Despite the busy-ness of my life, I do manage to get in some recreational reading now and then. It’s not often I spend time reading something I’ve already read, but this month I made an exception for Warren G. Harris’s excellent 2010 work, Clark Gable: A Biography.
The cover depicts Gable at the height of his powers. The photo, taken probably in the late 1930s, shows Gable in white tie and tails, his dark hair slicked back, his mustache prominent but not overly so. His head is turned, a pose he preferred so as to distract from his large ears. He’s holding a cigarette, commonplace at the time for both men and women; Gable was a chain-smoker from his teenage years onward. He has his other hand in his pocket, giving him a sense of being at ease, despite the formality of his suit. Although there’s nothing else in the photo to use as a reference, the viewer gets the impression that Gable was a large man, and he was, for his time: 6’1″ tall and 190 pounds when he gave his most famous performance, as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind (1939).
He was known as the King of Hollywood, and over a 66-film career that spanned more than 35 years, he reached a status of celebrity and renown that no actor, before or since, has come close to achieving.
A humble beginning for a future king.
Born in Cadiz, Ohio, on February 1, 1901, Gable grew up on a farm. He worked in oil fields and in a tire factory before heading West to follow his dream of being an actor. It was a profession he learned the hard way: in community theater and summer stock, eventually to Broadway and then Hollywood. After some bit parts in late-1920s silent films (including the original Ben-Hur in 1925), he received his first real notice for his first credited role in a “talkie,” a 1931 Western titled The Painted Desert. The hero was played by William Boyd, who later gained fame in a series of films as Hopalong Cassidy, but Gable’s villainous turn as Rance Brett turned eyes, and ears; his looks and his voice inspired Life magazine to call him, “All man…and then some.”
In those days, a handful of major studios dominated the lucrative movie-making industry, cranking out dozens of films per year with a stable of actors, actresses and directors under contract to the studio. Gable signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and like others in his profession, he worked 40 weeks a year for a flat salary. It was rare that stars got a percentage of the box office, and only the biggest of them were able to negotiate relatively-minor perks like set hours, special food or dressing rooms. By the 1950s, the “studio system” was fading away, as more and more stars became free-lancers, signing with whatever studio they wanted for deals that would call for them to make only a few movies, perhaps only one, before they moved on. But in the thirties, when Gable rose through the ranks, the system was firmly in place. The downside was that it didn’t offer its stars much in the way of creative freedom. The upside, though, was that a hard-working and talented actor could have a steady income, no small thing during the Depression, and the actor learned the ropes. For Gable, who had grown up poor and worked his way to Hollywood, the system not only provided him with a healthy living, it taught him how to be a professional: showing up on time, knowing your lines, getting along with castmates and directors, and doing the work. Movies were made on short schedules and tight budgets back then. Actors who caused problems on the set, or who were tardy or absent a lot, didn’t last too long.
Gable’s turn as Brett was the first of an astonishing 12 films that he appeared in for 1931 release. He had a variety of roles, but mostly was in the romantic lead. It didn’t take long for female movie-goers to take notice, and they wanted to see Gable romancing women. Men liked him because he was everything they saw themselves as wanting to be: tall, dashingly attractive, with a strong voice and masculine manner. He didn’t take crap from anybody, not from men who tried to push him around and not even from women who spurned his advances. And yet he didn’t force himself on them; by today’s standards, he would’ve been viewed as domineering and sometimes even abusive, but in the thirties, he was everything a man wanted to be, and everything a woman wanted a man to be. They proved it by flocking to his movies and his personal appearances.
It certainly didn’t hurt that Gable was a very good actor. His rise was meteoric; he won an Academy Award for his role as a newspaper reporter in the comedy It Happened One Night (1934).
Gable was nominated for another Oscar a year later for playing Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty, but his career was not yet at its zenith. That would come in 1939, with his starring role in what was and remains one of the most famous and popular films in the history of cinema: Gone With the Wind.
Nobody else could play Rhett Butler.
The best-selling novel about a Southern belle and her star-crossed love affair with a dashing Confederate sea captain was published in 1936, and it topped the best-seller lists that year and the next. Plans for a movie version started almost as soon as it hit bookstore shelves, and there was little doubt that the role of Rhett Butler would go to Gable. If, that is, he wanted it; Gable initially had little interest, plunking the 1,037-page book down in his bathroom after getting it as a gift. His previous experience in making a sprawling, period-piece drama, 1937’s Parnell, had not gone well, either during the shoot or at the box office. Also, he didn’t get along with producer David O. Selznick. Eventually, Gable relented and agreed to play the role, although he didn’t expect it to amount to much.
He was wrong, of course. Gone With the Wind became the biggest box-office smash of all time, when its numbers are adjusted for inflation ($3.73 billion), and renowned as one of the greatest films ever made. Rhett Butler’s doomed romance with the spoiled plantation heiress, Scarlett O’Hara (played by Vivien Leigh, who beat out over a thousand actresses for the role of a lifetime), is still considered the greatest romantic pairing in cinema history. The electricity between them on-screen is almost a visible thing. Gable was 38 when he filmed the movie, Leigh was 26. Ironically enough, Leigh was one of the few actresses Gable worked with who did not also become romantically, or at least sexually, involved with him during or after the filming.
The King and his harem.
Ah, yes, the women. There were women, a lot of them, in the life of Clark Gable. He was married five times, and the list of his conquests—or partners, as it might be more politically correct to say, depending on your point of view—is almost endless. He was involved at one time or another with some of the most famous and beautiful actresses and socialites of his day. His first two wives were older women who helped his career by providing him with acting and voice lessons, snappy wardrobes and dental work for his famously bad teeth (he eventually would get dentures), not to mention general financial support as he worked his way up the acting ladder. Along the way were affairs with co-stars, bit players and many more, and he was known to consort with call girls. A lot of them would be what are called “hook-ups” today. Some were serious affairs that lasted years, and one of those would lead to his third and most tragic marriage.
If it could be said that Gable had one true love in his life, it was the woman who would be his third wife, Carole Lombard.
Gable and Lombard worked together on screen in No Man of Her Own (1932) but their romantic affair didn’t begin until four years later. Gable was still married to his second wife, socialite Maria Langham, but his salary from Gone With the Wind finally gave him the financial means to divorce Langham and marry Lombard in 1939. Thus began the happiest period of Gable’s life, although it would be short and end in tragedy. The couple bought a ranch house in Encino, near Los Angeles, still largely undeveloped at the time, and worked hard at starting a family (“burning the sheets,” according to one friend). Lombard was seven years his junior and a star in her own right. She’d been around the block a time or two and could match Gable’s love of hunting, fishing and the outdoors. Having grown up with older brothers, she also had an impressive vocabulary of profanity, and she wasn’t bamboozled by Gable’s masculinity; she once told a friend that Gable was too much in a hurry in bed, saying, “I love the guy, but to tell you the truth, he’s not a hell of a good lay.”
But they were happy, calling each other “Ma” and “Pa,” and spent time on their ranch puttering around in the gardens and repairing fences. When the U.S. entered World War II in late 1941, Lombard encouraged her husband to suspend his acting career and join the military, although he was nearing his 41st birthday at the time. For her part, Lombard enthusiastically agreed to lead war bond drives. She was on her way back from a successful appearance in her native Indiana early in 1942 when her plane crashed outside Las Vegas. There were no survivors.
A king in mourning puts it all on the line.
Gable was devastated. A few months later, he volunteered for the Army Air Corps, going through boot camp and then Officer Candidate School with men half his age. Trained as a gunner for B-17 bombers, Gable spent most of his service making training and propaganda films, not unlike many other Hollywood stars, including Ronald Reagan and future Superman George Reeves. But Gable also worked hard at being one of the guys, and flew on several combat missions over Europe, often coming under fire. It was said that Adolf Hitler was a fan of Gable the actor and offered a bounty to the Luftwaffe pilot who could shoot down Gable’s plane; the pilot would get double if Gable survived and was captured. Told of the bounty, Gable declared that he would not be bailing out if his plane was going down.
Gable returned to making movies and worked steadily. He also occasionally appeared on radio but disdained the new medium of television, turning down many offers for series and other appearances that would’ve paid well. The rapid rise of TV viewership in the late forties and throughout the fifties caused an alarming dip in movie attendance, although big stars like Gable continued to be in demand. He ended his association with MGM and became a free-lancer. He was miserly with his money, so even with his two previous divorces—a total that rose to three when he split with wife number four, another socialite by the name of Sylvia Ashley, in 1952 after three years of marriage (Gable told friends that although Sylvia was “dynamite” in bed, he must’ve been drunk when he proposed)—he was a wealthy man by the time of the mid-fifties.
As Gable aged and changed, so did his roles. He knew his fans wanted to see him as a romantic lead, but he came to disdain parts that had him involved with younger women. A notable exception was Grace Kelly, who was nearly 30 years his junior when they made Mogambo on location in Africa in 1953. The affair was real and, as always, there were rumors that they would marry, but they didn’t; Kelly did well for herself, though, marrying Prince Rainier III of Monaco in 1956, a union that lasted until her untimely death in a car accident in 1982.
What turned out to be Gable’s final movie was The Misfits, and it may have contributed to his death. Filming of the modern Western took place in southern Nevada in 1960. Production delays caused the shooting schedule to be pushed back into the summer, when the cast and crew had to deal with the intense desert heat. Gable also performed many of his own stunts, including being dragged by a horse. Even worse, the famously disciplined actor had to deal with constant delays and other problems caused by the drug addiction of one of his co-stars, Montgomery Clift, and the drug use and emotional problems of his female lead, Marilyn Monroe.
The movie is notable for two things: not only was it Gable’s final picture, it was also Monroe’s, although she lived another two years before taking her own life at 36. The other is that Monroe reportedly appeared nude in the film, but director John Huston decided not to include the footage in the final cut. If he had, it would’ve been the first such scene in an American film since the advent of sound. (European films had been featuring nudity, almost exclusively of the female variety, since before the war.)
Gable suffered a heart attack at home shortly after returning from Nevada, but appeared to be on the mend after several days in the hospital. He was tended to there by his fifth and final wife, Kay Williams, whom he had married in 1955. Williams was five months pregnant with Gable’s son, and he got to listen to the baby’s heartbeat through a stethoscope. But on the night of November 16, while sitting in bed reading a magazine, he suffered one final, massive heart attack. His death came less than three months from his 60th birthday.
Williams publicly blamed Monroe for causing the stress that killed her husband, although his lifelong smoking habit, not to mention his drinking, undoubtedly had something to do with it. And, like most men of that era, Gable disdained anything that resembled a physical fitness regimen, aside from occasional hunting and fishing trips and horseback riding on his ranch.
Four months later, their son, John Clark, was born. He was Gable’s only “legitimate” child; back in 1935, his affair with actress Loretta Young produced a daughter, Judith, whom he never acknowledged as his child. While perhaps cruel, it was not uncommon in those days; in fact, the girl’s own mother pretended that the baby was someone else’s whom she had adopted. The child would grow up as Judy Lewis, taking the surname of her step-father, discovering her true parentage only as an adult. She became an actress and then a psychotherapist, passing away in 2011 at 76.
John Clark Gable never knew his father, of course, and largely avoided being compared to his old man on the movie screen. He became interested in cars, something he inherited from his father, and turned it into a profession, running a repair service and competing in dirt-track racing. He was named “Rookie of the Year” for the Baja 1000 in 1983, often pushing his car to 140 miles an hour over some of the same Mexican lands where his dad would go hunting. That same year, his mother Kay died after undergoing triple-bypass heart surgery, just months before turning 67.
John Clark married in 1985 and fathered a daughter and a son, made one movie–a Western titled Bad Jim, which went straight to video–and experienced financial difficulties, despite inheriting a substantial estate from his mother. In late 1996 he put his father’s 1934 Oscar up for auction. It was purchased by director Steven Spielberg for $607,500; Spielberg promptly donated the statuette back to the Academy for permanent display in its museum in Beverly Hills.
Gable’s grandson, Clark James, known professionally as Clark Gable III, would resemble his namesake more than his father did, and would also get more involved in show business. He did some modeling and developed a line of menswear and surfing accessories. In 2011, at age 23, he was arrested for shining a laser pointer at an airplane cockpit, serving ten days in jail. For three seasons he hosted a reality TV show, Cheaters. In 2017, his girlfriend gave birth to Clark Gable’s great-granddaughter. But Clark III was battling his own demons, and he died of a drug overdose in February 2019. His father, disgusted at his son’s drug habit, refused to pay for his funeral. Clark III’s older sister, Kayley, is an actress who’s had some bit parts in films. She also produced a Gable great-granddaughter, born in 2015.
The legacy of a king.
Gable died when I was four years old, and I never saw any of his movies, even on television, until Gone With the Wind made its first TV appearance in the fall of 1976, during my sophomore year in college. My maternal grandmother had raved about Gable; “He was so handsome,” I remember her saying. The three-hour, 58-minute film was aired on NBC over two nights. The first one was a Sunday, November 7th, to be precise, and I watched it in my apartment in Platteville on the black-and-white TV shared by me and my roommate. The next night, I went down the block to my paternal grandparents’ home and watched Part 2 in color. The two-part event averaged a 64.5 share, meaning nearly two-thirds of the TVs in use in the entire country were tuned in to the film. (They still rank 8th and 9th on the list of highest-rated prime time broadcast programs.)
The night after the film’s Part 2 aired, I was over at the offices of our student newspaper at UW-Platteville, The Exponent. I was the sports editor, and on Tuesday nights we had a staff meeting to put together the week’s paper. All the talk around the table was about the movie; like me, the other students had never seen it during its occasional re-releases in theaters, and the TV presentation was their first look at not only the film, but in many cases of Clark Gable himself. And even then, nearly 40 years after he made the movie, and almost exactly 17 years after his death, he had an effect on women: one of our fellow editors, a very proper young lady who shall remain nameless, blurted out, “Clark Gable…I’d love to go to bed with him.”
Joan Crawford had once said that a woman couldn’t help but want to sleep with Gable, and certainly a lot of them did, willingly. There were never any stories about Gable forcing himself on any of them. Yet even those who never knew him that intimately admired him as a professional and a gentleman. Doris Day, who starred with Gable in one of his last films, 1958’s Teacher’s Pet, said, “He was as masculine as any man I’ve ever known, and as much a little boy as a grown man could be. It was this combination that had such a devastating effect on women.” Another co-star (from Any Number Can Play), Audrey Totter, said, “He was a sensitive and considerate man, not at all like the rough-and-tumble roles he sometimes played.”
More than being known as a legendary swordsman, Gable was renowned for his dedication as an actor. In 1957 he made Band of Angels and one of his co-stars was Sidney Poitier, then 33 years old and six years away from his Oscar-winning role in Lilies of the Field. Poitier said working with Gable was “a lesson in professionalism.” Gable was always prepared, Poitier said. “He came to the set each day knowing every word of his dialogue–every word.” Gable, he said, was “an old, tough professional who had been pounded into shape by the grueling regimen of the proving ground that was the American film business in the vibrant thirties, where one could learn only by doing, doing and doing.”
What did men think of Gable? Those who saw him only on the movie screen undoubtedly wanted to be like him: ruggedly handsome, big and powerful, confident, and of course every woman’s fantasy. (One wonders, how many wives back in the thirties and forties dared ask their husbands, “Honey, tonight could you talk to me like Clark Gable?”) As for those men who got to know him, their opinions of him only got higher. Longtime reporter Joe Hyams reminisced about Gable in this 2001 column from the Los Angeles Times: A Man’s Man Off the Screen, Too.
Since Gable’s death, many new Hollywood stars have emerged, but none have matched his legend. Off hand, the only one I can think of who might come close to Gable, in terms of his sex appeal and his work ethic, is Tom Cruise, whom I wrote about last year: Refusing to live on cruise control. But as good as he has been and continues to be–I’m looking forward to his next film, Top Gun: Maverick, next summer–Cruise will never match Gable, and would probably be the first to admit it, when it comes to overall popularity. In terms of acting ability, Gable was never considered the best in the world, and isn’t today, either. The Cinema Archives ranked the top 100 male actors of all time, putting Gable 38th on its list, with Cruise 30th. (The site’s top 5: Robert De Niro, James Stewart, Marlon Brando, Humphrey Bogart and Jack Nicholson. Several other Gable contemporaries, including John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Robert Mitchum, are ahead of both.)
We remember Gable today through his films, of course, but there are lessons men can learn from the way he lived his life. The womanizing is something that few men can get away with, no matter what the era, without the problems that come with it. (Although, if we’re really honest, most men would love to have women falling all over them as they did for Gable.) After Carole Lombard’s death, Gable often said that he missed her terribly, and during their short marriage it was said that she had largely put the kibosh on her husband’s wandering eye. And of course he had the advantage of being innately well-built and good-looking, things many men can’t naturally match. But he was also well-mannered, a sharp dresser and, as many men and women called him, a true gentleman. Those are traits that are learned, and mastered only by dedication and self-discipline. No matter how talented you might be, no actor can make all those movies for all those years without knowing what he’s doing and going out there to the set, every day, to do the job. That’s the kind of thing any man can apply to his profession, whatever it might be.
He was the King of Hollywood, but never really liked being called that, and he certainly didn’t act like it. Doris Day said, “There was nothing of the King about his personality. Just the opposite. Utter simplicity. Uncomplicated. A man who lived on a simple, down to earth scale.”
That, I think, is a legacy any man would be proud to have.