Gable, Clark (1901-1960)

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Gable, Clark (1901-1960)

An icon of Hollywood's Golden Age, Clark Gable was dubbed "The King," and so he remained, a symbol of commanding virility through dozens of indifferent films, three generations of leading ladies, and the eventual decline—but never the entire death—of his popularity. His own golden age was the 1930s, and his image—tough, confident, and handsome—reached its apogee and has spoken to all generations since in the guise of Rhett Butler, famously and frankly not giving a damn about loving and leaving the ravishing Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) in Gone with the Wind (1939).

The word macho, not yet in use in the 1930s, might have been coined for Clark Gable. The rough-hewn independence of his screen persona cannot have been unconnected to his own background. Born William Clark Gable in Ohio, the son of an itinerant oil-driller, he left school at fourteen to labor in an Akron factory. It was there that he first saw a play, determined on a life in the theater, and got himself some bit parts with a stock company before his father took him away to drill oil until he was twenty-one. Penniless, he worked at lumberjacking and other odd jobs until he joined a touring theater company run by Josephine Dillon, a veteran actress fourteen years his senior.

The young Gable was then a gangling youth with jug ears and bad teeth, which Dillon paid to have fixed. She also coached him in acting and, in 1924, became his first wife. (They divorced in 1930.) The couple settled in Hollywood where Gable picked up a few engagements as a movie extra before going on the road again, eventually making it to Broadway and thence to the lead in the Los Angeles production of The Last Mile. MGM and Warners both rejected him after screen tests, but he played a villain for Pathe in a William Boyd Western, The Painted Desert (1931), and MGM came back with a contract.

In 1931, Gable began his twenty-three-year tenure at MGM with a bit part as a milkman in The Easiest Way; by the end of the year he was a star. Not yet sporting his trademark mustache, the actor had a threatening mien well-suited to playing brutes and roughnecks, which he did in several supporting roles before starring as Norma Shearer's gangster lover, slapping her around in A Free Soul; costarring in two of seven films—Laughing Sinners and Possessed —with Joan Crawford, a pairing that made for a potent sexual charge on screen (and off); and essaying a nobler character as Garbo's ill-used swain in Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise. Also that year, he married wealthy socialite Rhea Langham, seventeen years his senior.

Swiftly established as the archetypal "man's man," tough, rugged, and confident, whose good looks and earthy sex appeal also fed the fantasies of legions of women. Gable's rating rose even higher in 1932 with the studio's incendiary combination of the actor with their newest female star, Jean Harlow, in Red Dust. They made three more films together before Harlow's untimely death during the filming of their last, Saratoga (1937). However, despite his popularity, MGM's choice of vehicles for their premier male star often appeared decidedly odd. Throughout his career, much of the material foisted upon him was run-of-the-mill, and it seemed as though, rather than capitalizing on his charisma to create films of real quality, the bosses exploited his drawing power to sell the mediocre. Efforts in 1932 to lift him out of the rut of his typecasting were even odder: reunited with Norma Shearer in the film version of Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude and quaintly, even bizarrely miscast as a clergyman restoring a fallen woman (Marion Davies) to grace in Polly of the Circus. But nothing seemed bad enough to tarnish his image or diminish his popularity.

Gable himself, though, was increasingly unhappy and made his dissatisfaction felt. In what he viewed as disciplinary action to contain his money-making asset's recalcitrance, Louis B. Mayer loaned a reluctant Gable to the then Poverty Row studio, Columbia, for a comedy to be directed by Frank Capra. The film was It Happened One Night (1934), with Claudette Colbert as a runaway heiress who found herself embroiled with a broke journalist looking for a scoop. The film was a masterpiece of screwball comedy, and Capra took full advantage of Gable's range. With the famous mustache now well in place, he delivered a thoroughly delightful characterization embodying his down-to-earth practicality, good-natured cockiness, recklessness, charm, humor, and tenderness. It was neither the first nor last newspaperman he played, but this one brought Gable his only Academy Award and the first of his two most enduring successes.

Back at MGM, it was much the same mixture as before: Gable met the challenge of Fletcher Christian with an Oscar-nominated performance in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), was perfectly cast in San Francisco (1936), survived a disaster as the Irish politician Parnell (1937), and was everybody's ideal Test Pilot (1938). But 1939 was the year in which Gable ensured his immortality as Rhett Butler. Gone with the Wind swept the board at the Oscars, except for the leading man, who, though nominated, lost out to Britain's Robert Donat. Gable, separated from his second wife since 1935, had become involved Carole Lombard, his costar in No Man of Her Own. She proved the great love of his life, and, in the midst of filming Gone with the Wind, Gable married her in a partnership that was swiftly recognized as a fairy-tale romance. Three years later the beautiful and gifted Lombard was killed in a plane crash.

A devastated Gable dealt with the shock by joining the United States Air Force, rising to the rank of major, and was off the screen until 1945. His return to MGM in Adventure, publicized with the phrase "Gable's Back and [Greer] Garson's Got Him," was not successful and began the slow decline of the star's postwar career. Prematurely aged and drinking heavily, he attempted unsuccessfully to find happiness in a brief fourth marriage to Lady Sylvia Ashley, something of a Lombard look-alike, while his film output steadily decreased, despite teamings with stars such as Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr. His public still held him in affection, however, and there were a few last successes, notably The Hucksters (1947), with Deborah Kerr, and Mogambo (1953), a remake of Red Dust with Ava Gardner subbing for Jean Harlow, in which Gable was as charismatic as ever.

Gable's MGM contract expired in 1954, and his last years were spent as a freelance in films of little distinction except for a few interesting Westerns (e.g., The Tall Men, 1955) in the "veteran cowboy" tradition to which he had proved himself well suited. In 1955 he married his fifth wife, Kay Spreckels, another Lombard type, who was pregnant in 1960 when her husband joined Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift on location in the Nevada desert for John Huston's The Misfits. Written by Arthur Miller, this bleak and powerful portrait of lost men roping wild stallions to sell was deeply ironic in that the protagonists were as doomed off-screen as their characters were in the film. The production was fraught with difficul-ties, and Gable, who insisted on doing his own stunts, was exhausted by the physical demands this made on him. His weighty performance, considered by some his best ever, was his last. He lived neither to receive the critical acclaim that greeted it, nor to see his first and only child, a son, who was born after his death. Gable suffered a fatal heart attack at age fifty-nine, shortly after The Misfits finished shooting, and Hollywood mourned the passing of its only king.

—Robyn Karney

Further Reading:

Samuels, Charles. Clark Gable. New York, Coward-McCann, 1962.

Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. London, Angus & Robertson, 1982.

Thomson, David. A Biographical Dictionary of Film. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Tornabene, Lyn. Long Live the King. London, W. H. Allen, 1977.