Enduring Icon of Hollywood’s Golden Era
Although Clark Gable has been a larger-than-life symbol of Hollywood for decades, his iconic status rests largely on three perfectly fitting roles from the 1930s.
Born in 1901, Gable began acting in the silent movies of the 1920s. Making the adjustment to talkies later in that decade, he was ready for the leap to stardom as the Depression unfolded.
Clark Gable’s 59 years (February 1, 1901 – November 16, 1960) were brimming with tragedy and scandal, sex and love, failure and success – and those were just in his films. Whether he’s onscreen racing Scarlett O’Hara out of danger as the Old South collapses in flames around them or off-screen mourning the untimely death of his beloved Carole Lombard, the fascination with the King of Hollywood still endures half a century after his death.
Through 81 movies, Gable ran the gamut of film roles – from sinister working-class thugs to war heroes, to hard-bitten reporters, to passionate lovers, to daredevil aviators, to defiant seamen, to cowboy misfits.
Throw in a doctor and a priest, and you have a pretty diverse career.
Yet, Gable was at his best playing those characters closest to his nature, men with raw sexuality as potent as their charming wit, and sensitive hearts hidden beneath their rough exteriors.
On his 109th birthday, we remember three of Gable’s most memorable films from the Golden 1930s: Red Dust, It Happened One Night, and Gone with the Wind.
Red Dust (1932)
Gable and Jean Harlow had already appeared together in the gangster film The Secret Six (1931), but it wasn’t until a year later with Victor Fleming’s Red Dust that their off-screen friendship blossomed and their on-screen chemistry sparked.
Gable portrays Dennis Carson, an intense rubber plantation overseer in Indochina caught between the brash prostitute Vantine (Harlow) and ladylike Barbara (Mary Astor). With Vantine, he knows the man that he is; with Barbara he knows the man that he wants to be. Gable exudes a rugged sex appeal that intensifies against Harlow’s carefree sexuality (she even skinny dips in the men’s water supply!) and Astor’s prim restraint.
Gable revisited his Red Dust persona when the film was remade into Mogambo in 1953 with Ava Gardner filling in for Harlow and Grace Kelly for Astor.
It Happened One Night (1934)
Gable had already established himself as a romantic lead opposite Jean Harlow in “Red Dust” in 1932 when he was cast in a comedic role with Claudette Colbert in Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night.” He portrayed a recently fired newspaper reporter who resists the temptation to turn in a runaway heiress for a reward, eventually falling in love with her instead. Their bus ride, hitch-hiking, and chaste overnight motel stay captivated movie audiences and won them both Academy Awards.
As a matter of fact, the film made the first sweep of the top four awards, including best picture and director. Gable’s box-office success in he-man action roles dominated most of his career and, although he occasionally returned to light comedy, he never had a comparable chance to exercise the talents on display in “It Happened One Night.”
Mutiny on the Bounty
A year later, Gable was the hero in the Hollywood version of an actual event in British naval history. Playing an idealized version of Fletcher Christian, leader of a mutiny in the Pacific in 1787, he first struggled to remain loyal to his cruel captain but ultimately felt forced to rebel against his inhuman treatment of the crew. He then led his fellow mutineers to a remote island where they escaped retribution and began a new life in isolation from the world. Gable,
Charles Laughton, who played the hated Captain Bligh, and Franchot Tone, another officer, were all nominated for Best Actor in the Oscar competition, which probably enabled Victor McClaglen to win for “The Informer.”
Gone with the Wind (1939)
When it became known that Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel of the Civil War, “Gone with the Wind,” was going to be filmed, Gable was quickly identified as movie fandom’s choice for the role of Rhett Butler, the daring blockade runner and charming lover. By contrast, there was a long and well-publicized competition for the leading female role, Scarlett O’Hara, involving both established stars and unknowns. Briton Vivian Leigh won, and she and Gable were magic on the screen. Butler’s parting words to Scarlett have been quoted as many times as any movie line in history.
The film won 10 Academy Awards in 1939, a record that stood for 20 years, but Gable lost out to Robert Donat in “The 39 Steps.”
While starlets and divas alike clamored for the role of fiery Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara – a part that would go to English rose Vivien Leigh – there was little question about who would portray rogueish Rhett Butler, the cocky Yankee who’d been booted out of West Point and estranged from his family. Only Clark Gable could turn his back on the weeping Scarlett, stroll off into the early morning fog and utter those famous words: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Rhett was classic Gable from the moment he appeared grinning up at Scarlett from the foot of Twelve Oaks’ staircase. Prior to the war, he was cocky and arrogant, and even more so after it broke out; after, he was brooding, jealous and, at times, almost lethal. After the tragedy of his little girl’s death, he was broken and rebuilt with a new kind of weary self-assurance.
Scarlett wanted to build a doll’s house of the pre-war South as she remembered it, complete with mint juleps and barbecues – and Ashley Wilkes. She was a spoiled little girl who pretended to be a woman in the only way she knew how by using her femininity to get everything she wanted; only she didn’t know what she truly wanted until he was walking away from her doorstep.
Gable was nominated in the Best Actor category for the 1939 Academy Awards but lost to Robert Donat (Goodbye, Mr. Chips). Gone with the Wind won a total of 8 Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actress (Vivien Leigh), Best Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel), Best Director (Victor Fleming), Best Writing, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Art Direction.
Goodbye, Mr. Gable
The Misfits – John Huston’s story of an aging cowboy – marked the tragic end of both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe; the former died of a heart attack, the latter of an apparent drug overdose.
By the time filming started in 1960, Gable was a living legend, a relic of Hollywood’s glamorous Golden era. With the studio systems crumbling and a new wave of directors and actors tearing down the glittering curtain, icons like Gable truly belonged to a different time.
Yet, according to Lyn Tornabene’s “Long Live the King,” Gable surprised the younger, Method-driven Misfits (Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach) with his honest approach to acting.
“I bring to it everything I have been, everything I am, and everything I hope to be,” he said.
He continued acting until 1942, when his wife, Carole Lombard, was killed in a plane crash returning from a war bond promotion. Gable then enlisted in the Air Force and took a break from Hollywood until 1945. After a highly publicized resumption of his career in a series of mediocre films after the war, he regained his stride and a measure of his earlier popularity in the 1950s.
“The Misfits,” his last film and, ironically also the last made by 1950’s glamor queen Marilyn Monroe, was made in 1960, just before he died of a heart attack at 59. Some critics considered it one of his best performances.