Interview with Author Chrystopher J. Spicer

Chrystopher Spicer’s new book “Clark Gable in Pictures” is more than a series of photographs as the title may suggest. What the author gives us is an engaging and fascinating opportunity to peak into what seems like part family album and part behind the scenes look at the man who was known as the “King of Hollywood.”  Many are published here for the first time giving us a rare inside look into the private life of a public figure and iconic golden age movie star. On its own the book is an informative read and look at different  phases of Gable’s life; it is also a nice supplement to Spicer’s full length 2002 book, “Clark Gable: Biography, Filmography, Bibliography,” also published by McFarland Books.

Many of the photographs are extremely rare, including the only known photograph of Gable’s mother, Addie. The photos are divided into sections reflecting different periods of the actor’s life. His Early Life, Acting Life, Military Life, Social Life, Recreation Life and Married Life are all given a separate chapter. Each photo is followed by detailed background information that makes even some of the seemingly mundane photos come to life and make us take a second look in a new light.

The author provides a personal and candid look at Gable’s childhood, growing up, his early days as an actor, his love of race cars, fishing, hunting with friends, his time in the military, hanging out with other stars and his family life with wives and children. Many of the photos, in fact most, are not professionally shot but snapshots taken by friends and family. It all adds up to an absorbing portrait in pictures and words of one of Hollywood’s greatest legends.

The book is published by McFarland Books and is available via their website, just click here or call 800-253-2187.

Below is my recent interview with the author.

John: Welcome to Twenty Four Frames, Chrystopher. Can you tell us a little about yourself professionally, your back ground?

Chrystopher: Thank you, John. It’s a pleasure. I’ve been writing non-fiction for about twenty years now and teaching writing and communication, in one form or another, for a little longer. I’ve published a number of books on various subjects, two of which have been about Clark Gable. Currently, I’m currently lecturing creative writing at James Cook University here in Queensland, Australia.

John: This book seems like it would have been a massive project to research, uncovering all these photos. Can you give us a little background on how the book came about, the resources, how long it took?

Chrystopher: Clark Gable in Pictures was really compiled as a companion volume to my earlier Clark Gable: Biography. I’ve always been fascinated by Gable the person as well as by Gable the film star, and so I set out many years ago to put together a collection of photos that featured Clark away from his MGM work-place and the studio cameras. I could only use some of them in the biography because that required a different coverage of his life, so after that book was published I still had many photographs with which I wanted to say more about his life in a different kind of book. However, a number of other photos came to light while the book was being put together, so there was much debate over the photos that finally made it onto the pages. Photos that had originally been selected got moved out in favour of better new discoveries. Altogether, the book probably took about six years because I stopped twice during the project to work on two other projects related to photos in the book, one of which was eventually published last year as Fall Girl: My Life as a Western Stunt Double, about the life of 1950s stuntwoman Martha Crawford Cantarini.

Apart from photos in my own collection, other images were located all over the world. Some came from collections, but most came from people who had met or seen Gable themselves or someone in their family had a connection with him. The section of the book that developed a life of its own was Fast Life, about his cars and motorcycles. I was just going to put in a couple of car photos in another section but to my surprise I eventually discovered that most of his cars were still around, and I confess to becoming just a tad obsessed with finding photos of them. No-one had tracked them down before, so I thought it would not only be a fascinating section in the book but also provide some original research.

John: What makes the book so fascinating, for me at least, was the appearance of looking at a family album, and sitting beside you is someone who knew that family very well, explaining the background for each photo.

Chrystopher: -I’m so glad that came across for you. It’s just how I intended this book to be: a Clark Gable family photo album. Clark himself was quite the amateur photographer, as you can see by the cover photo, and I was able to identify some photos in the book as having actually been taken by him, which I thought gave a certain intimacy to the book. I would have liked to have discovered more but, as I’m sure you can appreciate, they’re not easy to find. I thought that this kind of format would allow me to be a tad more informal and just tell the stories about the photos themselves.

John:  The book is divided into different periods of Gable’s life, and not necessarily in chronological order. How and why did you make the decision to lay it out as such?

Chrystopher: I chose to divide the book into these areas to get away from the chronological feel of a formal biography. I’d already done that, and so I suppose that gave me an advantage this time in that I could be more flexible. This time I wanted to tell stories, to focus on the events and people rather than on the dates. It’s not a format that has appealed to everyone; some have said the book should have been formatted more chronologically. However, I thought that readers could relate to this format because, for most of us, our lives divide up the same way, really, and so we could feel we have something in common with Clark, except that most of us probably don’t have a Duesenberg or a 350SL Mercedes Gullwing in the garage.

John: The photograph of Clark’s mother you state is the only known existing picture of her. You can certainly see the resemblance, how did you uncover it?

Chrystopher: Yes, I thought including this picture was important because the resemblance is so close and they were together so briefly. When you think about it, every timeClark looked into a mirror he must have seen within the shape of his own face the memory of someone he barely knew. So, I’ve always imagined there were a lot of unanswered questions for him. This photo is from the collection of the Historical Society in Gable’s hometown ofCadiz,Ohio, and I believe it originally belonged toClark. As far as I’ve ever been able to discover, it is the only known photo of Addie.

John: From both the pictures and the written commentary, Gable’s private was much like his on screen image, a rugged outdoors man who loved cars, fishing, hunting and the outdoor life in general. Is this an accurate assessment?

Chrystopher: While that was certainly the person Gable became after he moved toLos Angeles and began acting, it wasn’t the youngClark prior to that. The only exception would be his life-long interest in cars and engines; he used to say that ifHollywood never worked out for him, he’d open up a mechanic’s shop. On the contrary, Clark was raised by his step-mother to be quite artistic; he could play piano and French horn, sing, could write well and he liked reading. He had quite a library in his house at Encino and Myrna Loy recalled that he used to read poetry to her between takes when they worked together.  But when he began working for MGM, their publicity people decided that wasn’t quite the image they wanted for their big, broad-shouldered movie star, and so they pointed him in the direction of the local gun club and golfing green. He became a champion skeet shooter, an avid duck hunter, an excellent life-long golfer, an enthusiastic fly fisherman (especially of salmon on the Rogue River inOregon) and occasional open-water game fisherman. He never did get into big-game hunting, though; he once said that he was fine until the deer looked at him. He was much happier hunting with his camera.

John:  Were there any big surprises you discovered in any photos that you were unaware of and changed your previous thoughts on Gable?

Chrystopher: I wouldn’t say I came across any photos that radically changed my mind about him, but I discovered two photos in particular during this project that are very revealing about him. One is the photograph of him as a teenager on page 20, and the other is the photo of him on page 172 withNan and Harry Fleischmann, probably taken by Carole Lombard. In the younger photo you can already see how big he’s going to be; he’s much taller than his friend, broader in the shoulders and wider in the hands. But, he’s at ease with his friend; he’s not attempting to dominate or overpower him. They’re just boys together. In the photo withNan and Harry, there’s nothing about his clothes or his manner that cry out “famous film star,” which he was by then. Once again, they’re just friends sitting around a cabin table together. You can see his great affinity with animals in the family snapshot on page 149 of him with Guess the boxer dog. His Harley riding outfit on page 141 highlights his sense of humour. He loved children, and you can see that in the photo on page 72 of him happily surrounded by autograph-hunting schoolboys, and then there’s the wonderful cover photo (repeated on page 95). That’s no film star; that’s any proud fisherman with his catch.

John:  While many of the photos are fascinating by themselves, the written background you provide, the back-story is in many cases intriguing. For example, photo #54, the meager ruins of the Cottage Plantation House near Baton Rouge, Louisiana which was used for a location shoot during the filming of “Band of Angels.” The picture itself does not say much however, you compliment it in your writing with the plantations rich and long history which includes a deadly fire, the Civil War and ghosts.  It sounds like there is plenty of research involved. How did you find out this kind of history?

Chrystopher: Some of the information was documented and some was first-hand from people who were there at the time. Some came from my own personal research. I’ve met and talked with his son John Clark Gable, for example, and I’ve spent a lot of time around his home-town area talking to people there so I’m very familiar with his childhood. I’ve retraced his steps throughOregon and down theColumbia River, and I’ve been in touch with the families of men with whom he flew in B-17s during WWII. I’ve talked with people who knew him personally, such as Kinsey Barnard, Martha Crawford Cantarini, Cammie King Conlon, Violet Parkhurst, and Christi Galvin, all of whom had stories to tell. A lot of detective work was involved to find some of the stories, but there was a certain thrill of the chase about it all.

John: This is your second book on Gable. What was it about Clark Gable that attracted you to write about him?

Chrystopher: I first became interested in Gable because I discovered no-one had written a fully researched and sourced biography about him that included an appreciation of his films, and I thought he deserved that. He’s become an under-appreciated person in this modern age, an actor who is mainly remembered for a role he didn’t originally want: Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind.

But, there’s more to him than that. After all, Clark’s acting career of over sixty movies extended through the history of the studio system. He began in silent movies and by the time he left, MGM was on the ropes and stars like him were leaving the studios to work independently. The story of Clark Gable is the story of the golden era of movie-making, of classic Hollywood, and yet it ends with one of the great movies made outside of the studio system, The Misfits.

Gable was a career professional, a man who so willingly adopted his studio persona that in the end it was indistinguishable from his real character and yet he never suffered angst over it, or took pills or had to see a therapist. He just accepted that if he wanted a secure, comfortably well-off lifestyle with certain perks, then that’s what he had to do, that’s who he had to be, and he just got on with it and achieved his goals. He was a working man who liked going home at the end of the day; he lived in the one home on his Encino property for a third of his life. He liked stability, organisation and for things to be in order. After all, this was a man who had his suits hung in his closet not just ranked by color but by when they were purchased. He did not like chaos.

John:  What films, directors, other stars, have influenced you?

Chrystopher: I’ve been inspired on the writing path by the work of James Salter, in particular by his memoir Burning the Days. I think you need to have a guiding light as a writer and he is mine. From there, I was invited onto the narrower and more dangerous biography trail by Donald Spoto, whose excellent work includes a book on Marilyn Monroe and who   once assured me I could also write a life so I hope he’s been proved right.

Having read her memoir Being and Becoming, I always wanted to write a biography about Myrna Loy, because she and Clark were such good friends and because I have always enjoyed her acting work, but I was never in the right place to do it and then Emily Leider got there ahead of me last year. You have to accept that as a writer you are either in the right place (mentally and physically) to do a particular book or you are not, and you can’t force it. Sometimes you have to know when to move on. Jean Harlow was another actor who always fascinated me and who also had a long-standing connection to Gable. Eve Golden’s wonderful Platinum Girl remains the best biography about her and was a model to me as well. As far as directors are concerned, my hat is off to Preston Sturges, who was really the first successful Hollywood screenwriter to direct his own scripts, and his absorbing and influential Sullivan’s Travels, followed by Victor Fleming, Ridley Scott, and Orson Welles.

John:  We don’t have iconic movie stars, legends who last generations today like we did back in Gable’s days. Even in many of these snapshots in the book, Gable looks bigger than life. Any thoughts on why that is?

Chrystopher:  Gable had the physical advantage of looking big because he was big: six feet and usually around 200 pounds. He was fairly imposing in a landscape and in a crowd without having to work on it. However, you also should remember that he’d had a lot of training in how to use his physique in just the right way at the right time without appearing to be doing that. He could be quite subtle physically; he could even be quite menacing. People forget that in many of his early films he was cast as a villain exactly because of that powerful, purring, big-cat menace he had. Even in Gone With the Wind, in the scene where he comes up behind Vivien Leigh when she’s sitting at her dressing table and demonstrates how he could crush her skull with his hands, you can see that his hands actually do fit right over her head and he’s thoroughly believable. On the other hand, he was also very well-mannered, completely charming and a good listener, and he had developed that technique of connecting with you in a crowded room as if you and he were the only two people there. I’ve talked to people who had exactly that experience on meeting him.

John:  Do you see yourself working on another book sometime in the future?

Chrystopher: I’m already working on another book that should be out around September, but this time it won’t be about the movies. Instead, it will be a series of stories about the lives of some remarkable Australian achievers.

John: The book again is “Clark Gable in Pictures” from McFarland publishing. Thank you Chrystopher for your time here at Twenty Four Frames.

 

9 comments on “Interview with Author Chrystopher J. Spicer

  1. John,
    You’re such a lucky fella! Always getting to interview such fascinating and talented writers. You know how much I love old Hollywood glamour pics but candids of our favorite stars even more.

    I’ll be doing a bio on Clark later this year so I’m always looking for books giving me insight into Clark’s life, especially how he grew up. I’ve gone out of my way to avoid the bios that are based on gossip and sensationalism.

    I certainly agree about Clark being a large and imposing figure not only physically but he really was The King in every way. I can’t think of any actor today that comes close. On a side note, I’m really rooting for Walter Huston’s great grandson Jack Huston do do well. I’m very impressed with his acting chops on Boardwalk Empire.

    Christopher, After reading all of David Niven’s books, especially his personal stories related to meeting Clark (while deep sea fishing) then developing a very close relationship I’ve gotten the picture that he was a very caring and honest individual who really didn’t give a damn about being a big star or even acting. It paid the bills and allowed him the lifestyle of being outdoors where he felt comfortable. What you’ve hit on here in your interview. I was wondering if you’ve ever read any of Niven’s books on Hollywood? He’s not only a brilliant actor but a very talented writer, especially on the subject of his buddies who just happen to be very famous. Your book sounds like it will fill in the details of Clark’s life nicely where Niven didn’t.

    I can’t wait to go order “Clark Gable in Pictures”.
    Thanks John for another great interview as well as letting us take a peak into what sounds like a must have book.
    Page

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    • Chrystopher says:

      Thanks, Page,
      Clark certainly was an imposing figure in film history. This book, Clark Gable in Pictures, is really a companion volume to my earlier, more detailed book, Clark Gable: Biography, in which I do talk about his friendship with David Niven and his wife. So, I’ve certainly read his books and would agree that Niven was a talented writer as well as actor. If you’d like to contact me about any more information re your Gable bio, you’re welcome to reach me through John.

      Happy reading.

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  2. John Greco says:

    Thanks Page,
    Yeah, it seems Gable liked being just a regular guy with his friends. Gable had a presence on the screen that was extremely strong. I can’t say I am really big fan of his, though I have enjoyed many of his films, but there is no denying his ability to come across as bigger than life on the screen. It’s like John Wayne, these guys were not actors as much as they were movie stars, they filled the screen, they shined in a way that stars today do not. Being such a Gable fan, I am sure you will enjoy the book!

    I’m glad you mentioned BROADWALK EMPIRE, I love that show.

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  3. KimWilson says:

    John, first let me say this is a great interview. His new book sounds fascinating.
    Second, you need to edit this post–you’ve double published. LOL

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  4. John, I very much enjoyed your interview with Clark Gable’s biographer. I’ve read only this-&-that about Gable over the years, mostly through the bios and autobiographies of his contemporaries, along with the more-glitz-than-depth “Gable and Lombard.” Intriguing that he was a creative, artistic type who evolved into an outdoorsman over the years. I think I’ll read Spicer’s books for the details – plus I’m going to be blogging about “The Misfits” for Page’s “Horse-athon” and Gable’s performance in it is one of the highlights, the best of his career as far as I’m concerned. Thanks for an interesting and inspiring glimpse Q&A with Chrystopher J. Spicer.

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Eve! I just recorded THE MISFITS off TCM the other day, Watched it many years ago, so I am long overdue for another look. Great cast with Gable, Monroe, Clift nd Wallach.

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  5. […] doubles appearing in numerous movies and TV, westerns as well as other genres. Along with co-author Chrystopher J.Spicer, Martha tells us all about her life behind the scenes of some classic movies and much more in her […]

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  6. Marlene Short says:

    I have a picture of Clark Gable setting on his motorcycle taken in the early 40’s. He had stopped by a field meet of the Glendale Motorcycle Club that my parents belonged to. Also a photo of him with someone I was told was his agent taken the same day. I am trying to find out if you know of anyone that have an interest in either of them. Thank you for any information you can send me.

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