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Clark Gable: The life of the ‘King of Hollywood’

I’m no actor and I never have been. What people see on the screen is me.” – Clark Gable

Over the course of his 37 year-long career, American actor Clark Gable established himself as one of the most iconic leading men that Hollywood had seen and would ever see. With spectacular performances in big screen classics like It Happened One Night and Gone with the Wind, Gable earned several accolades and nominations including the Academy Award for Best Actor. On the 120th anniversary of his birthday, we revisit Clark Gable’s illustrious career as a celebration of his invaluable contribution to the world of cinema.

Born in 1901 in Cadiz, Ohio, Gable’s mother passed away when he was just ten months old. His father, an oil-well driller, refused to raise his son as a Catholic as his late wife’s family wanted him to do. In order to resolve the dispute, his father let Gable stay on his maternal uncle’s farm for a while. He remarried in 1903, and it was Gable’s new stepmother who taught him how to groom himself. She also encouraged him to play the piano, but Gable found himself drawn towards brass instruments and became the youngest member of the town band at the age of 13. Growing up, Gable loved mechanical activities like repairing cars as well as engaging in intellectual pursuits. He cherished literature and enjoyed reciting Shakespeare’s works to selected people. Gable dropped out of school at the age of 16 and started working at a tire factory in Akron, Ohio. This is the period where he had a sudden epiphany which would determine his future prospects. When he saw a production of the play The Bird of Paradise, he was so mesmerised by the magical world of performance art that he decided that this what he wanted to do with his life.

However, it wasn’t that easy for Gable to break onto the scene. Although he started his journey by volunteering at a theatre company, Gable was forced to help his father in the oilfields of Oklahoma at the age of 19 when his stepmother passed away. After receiving a $300 inheritance from the maternal side of his family, Gable started working with travelling production companies and took on odd jobs along the way. During one such job in Oregon, he was introduced to a theatre manager named Josephine Dillon who took an active interest in him. She paid money out of her own purse for Gable to have his teeth as well as his hairstyle properly fixed. Dillon also trained him in body language and helped him lower his naturally high-pitched voice. Under her guidance, Gable improved his posture and speaking habits while also working on his facial expressions. When Dillon finally decided that Gable was ready to take the world by storm, they packed their bags and moved to Hollywood in 1924 as his manager and wife.

Gable started his film career by appearing as an extra in prominent silent films like The Merry Widow and The Plastic Age. Due to the lack of major film roles, Gable took to the stage again and received critical praise for his performance in the Broadway production of Machinal in 1928. During this time, he also initiated the start of a lifelong friendship with American actor Lionel Barrymore, a figure who reprimanded Gable for his unrefined acting but identified something special in the aspiring artist and insisted that he should continue chasing his dream of becoming an established actor. 

Although Gable returned to Hollywood, he faced immense difficulties in landing a leading role because casting agents thought that his ears were too big for his face. After a failed screen test, a Warner Bros. executive said: “His ears are too big and he looks like an ape.” Gable’s first proper leading role came in 1931 when MGM cast him for Dance, Fools, Dance at the special request of co-star Joan Crawford. Their on-screen chemistry was so compelling that the studio began reshooting a film that was already in production just so that Gable could star alongside Crawford again. That year turned out to be the breakthrough year for Gable, appearing in multiple films with the likes of Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer and Jean Harlow. His undeniable talent was finally being recognised, with the Hollywood Reporter writing:

“A star in the making has been made, one that, to our reckoning, will outdraw every other star. Never have we seen audiences work themselves into such enthusiasm as when Clark Gable walks on the screen.”

The burgeoning actor secured his status as MGM’s most important romantic leading man when he charmed audiences in Red Dust in 1932 alongside Jean Harlow and complemented Harlow’s powerhouse performance in an entirely organic manner. All the signs indicated that Gable was on the trajectory to absolute stardom, but things appeared to take a turn for the worse in 1934 when MGM decided to loan Gable to Columbia Pictures because they did not have an appropriate project for him and the studio did not want to keep paying his substantial wages for no reason. He started working with Frank Capra on the 1934 romantic comedy It Happened One Night. Although Gable wasn’t Capra’s first choice, they both enjoyed the collaboration and Gable ended up delivering the best performance of his career up to that point. The film won in all five major categories at the Academy Awards, with Gable picking up his first Academy Award for Best Actor. Capra was delighted with the actor’s work and said: “It Happened One Night is the real Gable. He was never able to play that kind of character except in that one film.”

Gable experienced unprecedented fame and success, becoming one of the biggest box-office earners in Hollywood. His star appeal was so influential that men’s underwear sales dipped in the US because Gable hadn’t worn an undershirt in It Happened One Night. He was building up to what many call the apotheosis of his film career by churning out hits like Boomtown and San Francisco. In 1939, he took on the iconic role of Rhett Butler despite the fact that producer David O. Selznick’s first choice was Gary Cooper who turned it down by claiming: “Gone With the Wind is going to be the biggest flop in Hollywood history. I’m glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling flat on his nose, not me.” It is safe to say that Cooper was wrong on all accounts as Gone With the Wind won eight Academy Awards and is now known as one of the seminal works of the Hollywood Golden Age. Gable’s final line in Gone with the Wind has gone down in history as one of the most famous lines: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Gable and Vivien Leigh strike a pose in Gone with the Wind. (Credit: Wikimedia)

With such brilliant starring turns, Gable acquired the enviable title of the “King of Hollywood” and became the shining symbol of cinematic charm and masculinity. He remained one of the top earners in the industry until his career was interrupted in 1942 by the Second World War. Carole Lombard, Gable’s third wife, tragically passed away in an aeroplane crash which devastated the actor and plunged him into a deep depressive state. Frustrated with the events that transpired, he enlisted in the Air Force at the age of 41 and served as a soldier on bombing missions over Germany. Gable also used his talents to make a propaganda film for the military. He returned to the silver screen with yet another commercial hit Adventure (1945) and followed it up with performances in John Ford’s Mogambo (1953) as well as other classics like Soldier of Fortune and The Tall Men. Gable did not reach the same heights of stardom after the war, but he was still a household name and a box-office attraction. His final performance in John Huston’s The Misfits (1961) alongside Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift is often regarded as one of his finest works. Sadly, Gable never got to experience the critical acclaim and public appreciation for the role because he suffered a heart attack just two days after production of the film was complete.

Clark Gable passed away on November 16, 1960, at the age of 59. Even though six decades have gone by since his untimely demise, Gable’s cinematic legacy is immortalised in the public consciousness, and he will always retain his status as one of the most charismatic leading men to have ever worked in Hollywood. When asked about his future in an interview, Gable responded: “I don’t want to stay around long enough to bore people, and I won’t. They have their own way of expressing themselves, and unless an actor is looking the other way, he can see the warning. But as long as the people still go to see my films, I’ll do my best to entertain them.”

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