Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, movies were the premier form of entertainment in our land. There was no Netflix, no streaming from YouTube, no Hulu, and definitely no checking out Kim Kardashian’s butt every week on television because there was no television. No Kim Kardashian, for that matter.
Back in those prehistoric days, one man ruled over Hollywood. He was known as the “King,” much like—decades later—Elvis would be The King. But Elvis was the King of Rock and Roll; the man I’m speaking of was the King of Hollywood. His name was Clark Gable, and he was the best-known man in America. He was better known than the President of the United States and probably better loved.
John Huston was a director and screenwriter. Of the thirty-seven movies he directed, three top the list: The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (where that great line was uttered: “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!”).
John Steinbeck needs no introduction, but I will say that, at the time this story takes place, his book, The Grapes of Wrath, was a best seller, had won the Pulitzer Prize, and had been made into a movie starring Henry Fonda. So he was well known in his own right.
Now that you have been introduced to the players, on to my story, and this yarn happens to be true. It will make evident the wit, the quick thinking, and the humor of John Steinbeck.
John Huston was friends with Gable and Steinbeck, but Gable and Steinbeck did not know one another. Huston loved to hunt; in fact, he wrote The African Queen just so the studio would pay for a trip to Africa for the filming. But the movie was of a secondary importance to Huston. He wanted to bag himself an elephant. And he would not start the filming until he had done so. Incidentally, a movie was made of the whole affair entitled, White Hunter, Black Heart, starring Clint Eastwood. But I digress.
So, Huston invites Gable and Steinbeck for a little hunting up in the Sierra Nevadas. They all meet at Huston’s ranch one crisp, cool morning. Quick introductions are made; Steinbeck and Gable shake hands. Very little is said, and they all pile into Huston’s car for the trip to the mountains.
Now, before I go any further, picture this: Huston is driving, Steinbeck is sitting in the front passenger seat, and Gable is in the back.
Things are quiet in the car for the first few miles. Finally, just to say something, Gable asks Steinbeck what he did for a living. He asked that of the man who had the number one best-selling book in all of America. And the movie that was based on that book was currently playing in theaters all across the country.
“I’m a writer,” answered Steinbeck without turning to face Gable. And then, without missing a beat, John Steinbeck turned to the most famous man in America—if not the world—and inquired, “And what do you do for a living, Mr. Gable?”