by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
It was a year before the movie-going public would hear him utter the famous line to Vivien Leigh in the role of Scarlet O’Hara, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” while playing Rhett Butler in the Hollywood extravaganza, Gone with the Wind. But even without the epic among his credits, Clark Gable in 1938 was filmdom’s leading actor, who had been given the nickname, the “King of Hollywood,” which explains why the heartthrob attracted so much public and media attention when he decided to come to Manitoba for a week of duck hunting.
In 1935, while skeet shooting at the Santa Monica Gun Club in California, Jimmy Robinson, a writer and editor for Minneapolis-based Sports Afield magazine, told Gable and film director Jack Conway about the great duck hunting at Delta Marsh along the shore of Lake Manitoba. American-born Robinson, who had lived in Winnipeg and later in Morden, invited Gable and Conway to be guests at his hunting camp at the marsh.
In his 1938 chronicle of the duck hunt in Sports Afield, Robinson wrote: “Almost three years elapsed. Clark was busy in pictures ... Grant Ilseng, top ranking skeet shooter of 1938, and Ed Williams started Clark on the Manitoba duck trail. Having listened to my duck stories at the National Skeet Tournament at Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they were my roommates, Grant and Ed deluged Clark with yarns about canvasbacks and mallards when they met him at the Santa Monica Gun Club a few days after the Tulsa tourney.
“On September 10, 1938, I received a wire from Clark in Los Angeles, addressed to the Sports Afield office in Minneapolis. It read something like this: ‘Met Grant Ilseng at gun club today. He informs me that you are going duck hunting at Lake Manitoba again this year. Have a week to spare so will take up invitation you gave me a few years ago if convenient. Wire. — Clark Gable.”
Robinson wired Gable back advising him to wait until October because of the unusually warm September in Manitoba. Gable sent a second wire telling Robinson he had to work in a film during October.
“Come anytime!” Robinson replied to Gable. The Hollywood star chose the last week of September.
According to the September 24, 1938, Winnipeg Free Press, Gable, en route to Portage, briefly stepped off the train at the Canadian Pacific Railway station in Winnipeg on September 23 to “a chorus of ecstatic ‘Ooooooooos’ from some 40 women and teen aged girls assembled to greet their hero.”
Robinson said he had tried to keep Gable’s trip to Manitoba a secret, but the local media had been tipped off by Hollywood correspondents that Gable would be coming, so newspaper reporters and photographers were on-hand at the CPR’s Winnipeg station and later at the CPR station in Portage la Prairie.
When the train arrived in Winnipeg and Gable alit to greet his fans, the Free Press reported the movie idol was “sporting a green hat, red tie and a big smile.”
Gable was accommodating to the reporters gathered, only requesting that they, “Just make it snappy.”
When he was asked about his next picture, he laughingly replied, “It’s called the Great Canadian, and it’s the story of a hockey player and I’m playing the hockey player.”
Having grown up in Ohio (he was born there in 1901), Gable admitted to being able to skate “a little,” and had played hockey as a “punk kid.”
“When they were considering me for the role, they asked me if I could skate. Well, you know California. The only ice is when the man brings it around in the morning (ice was used for cooling in early refridgerators and had to be delivered daily). But anyway I’m going to brush up on it.”
Of course, Gable was only teasing. In a whimsical way, he was playing a role for his audience, knowing from previous trips to Victoria and Vancouver, how hockey-crazed Canadians were.
Before spending “an idle hour” at the CPR’s Royal Alexandra Hotel, which stood at the north-east corner of Higgins and Main Street (opened in 1906 and was demolished in 1971), waiting for the train to depart for Portage la Prairie, Gable told the reporters he was puzzled about how the women had managed to find out he would be making a brief stop in Winnipeg.
After saying he didn’t mind the women being on the train platform to greet him, Gable added, “This is the first time I’ve been spotted. They don’t bother me in Los Angeles.”
No one could tell the actor how the women had been alerted to his arrival, but they had apparently been waiting for him “long before the train pulled in.”
C.C. Sparrow, a former grand master of the Odd Fellows in Manitoba and then a prominent member of the Elk’s Lodge, who had travelled part of the way with Gable, remarked that the Hollywood idol was “a fine fellow and very easy to meet.”
In Portage la Prairie, Gable encountered more of the same that had occurred in Winnipeg. “It was supposed to be a secret that Clark Gable was coming ...,” reported the Free Press, “but at the last minute it didn’t turn out to be such a secret after all.
“About 100 persons, including 20 fluttery-hearted girls, were at the station when Clark, his pipe between his teeth and smiling happily, stepped from the train shortly after 11 a.m. today (September 23). Unflinching and still smiling, he walked directly into the path of a battery of cameras and declared he didn’t care whether people knew he was in Canada or not.”
Gable’s attraction to “fluttery-hearted girls” was typified by 15-year-old Judy Garland singing You Made Me Love You in the film, Broadway Melody of 1938. In the movie, she sung the hit song to a composite picture of Gable. The song’s opening lines were: “Dear Mr. Gable, I am writing this to you, and I hope that you will read it so you’ll know, my heart beats like a hammer, and I stutter and stammer, every time I see you at the picture show. I guess I’m just another fan of yours, and I thought I’d write and tell you so. You made me love you, I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to do it ...”
His attraction to “women” was described by another Hollywood star, Joan Crawford, who said on David Frost’s TV show in 1970 that “he was a king wherever he went. He walked like one, he behaved like one, and he was the most masculine man that I have ever met in my life.”
At the train station, Gable readily signed autographs for anyone who asked, and then walked to downtown Portage la Prairie in the company of Robinson. He bought his shells and hunting licence at Cadham’s hardware, “then visited the 5 and 10 cents store (Woolworth’s, next to Cadham’s) where he shook hands with all the girls,” according to Robinson’s account of Gable’s adventure in Manitoba.
According to one legend, a clerk in the store fainted when she saw Gable, but she later denied this had happened.
The men then proceeded to the Leland Hotel, which was operated by Telf Miller, who was a friend of Robinson and often participated in his duck hunting expeditions. In the beer parlour, Gable told Telf to “‘set them up’ for all the boys.”
Gable peeled off a $50 and a couple of $20 bills, admitting that he didn’t know the value of Canadian money. “You know more about this than I do,” he told Robinson. Gable apparently had a “healthy-looking roll, said by the hotel attendants to have run into several hundred-dollar bills.”
At the time, the Canadian dollar was valued at roughly one per cent less than the U.S. dollar.
While at the Leland, Gable had sent a telegram to Carole Lombard, who was then his lover, although Gable was still legally married to his second wife, Ria Langham. Lombard had been married to actor William Powell, but divorced him in 1934. Gable divorced his wife a year later and married Lombard, who tragically died in a Trans-World Airlines DC-3 airliner crash into a mountain near Las Vegas on January 16, 1942. All 22 passengers aboard the airplane died in the crash, including Lombard’s mother and her press agent, Otto Winkler, and 15 servicemen. The crash was attributed to pilot error.
Gable was shattered by the death of his wife and soon abandoned Hollywood and enlisted in the U.S. Army Airforce, something Lombard apparently urged him to do prior to her death.
The Portage wire was actually the second telegram Gable sent to Lombard, as he earlier wired her from Winnipeg that he had safely arrived in Canada.
The only time Gable remained close-mouthed in the company of the local reporters was when they asked questions about his relationship with Lombard. It was something he refused to discuss.
Meanwhile, Gable continued to wire Lombard throughout his stay in Manitoba.
After Gable’s one and only trip to Manitoba in 1938, rumours persisted that Gable and Lombard would be coming to the province together to duck hunt, but they never did.
Gable told reporters in 1938 that it was his first visit to Manitoba, “and so dispelled rumours which claimed he had visited Manitoba for the last two years to shoot” (Free Press, September 24, 1938).
Interestingly, a December 29, 1991, Free Press article resurrected the rumours of an earlier visit. In the article, it was claimed that both Gable and Lombard had visited Portage la Prairie in 1936, but rumour cannot be turned into fact. The tabloids and fan magazines of the era would have jumped at the opportunity to report such an affair, but they were silent on the subject.
Besides Gable’s claim of not visiting the province prior to 1938, there is no 1936 record of any type that such a visit took place. Robinson, who would have know about such a visit, wrote that Gable didn’t come to hunt ducks in Manitoba until 1938, even though the actor had been first invited in 1935.
The strangest association of Gable with Manitoba came in 1937, when a Winnipeg woman accused the actor of being the father of her 13-year-old daughter. The woman alleged that she had an illicit affair while living in England with Gable, whom she claimed was then using the name Billings. The problem for the woman was that Gable was able to prove in court that he had never been to England. During the subsequent fraud trial in Los Angeles, the woman was found guilty of using the mail to defraud by demanding money for the child’s support from Gable.
When he was reminded by newspaper reporters about the local woman’s unsuccessful attempt to solicit money from him a year earlier, Gable’s smile didn’t vanish.
“Does she live in Winnipeg?” he asked. When he was told that she did. Gable replied, “No kidding ... that was just a case of mistaken identity.
“He refused to be worried, he was going duck hunting and nothing else mattered, not even the movies” (Free Press, September 24). “He was just plain Clark Gable with nothing of the movie idol about him.”
When Robinson greeted Gable at the Portage la Prairie train station in 1938, he said the ducks weren’t flying “so good,” as the weather was too warm.
“Shucks,” Gable replied, “I just came up for a little holiday. If we don’t get any ducks, that’s O.K. with me.
“If we can get a few ducks for a feed or two, that’ll satisfy me. We can sit around the stove at night and talk about how many we could have gotten. That’s what we do in California.”
Earlier in Winnipeg, Gable told the reporters that duck hunting in California was “crazy,” since the waterfowl were too wary, or as Gable put it, “punch drunk from shooting.”
Gable and Robinson arrived at the lodge — referred to by the hunters as the “shack” — at 3 p.m. that day. Awaiting the two hunters were Ernie Maetzoid of Minneapolis, the vice-president of the Amateur Trapshooting Association, Walt Taylor of Sports Afield, as well as Chuck Murphy, Joe Brush, George Hart, Ted Culbertson, Nick Kahler and Phil Fjellman, all of Minneapolis. Also greeting them at the lodge were local Métis guides, Phil and Rod Ducharme of St. Ambroise, which is near the north end of PR 430.
Although invited, film director Jack Conway was unable to participate in the duck hunt. Walter Peacock, a veteran trapshooter from Chicago, was scheduled to be a member of the hunting party, but didn’t arrive until Gable had left.
The camp was leased by the Minneapolis hunters and was located on the Delta Marsh on the south shore of Lake Manitoba, 22 kilometres north of Portage la Prairie and 120 kilometres west of Winnipeg. The 18,000-hectare marsh stretches around the southern edge of Lake Manitoba
Robinson wrote that the hunters could drive to the camp in a car when it wasn’t raining, and that it was three kilometres from the camp to the marsh.
Robinson described the lodge as an old farmhouse, which had a big kitchen, a dining room and two bedrooms rigged up with triple bunks. The 6-foot-1 Gable was so long that his feet stuck out the end of the bunk he slept in, which was set up in the spare room by Robinson’s wife, Clara. The Robinsons knew it wasn’t necessary to put Gable in a spare room, as they were long-time friends of the Hollywood star, but they “thought it might be a nice thing to do.”
A huge wood stove provided the heat for the lodge and another was used for cooking. The lodge was lit with gasoline lamps.
Upon arriving at the “shack,” Gable unpacked his grips. Among his luggage was a double-barrel Parker shotgun and a pump-action Winchester. Apparently, an American guest at the lodge was disappointed by the plainness of the guns. He had heard stories that wealthy Hollywood stars used pearl- and diamond-studded weapons, and challenged Gable to reveal his shotguns, fully expecting them to be lavishly decorated by precious metals and gems.
“They’re only ordinary guns,” Gable told those present. “I use them to shoot with. I don’t need gold-plated artillery.”
His hunting outfit consisted of a “battered Berlin hat, six years old, leather trousers and jacket which has seen plenty of service in the out-of-doors, light-weight boots, etc.”
(Next week: part 2)