on the ear, connect the quality of the voices with the characters in the first serial, and thereafter are disconcerted when they hear those voices impersonating a different kind of character.
Perhaps there is a parallel, not as yet sufficiently recognized, between the concentration of attention on sound which in the end limits the portrayal of character on the air, and the concentration of attention brought about by light on the screen. The American fashion in screen photography, as contrasted, let us say, with the French, is to light all the faces all the time. Between shots our cameramen, by a most competent technique, arrange the lighting so as to kill a double chin in the heroine, or a long nose in the hero. In this correction of features, shadows and lines are done away with, and in the close-up the focus is so terrific that you can almost see the pores of the skin. What you can no longer see are the ordinary indications of human character.
Shadows and lines, even double chins, are more valuable for the indication of personality than Hollywood and its audience perhaps realize. The good actors-and most of our stars are potentially good actors-by this excessive illumination are balked in their art. The capacity for facial expression is taken away from them. Against their will, we may suspect, they are made to give us a dead-pan performance.
This result, unfortunate in itself, reacts in a general condemnation of all facial expression. V/hen an actor on the stage exaggerates his grimaces, the profession says he is mugging. On the screen mugging is the name now given to any expression at all.
I thought of this tendency every time Clark Gable dropped the dead pan he was wearing before the camera and resumed his natural and eloquent flexibility. In conversation he has one of the most revealing faces I have ever seen, and its frankness and range of meaning is perhaps the chief cause of his remarkable charm. Since the general public feels this charm, his screen performances must be more expressive than I have implied, yet those who know him in life or have seen him on the stage probably agree with me that in pictures his facial vocabulary seldom goes beyond a wrinkling of the brows and a smile. The smile is very winning. The wrinkled forehead I shall always interpret as a Hollywood achievement.
About this visual aspect of his art, however, I didn't question him, since it is common nowadays to most stars, and will be still more common unless the fashion changes. The American formula in pictures seems to be a star with a fixed - very fixed – personality surrounded by actors who really carry the story. In Hollywood all actors except the star are now called character actors. A character actor is one who impersonates a character not his own; but the stars, unfortunately, are not permitted to impersonate completely even themselves. If personality is what the films desire, the real Clark Gable, human, intelligent, and complex, has not yet been projected on the screen.
Inevitably, I think, the dead-pan ideal of stardom is related, either as cause or as effect, to the substance of film plays, to their total dramatic content, and it was about this deeper subject that I wished to question Clark Gable. Because our time was limited I went directly to the gist of my errand.
I'd like to know," I said, " in the first place, what you think your audiences expect from you, and, if you care to make the distinction, what they get."
He didn't mind the slight gibe. For a moment I saw that amazing smile. "That's a hard question-both parts of it."
He thought for a moment, then ~vent on: "It isn't flattering nowadays to say that any art is an escape, but I believe that's the right description of pictures. A picture story for the audience is frankly an escape, even if they kid it a bit afterward. Maybe there's no fair criticism of an American picture unless you're willing to grant the fact that it supplements American life. If you complain that it isn't a true picture nor a complete one, you're right to a degree, but perhaps the complaint isn't just. Perhaps the picture isn't intended to be altogether true or complete. The lives of most people aren't complete, either. Perhaps they go to pictures for what life in their case has left out."
We were interrupted by a call from the director, and while Clark Gable went through the brief shot, I was thinking how well he illustrated the contrast between that American life which invented and supports the movies, and the strange region of escape which American pictures provide. The story he was working on at the moment dealt apparently with unhappy characters, derelicts, down-and-enters, yet their wretchedness was romanticized by distance and hr transposition into a world which to most of us would be quite alien.
As I watched the star at work I thought of his progress toward success, through layers of experience more typical and far more realistic than those the picture asked him to portray. In his successful wrestling with life he resembles many another boy in this country, of the stout-hearted type which a film story would probably sentimentalize, if indeed the films would make use of it at all.
Born in Ohio, he worked his way up through farming, hop picking, and lumbering, trained himself as an actor sufficiently to play in small stock companies, appeared in a musical in his native state, and in 192S reached New York in Machinal. During this hard and steady climb he must have contended with all the difficulties that beset an ambitious
youth whose only capital is his pluck and his talent, and along the road he probably had more than a glimpse of the seamy and the bitter. To get ahead he must have used to the full that quick sympathy with other men which strikes you at once when you talk to him now. I puzzled again over the mystery, that pictures should not ask him to portray the sort of career which he and many of his audience know.
When he returned at the end of the shot we went on from where we had left off.
"Ii pictures, as you say, are a supplement to life, do you mean to tell me that film fans will find here, in what you are working on now, the fulfillment of something they have missed?
He laughed. "That's the idea."
" What is the story?”
Oh, it's about a group of men, pretty unfortunate, who nearly all get humped off before the end of the plot, and they're no great loss. There's a girl in it, too, for love interest. It's a good story, dramatic and strong."
It was my turn to laugh. " I suppose the love story provides the escape."
“If that is so," said I, " what's the matter with the average American love experience that it needs such a supplement?”
“How can any one say? " he answered. " Perhaps the average American is perfectly satisfied with his love experience-he, or more often she, may go to the pictures for a reminder of the romance they have known, or for more of it. Or perhaps no experience completely fulfills our romantic dreams."
But then," I replied. '' you'd think the films would give us romance in a big way, in some modern version of Romeo and Juliet. or Tristan and Isolde. It would be true to life to portray either our wishful thinking or what actually happens to us.''
He thought a moment. “If you are asking why film stories are not more realistic, I can't give the answer. The audience probably could take it, either way. They seem to like realism as they get it in foreign films-the good ones. The best French films prove that we're not afraid of the facts.'
Perhaps," I said, " because we think they are merely French facts."
He was called to the camera again. When he returned he resumed the conversation without waiting to be questioned.
"If the people want truer stories, we'll get them, don't von think? There's plenty of material in American life not yet explored. Dozens of good stories could be written today about people looking for employment, especially young people. There are plenty of sides to these. By way of contrast, we haven't exhausted the American success story, with either a happy or a tragic ending. I've been in Hollywood long enough to know most of the patterns as they occur here-sudden success which doesn't last, or gradual success which doesn't last, and often the solid success which is more permanent."
"It's easy," I said, " to guess the possible causes of failure. What's the recipe for succeeding?”
He smiled. " Ability."
I wish you'd define the ability. It's I more than talent for acting, isn't it?"
He was cautious. " I'd rank talent pretty high."
“But in any art," I persisted, “we find tragic examples of unrecognized talent. Doesn't the actor, like other artists, need to combine ability in his special craft with some gift for meeting his patrons halfway?”
He agreed, and I was interested to see how thoroughly he understood the pressure on the screen star to be a personality rather than in the traditional sense an actor. " I suppose," he said, " screen success happens when the audience likes you. They probably like you rather than your performance. They go to your second picture hoping to meet you just as you were in your first. That puts you between devil and deep sea. If you don’t change, they'll get tired of you sooner or later. If you change too much, they'll be disappointed. The right formula would be to grow little by little, never by a jump big enough to disturb them. You're clone for if you leave your audience behind."
“We're not painting a very good picture of the audience," I commented.
Clark Gable came to the defense of his fellow Americans. I don't mean to run them down. You ask questions from different points of view, and the right answers seem contradictory, but that's what this art or industry is in its present development. It would be foolish to pretend that all the answers match up when they really don't. The picture audience wants an escape from life, I'm sure of that, yet they also enjoy realism, especially if they get it along with humor. Why they sometimes welcome the escape, and sometimes the realism, no one knows. You just can't guess in advance what they'll like. When I did the picture based on the Parnell play, we thought we had a good thing, and we expected the public to like it, but it didn't go over. I can't explain it."
“Perhaps," I suggested, "there was too much history-or rather, the Parnell episode was unknown to most of the American audience before they saw the film."
Clark Gable wasn't impressed. The audience is just as unpredictable when you show them a story out of American life, the kind we were talking about a moment ago. Suppose an author gave us a first-rate plot about young people looking for employment nowadays. Every movie fan in the United States could recognize the truth of the picture, and we all ought to be stirred by the seriousness of it, yet you can t be sure the picture wouldn't be a flop."
“Do you think our audiences are moody or variable?”
“Who knows? They are faithful to certain stars-that's all you're certain of. Just which stars they like, and just how long they like them, you can tell-I'm sorry to mention such a material standard-you can' tell by the box office. Beyond that you can only guess in advance, and most of the time you'll be wrong."
Once more he was called by the director, and I thought over what he had just said. Nothing of this was particularly new, but it seemed to have fresh meaning as a comment on highlights and the consequent deadpan style of acting, and on the limited range of current film plots-which perhaps indicates the arrival of what might be called the dead-pan school of drama. It's a long time since the Roman playwright said that nothing human lay outside his interest. For hundreds of years it has been the ambition of dramatists, as it now is of novelists, to cover every aspect of experience, even those varieties of behavior which conventional society does not speak of. But stage plays and novels have been created by individuals. To some extent the audience has collaborated, but it has not controlled. In the films the situation is perhaps reversed.
I say perhaps because I am not at all sure. My doubt is increased every time an important French film reaches us and we see the response of the American public, so far as foreign films are brought to them and so far as they can understand the foreign tongue. I mention the French films because their tendency seems to be diametrically opposed to ours. I am thinking now not merely of the magnificent Kermesse Héroique (Carnival in Flanders), or of René Claire's A Nous Ia Liberté, but of such recent masterpieces as The Story of a Cheat, The End of a Day, Port of Shadows, and Harvest. Much as these four pictures differ from each other, they all alike avoid the American camera technique which obliterates the expressiveness of the face; they are willing that the face should seem neither beautiful nor pretty provided that it is significant; they value the acting for its success in the creation of new personalities, and under the surface humor, satiric or tender, they are completely faithful to human nature.
I was asking myself what would be Clark Gable's stature as an actor, what influence 'no would have upon our civilization if American conditions allowed him to perform in such pictures as these.
When he returned for our final stretch of talk I asked, "Is it the fault of the American audience? Are they to such an extent seeking an escape? Or do the men who control film manufacture ascribe to the public tastes which really are their own? "
He shook his head. " I'll have to say again, no one knows. The people who run the moving-picture business wouldn't be human if they didn't wish some of their ideas on the public, but they're the last people to deceive themselves intentionally. It's to their interest to produce what the public wants. The French public, and a growing number of the American, enjoy the kind of realism which France produces. Perhaps we'll discover some day a kind of realism which will suit the majority of Americans. It must be our own kind-and I don't think we've found it yet."
He paused for a moment, then broke into a smile. "There's always censorship, of course. The audience knows in advance that American realism can't be realistic-it will be merely as close to the truth as the censors will permit. Perhaps the enjoyment of the films as escape art is creditable to us, after all. If we can't have the genuine thing, we take what's frankly phony.”
"How about the happy ending?" I asked. "It's supposed to be a Hollywood formula, isn't it? Aren't the authors and producers quite as responsible for it as the censors?
He said something about the happy ending, as a plot device, which many of us have thought, and it was a pleasure to hear Clark Gable say it. "The happy ending is right if it's true, and as often as not it's true in a genuinely American story. Most of us have come up in the world. That goes for any country still new, where men are still building.
Opportunities abroad, even before the World War, were scarcer, and realistic literature had to show many thwarted lives. In European books and plays people are not counted failures, they are doing pretty well, if they just hold their own. But in the United States, if you don't get on, you howl. Some of the have-nots over here are about like some of the haves over there."
I may report this speech in a slightly transfigured form; the idea seems so illuminating of all American art that I’ve turned it over until perhaps I've got it a little out of shape. But approximately these are his words.
"You mean, then, that the ending, happy or otherwise, belongs equally to realism, but to realism in different parts of the earth? “
" That's about it."
" And that the tragic ending will be more common and better understood among us when America is old and overcrowded?”
“I'm afraid so."
My time was about up. Though his courtesy seemed inexhaustible, I felt he could endure my departure.
"Do you know," I said, " we've been pretty hard on the audience, and we've found excuses for writers, actors, directors, producers. If we take all the credit we can get, why not take the blame? You, for example, have more to give as an actor and even as, in the Hollywood sense, a personality than your scripts have called for, or perhaps than the American screen technique has allowed you to convey. If you were entirely free, what kind of role would you as an artist choose?”
He laughed. "I'd ask nothing better than the parts I've already had, but I'd do them unexpurgated."
I must have looked surprised. He explained with some warmth: "We take, when we can get it, a book or a play which has already won a large public; we make a picture of it; in the process we cut down all the characters a little-shrink them."
“ Are we talking of Censorship again?”
" Censorship of one kind or another," he said, " but anyway it's supposed to be for the good of the audience to steal from a character many of its strongest traits, often the only explanation of its behavior. Take Rhett Butler, for example, in Gone with the Wind. The book was read by ten million people, if you count the number of times each copy was probably borrowed. If that story had in it anything harmful, wouldn't you suppose the damage had been already done? In the book, Rhett is a grand acting character - I'd like a try at him. On the screen he's still a fine part, but he's - well, he's housebroken."
“ May I quote you? " I asked. " Go ahead."
When you see Gone with the Wind, compare Rhett with the book character. Do the same for Scarlett. You will admire Clark Gable, as in his earlier pictures-perhaps a warmer, more varied Clark Gable, but not too abruptly changed for you to feel at home with him. But you will not yet see the personality I talked with and have here tried to describe. You will not see completely any rich personality on the screen until Hollywood is persuaded that life is good box-office, and stops shrinking the stars to fit what is supposed to be the audience's idea of him-and stops shrinking the story to fit the shrunken star.