I was thirty-two then, not an ideal age to be taking up so strenuous an activity as ballet.
So wrote Gene Tierney in her autobiography Self-Portrait on her experience playing a Russian ballerina in the film Never Let Me Go (1953) starring Clark Gable.
The film tells the story of an American news correspondent, Philip Sutherland (Gable), stationed in Moscow who falls in love with and marries Marya Lamarkina (Tierney), a ballerina. When they try to leave Russia they are separated as Gable is forced to board a plane and Tierney is held back. Gable must then figure out how to get his wife out of Russia. He and his friend (Richard Haydn), whose wife is also being held in Russia, plan a bold sea rendezvous off the coast.
For a more in-depth summery and analysis of the film, check out Critica Retro's post!
When Tierney's character Marya is first introduced, she is one of the ballerina's in the background of a performance of Swan Lake. After she is kept in Russia and must wait for her husband to come back for her, she becomes a Prima Ballerina. Near the end of the film, Gable, in disguise as a Russian General, swims ashore and attends the theatre where his wife dances the lead in Swan Lake. You can view the scene below (in two parts because there's a scene with Gable pretending to be a doctor in the middle. Sorry for the poor quality - I recorded it with my camera off the tv). Real life Russian ballerina Natalie Leslie doubled for Tierney in the long shots.
To get ready for her role, Tierney began instruction with dance master Anton Dolin, practicing two hours a day for six weeks "just to master enough technique to get on my toes and do the few steps that would be required of me." The work was hard and Tierney soon had blistered and achy feet. Gable "was patient and considerate. One weekend he flew to Paris and came back with some salve he assured me would relieve the pain in my feet. The ointment helped." Even though the work was exhausting and painful, it gave Tierney a special love of ballet for the rest of her life.
The movie was filmed at the British MGM Studios in Hertfordshire, England and on location in Cornwall, where Gable stays to devise his plan to rescue Tierney. Outdoor locations of Russia had to be faked, as the Cold War was really gearing up. As many scenes took place at night, and with the use of some stock and newsreel footage, this was fairly easily accomplished.
Both Gable and Tierney were a little depressed at the time of filming. Gable, who had recently divorced fourth wife Lady Sylvia Ashley, still greatly missed the love of his life Carole Lombard (third wife) who had tragically died over a decade before in a plane crash while on her way home from a successful bond selling tour of the US. Tierney, suffering from mental illness, didn't socialize much with her co-star, despite her mother's urging to pursue a relationship with Gable. The two did go out to eat at a pub in Cornwall once, as was customary between a leading man and his leading lady. Gable mostly talked about Carole as Tierney sympathetically listened. "For all his he-man, no-undershirt screen image, I saw him as sweet and gentle, a hard crust with a soft center. I thought that quality was what came across on the screen and made him adored by so many."
After filming completed, Gable went to Africa to film Mogambo while Tierney remained in London for a while before going to Paris, where she met Rita Hayworth's ex-husband Prince Aly Khan. They began an intense relationship before parting the following year.
Never Let Me Go did not fare well at the box-office, despite getting good reviews:
It is cheering to have the reassurance that Clark Gable is one fellow, at least, who can still make the Soviet Union tough guys look like absolute monkeys—and does. In his latest Metro adventure, "Never Let Me Go," which was launched in a wide-screen enlargement at the Capitol yesterday, good old Clark does again what he accomplished back in 1940 in "Comrade X": he kidnaps a beautiful Russian lady right out from under the late Joe Stalin's nose. And, what's more, he does it with the coolness of a big boy taking candy away from kids.
Anyone who knows adventure fiction and what to expect from such a film will not be at all disappointed in the brand of whoop-de-do we have here. For the writing is brash and eventful, the texture of the production is fairly real and the performances by all the actors are in the appropriate make-believe style. To be sure, the whole film is romantic and just this side of ridiculous farce in an area that isn't quite that funny. But, after all, it's good old Clark's affair, you know.
~ NY Times
Romance, daring, intrigue–that’s Clark Gable’s meat. That’s Never Let Me Go–the adventures of an American newspaperman in Russia who falls in love with a ballerina (Gene Tierney), marries her, and is forced to leave the country alone. His English friend, Richard Haydn, has also married a Russian and must also leave her behind. Gable lights on a fantastic idea. Why not sneak the girls right out of Russia? He decided to buy a fishing boat, sail it from England to a beach resort near the town where Gene is performing. At night the beach is crowded with bathers. No one would notice if two of those bathers swam out beyond the breakers to a rowboat, were taken by that rowboat to the fishing vessel, and freedom. Haydn’s skeptical, but what–besides his life–does he have to lose? Gable has a fiend, a radio broadcaster in Russia, whom he contacts and together they devise a code enabling Gable to make rendezvous plans with their wives. Everything works–up to a point. But there’s a run-in with a Russian patrol boat, and after that there’s Gable masquerading as a Russian Army officer, and after that there’s a chase right into the ocean. After that–well, see for yourself.
I greatly enjoyed this film. Tierney made a lovely ballerina, as can be seen in all the promotional photos below (click to enlarge) and the story was exciting, especially near the end where you wonder how they will get away with only minutes left to go on the film. And even though Gable is obviously older than Tierney - he was 54 and she was 32 - it somehow works.
TCM isn't showing this film anytime soon, but is available on DVD. I hope everyone gets a chance to watch it.
This post is part of En Pointe: The Ballet Blogathon hosted by Christina Wehner and Love Letters to Old Hollywood. Dance on over to their blogs to check out all of the other posts!
Self-Portrait. Gene Tierney with Mickey Herskowitz. Wyden Books. 1979.
Clark Gable: A Biography. Warren G. Harris. Harmony Books, NY. 2002.