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Making Gable Dance

Author: Jan Stokes
Source: Detroit Free Press, 1-15-1939

From He-Man Hero to Hoofer in 40 or 50 Not-So-Easy lessons; An Amazing Story

Song and Dance Man Clark Gable was thumping and clumping to a wheezy recording of "Putting on the Ritz."

"Four, five, six, TURN," chanted Dance director George King.

At that precise moment, one of Southern California's pleasantly exhilarating little earthquakes gave the rehearsal hail a gentle push.

Gable paused disgustedly, with a foot poised in mid-air.

"Out of step again," he groaned.

This was a perfectly natural assumption on Gable's part.  When he began tossing  his 190 pounds around as a vaudeville hoofer in preparation for his "Idiot's Delight" role of Harry (Personality) Van, something has to give. It still is considered a miracle that the whole thing came off without serious damage to Gable's Person or studio property.

Gable was not born to dance.

All of his life, he has made it a point to keep his feet painted firmly on solid ground.  Gable always has been self-conscious about his feet.  He wears 11-Cs, a heritage of his barefoot farm boy days back in Ohio.  Big and awkward as a kid, he shied away from dances.  During his early years on the stage, when eating regularly was of primary importance, he had neither the time nor the inclination to dance.   He can waltz a bit in a pinch, but until recently that was the full extent of his terpsichorean activity.

Then, two years ago, Gable made a hurried trip to New York with Director Clarence Brown to see Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in their Broadway hit, "Idiot's Delight."

"That Harry Van part is made to order for you," Brown said.

Gable was sold, too.

"Sure," he said, "but how about that dance stuff? It's not in my line."

"Forget it, " Brown answered.  "It's only a flash."

The play was purchased by MGM for Gable with Norma Shearer selected as his costar, reuniting them for the first time since "A Free Soul" and "Strange Interlude."

"Every time I thought about hoofing," Gable said," I got the jitters.  I kept kidding myself into thinking it was just a brush off.  If Lunt could do it, why couldn't I?  Besides, dancing looked so simple when Fred Astaire did it."

Last Oct 15, Gable was handed the completed script of the Pulitzer Prize play by Robert F. Sherwood, and told to report the next day for dance rehearsals.  He was just back from a Canadian vacation and in the pink.

"When I read the script," Gable grinned," I let out a squawk that must have been heard from one end of the San Fernando Valley to the other. Sherwood and Brown had ganged up on me.  They not only had me doing a song-and-dance act with six chorus girls that runs for 15 pages of script, but added a couple of jokers.  One was a vaudeville routine, with my dancing the Buck-Schottische.  At first, I thought it was some kind of a sausage.  The other was a chorus boy number in tails and to hat."

These additions tripled the dancing that Lunt did on the stage.

Brown said that it was "nothing."

"Brown's 'nothing'," Gable remarked," resulted in the toughest six weeks of work I ever did.  A twelve hour day in Oklahoma oil fields was a pipe in comparison.  After two days of hoofing, I was creaking like a rusty gate.  Boy, they take me."

He-man Gable went temperamental as a prima donna before his Metro debut.  he put a policeman at the door of the rehearsal stage, with strick orders to keep snoopers out.

"I was plain scared stiff," he said.

Hollywood enjoyed a chuckled when it was learned that he did his practicing in secret, and the rib was on.  Carole Lombard sent Gable a ballet costume, accompanied by 11-C ballet slippers.  He received a dozen gag offers for vaudeville engagements.  Humorists had a field day.

Gable took it good-naturally, laughed at his own ineptness and dug in.

Who is going to have the last laugh?

"Clark," said Dance director King, promptly.  "He's going to surprise a lot of people.  He may not be the worlds' greatest hoofer, but take it from me, he is the most determined.  I never had anyone cooperated with me the way he did.  There were a lot of things against him when he started.  The fact that he had never danced before, which made it difficult for him to relax, and his size.  Most of the good male dancer are slender, dapper and on the wiry side.  For Clark to throw his husky frame around a dance floor was nothing but labor.  His perfect physical condition and natural sense of balance helped.  But it was his conscientious plugging away, rehearsing during his lunch hour, nights and even Sundays, that brought results.  Clark ran me ragged.  he wouldn't quit until he had the routine down pat."

"The first day," Gable remarked, " I couldn't lift my feet six inches off the floor.  George had more patience than a wooden Indian.  We took the dance apart, step by step, and put it back together again.  As soon as I gained, confidence, the rest was easy.  Fortunately, I wasn't supposed to be good, only corny.  And am I corny in that dance?  Man, oh, man!  I'll never bring vaudeville back."

The dances King created for Gable date back to the early 1920s, when the six-a-day was still popular, and they had a burlesque flavor.

"Burlesquing a dance number is not as simple as it looks," said King.  "To start with, Clark learned the dance straight, until he could do it in his sleep.  Then we added the jitterbug touches.  Next he had to sing 'Puttin' on the Ritz' while dancing.  Finally he coordinated his singing and dancing, working with a straw hat and a a cane at the same line.  If you think that is simple, try it some time."

With two weeks of practice under his belt, Gable was introduced to his Glamour Girls, selected after a search of several months for American's most beautiful dancing blonds.  The girls are Virginia Grey, a Hollywood dancing teacher when she was 16, and one of the movies most promising young players; Paula Stone, daughter of Fred Stone, famous stage and screen comedian; Virginia Dale, a Charlotte girl who was discovered, in a New York Night Club; Bernadena Hayes, born in St. Louis, who was selected as the Most Beautiful Radio Artist when she was a blues singer over the air; Lorraine Krueger, another St.  Louis girl, who got her start in the chorus, and Joan Marsh, who hails from Porterville, Calif.., and is the only small town girl of the six, Miss Stone being a New Yorker.

"For the girls,"  Gable commented, "dancing was cakewalk.  Trying to keep up with them was a job.  But if the dance is as funny as it is intended to be, and good for a laugh, give the credit to King and to the girls.  They deserve it, not me."

Once in the spirit to the true hoofer, Gable didn't balk at any suggestion.  King suggested a finale to dance in which Gable tosses away his hat and cane, jumps into the arms of the girls and they carry him off the stage.  Brown's approval was sought.

"Great," said the director.

"But," Gable asked, "suppose they should drop me."

"That's all right," declared Brown.  "we'll shoot the finals last.  Then if they should drop you, it won't matter."

Despite his weeks of practice, Gable had a few bad moments before Brown called "Camera," and the dance was on.  The star had expected some privacy, but word got around the lot and the stage was packed.

Not only were there 21 members of the cast on the set - Miss Shearer, Charles Coburn, Edward Arnold, Joseph Schildkrant, Pat Paterson, Burgeas Mearedith and others - but parked in a front row seat was Miss Lombard.  Brown had tipped her off.

"It was too late to bow out, then,"  said Gable, "I just set my feet into motion.  The rest was automatic."

After the first take, two bell boys appeared, each bearing huge bouquets of flowers for Gable from Miss Lombard and Miss Shearer.

"I've seen it, "said Miss Lombard, "but I still don't believe it.  That can't be Gable."

Miss Lombard turned to King and congratulated him.

"You're a miracle man." she said.

"I think so, too."  Gable added, "I was dancing on King's feet."

The entire dance required two days to film, with boom shots and close-ups.  On the screen, it will run approximately 350 feet.  The Buck-Schottische and chorus boy number add another 200 feet of dancing to Gable's hoofing chores in the picture.

When the dance numbers were filmed, Gable was asked whether or not he intended to do any more hoofing before the cameras.

"Not this Flat-Foot Floogie," he cracked,"I'm all out of Floy, Floy!"

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