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A tribute to Clark Gable

Mon 16th Nov 2020

Clark Gable was one of the most prominent, romantic leading-men of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Clark Gable was one of the most prominent, romantic leading-men of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Contributed

Clark Gable's iconic performances and romances, both on and off screen, are a perfect reflection of the Golden Age of Hollywood. For playing legendary roles in ageless films such as Gone With The Wind and It Happened One Night, he was dubbed the King of Hollywood. 60 years after his passing, we look back at the life of a man who defined cinema and stardom for decades.


Early life and inspiration

In Cadiz, Ohio on the 1st of February, 1901, William Clark Gable was born into humble beginnings to an oil driller and farmer for a father and a mother that died when he was less than a year old. At age 16, after a move to the Palmyra Township, Gable rejected his father's insistence to work the farm with him and instead got a job at a tyre shop in Akron.


At age 17, Gable saw the play The Bird of Paradise, and immediately fell in love with the stage. It wasn't until he turned 21 and received his inheritance of $300 from his mother's estate that he was able to pursue his dream.


In the meantime, he worked several other odd jobs, including as a necktie salesman, where he met state actor Earle Larimorem who encouraged Gable to pursue acting and introduced him to his theatre ensemble. Soon, Gable joined a different traveling theatre group, but this ensemble quickly became bankrupt and left Gable stranded in Montana. After hitchhiking to Oregan and finding another theatre group to join, Gable met Josephine Dillon, a theatre teacher and former actress who was 17 years older than he, who believed in Gable's abilities to become a star. She paid for his eyebrows to be styled and his teeth to be fixed, and shortly after, they married and moved to Hollywood, California.


"The King of Hollywood" Clark Gable knew he wanted to be an actor from a young age.


Hollywood career

Gable's rise to fame was a hard-fought battle. He started as an uncredited extra in films before turning to the stage, performing in Machinal on Broadway and The Last Mile back in California. Gable was constantly screen-testing for films, but was often rejected, with casting agents noting his ears were too large. During his stint on stage, the soon-to-be infamous lady's man filed for divorce to Dillon in 1929 and married socialite Maria Franklin Prentiss Lucas Langham just days after the divorce was finalised.


He finally got his first role with speaking lines in The Painted Desert (1931), which got the attention of MGM, who offered him a contract. With his new contract, he became typecast as a villain due to his appearance.


His first leading role came alongside Joan Crawford, who'd insisted on working with Gable, in Dance, Fools, Dance (1931). The audiences loved Gable, and he continued to score villainous lead-roles in films such as Laughing Sinners (1931), A Free Soul (1931) with Norma Shearer, Susan Lennox (Her Fall and Rise) (1931) with Greta Garbo and notably, in Possessed (1931), a film about a steamy, illicit affair, electrified by the real life affair that co stars Gable and a married Crawford were having off-stage. With the threat to have both of their contracts terminated, Gable kept his distance from Crawford, instead turning his attention to his new co-star in Polly of the Circus (1932), Marion Davies. Gable then starred alongside Shearer again in Strange Interlude (1932), before going on to make romantic-comedy Red Dust (1932) alongside Jean Harlow, a film that catapulted Gable to become Hollywood's go-to romantic leading-man.


With his new image, he went on to co-star with Myrna Loy in the notoriously salacious Men in White (1933). The duo was so popular with audiences that they went on to make several more films together. Before this, in 1934, Gable wasn't interested in any of the films that MGM had proposed, so the studio insisted he star in the low-budget comedy, It Happened One Night, alongside Claudette Colbert. In the end, Gable not only enjoyed making the film, but the role revitalised his image as a versatile performer and catapulted him to international acclaim, becoming the first film in history to take all five major Academy Awards, including Gable's win for Best Actor.


Gable would continue to star in a number of box-office hit films and remained as one of the most preeminent stars of his day. During this time, Gable filmed his most well-known part as Rhea Butler in Gone With The Wind (1939). Gable was initially reluctant to star in the civil-war era romance epic, but his very last line, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn", would live on in infamy until this day. After this, Gable gave another memorable performance in Idiot's Delight (1939), which is famous for his performance of Puttin' on the Ritz.


Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in the 1939 film Gone With The Wind. Picture: Supplied
Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in the 1939 film Gone With The Wind. Picture: Supplied


His marriage to the love of his life

In the same year, following a messy and expensive divorce from his second wife, Gable went on to marry Carole Lombard in what is said to be the happiest time in his life. The pair met in 1932 while on the set of No Man Of Her Own, but began their romantic relationship in 1936. On the 2nd of January, 1942, Lombard was a passenger on an airliner that crashed in Nevada while returning home from a war bond tour. Gable was completely devastated but returned to work a month later, with friends and colleagues noting that he was never really the same after his heart break. He would be remarried twice after the passing of Lombard, to Lady Sylvia Ashley and finally, actress Kay Williams Spreckels.


Following the wrap of Somewhere I'll Find You, and in the wake of his wife's untimely passing, Gable joined the U.S. Army Air Force, and served as a tail-gunner on five missions and made several propaganda films. He was discharged in 1944 and returned to his career on screen. While his big return in Adventure (1944) was a critical failure, audiences flocked to see Gable on screen once again. He continued to work with MGM, including on films such as The Hucksters (1947), Homecoming (1948), To Please a Lady (1950), Across the Wide Missouri (1951), Lone Star (1952), Never Let Me Go (1953) and famously in Mogambo (1953) alongside Ava Gardener and Grace Kelly, with whom he had an off-screen affair. He eventually broke away from MGM and starred in films for other studios, with his final performance released posthumously, alongside Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits (1961) in what would be both of their last films. Over his career, Gable is credited with over 80 films.


The ‘King of Hollywood’ Clark Gable died in 1960.
The ‘King of Hollywood’ Clark Gable died in 1960.


His untimely passing

In the same year that Gable would receive his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he also suffered a heart attack shortly after he finished filming The Misfits. He passed away on the 16th of November, 1960. He left behind wife Kay and their son, John Clark, who was born after his father had passed, and the daughter he'd never met, Judy Lewis, who was conceived as a result of an affair with actress Loretta Young.


Clark Gable was named the King of Hollywood because of his masculinity, swagger and charm. Joan Crawford stated on David Frost's TV show in January 1970 that, "He was a king wherever he went. He earned the title. He walked like one, he behaved like one, and he was the most masculine man that I have ever met in my life." His peer, Robert Taylor said that Gable "was a great, great guy, and certainly one of the great stars of all time, if not the greatest. I think that I sincerely doubt that there will ever be another like Clark Gable; he was one of a kind."


"The only reason they come to see me is that I know that life is great, and they know I know it." - Clark Gable


Rest in Peace Clark Gable, the King of Hollywood.

By Claudia Slack


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