Clark Gable – The King of Hollywood

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– Sesi Saradi

We all cherish memories of going to the movies. Movies naturally reflect our changing styles, tastes, ideas and human values. From silent films to today’s most advanced digitally made films, motion pictures came a long way.

The history of Hollywood, for the matter the history of World cinema can never be written without the mention of Clark Gable. And who is Clark Gable? There will be very few people in this world who had not read “Gone with the Wind” and even lesser people who had not heard about it. And those who are fortunate to watch the movie that was made based on this book can never forget Clark Gable who immortalized the character Rhett Butler. But before and after “Gone with the Wind”, Gable acted in many films. What is the stuff that made him tick in Hollywood as ‘The King’ for thirty years? What made Clark Gable, such an enduring phenomena?

There are two basic periods in the history of motion pictures – pre sound and post sound. Likewise there are also two basic periods in the history of male image in Hollywood – pre Gable and post Gable! He became the watershed, the line dividing the end of an era and the beginning of another. His success came along with sound. Gable and Talkies ushered a different kind of films. In retrospection we can now say Gable was in the right place at the right time with the right face and most importantly with the right voice. In a movie world where sound had turned princes into paupers, his voice made him the actor he was.

The men admired him and the women loved him. It will be more appropriate to say they drooled over him. He became the ultimate in masculinity and his impact on women was shattering. After the hugely successful “It happened one night” (1934), co-starring Claudetta Colbert, women all over America coined a phrase that became an ultimatum to all American men, “who do you think you are? Clark Gable?”. Such was the hold he had on generations of American women. Gable became a paragon to a whole generation and World War 11 sent the image all over the world.

Clark Gable was born William Clark Gable on 1st February, 1901 in Cadiz, Ohio.  According to his standard biography, he went to Akron as a high school graduate as a 17 year old and saw “Bird of Paradise” and was bitten by the acting bug. After his step-mother Jenny’s death, he joined his father’s business but the rigors of oil drilling made him fled the wells and he joined the Jewell Players, a theater company. He started to write his name as Clarke Gabel and often played bewigged old men. In Oklahoma city he met an acting teacher Josephine Dillon, 17 years his senior. When she moved to Hollywood, he followed her and married her in 1924. He worked as an extra in 11 films, such as ‘Lubitsch’s Forbidden Paradise’ and ‘Stroheins, The Merry Widow’.  When nothing substantial came forth, he went back to stage. When he got to Broadway in Sophie Treaswell’s ‘Machinal’, his manly presence won him good reviews and favorable audience response. The play, ‘The Last Mile’ attracted Hollywood attention and Clark Gable ‘arrived’.

One day in late 1930, when he was asked ‘can you ride?’ he said, ‘sure’, and that lie made him a star. In his first film, The Painted Desert, he lacked the moustache, which later became a trademark. Still he had the magnetic charm that endeared him to millions of movie goers.

In ‘The Painted Desert’, he played a bad man with devil may care virulence. His voice helped him immensely. The film was released at the beginning of 1931, and before the year ended 12 Gable films reached the screen.

In 1932, ‘Red Dust’ happened, and as the saying goes, the rest is history. Gable initially refused all his memorable films. He accepted Red Dust reluctantly. The Gable- Mary Astor- Jean Harlow triangle certified Gable as the would be gentleman who was briefly smitten by ladies but fell for the golden hearted tarts.

One clear example of his manliness and enduring charm with the audience is, when MGM remade ‘Red Dust’ as ‘Mogambo’, in 1953, Gable was cast in the same role with Grace Kelly and Ava gardner as his co-stars.

When the shooting for ‘Dancing Lady’ was over, Gable took a ten week vacation, which was unheard at the MGM. Louise B Mayer ‘loaned’ him to Columbia for ‘It Happened One Night’ as a punishment. When most heroines rejected the film Claudette Colbert was roped in with a promise of full salary for making a film in four weeks and not a day late. Released in early 1934, ‘It Happened One Night’ was a dream event. There have been many great performances in films, but few transcendental ones. Gable’s in ‘It Happened One Night’ is one of them. In this film Gable distilled the mannerisms of the Thirties in the way he snapped down the brim of his hat or slung his jacket over his shoulder. He was a study in unconsciously artful pantomime. Most of the movie was shot outdoors. It was a style of film making that proved ideal for Gable. He combined masculinity with almost ballet like physical grace. The film made a clean sweep of Academy Awards for the year 1935. It bagged the ‘Best Film’, ‘Best Director’ (Frank Capra), ‘Best Screenplay( Robert  Riskin), Best Heroine, and of course, Best Hero. It got no great critical acclaim. It was neither created as a classic nor was it received like one. It was a natural, an original, an accident in the history of movie making, and a miracle! A miracle like Clark Gable.

After ‘It happened one Night’ and before ‘Gone with the Wind’ Gable acted in seventeen films. Seventeen successful films. “Mutiny on the Bounty” being one of them. Gable was worried about his ability to imitate British accent required by the role of Fletcher Christian and felt he would look ridiculous in pigtail and knee breeches. But that role proved to be one of his most virile parts and it won him his second Academy Award nomination, but inexplicably lost it. However, it won an Oscar for best film and was the top box-office attraction of 1935.

Then came ‘Wife v/s Secretary’ (1936), which was enormously popular. Myrna Loy as wife and Jean Harlow as secretary to Gable, who played a magazine publisher, who was madly in love with his wife. He won the hearts of his female fans by becoming the perfect husband. The shimmering wardrobe, the gleaming sets added to the popularity of the film. Gable, in impeccably tailored suits might have been irresistible to the audiences of 1936. Even now after almost 80 years, it is a feast to the eye to watch Gable in this movie.

‘Test Pilot’ (1938) was the top grosser that year and when there was a nationwide contest to choose King and Queen of Hollywood, Gable was elected ‘King” to no one’s surprise. This publicity has lasting consequence and until his death, he was addressed as ‘the King’.

With ‘Gone with the Wind’ (1939), Gable became a living legend. He was so perfect for the part of Rhett Butler that it is surprising to discover how close he came to never playing it. Those were the days of studios and their bosses. They held the strings of their actors. ‘Gone with the Wind’ was being made by Warner, but Gable has contract with MGM. David O’ Selznick bought the book for $ 50,000/- a record at that time. He loathed to do business with MGM, and risked miscasting to be ordered by Louis B Mayer. But it was futile running away from Gable, because the novel has become the biggest best seller in the publishing history and the readers cast him in their minds as Rhett Butler. They refused to accept any other actor for the role. Mayer was willing to ‘lend’ Gable, provided the film was distributed by his company.

But, to their utter amazement, Gable told them that he never read the book and after he was forced to read the book told that, it was not a role for him and he had no desire or intention to play it. But Gable was in need of money, as he had fallen in love with Carole Lombard and his estranged second wife, Rhea Langham told that she would not give him a divorce unless he paid her a quarter of a million dollars. Mayer cajoled Gable into accepting the film with a hundred-thousand-dollar bonus, a princely sum at that time.

Gable did one of the most memorable parts of his career by personal dilemma and this way the wishes of millions of his fans had been fulfilled, and he was made a celluloid immortality. More than 75 years have elapsed since the movie was released but even now, much to Gable’s dismay in later years, he was remembered most for his immortalization of Rhett Butler. It is impossible to read about Rhett Butler’s mannerisms without automatically arriving at the image of Clark Gable.

The film needed Gable and was delayed for a year because he was otherwise committed. But the search for Scarlett O Hara went on and on and finally British Actress Vivian Leigh was selected for the role.

The role which everyone thought to be a cakewalk for Gable was an ordeal for him. When he was forced to break down and cry on screen, he refused to do it. Two different versions of the scene were shot. Finally Gable agreed the scene in which he faced the camera. He was so wrought up when the shot was canned that it took only one take to achieve one of the finest moments of his career.

From the day it opened, ‘Gone with the Wind’ was a phenomenon. It made more money than any other film in history and won an unprecedented ten Academy Awards. It could have been eleven, as even though nominated Gable lost it, inexplicably. According to one of those unconfirmed stories that made the rounds in those days, Mayer ordered the powerful Metro to block vote to side with Robert Donat, in ‘Good bye, Mr. Chips’, a home production that needed more help at the box-office.

The continuing appeal of ‘Gone with the Wind’ might be attributed to the open ending in both the novel and the film. Most books when molded for celluloid invariably disappoint the viewers, but ‘Gone with the Wind’ satisfies the imagination of its readers. In the last part when Scarlett admits she loved him all along, Butler, already weary of everything and says, ‘my dear, I don’t give a damn’. This dialogue sounded authentic only when Gable uttered it .It suited Gable’s devil-may-care attitude. Even in the end Scarlett hoped that she can lure Rhett back. The audience can leave the theater with satisfying answers, which suit their temperament.

‘Gone with the Wind’, placed Gable at the very peak .It is a dangerous spot to be in for any actor. Can Gabel top this film? He did not even try. It would have been trying for the impossible. And he was too happy in his personal life. He had married Carole Lombard on 29th March, 1939 and had taken her arm in arm as his reigning queen, to the now legendary Atlanta Premiere of ‘Gone with the Wind’ on 15th, December of that year. In his ranch he achieved such peace and contentment with her that he seriously started talking of retiring permanently as soon as his MGM contract expired. Lombard is surely the most important woman in his life. In her he found the female companion who always seemed his goal.

In 1942 Gable was named chairman of Hollywood’s Victory committee and he assigned his wife to go to Indiana and open a bond drive near Fort Wayne, her home town. She sold more than two million dollars in bonds and anxious to get back to Gable and unable to be separated from him anymore, she cancelled her train reservation and flew back with her mother and her agent, Otto Winkler. On 16th January, 1942, the TWA sky liner crashed head on into Table Mountain, leaving no survivors. Gable is crazed with grief and shut himself at the ranch and insisted on preserving everything just as Lombard had left it, down to the face powder she spilled in front of her mirror.

‘Somewhere I’ll find you’ the film he was acting at that time was stalled for weeks, but Gable was too much of a professional and came back to finish it, where he played a war correspondent whose brother dies in action. The screenplay contained painful lines about death and heroism. Its box-office success can be attributed to people’s curiosity to watch Gable after the death of his wife. This was Gable’s last film for three years. He was 41, but was enlisted in the Air Force, where he showed what could be called suicidal courage. Even Adolf Hitler was not immune to his charm. Hitler esteemed Gable above all other actors and during Second World War, offered a sizable amount to anyone who could capture and return Gable unscathed to him!

In 1944, discharged from the Air Force with a rank of Major, he again joined MGM. From then on MGM began to ‘respectised’ him .Gone was the disreputable gay of the 30’s. Now he was Major Gable and was given roles accordingly. But his last years at MGM had few rewards. In his last nine years at MGM Gable’s films were reorientations of his previous movies. ‘Mogambo’(1953) was a remake of ‘Red Dust’. Gable played the role superbly and his scenes with both Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly proved his sexual aura was still undiminished at fifty-two.

‘Betrayed’(1954) was his last film with Lana Turner and also with MGM. The studio did not renew his contract when it expired, considering he was no longer worth the $520,000 a year he was getting. But amazed by the box-office strength of ‘Mogambo”, MGM had second thoughts and tried to lure him back several times, but to no avail. Away from MGM, Gable became the highest paid free- lance actors.

The year 1955 was good for him, personally and professionally. That year he married Kay Spreckels, a Lombard look alike. She mellowed him into a quite tenderness and led him back to clean living on his ranch, ‘Encine’. At the ranch, with Kay and her children, Joan and Bunkers, he regained the will to live which he had lost with Lombard’s death. His pride as an actor also needed a boost and he got it with ‘The Tall Men’ (1955), ‘The King and Four Queens’ (1956) and ‘Band of Angels’(1957).

In 1959 came ‘But not for Me’. Gable had come to accept his age and he liked playing the theoretical producer who is wooed by a much younger actress Carroll Baker. Under Walter Lang’s sophisticated direction Gable gave a sensible and very engaging performance. It is in this movie, where, in rejecting Carroll Baker’s advances he admits that he is fifty-seven and is getting ‘too old for this kind of thing”.

Here we must say an important thing about Gable which is perhaps less known. We all know that Superman’s name is ‘Clark Kent’. But most people do not know the fact that Clark Gable is half the inspiration for this name.(the other half Kent came from Kent Taylor). So, now when you read the comics or watch the films of Superman, think about Clark Gable who is one half of him.

In 1960 came ‘It Started in Naples’, with Sophia Loren. While making the film in Italy, he received the screenplay of ‘The Misfits’. Arthur Miller conceived the original story ‘The Mustangs’ as the saga of misplaced cowboys left behind by the modern day west, who make a miserable living out of chasing wild horses and selling them for dog food.

As a matter of pride, Gable needed one last great film. The screenplay was laden with symbolic overtones as the mustang chasing begins to stand for the struggle between conformity and self-pride, with Gaylord’s soul as the battle ground. The character’s nick name became Gay, short for Gable. Gable trained for the part of Gay as he had never had before. He studied nights, trying to find a new meaning in the part. And he started the picture in a glow, nobody knew it yet, but his wife was expecting a child, who was to be his only son.

‘The Misfits’ was shot almost totally in chronological sequences and scene by scene Gable grows on the screen into a new awareness of himself. At the end of ‘The Misfits’ Gay-Gable is supremely relaxed as he accepts his destiny. He is through ‘with roping a dream’ and knows he must stay with Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe) because she is the only thing he has to.

In ‘The Misfits’ he reached a new stature as an actor and the film turned out to be his last. On 4th November,1960 Gable said his last dialogue in front of a camera, ‘Just head for the big star. It will take us home’. Four days later he suffered a heart attack and died on 16th November, never to see his only son John Clark Gable, born posthumously in March,1961.

He was laid to rest beside Carole Lombard at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in the shrine he had built for her when she died.

We can’t watch ‘the Misfits’ without a twinge of sadness, as Gable struggles with the horses straining his heart to the limit for one more shot, one more film, one more performance. His diligently performed stunts took it’s toll on his already guarded health. Many also think that the acrimony between Marilyn and Arthur Miller spilled over everyone and the long drawn out battle probably contributed more than anything else to Gable’s death.

Gable is the man among boys, the moon among stars. A man who professed himself not to be an actor but just a lucky gay, spent years of hard work learning a trade he was diffident about. His superb timing, his off-the-cuff delivery, his infinite physical grace look so spontaneous that many hardly know that they were painstakingly perfected through theatrical training and personal sacrifice.

Clark Gable the man is dead and buried, but his extraordinary creations have survived him. Actors may come and go, some may become stars and shine brightly for some time and fade away. But Gable was a king for 30 years and persons like him just don’t fade away. As long as there are movies and moviegoers Clark Gable will always shine brightly. The brightest star Hollywood had ever produced.

Even now while we are reading about him, somewhere, in some place, he might be there on some Television or Movie screen, entertaining his audience. Death is only an illusion compared to this overwhelming reality. Gable, the actor is alive and well and lit up the screen whenever he makes an appearance.