William Clark Gable

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William Clark Gable

William Clark Gable (1901-1960), America's top male film star for nearly 3 decades, was idolized by millions as the symbol of ideal masculinity.

Clark Gable was born in Cadiz, Ohio, on Feb. 1, 1901, of Pennsylvania-Dutch farming stock. He quit high school to work in Ohio factories, Oklahoma oilfields, and Oregon lumber camps.

At 18 Gable determined to become an actor. Clumsy, untrained, and with little visible talent, he worked at various (often unpaid) jobs in stock companies. In 1923 Josephine Dillon, an acting teacher 11 years his senior, took him in hand. In 1924 they married and spent several difficult years in Hollywood. Gable worked as a movie extra and unskilled stage actor while being shaped for stardom by his wife. In 1927 the marriage collapsed. Gable left to play stock in Texas and in 1928 landed the lead in a New York production, Machinal. Unemployed thereafter for nearly a year, he returned to a West Coast stage role in The Last Mile and won his first real film part, in a western.

In 1930 Gable was finally given a contract at $350 a week by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (M-G-M). A small part led Gable to leading roles opposite stars Norma Shearer, Jean Harlow, and Greta Garbo. It Happened One Night, a 1934 comedy directed by Frank Capra, won Gable an "Oscar" and propelled him to "superstar" status, with a salary of $211,000 per year and mobs of women rioting hysterically at his public appearances.

Gable starred in a succession of critical and box-office triumphs, including Boomtown, San Francisco, Mutiny on the Bounty, and Gone with the Wind. He was a modest, hardworking "company man," and his playing mainly projected his own forceful personality and character, which, despite his success, remained essentially uncorrupted.

Marriage at 29 to Ria Langham, a wealthy 47-year-old divorcée, taught Gable social poise but did not alter his preference for simple outdoor living. He divorced his second wife. Marriage to young Carole Lombard, a top star of the 1930s, led to an extended idyll that ended tragically with her death in an air crash in 1942, just as Gable was enlisting—at 41—as a private in the Air Corps.

Gable returned to postwar prominence in a series of relatively undistinguished films. A brief marriage to Lady Sylvia Ashley ended in divorce. In 1954 he left M-G-M (after 23 years and 54 pictures) to become the most highly paid free-lance actor of the decade. Happily married to Kay Williams Spreckels, he remained the unchallenged "king" of Hollywood until his sudden death on Nov. 16, 1960, after completing a brutally strenuous performance in The Misfits.

Further Reading

Although a great deal was written about Gable while he was alive, all that remains useful are two posthumous volumes, Charles Samuels, The King: A Biography of Clark Gable (1962), and Chester Williams, Gable (1968). Additional material can be found in such reminiscences as Lionel Barrymore, We Barrymores (1951).

Additional Sources

Clark Gable, Boston: Little, Brown, 1986.

Garceau, Jean, Gable: a pictorial biography, New York: Grosset& Dunlap, 1977 1961.

Lewis, Judy, Uncommon knowledge, New York: Pocket Books, 1994.

Morella, Joe, Gable & Lombard & Powell & Harlow, London: W.H. Allen, 1976.

Scagnetti, Jack, The life and loves of Gable, Middle Village, N.Y.:J. David Publishers, 1976.

Tornabene, Lyn, Long live The King: a biography of Clark Gable, New York: Putnam, 1976.

Wallace, Charles B., The young Mr. Gable: an illustrated account of Clark Gable's early years in his native Ohio, 1901-1920, Cadiz, Ohio: Harrison County Historical Society, 1983.

Wayne, Jane Ellen, Clark Gable: portrait of a misfit, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Wayne, Jane Ellen, Gable's women, New York: Prentice Hall, 1987; South Yarmouth, Ma.: J. Curley, 1987. □

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