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If Gable kisses Gardner it may be the year's best love scene

AN EXCERPT "Celestine Sibley: Reporter" Edited by Richard Eldredge

From Aug. 5, 1951

Clark Gable took Ava Gardner in his arms. Their lips were only inches apart. He looked at her ardently.

"Well, Dev," she said huskily, "you've won, haven't you?"

"Have I?" asked Gable softly.

She nodded tenderly. "You're a strange man . . . but quite a lot of man!"

She raised her lips. His arms closed on her.

"Hold it!" shouted a raucous voice. "She's watering!"

Miss Gardner mopped her eyes and moaned faintly. "These lights, " she said, "are blinding me." A makeup woman rushed forward and did things to the actress' eyes with brushes and lotions and the director yelled wearily, "Try it again."

Gable put down his coffee cup and they moved together again with the same words, the same yearning expressions. But just short of the kiss a voice yelled, "Hold it!"

They stood as they were, waiting, a mere kiss apart. Gable was saying something to her that the script didn't call for and I pushed my head around a big arc light and strained forward to hear.

"Your doughnuts," said Gable to Gardner, "are getting cold."

And that, disillusioning or not, is the way what may turn out to be one of the year's better love scenes was played in a dusty road on a hot summer's day in Hollywood.

The time: according to a script, was 1845. The place, a frontier village called Austin, Texas. The people: Gable, a rugged Texas adventurer and cattle owner who fought for annexation, and Miss Gardner, probably the most sumptuous-looking, red velvet-bodiced country newspaper woman the land has ever seen.

They were making the final scene in "Lone Star," Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer's epic about the hullabaloo attending the addition of the Lone Star State to the Union. And, watching from Director Vincent Sherman' s chair, I was worried. Not about Texas (I knew how that would turn out), but about that kiss.

Every time they went into a clinch, every time the big cameras moved up, every time Miss Gardner said, ". . . but quite a lot of man!" Clark Gable closed in for the kiss, just barely grazing the lady's lips somewhere off center. It was not, I felt, like Gable to miss. So I asked him, "Aren't you ever going to kiss her?"

"No! Ain't it murder?" shouted the big actor explosively. "They' ve stopped all that. You can't make money because of taxes. And you can't make the girls, even in Texas. You don't know what I go through! "

He was laughing and I laughed too, but actually, what Clark Gable is going through in the making of "Lone Star" is nobody's secret. He wants a good picture, his first really top-flight one since before the war. He wants to turn out a performance befitting his acknowledged position as the all-time "king" of Hollywood leading men --- and he wants the public to be pleased. He doesn't expect to repeat Rhett Butler or "Gone With the Wind."

"I know that's the best picture I ever made," he said soberly. "Margaret Mitchell made that possible with a superb story. We'll never have another one like 'Gone With the Wind.' There's nothing the matter with the picture business that a story like that, a good story, couldn' t cure."

He squatted down on the ground and stirred idly at the dust with a stick after the manner of any country man hunkered down before a crossroads store on Saturday afternoon.

"You know," he said, looking up and squinting against the sun, "Margaret Mitchell was quite a person. That was a terrible thing, that accident. I tried to express my sympathy to her husband John Marsh, but none of us could really say how we felt. Hit people all over the world pretty hard. A woman was here from France last week to give me an award for Rhett. They're just getting to see 'Gone With the Wind' there since the war."

He was silent for a moment and director Vincent Sherman, native of Vienna, Ga., and former Atlanta Journal police reporter, passed and leaned over.

"Did you hear we're changing the name of this picture?" he whispered confidentially. "Going to call it 'Thunder Over Georgia.' "

"May it bring us luck," said Gable, grinning. He chuckled to himself and chewed on a straw. "I'll never forget how I met Margaret Mitchell," he went on after a time. "We were all at the Piedmont Driving Club and I was anxious to talk to her. She had helped me so much with Rhett. But there were so many people about and so much going on. We finally went into the ladies lounge and locked the door!"

"Lone Star," even without the lucky Georgia locale, has something of a Rhett Butleresque quality in its hero. The dashing adventurer who says he favors annexation because he expects to get a fat contract to sell beef to the soldiers who will have to fight Mexico. "Will the public like it?" is Gable's test question.

The public, enamored of Western pictures as it repeatedly demonstrates at the box office, will find at the very least that the picture is a super-deluxe horse opera with Lionel Barrymore playing ex-President Andrew Jackson, with politics, patriotism, and more especially, a young person who is rapidly making herself known in press agent parlance as "the hottest thing in Hollywood," Ava Gardner.

As Clark Gable talked to me, Miss Gardner sought refuge from the sun and the brassy glare of the big reflectors under a shed nearby. She looked unbelievably beautiful --- fresh and warm and natural with little makeup except vivid lipstick on her full lips --- and she was very hungry. She finished eating two big sugary doughnuts and ordered another cup of coffee.

Earlier, Gable had said she was "getting to be a fine actress" and was working hard. He had recalled working with her in "The Hucksters" when she had a "don't care" attitude.

"Ha!" hooted Gardner, brushing flakes of doughnut sugar off her full 1840s skirt. "I was so impressed by Mr. Gable I was silly! I kept wanting to get his autograph. Forgot I was an actress and every time he would walk on the set, I'd say, 'There's Clark Gable! ' and start acting like a bobby-soxer. Darned near wrecked me and you can imagine what it did to my love scenes."

The girl who was "raised up in Smithfield, N.C.," and attracted her first attention by a brace of unsuccessful marriages --- first to Mickey Rooney and then to bandleader Artie Shaw --- is working very hard these days to forget what she says is her real calling: "A home and kids."

She liked playing Helen Morgan's role in "Showboat." Miss Gardner was excited by the challenge it presented and pleased at being allowed to sing even after the studio had hired somebody to dub in the vocals. She thinks the MGM picture, "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman," is one of the best yet and she has high hopes for her role as the beautiful and militant Martha in "Lone Star."

"But I have no illusions about becoming a great American actress, " she said grimacing. "All I really want is a husband and a house and a lot of children."

At that moment director Sherman spoke and his alter ego, the assistant director, took up the cry and magnified it. "Let's go, kids! Action!"

Gable and Gardner, tagged by a couple of people with combs and powder puffs, resumed their ardent, esoteric stance beneath the bright lights, the cameras and the eyes of half a hundred crewmen and extras.

"You're a strange man," murmured Gardner, "but quite a lot of man!"

Gable closed in for the kiss but until I see the movie I'm convinced it's the kiss that never really came off.

Celestine Sibley, who died in 1999 at age 85, is best remembered as a columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but there was another side to the longtime journalist. From the day she wrote her first stories for The Mobile Press in 1932 until she became a full- time columnist decades later, Sibley wrote about murders, fires, floods, funerals, politics and presidential campaigns --- in an era when female reporters typically were relegated to society pages.

Some of the best examples of Sibley's early work have been collected in a soon-to-be-released book, "Celestine Sibley Reporter," edited by Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Richard Eldredge (Hill Street Press, $22.95). Amid all the news assignments, Sibley found time for some lighter subjects, making annual junkets to Hollywood in the 1950s to interview stars for the AJC's Sunday Magazine. In the above excerpt, Sibley talks with Clark Gable about Margaret Mitchell, the role of a lifetime and the film he was making with Ava Gardner.

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