You could scream
- Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me by Marlon Brando and Robert Lindsey
Century, 468 pp, £17.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 7126 6012 7
- Greta & Cecil by Diana Souhami
Cape, 272 pp, £18.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 224 03719 6
The last thing that dreams should do is come true. It would end in futile tears if they did, much as it would for the autophagist who chomps away at himself from the legs up until he comes to his head and realises that he can never achieve the final consummation. Dreams are for dreaming about. The Hollywood dream-masters got it right when they had Judy Garland playing a star-struck teenager gazing at a pin-up of Clark Gable and singing ‘If you were the only boy in the world’. It’s if, not when. Mix them up and you remember the story of Gable resting on set minus his false teeth shouting gummily at another passing icon: ‘Look here, Marilyn, America’s sweetheart.’ It adds enormously to Gable’s individuality, but plays havoc for ever after with the moment when he’s frank with Vivian Leigh.
You could argue that our tendency to demand when as soon as we think if has been responsible for the development of civilisation, and I daresay there are those who admire the first hominid who looked at a rock and saw a tool in it, but think of the unimagined marvels we might have achieved if we’d settled for dreaming about things instead of chipping the material world into the shape we first thought of. Very likely we would have got around to dreaming up Brando and Garbo at about the time of the woolly mammoths, and what’s more, they would still be with us in their perfect form because, as knowing and committed dreamers, we would have had the good sense not to ask them what they thought about anything. As it is, we’ve only managed to have them for a few decades in their ideal state as two-dimensional light and shadow, before losing them to biographical reality.
The true icon excites the curiosity without ever answering the questions it demands you ask. Enigma depends on an essential silence. The twenty-foot image of Garbo might talk, or even laugh, but the creature you see on the screen does not speak her own words, tell her own story or even wear her own clothes. We’re given nothing of the real individual except the endless opportunity for unsatisfied speculation. Even names can get in the way. Garbo and Brando are suitably iconic: the final empty vowel turning Garb and Brand into every-and-no-woman and man, and offering, as a bonus, a small gasp of astonishment. But once you start to think of them as Greta and Marlon you’re back with a bump to the absurdity of real life. There’s nothing more certain to wreck a lazy daydream of being taken roughly into the arms of your chosen idol than the moment when you have to imagine yourself whispering, ‘Oh, Clint ...’, ‘Oh, Marlene ...’
Brando resisted writing his autobiography, unwilling to satisfy the public’s ‘prurient curiosity’, and his instincts, which when he’s on form are as good as instincts get, were right. Everything you ever didn’t want to know about Brando is available in this rambling, ghosted tale. Reading it is like waking up in the morning next to last night’s dream lover and realising you brought the bar-room bore home with you. The trick is to go back to their place and leave before they wake. Songs My Mother Taught Me is the breakfast too far.
Vol. 16 No. 23 · 8 December 1994
Jenny Diski’s review of Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me and Greta & Cecil (LRB, 20 October) opens with a paragraph that does nothing for her credibility. A photograph of a male film-star was not a ‘pin-up’; pin-ups were always girls. Judy Garland did not sing ‘If You Were the Only Boy in the World’ to the photograph of Clark Gable; she sang ‘You Made Me Love You’. I do not recall the name of the film, but it was made in the middle-to-late Thirties. There were no ifs about Miss Garland’s feelings for Mr Gable.
As for Gable’s ‘gummily’ mocking his status as ‘America’s sweetheart’ [sic] I heard a somewhat different account in the USA in the late Forties, setting the incident in the Thirties, on what the Americans call a hunting trip – an exclusively male province, at least in those days – during which, one early morning, Clark Gable stuck his totally toothless head out between the flaps of his tent and addressed his friends: ‘How’s this, fellers? America’s Sweetheart!’ Note the capital S: this was a title ‘awarded’ to Miss Mary Pickford in the Twenties, and ironically borrowed by Gable for the occasion.
Gable’s only film with Marilyn Monroe was The Misfits, made in 1960, the year he died, and long after I heard the story. The well-known difficulties experienced by everyone involved in the film – both stars’ last – with the seriously unbalanced Miss Monroe and with the dying Clark Gable do not add to the likelihood of the truth of Ms Diski’s version of the story.
But, whenever the incident took place, it could hardly ‘play havoc for ever after with the moment when he’s frank with Vivian [sic] Leigh’, since one of the best established facts about Clark Gable is, and has been since the Thirties, that he started his film career with a full set of false teeth.
Vol. 17 No. 1 · 12 January 1995
Here’s one more story about Clark Gable’s disappearing teeth to add to Kenneth Hoyle’s (Letters, 8 December 1994). In 1974 I was in a Boston, Massachusetts radio station, waiting to promote a book of mine on the air. Interviewed just before me was Anita Loos, the author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and A Girl Like I, who was there to push her recently written autobiography. She was very tiny and very old, but I remember the vivacity and seeming veracity with which she told her version of the Gable tooth story. She said that when she was working in Hollywood as a screenwriter in the Thirties she ran into Gable behind a set, where he was rinsing his false teeth in a small sink. He glanced at her, showed her the full upper plate he held in his hand, and said, wryly: ‘The Great Lover. They should see me now.’
Whether Loos’s account was true or she was simply appropriating a familiar anecdote for her own use I do not know. That Gable called himself ‘America’s Sweetheart’ in similar anecdotes may well be correct. But the term ‘The Great Lover’ was used in silent-movie days to describe the romantic actor John Gilbert, who disappeared from the screen with the advent of sound and the rise of Gable. Gable’s self-mocking description of himself as ‘The Great Lover’ in Loos’s version seems more apt than the Mary Pickford cognomen ‘America’s Sweetheart’. It is possible, of course, that Gable worked the same gag frequently, using either term (or variations) as a disarming apology for his false teeth, his self-effacement endearing him as ‘a regular guy’ to friends and strangers.
Tuckahoe, New York
Vol. 17 No. 3 · 9 February 1995
Here’s one more recounting of the Clark-Gable-false-teeth-America’s-sweetheart saga (Letters, 12 January). Ned Sherrin, in his introduction to the Folio edition of 1066 and All That has Clark Gable staying with Robert Yeatman (co-author of 1066) while filming in England. Sherrin writes: ‘Yeatman’s son, Bill, remembers Gable looking into a mirror, taking his dentures out, and saying softly and sadly: “America’s sweetheart.” ’
St Paul, Minnesota