Second only to Cary Grant, Clark Gable is my favorite actor. As such, I’ve made it a point to a watch as many of his films as I can. I had seen every one of his credited films with the exception of But Not For Me. As much as I wanted to be able to say I had seen all of his movies, I put off watching this particular title, because my expectations of it were very low. However, when the Clark Gable Blogathon rolled around this year, I knew now was the time to complete my exploration of Gable’s filmography. Fortunately for me, it was a better experience than I anticipated.
ABOUT THE FILM
After a long, successful career as a theater producer, Russ Ward is considering retirement. Because along with a string of hits, he also has a long list of expenses which include alimony to his ex-wife, a fancy apartment he has no time to enjoy and the renovation of a theater which is not likely to recoup his investment. His latest theatrical endeavor is foundering, thanks to his friend Jeremiah, a burned out, washed up, alcoholic playwright.
When he breaks the news to his long-suffering, faithful, young secretary Ellie, she decides to finally confess her love for him. Her earnest sincerity sparks Russ’ creative imagination. Using their relationship and her words, he convinces Jeremiah to re-write their play in a situation of art imitating life. Though Ellie is happy that she finally has Russ attention (and the leading role) all is not smooth sailing. Russ still has to manage Jeremiah’s reluctant come-back and his ex-wife’s financial demands and verbal zingers, while securing financing for the play. In addition, Ellie has her own admirer who is cast in the role of leading man on stage but who also wants to be leading man of her life.
One of the reasons I avoided But Not For Me was the advertised May-December romance between Russ and Ellie. At the time this picture released Gable was just under sixty and there was no hiding that fact. However, the plot uses this to great advantage and comic effect. In effect, this age disparity is set up as a bit of a spoof on what was currently a very common issue as the aging film stars of Hollywood’s Golden Era (like Gable, Grant, Cooper and Stewart) were paired with younger and younger female co-stars. Instead of trying to camouflage this issue, But Not For Me flaunts it, highlighting the silliness of it all.
Fortunately, as Russ, Gable does not appear silly, because he himself is in on the joke. Russ is well aware of how ridiculous it is for him to take Ellie’s declarations seriously, even if she does not. But he’s not beyond utilizing this new romantic angle to rejuvenate his play. The heroine becomes the hunter to the older leading man’s prey.
Even though he is past the years when he should have been playing the romantic leading man, Gable still displays many of the same traits which made him such a popular star. Though stockier, grayer and longer in tooth, there is still that Gable charisma, blustering (though slightly tamer) he-man persona, that flirtatious way with words and the twinkle in his eyes. It’s easy to find traces of his prior characters like Rhett Butler, Candy Johnson, Blackie Norton and Peter Warne in his performance. This is not something that can be said for his final two films following But Not For Me, where it is clear the Gable charm has exhausted itself.
The role of theater producer is a perfect fit for the older Gable who was most at home as men of the written word such as journalists, reporters and newspaper editors. You might say Russ Ward is a culmination of those men years down the road with more experience and common sense under his belt. He’s still something of a show-man and gambler, only with more responsibilities. His love of the ladies is also still present, although his real love is his career.
Speaking of love, I thoroughly enjoyed Russ relationship with his ex-wife Kathryn, played by Lilli Palmer. It’s not often Gable had a romantic interest on screen that gives back as good as she gets. Though divorced, her presence is a constant in Russ’ life as she pops in and out for her alimony money and to needle him with insults. Kathryn is a woman who truly understands Russ and accepts him as he is, but isn’t above harrassing him about his age as his secretary pursues him. Regardless, there is clearly geniune respect between them.
She also serves as a model for Ellie’s potential future as Kathryn herself began her relationship with Russ as his leading lady. It would be so easy for the film to pit the two women against each other. Though they are clearly in competition for the same man, Ellie and Kathryn speak to each other as mature adults even if they do occasionally succumb to a bit of taunting.
The other highlight of But Not For Me is Lee J Cobb as Russ’ playwright pal and partner Jeremiah McDonald. Cobb is known for giving consistently wonderful performances and he does so here too. He begins the film as a liability to Russ’ plans. Hopeless and despondent, he believes his best days are behind him and his muse long gone. But slowly, his cynicsm fades away. He becomes not only a vital part of Russ’ success and happiness, but also a foundational character for this picture.
The only reason I wouldn’t rank But Not For Me among my favorite of Gable’s films is Carroll Baker in the role of Ellie. Though she was a beautiful woman in real life, in this picture, she is almost plain and dowdy. Ellie is meant to appear innocent and foolish in her love for Russ, but Baker’s portrayal also manages to make her ridiculous and unbelievable. Not to mention, she fails to generate any real chemistry with one of Hollywood’s most charismatic actors. A character like Ellie needs to exhibit the naive sincerity of someone like Audrey Hepburn (who herself was no stranger to playing the love interest of older leading men).
Sadly, Baker has more screen time than anyone other than Gable, which really does a disservice to this film. But Not For Me could have been one of Gable’s better comedies, with very few changes other than a trimming down of Ellie’s part. All the other ingredients are there and blend well together to create an entertaining film. But too much leaven spoils the bread.
Despite my disappointment with Carroll Baker’s performance as Ellie and my low expectations of the film in general, I found myself pleasantly surprised by this picture. With its ability to poke fun at itself, otherwise excellent casting and a story-line which kept me guessing, But Not For Me is a Gable film I will happily watch again. It is certainly proof that an aging Clark Gable is still capable of mesmerizing the screen.
This is my entry for the Clark Gable Blogathon hosted by Michaela over at Love Letters to Old Hollywood. This is her second year hosting and my second year celebrating the King of Hollywood. Be sure to stop by and read all the other entries about this famous actor.