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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The King Finally Crowns Himself

Clark Gable Produces The King and Four Queens (1956)

Jane Russell, husband Bob Waterfield w/ Kay & Clark Gable
To question of whether Clark Gable was able to trade on his "King" status among lead men, there was this aptly titled partnering of him and "Queens" times four who we have no doubt he'll tame. So by all rights, The King and Four Queens should have been a hit, but for several then-reasons, was not. Some can be divined from watching --- it really isn't much of a western, especially for those who expect action of the genre. Selling was "Hotter" than content, too often a case where merchandisers were handed a stiff. Director Raoul Walsh knew The King and Four Queens smelled while making it, would confide same to colleague Samuel Fuller, who was shooting another western on nearby location. Gable co-produced with Jane Russell and husband Bob Waterfield, latter an ex-football pro. Russell would have joined the cast, but was prohibited by terms of an ongoing Howard Hughes contract. Waterfield rightly pointed out that if she did the co-lead, "the audience will know which one Gable ends up with in the last reel" (obvious enough with final pick Eleanor Parker). Still, The King and Four Queens might have fooled enough customers to go into profit ... but for a single enemy come to call on Clark Gable from living rooms nationwide.

Producing Partners Waterfield and Gable Confer w/ Director Raoul Walsh

Gable deplored old films on television, and said so to all comers. He feared no one would pay to see him in theatres when they could have a younger him for free at home. Otherwise, he enjoyed the medium, especially sports being broadcast. As to ongoing mediocrity, "TV has the brains and the techniques behind it. It is going to get better," said Gable. Acid test of his theory was The King and Four Queens going into release just as massive pile of pre-48 MGM's landed on the tube, as in everywhere, for most viewing markets bought in, Leo being a best retailer of old features so far. Deal for The King and Four Queens had been cut back in April 1955, before anyone saw such a dump coming. Gable was in for salary and generous slice (10% of gross, or 50% of net, whichever was greater, said Variety's Army Archerd on 3-28-56). A previous free-lance deal with Fox had given him percentage of gross receipts, which put CG in the chips, but left 20th with a loss, at least for The Tall Men, his second with them. Gable was still a meaningful name, however, so United Artists was pleased to tie on with his project, kick in some financing, and handle distribution. "UA Hails The King," they'd say in proud trade ads for The Last Man In Wagon Mound, which was working title for The King and Four Queens.

"Gabco Productions" had a same bugaboo as other indies: "The big problem is finding a good story," said its chief, who knew from bad stories he'd been handed as an obedient contract player for most of past twenty-five years. The Last Man In Wagon Mound at least looked like a cinch, what with roguish Gable as rooster in a crowded hen house, but where were other roosters he could peck at? The King and Four Queens as finished was notably shy of action. Gable's being chased at a credits start. We don't know for what, and never find out. Maybe the movie would have been better to show events leading up to that. Anyhow, he's soon confined and under watchful gun of matriarchal Jo Van Fleet and bevy of beauty he'll seduce for sake of hidden gold. This sounded like bee's knees for sex, but a Production Code was still in force, and besides, Gable's was a family audience. He least of anyone had desire to make a dirty movie. Result was fade/dissolves off hug/kisses as engaged by the King and his Queens, which disappointed adults and bored kids. Shootin' irons Gable brandishes in poster art are not in evidence here, other than trick firing aimed at nothing other than tossed coins. What The King and Four Queens needed, and didn't get, was male opposition, preferably in groups, for this King to overcome.

Gable was a truest holdout against television, despite one in "every room" in his house ("If I didn't have them, I'd probably go out to more movies," he told Army Archerd). Gable had pat answer should broadcasters come calling: "I sent word out through my agent that I was not available for TV. I like the picture business, and I don't want to mix the two ... I don't want to be in competition with myself." Time brought new realities, however. Many millions more were watching the tube than buying tickets by 1956. If you wanted exposure to these, let alone sell a new feature, it would be necessary to meet the enemy and make him your partner, no matter distaste of the enterprise. Bearding this lion came easier where den-master was old Gable pal Ed Sullivan, who had after all crowned the King back in 1938 and made nationwide hay of the coronation. Could Ed do as much for The King and Four Queens? Gable appeared on the CBS Toast Of The Town program in hopes he would. This was the star's first time on home screens, other than Metro oldies poured over late hours.

Sullivan was a friend to movie merchandisers, having been in bed with Fox for The Best Things In Life Are Free, and on behalf of UA with Trapeze. He'd fly to The King and Four Queens' Utah location in May 1956, the idea to explore the film's making and do a brief skit with Gable. "Comedy bit seemed more than a bit forced," said Variety's review of the broadcast, the segment seeming "to have more of Sullivan than it did of Gable." Amid crowded hour that also included Maria Callas, Dick Shawn, Teresa Brewer, and Collier's All-American Football Team, Clark Gable's TV debut was at least a highlight, but what would that do for The King and Four Queens? UA sales had work cut out for them. Two-Gun Gable of the ads was misleading, as customers would learn too late, and possibly warn friends about. Could vigorous selling at local level save bacon? Toward finding out, UA launched a contest for participating showmen, with $2500 cash and "An All-Expense Paid Trip To Hollywood!" for the winner.

United Artists Merchandisers Look For Sales Angles

Such a pitch to exhibitors smacked of desperation, wise ones sensing a tough sell. Good product spoke for itself, and didn't need such help down the distribution line. Trade shows told truth of the matter. The King and Four Queens fell short of promises they'd be expected to make, and no one liked misleading customers, for they had way of biting back when so suckered. Folks still liked Gable, him a brand name built over decades and happily associated with what sold best in movies --- action and sex. Yes, he was older, and others had supplanted the King at top of polls, but there was still willingness to go when he offered something worthy. Cascade of his old stuff on TV showed youth what Gable had done at his best, and who knows but what a few might drop into The King and Four Queens to see if he still had chops. Mom and Dad knew affirmative of that, but they tended to stay home unless a special drew them on, which The King and Four Queens was not. The sales contest, then, was making best of a bad job, but at least fired up management at local levels. If they'd not push hard for sake of the picture, then let them do so for the cash reward.

LOOK magazine kicked in with a Gable profile. He was always news, a part of history really. Vet columnists were also ready to lend a hand, like Joe Hyams in three parts at twenty-five newspapers. Hyams and journo fellowship long knew Gable as a good scout, and where The King and Four Queens could be boosted, they'd do so. Ultimate take of $2.199 million in domestic rentals, with $1.2 million foreign, was a letdown, if not expected for merchandise this was. Maybe it was a younger man's action game ... Burt Lancaster as The Kentuckian had taken a brisk $4.9 million a year before, Kirk Douglas in The Indian Fighter getting the same figure prior to that, both for United Artists release. Gable perhaps saw handwriting and veered to comedy afterward. The King and Four Queens did not play ABC primetime movies as did so many UA's in the early 60's. In fact, no network ran it. Gable had a clause requiring his OK for release of the film to TV, so delay due to him, and subsequently his estate, may have scotched early effort to put The King and Four Queens on viewing schedules. There's a Blu-ray out from Kino that looks fine, properly wide and with good color. As final flush of lady-killing, would-be action man Gable, The King and Four Queens is a must, and it matters not a toot that this show delivers less than was hoped. We could say that, after all, for half at least of everything we see.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

Finally saw it wide a few years back, and it IS slow, but I enjoyed it. "Queen" Sara Shane said in an interview that Jo Van Fleet made the set a living Hell. Fleet was, apparently, good at that - did ANYONE enjoy working with her? Put her in that Shirley Booth category. My Shirley Booth / Sidney Blackmer / SHEBA story, I'll save for another day.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I seem to remember many people swearing they saw GWTW on tv in the '60s when it was actually this movie. Not sure how you confuse the two, but it was possible, I guess.

1:32 PM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

An enjoyable picture.

I suppose Clint Eastwood did a post-modern remake with "The Beguiled".

5:27 PM  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

I'm a western fan - so I do appreciate a well executed outdoor action sequence. But I enjoyed this film so much from the get-go, that I've ever really noticed that it's pretty lean in that department. To me the story's always seemed involving. And there's excellent music too - Alex North, I think. Gable's in fine sly fox mode. And as for the four 'queens', they're perfectly cast and each delivers the goods. Sara Shane's an intriguing (and very pretty) mix of virtue and venality. And when isn't it fun to watch Barbara Nichols do her thing? But Willes and Parker are my favorites. I'd say Jean Willes's sultry Ruby is the master creation of her long career. Just can't get enough of her in this picture. I honestly believe a supporting actress nomination was in order. As for Eleanor Parker, I consider this the last of her great 50's performances (along with "Caged", "Detective Story", "Scaramouche" and "The Naked Jungle". In this viewer's eyes, she and Gable really created sparks together. You don't always need gun-play.

5:57 PM  
Blogger lmshah said...

I think people saw BAND OF ANGELS(1957) and thought they were seeing GWTW, that was the one where Gable was channeling Rhett Butler again in another Technicolor Civil War clone, it was even derisively nicknamed "The Ghost of Gone With The Wind". Raoul Walsh and Gable didn't fare that well in either of their collaborations after THE TALL MEN, but at least ANGELS is enjoyable hokum, and moves way better than KING AND FOUR QUEENS (heck, it moves way better than GWTW too come to think of it).


7:38 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I have always enjoyed Jean Willes in anything she did. Good girl role, bad girl role...didn't matter.

9:53 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Add my name to the Jean Willes Fan Club. Except for Burns and Allen, I can't remember her as a good girl. I've avoided this movie; the title led me to believe it was a comedy western.

8:15 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

MikeD - Jean was a good girl in the FIVE MINUTES TO DOOM episode of the ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN.

9:25 AM  
Blogger lmshah said...

Just saw Jean Willes play a good girl in the STATE TROOPER episode OUT OF LINE (1957) as well.


5:02 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hello Greenbriar,

Loved this piece on a lesser known movie. That's my dad (Willis E. Shaffer) being handed that $2,500 check in the picture. He was a real showman. Spent more time doing Ballyhoo than anybody I ever saw or knew. I truly wish I still had the campaign book he cooked up for this movie, but he did a bunch of them and it got lost many years after he died. Thanks so much for 'heralding' this one.

Bill Shaffer
Topeka, Kansas

11:17 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I am delighted to hear from you, Bill, and so glad that you came across this post. Men like your father were a real foundation of the business during those glory days of showmanship. I just wish I could have been around then to know them and learn from them.

And say, $2,500 was a lot of money back in 1956 --- and to have it presented by Clark Gable! Must have been quite a thrill for your Dad.

3:48 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

It certainly was a big thrill for my dad to get that check, even signed by Gable (and yes, he cashed it). Quick question : I corresponded with you once before when you did an excellent review of a DVD I worked on - LE ROI DES CHAMPS ELYSEES (The King of the Champs Elysees), a French film with Buster Keaton including subtitles. I have just finished another foreign Keaton film - EL MODERNO BARBA AZUL (The Modern Bluebeard or BOOM IN THE MOON). It's a Spanish film in which Buster speaks English and some Spanish and it's not bad, but not as good as LE ROI. It is also subtitled. I'm wondering if you might take a look at it and consider reviewing it. Thanks again.

9:03 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I'd be very pleased to look at your DVD of "Boom In The Moon," a Keaton film I've never seen, but have wanted to for years. E-mail me at

Thanks, Bill.

4:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I never been a fan of Westerns, thanks to my late Father making me sit through them as a child and having to watch that dreadful John Wayne, I did however have to put myself through one of his films some months back as Rock Hudson was in it! A bit of useless information but I thought I would share.
I have to admit I thoroughly enjoy watching Clark Gable in them, he actually seemed to be more relaxed and was having more fun doing them. This film from start to finish was brilliant, he was still portraying that 'gentlemanly flair', helping the Ladies etc but he also had that slyness to get what he intended to get, the gold. I'm glad that the ending proved the Woman at the end was not a gold digger, so to speak, it was ended with that romantic touch to it.

11:35 AM  

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