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Thalberg Signs Gable

By Lionel Barrymore , Source: We Barrymores (1951)

At this stage of the Proceedings it would be nice and impressive to catalogue a large group of grateful and doting young players now stars, who owe their start in the drama to the kindness of the Great Barrymore I do not go so far as Jack, nor as a matter of fact did he mean it literally when he said, 'Damn the understudy!  My job is to keep him off that stage!' But most persons who obtain in any of the arts, however modestly they nod the credit to someone else, actually get there on their own hook. If you are going to be a sword swallower, I gravely urge you to keep in mind that it is your own gullet down which the blade must descend; nobody can do it for you. However, there was a young fellow in whom I took an interest some years ago because I thought he looked like Jack Dempsey. 

He first appeared in a company of The Copperhead when we played Los Angeles in April, 1927, my only apostasy from the screen. I thought he had all kinds of makings at the time, although the only distinguished thing he did in that play was to drop his hat into a prop well - then reach in casually and pick it up.

Not to be mysterious about it, the boy was Clark Gable. On one of the occasions when I was making shift to direct at Metro, I remembered him, called him up and said: "This is for you. Got something You get out here and I'll make a test and we will put you in pictures."

One of the reasons that Clark seemed to resemble Dempsey at that time he was lean and hungry. He made haste to the studio.

The Picture I had in mind was called Never the Twain Shall Meet.  I did not direct it, for this and that reason, but it gave me a chance to run off a test of Clark.

I had him wear nothing but some orchids and a lei or something, and a blossom behind his ear. I made three or four scenes and had Gable stick out his chest in all of them.

"Brother, the guy's wonderful," I said to myself.

To Clark, I said: 'OK, boy, I'm sure you're in.'

I had my tests developed and called Irving Thalberg in to look at them. I expected to be crowned with laurels, but Irving looked at the test in utter silence, nodded his head in an indefinite negative, and walked out.

I was ashamed to call Clark and tell him that he and I had made a total failure, that Thalberg had turned him down. Then I began to study my part for A Free Soul and became so immersed in it that I forgot the matter.

A month later I reported to the studio ready to start. There was already some activity on the stage assigned for our first scene. I eased my way forward to see who was at work. A man was giving a girl one of the longest kisses of screen record. The man was Gable. The woman in his arms was Norma Shearer, Mrs Irving Thalberg.

When the scene was over, Gable came over to me grinning wider than a Halloween pumpkin.

"Sure, I'm in this too, what do you know? Forgot to get in touch with you. Day after you made that test for me, Irving called me up and put me under contract."

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