Saturday, April 29, 2017

Clark Gable

Stardust: TCM's May Star of the Month

By Ed Garea

May’s choice for Star of the Month should please classic movie buffs. Clark Gable was one of the dominant stars in film from his breakthrough to superstardom in 1934 until his death in 1961.

Born William Clark Gable in Cadiz, Ohio, on February 1, 1901, to oil well driller William Henry "Will" and Adeline (nee Hershelman) Gable, he was mistakenly listed as  female on his birth certificate. Adeline died, possibly from a brain tumor, when he was just 10 months old. Two years later, his father married Jennie Dunlap and she raised young William to be well-dressed and well-groomed. She played the piano and gave her young stepson lessons at home. He later took up brass instruments, and at the age of 13 his talent allowed him to be the only boys in the men’s town band. While in high school, his father took up farming and moved to Ravenna. Father wanted son to work the farm with him, but the young Gable preferred working for the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. in nearby Akron.

He said he was inspired to become an actor at the age of 17 after seeing the play The Bird of Paradise. He toured in stock companies while working the oil fields and also worked as a horse manager. He caught on with several second-class theater companies, and traveled all the way to Portland, Oregon, working as a logger. It was in Portland that he met Laura Hope Crews, who encouraged him to return to the stage with another theater company. Twenty years later, Crews played Aunt Pittypat alongside Gable in Gone With the Wind (1939). 

His acting coach in Portland was theater manager Josephine Dillon, 17 years his senior. She remade the young actor, financing his dental work and hair style. She also helped him build his body, teaching him body control and posture, as well as training him to lower his natural high-pitched voice for better resonance and tone. After this long period of training, she considered him ready for Hollywood and financed his move there in 1924, where she became his first manager and wife. He adopted the name Clark Gable and worked as an extra. As no starring roles were forthcoming he returned to the stage, encouraged by Lionel Barrymore, who later became a lifelong friend.

In 1930, he made quite an impression as the troubled and desperate Killer Mears in the Los Angeles stage production of The Last Mile. On the strength of his performance, MGM offered Gable a contract, with his first film role being that of a villain in the low-budget William Boyd Western The Painted Desert (1930). The amount of fan mail he received caused the studio to take notice.

In 1930, Gable and Josephine Dillon were divorced. A few days later, he married Texas socialite Maria Franklin Prentiss Lucas “Rhea” Langham. He went to Warner Brothers, where he tested for the lead in The Public Enemy, but studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck rejected him, saying, ”His ears are too big and he looks like an ape.” 

After several failed screen tests for Barrymore and Zanuck, Gable was signed by MGM in 1930 by Irving Thalberg. He started mainly in supporting roles, usually as the villain. Meanwhile MGM's publicity manager Howard Strickling was developing the young actor’s studio image, playing up his he-man experiences and a persona as a “lumberjack in evening clothes.”

To build his brand and increase his popularity, MGM paired him with well-established female stars such as Joan Crawford in Dance, Fools, Dance (1931). He received a big push with his role as gangster Ace Wilfong in A Free Soul (read our essay here), who brutalized star Norma Shearer. The critical and popular reaction he received ended his days as a supporting actor.    

Now a star, Gable quickly got himself in Louis Mayer’s doghouse for refusing roles. In 1934, according to Hollywood legend, Mayer’s form of punishment for his rebellious star was to lend him to Columbia, then regarded as a second-rate operation. This has been refuted by more recent biographies, which state that the truth was that MGM did not have a film ready, and as they were paying him $2,000 per week, Mayer decided to lend him to Columbia for $2,500 per week, pocketing the extra $500. The film was Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night.   

When Gable returned to MGM he returned as a superstar, having won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role as reporter Peter Warne. Though Gable and Capra got off to a rocky start, they ended up enjoying the making of the movie, for Capra discovered the perfect role for Gable: that of Clark Gable. The director tailored Gable's character in the film to closely fit his real personality. Gable would play himself from then onward, no matter what the film and no matter what the subject – with one exception, Parnell (1937), which served as proof never to leave his comfort zone again.

In choosing which of Gable’s films to recommend, we are sticking with his early roles along with a few that do not air that often or stand out by dint of being unusual or unusually lousy. The reason is that we’re not so much taken with Pre-Code pictures, which we regard as so much smoke and mirrors, as with the development of Clark Gable. His early films offer a good map to trace his evolution from supporting player to superstar.

May 2: Besides It Happened One Night, there are three Must Sees airing this night. At 10:00 pm it’s 1932’s No Man of Her Own. This film is important as it was Gable’s only film with his future wife, Carole Lombard. It’s a rather run of the mill story about a card sharp on the lam (Gable) who meets and marries a small town librarian (Lombard). Supposedly they got on well, and when Lombard handed out her usual prank gifts at the wrap party, she gave Gable a ham with his picture on it.  

At 3:00 am Gable slaps around Norma Shearer in A Free Soul (1931) and at 5:00 am he slaps around Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse, also from 1931. According to Robert Osborne, the role of Nick the chauffeur in Night Nurse was originally set for James Cagney, but his breakthrough in The Public Enemy caused Darryl Zanuck to assign the role to Gable.

May 3: The morning and afternoon is devoted to Gable, with the pick of the litter being Sporting Blood (1931) at 8 am, and Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1931) at 9:30 – his only movie with Garbo.  At 2:30 pm it’s Strange Interlude (1932) with Norma Shearer, and at 6:00 pm it’s The White Sister (1933) with Helen Hayes, a film rarely shown.

May 9: The evening is devoted to Gable and frequent co-star Joan Crawford. Beginning at 8 pm, it’s Possessed (1931), followed at 9:30 by Strange Cargo (1940), one of the strangest films either has ever made and a psychotronic classic. At 11:30 it’s the excellent Dance, Fools, Dance (1931), followed by the cult classic Dancing Lady (1933) at 1 am, the debut film of Fred Astaire. It was also the first film for The Three Stooges.

Kept woman Joan finds herself attracted to rancher Gable in Chained (1934) at 3 am, while Gable is a Salvation Army preacher who saves troubled Joan from suicide in Laughing Sinners (1931) at 4:15. Finally, Joan runs after the wrong man for 20 years in 1934’s Forsaking All Others at 5:45 am. 

May 10: Today’s picks are After Office Hours (1935) at 8:45 am and They Met in Bombay (1941) at 1:45 pm. The latter teams Gable with Rosalind Russell, who is at her best here. Both films are really shown.

May 16: Three good Pre-Code Gables are on tap. First up at 11 pm, Gable lives it up with Mary Astor and Jean Harlow in Red Dust (1932). At 12:45 it’s one of Gable’s signature roles, that of Blackie in Manhattan Melodrama (1934), co-starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. Then, at 2:30 am con man Gable abuses Harlow, but hard-boiled Jean can’t help but love him in Hold Your Man (1933).

May 17: Besides Pre-Codes Men in White (1934) at 8 am and The Secret Six (1931) at 9:30 am (read our essay on it here), there is Parnell (1937) at 11:15 am. Parnell is a Must See, a train wreck of a film, with Gable vainly trying to emulate George Arliss as Irish statesman Charles Stewart Parnell. The story is that his co-star Myrna Loy was not originally slated for the film, but traded places with good friend Joan Crawford, who was badly burned the year before by critics for the costumer The Gorgeous Hussy. Wonder if Myrna ever forgave her. It’s a testament to Gable’s star power that he was able to rebound from this critical and box-office disaster. A lesser star would have been crushed like a bug underfoot.

May 24: The pick of the day is The Painted Desert (1931) at 6:45 am. It’s Gable’s first film and is important for just that reason. 

May 30: Recommended tonight are It Started in Naples (1960) with Sophia Loren at 8 pm; The Misfits (1961), Gable’s last film. (He died from a heart attack two days after the picture wrapped.) And at 2:30 am, Gable, Burt Lancaster and Don Rickles chase Japanese submarines in Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) at 2:30 am. Always worth a view.


  1. I'm a big Gable fan so this will be a fun month even though it won't be one of discovery as some are since I've managed over the years to see all his films...the last being Parnell!!! What a way to finish up! Such an awful movie.

    Like all great stars his filmography is a varied sometimes rocky lot but being one of the biggest of those stars the good out balance the bad.

    I'm looking forward to revisiting Strange Cargo (an apt name for such an odd entry in all its stars careers), Red Dust (he and Jean Harlow are white hot in it), Forsaking All Others (one of his best chances to show his adroitness at wry comedy), Mutiny on the Bounty (it's one I've only seen the once and it was years ago, my memory of it is cloudy so I'm looking forward to rediscovering it) and The Misfits (such a sad film but in my opinion perhaps his best performance outside of GWTW).

    There are others that I might give a look if I have time but those are the sweet spots. Except for Parnell no matter the film surrounding him he's always a magnetic presence on screen, one of the prime examples of Star Power.

    1. I'm with you. I, too, an a big fan of Gable and also have managed to see all his movies. My final Gable film was his first, The Painted Desert, which was hard to get for a long time. Gable was the quintessential movie star. He wasn't the greatest actor, but didn't need to be. Like John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, Gable was a star by playing himself. When we think about what a debacle Parnell was, we have to ask ourselves if any other actor could have come back as strong as Gable did. His charisma was incredible and his drawing power went on to his last movie. It's an amazing record for any actor.