Known as the King of Hollywood, Gable will undoubtedly forever be associated with Gone With the Wind. The death of his wife, Carole Lombard, during a plane crash shortly after Pearl Harbor caused him to plunge into a grief that lasted for years. He worked for MGM for over 20 years but he never forged a close relationship with any one specific director nor did he ever initiate projects, which may explain why his legacy is not as rich as it could have been.
William Clark Gable was born on February 1, 1901. His parents were of German descent, and the studio later concealed the fact that his last name was originally Goebel. His mother died when he was one-year-old, which gave him a deep wound that took a very long time to heal. In fact, some people think that he spent much of his life searching for another mother. Gable’s father was a wildcatter and lived a risky life, hoping to strike it rich like his idol John D. Rockefeller. While his father was away working six days a week, his step-mother worked hard to nurture his artistic side. Gable grew fast, reaching six feet by the time he was fourteen, so he never got into fights because he was scared of hurting other people.
When his father gave up wildcatting and moved the family to a farm, Gable stopped going to high school because it was too far away. He grew to hate his farm chores, so he eventually persuaded his parents to let him quit school in December 1917 to return to his hometown and work for a coal company delivering food and water to miners. He then went to work in a factory making war goods in Akron, where he suddenly fell in love with acting and spent his evenings doing unpaid work at the local theater. His step-mother died when he was 18, and his father sold the farm to return to wildcatting. Gable had lost his factory job when all of the veterans returned and then the stock company where he was making enough to survive was forced to close. By September 1920, Gable was part of the ever-growing ranks of the unemployed, so he became desperate enough to join his father at an oil field near a tiny Oklahoma town, where he worked twelve-hour-days seven days a week in primitive conditions. He had gained forty pounds of muscle but had become sick of the harsh life of the oil fields and he once again defied his father by leaving it. His step-mother had served as a buffer between them but once she died their arguments had worsened until they swore to never see each other again.
Now that he was twenty-one years-old, Gable qualified for a trust fund of three hundred dollars set up by his grandfather. The years 1922-24 were spent drifting from place to place, working odd jobs and trying to find work in the theater until he finally lucked out by joining a stock company through a friend. The company was far from thriving, so meals, never mind pay, were far from regular. At the end of the tour, Gable proposed to fellow company member Franz Dorfler and they spent the fall at her parents’ farm. Gable appeared content but his fiancé did not want to end up on a farm, so she encouraged him to contact Josephine Dillon, an acting teacher, who told him that he could become an actor if he placed himself completely in her hands. He agreed and she set about remodeling him, paying to have his teeth repaired and his hair styled. Gable soon broke off his engagement with Dorfler and followed Dillon to Hollywood in 1924, dropping his first name for his middle name because there were already too many Williams in Hollywood. Despite owing much of his success to Dillon, Gable never publicly acknowledged it. Dillon was seventeen-years-older and not particularly attractive but they were married five months after they arrived in Hollywood and she had been paying his bills for those five months.
Gable started out with a number of bit parts in movies and plays, gradually winning better roles. Part of his success was due to catching the eye of the leading lady of several plays, most notably Pauline Frederick, a leading star of the stage, who became his lover and ensured that he had supporting roles in her plays. He accepted an offer to spend a year with a stock company in 1927, where the experience of performing a different play every week gave him the training that he needed and he become the stock company’s main attraction. Gable was then hired to act in a Broadway play and quickly ended his relationship with Dillon, which had become more and more strained as he no longer needed her advice.
Gable met the three times married Ria Franklin Prentiss Lucas Langham while performing in Houston and once again she was seventeen-years-older, as well as very wealthy. Their affair was discreet because he was still married but his friends soon noticed that he had clothes, an apartment and a car that could not possibly be covered by his salary. Dillon attempted to end the affair by finding Gable work in New York but Gable simply accepted the role and ended their relationship. Dillon was replaced by Langham and Gable needed her because he could not find another job when the play ended. Dillon agreed to a divorce on the condition that Gable not marry for another year and Langham continued to transform him into a suave New York socialite. None of his plays were a hit and then the stock market crashed but unlike most actors, he did not have to worry about unemployment because Langham’s investments were solid, so he was able to live in luxury. He finally won the lead role in the play The Last Mile, and it was a huge success when it opened in Los Angeles in June 1930. In fact, Mervyn LeRoy saw it and gave Gable a screen test for a key supporting role in Little Caesar (1931) but Jack Warner rejected Gable because of his big ears.
Gable lingered for a while in LA before returning to New York for another play, where Minna Wallis basically pushed her way into becoming his agent by getting him his first big movie role in The Painted Desert (1931). Although she was a relatively inexperienced agent, she had great connections: her brother Hal Wallis was a big producer at Warner Bros., she was friends with agents Myron Selznick and Leslie Hayward, and her best friend was Norma Shearer, Irving Thalberg’s wife, which ensured Gable’s first MGM contract, despite his huge ears. Gable decided to stay in LA and not honor his previous contract, which proved to be a wise choice, since the Broadway stage industry had reached its peak during the 1927-28 season and would quickly be forced into decline by the introduction of sound to movies. Gable apparently was not happy that Ria followed him to LA but he knew that he owed her and was not cold enough to end the marriage.
Gable developed a close relationship with MGM publicity man Howard Strickling that helped him become a star and then ensured that he stayed at MGM once he became a star. Strickland and the rest of the MGM brass liked Gable and the MGM publicity machine went into full force to make him into a star. Due to his size, he was cast as a gangster or villain for his first six movies but he still acquired a huge number of fans and his salary jumped to $1,150 a week after seven months.
Gable was basically forced to marry Ria in June 1931 when she told Strickland that unless Gable married her as promised she would tell every gossip columnist in town that they had been living in sin. Thalberg cited the “moral turpitude” clause in Gable’s contract, which meant that the contract could be cancelled in case of sexual/criminal misconduct, and living with a woman who was not your wife qualified as sexual misconduct. Faced with losing his movie career, Gable graciously agreed. While Ria enjoyed the celebrity of being Gable’s wife, if not the emotional or physical aspects, Dillon got nothing so she sent a letter to Mayer threatening to tell all, which won her a number of checks deducted from Gable’s payroll.
Despite these bumps in his personal life, Gable’s career was taking off and he was given leading roles by the end of his one year contract. His almost meteoric rise was partially due to excellent timing, he came in as most of the silent stars were forced out by the introduction of sound, so there was a temporary vacuum.
1933 proved to be an eventful year. He had an affair with Joan Crawford as her marriage with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr was coming to an end, and it is rumored that she had to have an abortion. Studio pressure ended the affair and Ria took revenge by spending his money instead of paying the bills. The avalanche of fan mail ensured that MGM renewed his contract and raised his salary to $2,000 a week. In early 1933, his father had become a refugee from the dustbowl and showed up at MGM’s front gate, malnourished and filthy, asking for his son. In June, Gable’s teeth developed a life threatening infection, so they were all pulled out and replaced by dentures, although this would not prevent him from having affairs with almost all of his leading ladies.
Unlike his wife, Gable had little desire to mix with the Hollywood elite, and he quickly became famous for being more comfortable with parking attendants, extras and mechanics, than his fellow actors. Like other stars, Gable learned to rely on MGM’s publicity machine and the studio’s 95 policemen to protect his image. However, his career went into decline when Thalberg became sick and his replacement, Mayer’s son-in law, David O. Selznick did not know how to handle him. Unsuccessful films combined with his father living with them made Gable increase his consumption of gin until he ended up in a hospital with an appendectomy and exhaustion. Gable was furious that he was sent to Columbia to make It Happened One Night (1934), since he viewed working at a studio only slightly above Poverty Row as a punishment, and everyone was stunned when the movie swept the Oscars.
Winning an Oscar made Gable one of MGM’s 16 official stars, with his own dressing room, while his salary jumped to $4-5,000 a week for a seven-year-contract, an incredible achievement for someone who had only joined MGM four years earlier. That summer he learned that Loretta Young was pregnant and he was the father. He hoped that she would have an abortion like Crawford but it was not an option for Young, who was a devout Catholic, so she sailed to Europe for what was publicly described as a long rest cure.
Shortly after his illegitimate daughter was born, Gable realized that he did not need Ria and they separated in 1935. The MGM brass accepted it because his women-chasing had become so brazen that it was almost impossible to hide, which was quite an accomplishment given MGM’s resources. Single for the first time in fourteen years, Gable embraced his new-found freedom, but he was not single for long, since he and Carole Lombard fell madly in love in 1936. Realizing that Gable would never show any interest or commitment to his daughter, Young gave her up for adoption.
Although Gable and Lombard were practically married, they were constantly worried about being caught by detectives hired by Ria. Gable wanted to marry Lombard but he was afraid that the financial settlement needed to divorce Ria would wipe him out. Things came to a head when Photoplay magazine published an article on Hollywood’s unmarried husbands and wives, with Gable and Lombard at the top of the list, in mid-December 1939. Although Photoplay was forced to retract the article, the rumors could not be squashed and complaints from moral watchdogs like the Legion of Decency led MGM to threaten Gable to marry or lose his career.
Gable was crowned the King of Hollywood by Ed Sullivan after a nation-wide survey organized by his show, although the impartiality of the survey is debatable. By the time of Thalberg’s death in September 1936, Gable had become the cornerstone of MGM’s success, although he initially resisted playing Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind. MGM had been banking 50% of Gable’s salary, which he could only get after he had completed his contract but he needed that money for his divorce settlement. This trust was employed to maintain the studio’s control of stars and Louis B. Mayer used that control to force Gable to play Rhett. Lombard and Gable married during a small break in the filming of Gone With the Wind (1939) and only socialized with friends. The couple eagerly wanted a child but failed and it was unknown which of them was infertile.
Gable was very unhappy that he had not received even a tiny share in the huge profits of Gone With the Wind and his agent persuaded Mayer to renegotiate his contract even though it had another two years, so Gable signed a new three-year-contract with MGM in January 1940 where his salary jumped to $7,500 a week.
After Pearl Harbor, Lombard urged Gable to enlist even though he was forty-one-years-old. Her efforts were countered by the MGM brass, especially Mayer, since he had already lost MGM stars James Stewart and Robert Montgomery, who had enlisted before Pearl Harbor. Even Lowell Mellet, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s liaison with Hollywood, told Gable to keep making movies. MGM also arranged for Gable to serve as chairman of the Screen Actors Division of the Hollywood Victory Committee, a group that was established to coordinate all movie-related activities in support of the war. MGM’s blatant efforts to prevent twenty-one-year-old Mickey Rooney from being drafted caused such an uproar that Mayer hoped to defuse a potentially dangerous situation by arranging for Gable to get a desk job in Washington, but this was strenuously opposed by Lombard, who wanted her husband to set an example and actually serve.
Filled with patriotic fervor, Lombard threw herself into the national campaign to sell war bonds, selling more than $2 million in one day in Indianapolis. Deciding to fly home instead of taking a train, Lombard died when the plane crashed into a mountain on January 16, 1942 because the warning beacon had been turned off due to the war. Actually, the stars selling war bonds had been told to only travel by train in order to avoid accidents. Her death greatly changed Gable and his grief made him stop working for a month, while he found solace in drinking.
Gable worried that he would be rejected by the Army, but he did not know that Tom Mannix of MGM had already been notified that the army was considering drafting him and Mannix was trying to get him deferred, saying that he was indispensable for the studio’s war efforts. Mannix’s efforts were in vain because Gable decided to enlist, making the surprising choice to go through Officer Candidate School, instead of using his influence to go directly to Officer Training School as most VIP enlistees did. Intended to cram four years of West Point into 90 days, the course was grueling. People close to him worried that he had a death wish because he wanted combat instead of the entertainment section and he had no plans for after the war.
Although he graduated as an aerial gunner, he was assigned to lead a six-man-unit to make propaganda films about aerial gunners since the high casualty rates made it difficult to recruit gunners. His unit was attached to the 351st Heavy Bombardment Group (mainly B-17 bombers) that was based in Peterborough, England. The young soldiers were unwilling to accept him as just an ordinary guy and he resented his special status, so he worked hard and refused special accommodation. Once he went on a couple of missions, his fellow officers took him seriously and liked him, although they were amazed that he would sleep with any woman, basically whoever was easiest to get into bed.
His superiors quickly decided that Gable had a death wish and no one wanted to be in charge of the unit that lost the King, so he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal, and in October 1943 transferred back to the United States, where he was assigned to make films in Hollywood. In December 1943, he resisted his agent’s attempts to persuade him to go freelance and signed a new contract with MGM, because he was used to the special treatment that he received from Strickland and Mannix. Also, like many actors, he found acting meaningless after having seen war. His unit finished editing its films by May 1944 and when he did not receive another assignment, he obtained a formal discharge in June, although he refused to return to work until the war was over. At the same time, his drinking grew out of control. A serious car accident that required 10 stitches was covered up by studio police, while he was kept in isolation at the hospital for three days to dry out.
With the war over, Gable plunged back into chasing women and had a number of semi-serious girlfriends but it quickly became clear that none would fill Lombard’s place. In fact, his post-war movies Homecoming (1948) and Command Decision (1948) were forgettable flops, showing that he concentrated more on women than acting as if he was still trying to fill a void.
Everyone was surprised when Gable married Sylvia Ashley, since she was not viewed as one of his serious girlfriends. They quickly proved to be opposites, and the marriage ended May 31, 1951, after a year and five months. It was believed that they lasted as long as they did because they did not want to become a laughingstock for having a stereotypically short marriage. At the same time, his movies, like the vast majority of films, were not doing well at the box office since people were staying at home to watch TV, and Gable even slid off the 1950 list of “Top Ten Box-Office Stars.” Stressed because of divorce proceedings that lasted months, Gable began drinking so heavily that people often saw him with the shakes.
Expensive re-editing of Across the Wide Missouri (1951) led to Mayer being forced to resign as head of MGM, which made Gable realize that his own position was not impregnable so he signed with MCA. This proved to be a wise move since new studio head Dore Schary believed that the most effective method of cutting costs would be to end the contract system and simply hire actors and directors on a picture-by-picture basis. Gable’s new agent showed him how living abroad would allow him to reduce his tax burden, a pressing need given the looming divorce settlement.
Gable went to Europe for eighteen months for his tax holiday and filmed Never Let Me Go (1953), Mogambo (1953) and Betrayed (1954). Both Across the Wide Missouri and Lone Star (1952) bombed and when Never Let Me Go flopped as well, Schary was only willing to extend Gable’s contract for two years or raise his salary or give him profit participation. However, Mogambo was released after the contract negotiations ended and was a box office smash. Schary suddenly wanted to restart negotiations but Gable was fed up with MGM and refused to renew, so Betrayed was his last film for MGM. In fact, his dislike of MGM was so deep that he never had anything to do with the studio again.
Gable was tormented by the wealth that a percentage of Gone With the Wind would have given him. Mogambo’s success brought many offers to produce or direct, which he rejected since all he wanted was to be paid more for his acting. Therefore, he agreed to do Soldier of Fortune (1955) and The Tall Men (1955) for Darryl F. Zanuck’s Twentieth Century Fox because he was offered 10% of the gross. Fortunately, unlike most of his recent MGM films, both movies were quite successful, which was an accomplishment since Hollywood had done badly overall.
Gable remarried again, for the fifth time, to Kay Williams Capps de Alzaga Ungue Spreckels and she quickly took over the buffer role that had been played by MGM. However, despite a happy marriage he could not get rid of the shakes and directors had to learn to shoot short scenes when there were close-ups.
When Gable followed the advice of Jane Russell, his co-star in The Tall Men, and agreed to co-produce The King and Four Queens (1956) with Russell’s production company, he quickly discovered that one advantage of the studio system was that he had been spared a lot of hassle. It failed at the box office and he returned to the usual formula of work for hire with 10% of the profits. When his next film, Band of Angels (1957), was crucified, Gable realized that he could no longer act opposite women in their early 20’s, and refused scripts that did not match his age. However, Teacher’s Pet (1958) proved that he was still a romantic leading man and he became a hot property again.
Gable was attracted by the story of The Misfits (1961) but in the end he agreed because of the money, which was the highest single picture fee for any actor until then. Given the astonishing number of neurotics involved in the film it should come as no surprise that it was a difficult experience, both mentally and physically, since he did many of his own stunts. He had neglected his health and barely passed the physical to be insured for the Misfits. Gable died of a heart attack shortly after finishing the film. His wife gave birth to a son four months after his death.
Red Dust (1932)
Directed by Victor Fleming, starring Clark Gable and Jean Harlow
A rubber plantation owner in Indo-China has relationships with a prostitute fleeing the police and the wife of one of his employees.
China Seas (1935)
Directed by Tay Garnett, starring Clark Gable and Jean Harlow
A captain transporting gold from Hong Kong to Singapore battles Malay pirates, a typhoon and romantic pressure from his current and former girlfriends.
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Directed by Frank Lloyd, starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable
The HMS Bounty under Captain Bligh is sent to Tahiti to obtain a cargo of breadfruit plants, where many members of the crew become invloved with native women. The captain’s tyranny causes the first mate, Fletcher Christian, to lead a mutiny.
Directed by John Stahl, starring Clark Gable and Myrna Loy
Irish politician Charles Stewart Parnell devotes his life to freeing Ireland from English rule but his affair with a married woman could destroy everything that he has accomplished.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
Directed by Victor Fleming, starring Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh
Follows the love affair between a manipulative woman and a rogue through the Civil War and Reconstruction, as she loses her plantation.
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, starring Clark Gable and Lana Turner
A doctor in the American army during WWII must reconcile his war-time romance with the wife who is waiting for him back in the United States.
Command Decision (1948)
Directed by Sam Wood, starring Clark Gable and Walter Pigeon
An American air force general battles his superiors and politicians to win permission to send bombing missions deep into Germany in 1943 to destroy advanced German fighter jet prototypes.
Across the Wide Missouri (1951)
Directed by William Wellman, starring Clark Gable and Ricardo Montalban
A fur trapper in the 1830’s marries a Blackfoot woman to win permission to trap in her people’s land but after he falls in love with her, he no longer sees her people as savages.
Lone Star (1952)
Directed by Vincent Sherman, starring Clark Gable and Ava Gardner
A cattle baron is sent by former president Andrew Jackson to investigate rumors that Sam Houston is getting cold feet about the United States annexing the new Republic of Texas.
Directed by John Ford, starring Clark Gable and Ava Gardner
A remake of Red Dust set in Kenya.
Directed by Gottfried Reinhardt, starring Clark Gable and Lana Turner
A resistance group in WWII Holland must find a traitor in the group.
Soldier of Fortune (1955)
Directed by Edward Dmytryk, starring Clark Gable and Susan Hayward
A mercenary helps a woman free her husband from Communist China.
The Tall Men (1955)
Directed by Raoul Walsh, starring Clark Gable and Jane Russell
Two brothers join a cattle drive from Texas to Montana but antagonism gradually builds between the elder brother and the rich, ambitious owner of the cattle herd.
Band of Angels (1957)
Directed by Raoul Walsh, starring Clark Gable and Yvonne De Carlo
A young Southern belle is shocked to discover that she is actually mulatto and is sold to pay off the family’s debts but she is bought by a plantation owner, who regrets his former career as a slave trader and treats her well.
Run Silent, Run Deep (1958)
Directed by Robert Wise, starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster
The commander of a US submarine in the Pacific during WWII has a fanatical desire to sink the Japanese warship that had destroyed his previous submarine.
Clark Gable: A Biography-Warren G. Harris, New York: Harmony Books, 2002.
An excellent biography, it provides background information about the film and theater industries to give context to Gable’s career moves. It also spends a lot of time detailing his various affairs and the scandals that happened around him, such as the unexplained murder/suicide of Jean Harlow’s husband, but then again, they are fascinating in a sordid way. The author also wrote a book on Lombard and Gable, so he spends more time on their relationship than other books do.
Long Live the King: A Biography of Clark Gable-Lynn Tornabene, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1978.
Tornabene’s description of Gable’s clothes comes across as a little too much Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. The author devotes almost thirty pages to Dillon’s fictional story of her relationship with Gable, with too little time given to the facts, which is understandable since Gable never talked about it. It is a good biography but it focuses mainly on Gable the person, and spends little time on his movies.