Saturday, April 8, 2017

Mount TBR #17

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Gable & Lombard – Warren Harris

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were able to overcome the pressures on a marriage between Hollywood stars.

Their acting talents were different. While Gable did win an Oscar for his part in the comedy It Happened One Night, he was usually cast as the rugged, handsome hero as in GWTW or in guy movies like Mutiny on the Bounty and Run Silent Run Deep. He was justifiably modest about his acting abilities. Gable and Lombard worked together on No Man of Her Own (in 1932, before they were an item) and generally got on each other’s nerves. At the cast party, Gable gave Lombard a pair of oversized ballet shoes, to go with her prima donna ways. She gave him a present that she said stood for his acting abilities: a large ham with his picture on it.

With her sexy voice and athletic grace, she was a striking presence that lent a little credibility to melodramas like Man of the World and Vigil in the Night. With amazing timing, Lombard was a comic that could do both madcap (My Man Godfrey) and satire (Nothing Sacred).  As with many funny people, sources of her humor were sadness, anxiety, and more than her fair share of adversity: tight finances as a kid in a single-mom household, a disfiguring car accident, sudden deaths of friends, nervous breakdowns, and an unhappy marriage with William Powell.

Besides feeling no professional jealousy toward each other, as this biography shows, they loved each other deeply. Their personalities were such that one balanced the other. Gable was reticent, Lombard was boisterous and blunt. Gable was easy-going, Lombard was tightly-strung and competitive. He could live without going out to party and schmooze, and she loved him enough that staying home most nights was fine with her. When they did go out, he would be reserved, while she was animated and lively.

She loved jokes, and he liked laughing. Their laughter fed compatibility where it counts a great deal for a couple who are crazy about each other. On his first day on the set of GWTW, she had draped his dressing room mirror with stuffed doves to represent peace for her man, who was going through the last stages of a nasty divorce. On the dresser, he also found a hand-knitted willy-warmer and a note, “Don’t let it get cold. Bring it home hot for me.”

As a laid-back guy wary of this scheming world and its gabby extroverts myself, I can totally understand why a quiet guy was nuts about such a feisty, independent, indomitable woman. We hardcore readers will be happy to know that they were both great readers, unexpected in people who left schools without diplomas. She read widely, mainly with an eye to adapting novels into movies she could star in. She also read about topics such as numerology and eastern mysticism, not uncommon interests back then. Gable, like Spencer Tracy, liked to read mysteries.

Gable and Lombard both liked outdoor pursuits like hunting and fishing. They enjoyed their dogs and skeet shooting. They like roughing it in rustic lodgings that were typical of travel in the 1930s. Their ranch was decorated simply. They kept a hobby farm with chickens, cows and horses. Their dream was to have a child, but one of her many misfortunes was an infertility issue. We know it wasn’t on Gable since he made a baby with Loretta Young, who sent the child to an orphanage and then “adopted” her, never receiving a dime of support.

Lombard was a deeply patriotic FDR Democrat, like Rex Stout. Her comments about taxes are refreshing for us readers who've had an adulthood of hearing the no-new-taxes crowd bellyaching about their goddamn taxes:
I get 13 cents on the dollar and I know it. So I don’t figure that I’ve earned a dollar, I figure that I’ve earned 13 cents. And that is all right with me, too. We still don’t starve in the picture business after we’ve divided with the government. Taxes go to build schools, to maintain the public utilities we all use, so why not?
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, in January 1942, she wasted no time to volunteer her star power to raising money for the war effort. In Indiana, her home state, she raised over $2 million in War Bonds, when the expectation was only a quarter of that amount. Weary from putting in long hours at events, she didn’t feel up to a three-day train journey back to California.

So she decided to take a plane. Due to pilot error, it crashed into Table Rock Mountain in Nevada killing all 22 aboard, including 15 Army service men and Lombard’s own mother Bess. Joan Crawford took over Lombard’s part in They All Kissed the Bride and proved that, as talented an actress as she was, comedy was not her strong suit. But this was the least of the fallout.

Gable never got over Lombard’s death. Though 41 at the time, he joined in the Army Air Corps to honor his wife’s oft-stated wishes that he enlist. After training in OCS, Gable lead a motion picture unit attached to a B-17 bomb group in England to film aerial gunners in combat, flying five combat missions and narrowly missing being KIA once. He married twice after WWII to women who tried but failed to replace Lombard. Gable drank too much. After he died in 1960, he was buried next to Lombard in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in LA.

This book was among the bumper crop of books about classic Hollywood released during the nostalgia boom of the early 1970s.  The author later made a specialty of couples books, including Lucy & Desi and Natalie & R.J. To his credit, Harris took on riskier project, a bio of forgotten Broadway star Marilyn Miller. His research for this book seems satisfactory, since he interviewed many people who knew the couple, though many of the quotations are discreetly not attributed. His writing style, mercifully, is not snarky. In those carefree days of the Seventies he felt free enough to tell ribald stories such as the cock-sock story above. A reader can tell, too, when a writer is a fellow movie nut: he seems to have been reading about movies and stars in newspapers and fan magazines since an early age.

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