Huffpost Entertainment
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

John Farr Headshot

Clark Gable: King of Hollywood

Posted: Updated:

As we kick off Oscar month tomorrow, we also honor the birthday of Clark Gable, who picked up a statuette at the seventh Academy Awards ceremony in 1935.

He got it for a movie he did not want to do -- a comedy called It Happened One Night -- and though he would be nominated twice more, he would not win again.

Though he was neither the most sophisticated of men (he liked nothing better than to hunt or fish) nor the finest actor (he reserved that title for his close friend Spencer Tracy), he had a powerful on-screen charisma that went way beyond his evident virility.

He projected a refreshing openness, a confidence that was not off-putting but approachable. This special quality made men like him, and women want him.

As he himself put it: "The only reason they come to see me is that I know that life is great - and they know I know it."

By the late '30s, he was well established as the top star at the top studio in Hollywood, officially proclaimed as the "King Of Hollywood" by both the industry and his public.

Teasingly called "King" by his pal Tracy, he laughed it off. But all the fuss did embarrass him. There was a part of his success he couldn't fathom (what did people see in him up there?).

Still, he knew what worked for him. The way he saw it, he was good simply at playing himself, and had a few proven tricks that worked for him in front of a camera. That was it, and he never kidded himself there was anything more to it.

Acknowledging his limited range, he was savvy about knowing which roles would work for him, while also advancing the Gable image.

Still, it was a long climb to the top.

Born in 1901, the son of an oil driller in Ohio, William Clark Gable was an affable but unremarkable child. His mother died when he was still an infant, and he was raised mostly by his stepmother.

An indifferent student, Clark dropped out of school at 16 and took a host of jobs to support himself. Drawn to the stage when he was just twenty, he saw acting as a way out of working in the oil fields.

He was a strapping young man with startling gray eyes, but had big ears and bad teeth. Still, he was focused, determined, ambitious. He studied his craft, and in 1924, ended up marrying Josephine Dillon, the acting coach who would mentor him in his early career. (She was well over a decade Clark's senior.)

By 1930, after years of small stage roles and work as a film extra, Gable was finally poised for success in Hollywood. He had made a big splash in a West Coast production of The Last Mile, playing death row convict Killer Mears. (Coincidentally, Tracy had scored a triumph in the very same role back east.)

That same year, he divorced Josephine and married Texas socialite Ria Langham, whose wealth and social connections would also come in handy as his career took off. (Seventeen years Clark's senior, she was even older than Josephine.)

Gable's teeth got fixed, and the studios at first tried pinning back his ears, which didn't take. In 1931, he got his first featured part in a Western called The Painted Desert, and soon caught the eye of star Joan Crawford, who picked him for her vehicle, Dance, Fools, Dance.

Soon after, he'd grow the thin pencil moustache that became his trademark, and it seemed nothing could stop him.

As basic as Gable was, his life from this point on was as eventful as any of his movies.

During the frigid on-location shoot for The Call Of The Wild (1934), Gable, who did like the ladies, warmed up his young co-star Loretta Young on at least one occasion.

A staunch Catholic, Young secretly had their baby, which she then "adopted". The girl was named Judy and looked just like her father.

Though Judy Lewis met Gable, he was billed only as an old friend of her mother's. Incredibly, she would only learn the truth about his paternity after his death.

Then there was Gable's romance with actress/comedienne Carole Lombard, which, in a town full of feigned relationships, was the real thing. Ria granted Gable a divorce so Carole and Clark (whom she called "Pa") could finally be married in 1939, the year of Gable's biggest triumph as Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind.

This marriage marked the happiest portion of Gable's life, but the union was cut short in less than three years, when on a war bond tour in 1942, Lombard's plane crashed into a mountain. Gable never really recovered.

To keep active and in honor of his wife's dying effort to the Allied Cause, Gable enlisted and served in the Army Air Corps in Europe.

After the war, he had one unsuccessful marriage (to Sylvia Ashley, Douglas Fairbanks's widow) and then finally hit marital pay dirt again with Kay Spreckles, a blonde divorcee with two children.

Like his friend Spencer Tracy, Gable started feeling his age more in the fifties, and was also well aware that a new generation of leading men was on the rise. Yet his star never really dimmed. Though he felt uncomfortable kissing female stars a quarter century his junior, Gable continued doing what he did best and kept busy.

Sex siren Marilyn Monroe was thrilled when she learned she would play opposite Gable in John Huston's production of Arthur Miller's psychological Western The Misfits (1960). She had adored him since girlhood.

The consummate professional, Gable saw it as just another picture, to be completed as quickly and efficiently as possible. Inevitably, he became increasingly frustrated on this troubled production, where Miller and Monroe's marriage seemed to be imploding.

In particular, Gable became restless and annoyed at Marilyn's tardiness. So at age 59, after a lifetime of steady smoking and drinking -- and more recently, crash dieting to prepare for movie parts, Gable opted to do his own stunts, a decision that likely accelerated his death.

Just a few months before Kay gave birth to his only son, John Clark, Gable died suddenly of a heart attack on November 16, 1960.

Reportedly, it didn't feel like the loss of just one man, but the passing of an era.

So -- how has the Gable legacy held up over the years?

Certainly, he will always be remembered for Rhett Butler and that famous blow-off line to Scarlett ("Frankly, my dear...").

However, a few other Gable entries-notably his most famous pairing with Tracy in San Francisco (1936), have not aged particularly well. Then there a few titles that remain unavailable on DVD, like the classic Red Dust (1932), a lusty romantic adventure set in Africa that first teamed Clark with the sultry Jean Harlow. (However, you can find Mogambo, John Ford's remake of Dust twenty years later, with the durable Clark repeating his role, albeit to lesser effect).

The six titles that follow show the King of Hollywood at his best, giving viewers young and old a pretty good sense of why he was crowned in the first place:

It Happened One Night
(1934)- Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), a mixed-up heiress, hits the road incognito to escape a loveless impending marriage and a chronically over-protective father (Walter Connolly). Riding with the common folk on a bus, she meets reporter Peter Warne (Gable), who grudgingly befriends this unusual creature, who appears curiously oblivious to the ways and customs of real life. When Peter discovers her true identity, he knows he's got hold of the story of the century, but by this time, he's also started to have feelings for Ellie. What's a desperate, smitten newsman to do? Frank Capra's sublime romantic comedy swept the 1934 Oscars, and it's still easy to understand why. Few seventy-year old movies hold up like this one. Colbert makes a charming, deft comedienne (check out that hitch-hiking scene!), and Gable was never more appealingly human than here. The scene where Peter takes off his shirt and exposes his bare chest was a first, and reportedly, sounded a death knell for the undershirt industry. Hail to the walls of Jericho!

China Seas
(1935)- On a luxury ship bound for Hong Kong, dashing Captain Alan Gaskell (Gable) finds himself in a gentleman's quandary when the classy woman he loves, Sybil Barclay (a very young and unusually proper Rosalind Russell), unexpectedly climbs aboard. Trying to appease jealous mistress China Doll (Jean Harlow), Alan must also foil a gold-piracy plot masterminded by China's crooked Irish pal Jamesy (Wallace Beery). Produced by Irving Thalberg for MGM, this salty-tongued, high-seas romance adventure features Gable, then "King of Hollywood", in one of his sauciest and naughtiest roles, playing a caustic, philandering ship captain on the South Pacific who feels outclassed and unworthy of Russell's attention. Snappy dialogue, a rollicking storyline of love and piracy, and excellent supporting turns by Harlow, Beery, and Lewis Stone keep the bumptious "China Seas" afloat for the whole voyage.

Mutiny On The Bounty
(1935)- In 18th century Great Britain, sadistic Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) commands the HMS Bounty on a long voyage to Tahiti to collect food supplies. When his consistent cruelty towards his crew goes beyond reasonable limits, second-in-command Fletcher Christian (Gable) faces the fateful decision of whether or not to seize control of the ship. MGM's adaptation of the famous Nordhoff/ Hall book is given top shelf treatment here, with the sneering Laughton the definitive Bligh, and the studio's biggest star, Gable, playing Christian with gusto (and notably, without either a British accent or his trademark mustache). But never mind -- this is grand, sweeping entertainment, suitable for the whole family.

Gone With The Wind
(1939)- At the outbreak of the Civil War, feisty, narcissistic Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) meets her match in roguish charmer Rhett Butler (Gable), who woos her despite her love for another man, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). Ashley however has chosen the gentle Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland) for his bride. All this sets the stage for one of cinema's most turbulent romances, with plenty of historic, cathartic moments in the background, as the progress and aftermath of the war leaves the Old South in ashes. One of the world's most cherished and enduring pictures, "Wind" was birthed in the mind of novelist Margaret Mitchell and incubated by the brilliant, obsessive David O. Selznick, who spared no expense in bringing this powerful, affecting story to the big screen. The ultra-lavish production features ornate costumes and art design, jaw-dropping set pieces and historical sequences (especially the burning of Atlanta, for which a Hollywood set was torched), all wrapped around the story of a resourceful, if not likable, heroine. Leigh plays the self-absorbed Scarlett to perfection, while Gable's Rhett is devilishly suave and fiercely masculine. Grand studio filmmaking at its aristocratic best, Selznick's brainchild nabbed an armload of Oscars, including Best Picture.

Command Decision
(1949)- During the Second World War, Air Force Brigadier General Casey Dennis (Gable) decides to take advantage of fair weather by sending maximum sorties to decimate German factories where, unbeknownst to his airmen, a new, devastatingly superior jet is being manufactured. But after two days of extremely heavy losses, Dennis faces intense pressure from his senior officer, Major General Roland Kane (Walter Pidgeon), and image-conscious Congressmen, to pick easier targets -- or be out of a job. Based on William Wister Haines's Broadway hit, this impeccably acted drama focuses on the politicking and senior-decision-making behind managing a war -- and homeland morale. Gable is superb as the tough-minded general who must defend his top-secret, suicidal Operation Stitch to reluctant pilots and officers alike, while co-stars Pidgeon and Brian Donlevy shine as the supposedly more sensible generals. Charles Bickford has a nice turn, too, as an army reporter who thinks the privately aggrieved Dennis is a glory-hunting butcher, and watch for Edward Arnold as a Capitol Hill bigwig. Obey my "Command" -- see this smart, gripping film.

Run Silent, Run Deep (1958)- Commander Richardson (Gable) is a career Navy officer who wrangles one last command a year after his last sub was torpedoed in Japan's perilous Bungo Straits. His second in command is Lt. Jim Bledsoe (Burt Lancaster), who'd been in line to helm the sub. Crew unrest grows as Richardson drills them mercilessly on maneuvers ("Dive! Dive!"). Eventually, it dawns on Bledsoe that Richardson intends to bend orders to pursue the infamous Japanese destroyer that slammed him before, taking the vessel right back into the Bungo Straits. In veteran director Robert Wise's tense, trim "Run," an aging but vigorous Gable plays Richardson with panache and iron determination. Wise creates just the right mood of simmering hostility via some pointed Gable/Lancaster byplay and various telling incidents with the crew, which includes a young Jack Warden and Brad Dexter. Mounted by Lancaster's own production company, "Run" remains not only a riveting war film, but one of mega-star Gable's last shining moments. Also look for a future comic in the crew-the inimitable Don Rickles!

Looking for top movie recommendations? For nearly 2,400 of the best movies on DVD, visit www.bestmoviesbyfarr.com

To see John's videos for WNET/Channel 13, go to www.reel13.org

Follow John on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/BMBFarr