Ironically, the role for which this still-popular
star is best remembered -that of Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind (1939)-was
one he didn't want to play. In fact, the "King of Hollywood" initially passed
on several of the assignments that ultimately won him fame, and accepted several
that he should have refused.
Biography from Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia:
Ironically, the role for which this still-popular star is best remembered -that of Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind (1939)-was one he didn't want to play. In fact, the "King of Hollywood" initially passed on several of the assignments that ultimately won him fame, and accepted several that he should have refused.
Born into a transient family (his father was a wildcat oil driller), Gable dropped out of school and worked with his dad in the Oklahoma oil fields for several years before joining a touring stock company to learn the acting business. Under the tutelage of actress Josephine Dillon (whom he married in 1924 even though she was 14 years older), the dark-haired, jug-eared Gable worked diligently. While the couple was in Hollywood he got extra work in Forbidden Paradise (1924), The Merry Widow, The Plastic Age (both 1925), and other silent films, but juicy opportunities weren't as plentiful as he'd initially hoped, and eventually he and Dillon split up. Gable toured some more, even playing on Broadway, but then came back to Los Angeles and played the brutal Killer Mears in a stage production of "The Last Mile" (which, in its Broadway incarnation, had launched the starring career of Spencer Tracy).
His critically acclaimed performance led to several screen tests, and while the major studios hesitated to hire him, he did finally snare a solid supporting role as a villain in The Painted Desert (1931), a Pathé Western starring Bill Boyd. He worked at Warner Bros. that same year, playing gangsters in The Finger Points and Night Nurse (drawing gasps from audiences when he socked Barbara Stanwyck on the chin in the latter). But it was at MGM, where he first appeared in the Joan Crawford vehicle Dance, Fools, Dance (1931, again as a gangster), that Gable would ultimately find success. A Free Soul (also 1931) saw him once again as a gangster, this time defended on a murder rap by free-wheeling attorney Lionel Barrymore and romanced by the lawyer's equally free-spirited daughter Norma Shearer. Barrymore won an Oscar for his performance, but Gable was tagged a comer. Sporting Blood (also 1931) saw him topbilled for the first time. Metro soon tumbled to the fact that Gable, even though he played tough guys, appealed to women precisely because he was "dangerous." The studio labored mightily to keep him in films that would capitalize on that persona while expanding his range. During the next few years he worked opposite most of MGM's female stars: Garbo in Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1932), Joan Crawford in Possessed (1931) and Dancing Lady (1933), Norma Shearer in Strange Interlude (1932), Myrna Loy in Men in White and Manhattan Melodrama (both 1934), and especially, blond bombshell Jean Harlow in Red Dust (1932, probably the best of Gable's early starring vehicles, and a huge hit) and Hold Your Man (1933).
His popularity grew by leaps and bounds; nobody complained anymore about the size of his ears. And they seemed to like him both with and without mustache.
But nothing boosted Gable's stock more than Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934). MGM honcho Louis B. Mayer loaned Gable to lowly Columbia Pictures to make this film as a means of disciplining the unruly star. Gable feared that his appearance in a substandard picture would cost him much of his hardearned momentum. Capra, who'd landed Paramount's Claudette Colbert as well, convinced his players that they wouldn't be embarrassed. Indeed, Gable's insouciant performance as a wisecracking reporter (opposite Colbert, as a runaway heiress) helped define his ultimate screen persona. The film was a sensational hit, and swept the Academy Awards-with Gable himself collecting an Oscar for his work. (The only people who weren't happy with him were undershirt manufacturers; when Gable stripped off his shirt in one scene to reveal nothing underneath, sales of men's undershirts reportedly plummeted.)
Back at Metro, Gable starred in Chained, Forsaking All Others (both 1934), and After Office Hours (1935)- pleasant but humdrum offerings-before racking up a string of memorable hits later in 1935. Darryl F. Zanuck (who once screen-tested Gable and said he looked like an ape) borrowed him for The Call of the Wild a popular remake of the Jack London story that teamed him with beautiful Loretta Young. Returning to his home studio, he top lined the atmospheric adventure China Seas and stayed afloat to play Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty one of MGM's biggest moneymakers and one of the handful of films for which Gable (who was Oscarnominated for his work) is best remembered. And the hits kept on coming: Wife vs. Secretary, San Francisco, Cain and Mabel (all 1936), Saratoga (1937, again opposite Harlow, whose untimely death during production necessitated much juggling of scenes and reshooting with a double), Too Hot to Handle, Test Pilot (both 1938, both with Myrna Loy), and Idiot's Delight (1939, out of his element, but gamely playing a song-and-dance man performing "Puttin' on the Ritz"). His only flop during the period was Parnell (1937), a laborious biopic in which he was miscast as the popular Irish nationalist.
Millions of fans, as well as producer David O. Selznick and, reportedly, authoress Margaret Mitchell, saw Gable as the only man in Hollywood suited to play dashing Rhett Butler, the charismatic Southern gentleman of Gone With the Wind Gable himself was less sanguine about the prospect, especially with director George Cukor at the helm. But the stakes were high: Selznick had guaranteed MGM full distribution rights and an unprecedented share of the profits for Gable's services. Needless to say, by the time the troubled production finally premiered and Gable had spoken his immortal last line to Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara-"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn"everyone knew that it would be one of the most successful movies ever made. (Gable was again nominated for an Oscar.)
By this time Gable had married screen star Carole Lombard, whom he'd known since they worked together in a 1932 Paramount potboiler, No Man of Her Own They began seeing each other after her divorce from William Powell in 1933 and finally married during the production of Wind With two wives behind him, Gable seemed content at last with his new spouse, and his popularity continued unabated. In Strange Cargo, Boom Town (reunited with Colbert), Comrade X (all 1940), Honky Tonk, They Met in Bombay (both 1941), Somewhere I'll Find You (1942)-Gable was in peak form. He could hardly make a false step.
Then tragedy intervened. Lombard, returning from a war bond drive in late 1942, died in a plane crash. A crushed Clark Gable, sobered by the war and devastated by the loss of his beloved wife, enlisted in the Air Corps. He served with distinction, participating in several bombing raids over Nazi Germany, achieving the rank of major, and ultimately receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross. He returned to Hollywood in 1945, making a rather lackluster screen comeback in Adventure (about which the ad line "Gable's Back and Garson's Got Him!" was the most memorable thing).
Gable never regained the box-office standing he'd enjoyed before the war. MGM still gave him top production mounting, the best directors, and the pick of the studio's extensive star roster-but it just wasn't the same. The Hucksters (1947), Homecoming (1948), Any Number Can Play (1949), Key to the City (1950), Across the Wide Missouri (1951), Lone Star (1952), Never Let Me Go (1953), and Betrayed (1954) all came and went without much discernible impact on Gable's career. Of his later Metro pictures, only Command Decision (1948), an all-star adaptation of a hit Broadway play, showed a vibrant Gable in full command of his art. Mogambo (1953) confirmed that he was still as macho-and desirable to women-as ever. After all, how many other men could star in a remake of their own 21-year-old movie (1932's Red Dust) and get away with it?
By the time he left Metro in 1954 to freelance, Gable looked every bit the tired, restless matinee idol suggested by the toll of advancing years and personal hardships. His fourth and fifth wives, Sylvia Ashley (formerly married to, and widowed by, Douglas Fairbanks) and Kay Spreckels, both bore resemblance to Lombard, for whom, it is said, Gable mourned the rest of his life. Soldier of Fortune, The Tall Men (both 1955), The King and Four Queens (1956), Band of Angels (1957), Teacher's Pet (a welcome change-of-pace comedy), Run Silent, Run Deep (both 1958), But Not for Me (1959), and It Started in Naples (1960) got by on the strength of his name and former popularity, but the King's reign was clearly drawing to a close. Director John Huston was able to channel Gable's weariness into what was his last performance, that of an aging, brooding horse wrangler in Arthur Miller's The Misfits (1961, opposite Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift). It was a fine film, and demonstrated that the star-who performed most of his own stunts during the arduous productioncould still deliver the goods, with the right motivation and guidance. Sadly, he never got another chance to do so: Clark Gable died of a heart attack shortly after completing The Misfits. He never saw it, nor the only child he fathered, John Clark Gable, who was born several weeks later. That son is today an actor.
Copyright ©1994 Leonard Maltin, used by arrangement with Signet, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc.