In the 1930s, Clark Gable was the most popular male movie star in America, a titan of the screen whose nickname, “the King of Hollywood,” was in no way exaggerated. Today, he is Rhett Butler. Unlike Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, or James Stewart, whose well-defined personalities did not prevent them from playing a wide variety of characters, Gable was a one-character actor. Though two of his other films, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) and Frank Lloyd’s Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) are well remembered, it is Gone With the Wind, the 1939 screen version of Margaret Mitchell’s blockbuster novel about life in the Old South, for which he is mainly known today.
One reason why his performance in Gone With the Wind stands out, however, is that the part of Rhett Butler is more dramatically challenging than those he played in the bespoke vehicles to which MGM, his home studio, assigned him for most of his acting career. As one of his screenwriters was told, the “Gable character” was “tough, uneducated, got a hell of a temper, can fight his weight in wildcats…with sex that drives the women crazy.” He was also charming and funny, for Gable was a consummate straight man whose reactions to the comic lines and business his female co-stars bounced off him, most famously Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, enhanced their effectiveness immeasurably.
In all these things, Gable had much in common with John Wayne, a star of the same generation who, like Gable, played a stylized version of himself in his films. But Gable has nothing remotely approaching Wayne’s posthumous stature, though several of the more lurid rumors about him that circulated during his lifetime, some true and others not, did make it into Hail, Caesar! (2016), a satirical comedy about studio-system Hollywood by Joel and Ethan Coen.1
Is John Wayne’s continued renown a mere function of the fact that he lived nearly 20 years longer than Gable and did some of his best work in his final films? Or was there something else about Gable that specifically militated against his retaining the posthumous celebrity of Wayne and his other great contemporaries? The answer is to be found not in his acting or personality, but in the shape of his long career—and in his patriotic decision to interrupt that career at midpoint to serve in World War II, something that Wayne conspicuously avoided.
Born in 1901 in a small Ohio town, Gable was the only son of an oil-well driller. Stagestruck as soon as he saw a touring theater group at the age of 17, he resolved at once to become an actor but had no immediately apparent natural talent. Nevertheless, he took private lessons from a much older woman whom he married in 1924. They moved to Hollywood that year, but Gable was unable to land any major roles. Instead, he made his way to New York, where he worked on Broadway, then returned to Hollywood in 1930 and began appearing in supporting roles at Warner Bros. He then signed an exclusive long-term contract with MGM, whose executives had concluded that he had the potential to become a star.
To this end, MGM teamed him with Joan Crawford in a series of eight films. They had powerful chemistry both on and off screen, and Crawford later said that to be in his presence gave her “twinges of a sexual allure beyond belief.” Their collaborations moved Gable out of the supporting-actor category, and he clinched his top billing with Victor Fleming’s Red Dust (1932), a sexually frank pre-Code drama in which he played the manager of a rubber plantation in Vietnam who becomes simultaneously involved with a prostitute from Saigon (Jean Harlow) and a married woman (Mary Astor).
It was in Red Dust that Gable’s comic talents first became evident. In the words of John Lee Mahin, the film’s screenwriter,
I’d give the girl the cracks because Gable was funniest when he reacted. And he’d say, “Geez, John, these lines are not particularly funny.” I’d tell him, “But your expression when we cut to you—that’s the funny thing. The audience doesn’t really start to laugh—doesn’t get it—until that big kisser of yours comes on and you’re terribly uncomfortable or sore.”
But MGM did not know how to use this side of Gable and spent the next two years casting him in such implausible projects as a screen adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s elephantine Strange Interlude. It was then that studio executives loaned him out to Columbia for It Happened One Night, a delicious romantic comedy that gave him unlimited opportunities to react to Claudette Colbert in scene after scene. (She plays a willful heiress fleeing from her father; he plays a reporter who has guessed her identity and becomes her traveling companion in order to land the story for his paper.) The result was a colossal hit that brought Gable his only best-actor Oscar and made him the biggest of movie stars.
According to Frank Capra, the Gable of It Happened One Night was “the real Gable. He was never able to play that kind of character except in that one film. They had him playing these big, huff-and-puff he-man lovers, but he was not that kind of guy. He was a down-to-earth guy, he loved everything, he got down with the common people.”
True or not, MGM stuck to the he-man-lover Gable formula, varying it only on occasion, most effectively in Mutiny on the Bounty, in which he played opposite Charles Laughton, the most celebrated character actor of the 1930s. In addition to having a pronounced dislike of homosexuals like Laughton, Gable was nervous about sharing a screen with so formidable an artist and he refused to assume an English accent. But to everyone’s surprise, he and Laughton ended up liking each other and worked well together, and Gable gave a strong performance as Fletcher Christian, the mutineer who rebels against Captain Bligh’s tyrannous behavior.
Four years later, Gable proved himself in a different way in Gone With the Wind. Once again, he was unsure of himself, refusing to play Rhett Butler with a Southern accent and concerned about working with George Cukor, an openly gay director who had a reputation for being especially good with women stars like Katharine Hepburn and whom Gable feared would favor Vivien Leigh, who played Scarlett O’Hara. While there is no evidence that Gable lost his temper on the set and shouted, “I won’t be directed by a fairy,” it is known that he complained privately about Cukor, who was replaced by Victor Fleming.
Whatever did or did not happen, Gable gave the performance of a lifetime in Gone With the Wind. He is the complete embodiment of Rhett Butler, a wealthy rake who is by turns sardonic, disillusioned, and unflappable—but also grimly amused by the unshakable naiveté of the young Southern men whom he knows will be chewed up by the Civil War. He is also, as always, unambiguously masculine, and it is hard to see how Scarlett, as immature as she is in the film’s first half, could ever have preferred Leslie Howard’s near-effete Ashley Wilkes to a man like Rhett. But he never overplays his hand, and the barbed sarcasm of his line readings also tells us that Rhett is a man of intelligence (as was Gable, though he was in private life a shy man who preferred to keep his thoughts to himself).
Most striking of all is the manner in which Gable throws away his oft-quoted exit line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” It is easy to forget the perfection of this line reading because Leigh, like Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty, is simultaneously going to histrionic extremes. Instead of trying to rival her, Gable steps back, figuratively speaking, and makes it clear through understatement that she has exhausted his willingness to forgive.
“His acting was limited, but true; his powers of transformation negligible,” Simon Callow wrote of Gable in his biography of Charles Laughton. “Good looks and inimitable sexual charm were his strong suits.” What Callow neglects to add is that it is also the definition of a certain kind of larger-than-life Hollywood star, that Gable was that kind of star par excellence, and that his performance in Gone With the Wind transcends it. Whatever his larger limitations, this unforgettable scene is, like John Wayne’s quiet but terrifying warning to Montgomery Clift in Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948) that “I’m going to kill you,” real acting.
Gable’s 1939 marriage to the actress Carole Lombard had been a profoundly happy love match, but it ended in violent, life-changing tragedy. Lombard was an ardent supporter of FDR and urged Gable to enlist immediately after Pearl Harbor. MGM pressured him not to serve, but when Lombard was killed in a plane crash en route to a war-bond rally, the despondent Gable enlisted in the Army, which assigned him to a motion-picture unit. He flew in five hazardous combat missions over occupied Europe, aware at all times that if his plane went down and he was captured alive, he would be put on display by the Nazis.
When Gable returned to Hollywood after the war, his career entered a long, dismaying slide. The films he made, which included John Ford’s Mogambo (1953), a watered-down remake of Red Dust, and George Seaton’s Teacher’s Pet, a vapid romantic comedy in which he played opposite Doris Day and Gig Young, were largely unworthy of his talents save for Robert Wise’s Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), a taut war film about submariners in which he co-starred with Burt Lancaster.
In 1961, Gable shared the screen with Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift in John Huston’s The Misfits, a dark tale of the inability of an aging cowboy to fit into the modern world. Written by Arthur Miller, Monroe’s then-husband, it was also a portrait of Monroe as a heedless innocent. The script is overly poetic in places, but it gave Gable the opportunity to give one of his most eloquent performances, to which the distress marks of late middle age (he was 59) add depth. Two days after the film wrapped, he had a heart attack, the result of a lifetime of heavy smoking, and died 10 days after that.
The Misfits failed at the box office, and Gable’s reputation, already sullied by the string of unworthy films he had made, quickly went into eclipse. A year later, John Wayne starred in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, one of his finest films, and he continued to appear on screen to similarly imposing effect until 1976, three years before his own death from lung cancer. From that day to this, he has remained, unlike Gable, one of the best-known screen stars of the studio-system era.
Will Gable’s reputation ever undergo a renascence? Alas—and unlike Wayne—he did not make enough first-rate films to justify that kind of large-scale revival. But Red Dust, It Happened One Night, Mutiny on the Bounty, Gone With the Wind, Run Silent, Run Deep, and The Misfits will ensure between them that he will never be entirely forgotten, and many of his lesser films also have the power to give honest pleasure. Of how many studio-system stars can as much be said a half-century after their deaths?
1 Among the rumors alluded to in Hail, Caesar! were that Gable and Loretta Young had an illegitimate child—the result of nonconsensual “date rape,” she claimed in later life—whom Young, aided by the studio, bore in secret and later adopted (true) and that Eddie Mannix, the studio fixer who is the film’s principal character, hushed up a homosexual scandal involving Gable (untrue).
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