Clark Gable, born in Cadiz, Ohio as William Clark Gable on February 1, 1901. The former blue-collar worker from Ohio became the “King of Hollywood,” a title based on his being the leading male box-office attraction throughout the 1930s. The dashing, mustachioed image of Rhett Butler in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) remains indelibly associated with the name Clark Gable.
Following his marriage to actress Josephine Dillon, Gable played bit parts in several silent Hollywood features but he first achieved fame as a leading man on Broadway in the late 20s. With the flourishing of sound films, Gable joined the new generation of movie actors who made the move from New York to Hollywood in the early 30s. On the advice of director/actor Lionel Barrymore MGM granted him a screen test and, after a talkie debut in a Pathé western (THE PAINTED DESERT, 1931), Gable signed a contract with the prestigious Metro, where he remained until 1954. In his first year alone, Gable appeared in a dozen features, quickly rising from supporting player to romantic lead. He was teamed with all of MGM’s leading ladies, most notably opposite Norma Shearer in A FREE SOUL (1931), Greta Garbo in SUSAN LENOX: HER FALL AND RISE (1931) and Joan Crawford in THE POSSESSED (1931) — though he proved equally adept in male-oriented action sagas (THE SECRET SIX, 1931, SPORTING BLOOD, 1931, HELL DIVERS, 1932).
Despite his rising popularity, Gable balked at having to play gangsters and overly callous characters. In a now legendary act of studio disciplining, Louis B. Mayer “punished” Gable by loaning him out to lowly Columbia for a role in a minor romantic comedy. The project, Frank Capra’s IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934), unexpectedly became the first film to sweep the five major Oscars (for best actor, actress, director, writer, and picture) and vaulted Gable to new prominence in the industry. His sensational appearance sans undershirt in the film’s bedroom scene went down in Hollywood legend as the event that caused American males to make fewer trips to the haberdasher. While its effect on undershirt purchases may be purely apochryphal, the publicity from the event no doubt led to Gable’s next major role, that of the bare-chested Fletcher Christian in MGM’s MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935), another Oscar-winner for Best Picture.
With such success under his belt, Gable commanded even greater star treatment at Metro and began appearing in fewer films each year, although his range of genre vehicle expanded. He continued his string of romantic comedies with Jean Harlow (RED DUST, 1932, HOLD YOUR MAN, 1933, CHINA SEAS, 1935, WIFE VS. SECRETARY, 1936, and SARATOGA, 1937), but also made offbeat musical appearances (SAN FRANCISCO, 1936, CAIN AND MABEL, 1936, IDIOT’S DELIGHT, 1939, in which he sang “Puttin’ on the Ritz”), action dramas (CALL OF THE WILD, 1935, TEST PILOT, 1938) and romances (LOVE ON THE RUN, 1936). With MGM even promoting his image in its other feature films (Judy Garland singing “Dear Mr. Gable –You Made Me Love You” in BROADWAY MELODY OF 1938 and Mickey Rooney doing Gable impressions in BABES IN ARMS, 1939) Clark Gable remained King of the Hollywood box office throughout the decade, culminating in his highly publicized and memorable performance in GONE WITH THE WIND.
Gable’s reign at the top of Hollywood stardom in 1939 was enhanced by his storybook romance and marriage to actress Carole Lombard. Her untimely death in a plane crash in January 1942 marked a tragic downturn in Gable’s life. He turned his back on his film career and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. After two years of decorated combat service, Gable returned to the screen in 1945 with his macho hero’s image only further amplified. But despite much studio publicity for his return in ADVENTURE (“Gable’s Back and Garson’s Got Him”) and some box-office success, Gable’s post-war film career consisted mostly of routine, undistinguished vehicles. He consistently starred in one film a year, but never regained his status of 30s. Still, there were no pretenders to the throne. When MGM remade RED DUST in 1953 as MOGAMBO, Ava Gardner was in for Harlow, Grace Kelly played the Mary Astor role, and Gable’s part? Only Gable could fill Gable’s shoes, even twenty-one years later.
After a short-lived marriage (Lady Sylvia Ashley) and an unsuccessful attempt at independent production in the 1950s, Gable proved himself the King one last time, romancing the fragile Marilyn Monroe in John Huston’s THE MISFITS (1961). His performance was greatly praised, but Gable had insisted on performing his own stunts, including breaking a horse. Doctors had warned him about an already weakened heart and the exertion proved too much (this would be Monroe’s last completed film as well), and just 12 days after filing was complete Clark Gable died of a heart attack on November 16, 1960 at the age of only 59. He widowed his fifth wife, the former Kay Spreckles, who gave birth to John Clark Gable only four months after his death.