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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

NOW, THAT'S FUNNY: Part VIII



Edmund Gwenn and Clark Gable on the set of Parnell. Is it just me, or does
Clark seem underwhelmed by this experience???

 

Despite the fact that he won his only Oscar for a screwball comedy (It Happened One Night), Clark Gable hardly seems like the King of hee-haw. Yet, while his tough guy roles typically produced the ultimate identity of cocky male cynicism, he did have a good sense of humor in his private life, even when he was the butt of the joke. His dominating onscreen presence hid a sensitive and humble soul that had come up the hard way, and while he appreciated the benefits that came with his stature and movie star paycheck, he too was grateful when a kidding friend brought him back down to the earth he was much more comfortable in. Spencer Tracy was one of these guys. The two bonded almost immediately when they started filming on San Francisco, despite the fact that they had both just survived scandalous affairs with Loretta Young. Surprisingly, there was no competitive, macho energy about their former shared paramour. In fact, Spence once took a swat at a guy who had cracked about Loretta's "adopted" daughter's (Judy Lewis) "big ears," a jab at Gable, whom all Hollywood knew to be the true father. Over the course of a few movies, the duo got close. In fact, they once went off to lunch together and disappeared for two days. Even sober, neither could remember where they'd been. After Spence started the good fight to maintain his sobriety, his relationship with the still hard-drinking Gable grew less intense, but their sturdy respect and friendship remained. Clark admired Spence's talent, and Spence was envious of Clark's leading man power at the box office... which is why he so enjoyed bringing up Parnell.

Clark was no fool about his talent. He could do "intense." He could do "smoldering." But all of his characterizations were mere exaggerations of himself. He shied away from character roles or true life figures for fear that he wouldn't be able to carry them. When handed the role of Irish politician Charles Stuart Parnell in 1937, he was not surprisingly a nervous wreck. He had hoped that friend and lover Joan Crawford would too jump on board as a co-star in order to help him through it, but when she turned the role down, Clark read it as a betrayal. Joan would insist that this was the official end of their romance (though they would allegedly remain friends with benefits over the years). Joan wasn't wrong to back out. The film was a flop, Clark was panned, and his death scene was so thoroughly mocked that he would refuse to play dead again until 1958's Run Silent, Run Deep. But, while Clark was humiliated, Spence was thrilled! Spence had originally been offered the role of Parnell, but had turned it down, which made Clark's misery even funnier to him. While filming on Test Pilot in 1937 after Parnell's release, Spence continued to kid his friend about his failed venture in acting. When Clark and co-star Myrna Loy arrived to set one day, they were abruptly greeted with a coronation ceremony for the press regarding their recent status as the "King and Queen of Hollywood." Spence howled with laughter as publicity photos of Clark in a crown were taken. He then addressed his embarrassed friend as "Your Majesty." Clark got red in the face and retaliated by calling Spence a "Wisconsin ham." Spence stuck in the final pin with "What about Parnell?" End game. So it would continue over the years. Whenever Clark got a little boyishly cocky, Spence would shoot out a Parnell jab. In 1939, when Gone with the Wind went on to break box-office records, further cementing Clark's unbreakable reputation, Spence still wouldn't let it lie. He sent Clark the following telegram: "Gone with the Wind may be this year's greatest picture, but I still remember Parnell." Clark, as always, laughed. (The chums perform in their undergarments in Boom Town left).

Clark's lady love Carole Lombard (right) too had a hand in the Parnell gags. As with Spence, Clark latched onto Carole's down to earth demeanor and humor, finding her better company than the majority of the pretentious hangers-on in Hollywood. The multiple ways that this romantic pair kidded each other over the years is, in itself, legendary. Carole too had no qualms about taking Clark down a peg or two when he started getting a little high on his pedestal or ornery, but her gags were mostly just an effect of her kooky sense of humor and meant to cheer people up, not poke fun. Carole understood Clark, and beneath his front-- where he was able to freeze people out and shut off internal emotions-- she knew that he was deeply upset by the Parnell blunder. Insecure about his acting in general, to have his performance universally panned was a hard thing for him to endure, especially after being crowned the "King." The King of what? With apparently no talent, it made him feel like a phony. So, one day, Carole decided to earn back a few points for Clark's self esteem. Thus followed what became known as Carole's "Rain" of Terror: Carole paid a pilot to fly over MGM and drop thousands of fliers over the studio with the following text: "Fifty Million Chinamen Can't Be Wrong!" You see, regardless of America's reception of Clark's Irish hero, his performance as Parnell was hailed as genius in China. When Clark-- and everyone in Culver City-- got the message, he flashed his old grin. The boy was back!

Moving backward a few years to that business between Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young (left)... The two met on the set of 1934's Man's Castle and quite quickly thereafter began a romance. It would be the first major relationship to threaten Spence's marriage to wife Louise. Loretta had a habit of falling in love with her co-stars, a result of growing up in front of the camera and never being able to separate fantasy from reality. Spence was taken by Loretta's great beauty and confused innocence. Ironically, the two also had faith in common and even attended mass together. For a time, it was discussed between them that Spence really would end his marriage and wed Loretta. The drama of the impossible love made it all the more enticing to Loretta, who was just turning 21. However, the tide turned when the teetotaling actress became acquainted with her suitor's bad side aka his alcoholism. The dating duo often went out on the town with John and Josie Wayne, with whom Loretta had been good friends since John's football days at USC. They celebrated Loretta's birthday together, took a vacation in Palm Springs, went dancing, the usual. As with Clark Gable, Spence kidded John: "It's a good thing you're good looking, because you can't act your way out of a paper bag." Duke would respond: "That's right, fats. I'll catch on, then you watch out!" Good times... But, as Spence's guilt-ridden conscience got the better of him for his latest dalliance, so too did his drinking increase. Duke could keep up pretty well with the bottle, but the ladies did not imbibe and thus were left staring in horror at their drunken, sloppy men making asses of themselves. Of the two, Spence was always much worse than Duke. Duke was a fun drunk, whereas Spence could become hostile. On one particular evening, the foursome was dining at the Beverly Wilshire's Gold Room, the usual chaos ensued, and Spence became so belligerent in his drunkenness that Duke had to escort him from the premises, against much protest. Luckily, Spence was blotto or he would have been quite embarrassed at the ruckus he was making before the likes of fellow diners George and Gracie Burns. Duke finally got Spence to his room, but even there Spence made trouble and tried to get back to Loretta. He was causing such a disturbance that Duke was left with few options, so... he decked him. After that powerful "Whop!" Spence was down for the count and spent the night draped over his bed snoozing like a baby. The relationship with Loretta ended soon thereafter, but Spence would still get a wistful look in his eyes whenever he saw her in public.

When one thinks of Hollywood horror, images of Frankenstein's monster, Bela Lugosi's Dracula, or the countless terrors of Vincent Price flicker in the brain. These anti-heroes were all born in the days of sound, however. In the silent days, there was but one film villain that could turn the blood cold: Theda Bara. Theda Bara's career is a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon that is both indicative of the power films have to both make a star and break one. Over the course of a career that spanned just a little over a decade, this actress from Cincinnati, OH was built up publicly as the pinnacle "Vamp": a man-eating seductress with dangerous sexual powers, at once threatening and alluring (see right). Films like The Tiger Woman, The She Devil, Salome, and-- of course-- Cleopatra, solidified her forever as cinema's favorite temptress. But, this version of Theda Bara, (an anagram for "Arab Death") was a far cry from the true Theodosia, who was an accomplished actress renowned among friends like King Vidor and Ethel Barrymore for her delectable potluck dinners. Theda gratefully played the part Hollywood, and Fox in particular, assigned her, but in time, both she and the public grew tired of the gimmick. Before she knew it, her career was over, and the caricature that she had created was left to the history of film. But, her identity remains a fascinating topic, if only to illustrate how powerful a cinematic persona can be. Particularly in the early days of film, when Hollywood was so mythic and its stars so revered, the line between fantasy and reality was not so easily tread by viewers. Thus, what Theda was onscreen was what people believed she was in life. Shop keepers actually had to ask Theda not to come to their stores for fear of the stampede of women that would follow-- grabbing at any piece of clothing Theda had touched in the hopes of collecting some of her magic aura. Not all in the public were fans. Adela Rogers St. Johns would recall a very telling story regarding this subject. A mother and child were wandering the streets of New York City. At one point, the child ambled off, and the mother noticed her son talking to a darkly garbed woman with a pale, ghostly face. As she drew nearer, she realized that the woman was... Theda Bara! The mother suddenly became hysterical. "Save him! Save him! The vampire has my child!" Certain that Theda was hypnotizing her babe and intent on sucking his blood, the terrified mother even went so far as to call the police for assistance! One imagines that, at this moment, Theda got a hefty reality check: "What have I gotten myself into?"

Ginger Rogers loved to throw a good party. As she wasn't a drinker, she knew that she had to create a certain over-the-top environment to make her get-togethers enticing to those chronically parched individuals who only considered a party a party if there was plenty of swill. One of her outrageous shenanigans was contrived with the help of her boyfriend at the time-- some guy named Alfred Vanderbilt. I hear he was "loaded" in another way. After filming the superb roller-skating dance sequence with Fred Astaire in Swing Time, Ginger enlisted Alfred's help in staging a roller-skating party of their own. So, on March 6, 1937, they rented the Culver City Rollerdome and invited a few pals along-- you know, every day folk like Joan Crawford, Kay Francis, Franchot Tone, Chester Morris, Harold Lloyd, Simone Simon, Cary GrantCesar Romero, and the "battling Bogarts," Humphrey and Mayo Methot. Everyone was having a swell time, cavorting like children and sucking down hot dogs, hamburgers, and Coca-Cola. It was nice to see people dressed down, away from studio mayhem, and having pure unadulterated fun (emphasis on the un-adult). Ginger was pleased with her party's success, but at one point, in the midst of the laughs, she noticed some commotion going on in the center of the rink. She approached Joan Crawford to ask "What's the haps," and Joan indicated Bogie lining up a row of chairs. He was about to perform a dare-devil feat of jumping over one chair after the other. Ginger and Joan exchanged the "uh-oh" look, but before anyone could stop him, Bogie was up and rolling. Against George Murphy's warning, "Ah no, not again," Bogie cleared one chair... Two... He prepped to somersault over chair number three... Oof! Ow! He landed right on his keister and kept sliding. Half the audience howled, and the other half slapped their foreheads in "Oy vey" fashion. The movie tough guy didn't seem embarrassed, however. He simply dusted off his rump and defended his faux pas: "I used to travel with a circus... I just haven't done it in awhile." Even Sam Spade needs to play the little boy every now and again.

Franchot, Ginger, Alfred, Joan, and Chester suit up to skate down.



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