Movie Stars of Old Hollywood: Clark Gable
Spencer Tracy once referred to Clark Gable as “The King of Hollywood” and at the height of his career, he was. But it was a long, sometimes lonely road for Gable on the way to the remarkable success and movie star status that he attained.
His journey started when he was born on February 1, 1901 in Cadiz, Ohio and was named William Clark Gable. His father, William H. Gable, was an oil well driller and his mother was the former Adeline Hershelman. Never fully recovering from the birth, Gable’s mother died when he was only ten months old. Gable’s father left him with his grandparents until Clark was two, when William was remarried to Jennie Dunlap. The three of them moved in with Jennie’s family in Hopedale, Ohio until 1910 when William built a new home in town.
Clark became very close to his stepmother, who raised him as if he were her own. She taught him to play the piano and how to stay well-groomed and dress well. Clark was tall, shy and loved to recite the works of Shakespeare. He was also able to tear down and rebuild a car – something he enjoyed doing with his father. In an eighth grade play he made his acting debut. In high school he continued acting and participated in band, track and baseball.
In 1917 William Gable lost a considerable sum of money in an oil-drilling scheme and moved the family to a farm in Ravenna, Ohio. Clark didn’t adjust well to living in on the farm and in 1918 he returned to Hopedale to live with his stepmother’s family. Shortly after, he decided to quit school and took on a series of odd jobs. The following year he moved to Akron with his friend, Andy Means, where they found work in a tire factory.
It was in Akron that Clark Gable fell in love with the acting profession after watching a locally produced play called Bird of Paradise. He wanted to be a part of the theater badly enough that he took an unpaid job as a callboy (the one who calls actors when it’s time to go onstage) while still working at the factory. While in Akron, Clark got news that his stepmother was very ill. He rushed home to be at her side, and a few days later she died. At 19, Clark was devastated, having lost his best friend and the one person whom encouraged him to pursue his dreams.
William Gable sold the farm and moved to Oklahoma to work in the oil fields. He insisted Clark work with him and forget the notion of becoming an actor. Clark did join his father, but he hated the work. When he was 21 he received a small inheritance from his grandfather and he decided to head west to pursue an acting career. This resulted in a ten-year estrangement between William and Clark Gable.
Working his way across the country, Clark ended up in Portland Oregon. At first he took a job as a tie salesman and worked in a lumberyard. He also fell in love with an aspiring actress, Franz Dorfler. They met while they were both performing as part of the Astoria Stock Company. He proposed marriage and she accepted, but because he was so poor she thought they should wait. To jumpstart his career, Franz suggested that Clark contact the Broadway actress and acting instructor, Josephine Dillon. He did, and when she left to start a school in Hollywood, Clark followed her.
Josephine Dillon was fourteen years older than Clark. She saw something in him that no one else had. She helped him with his speaking voice and acting and greatly improved his looks, giving him a more polished appearance. Up to this point in his life, Clark Gable had been called “Billy Gable”. Dillon had him change his name, and she transformed a coarse Billy into a refined Clark. They were married in 1924.
While in Hollywood, Clark worked as an extra in silent films like Forbidden Paradise (1925) and The Pacemakers (1925). Disappointed at not being offered a major role, Clark returned to the stage where he met and became very good friends with Lionel Barrymore.
From 1927 to 1928 Clark acted as part of the Laskin Brothers Stock Company in Houston, Texas. Next he moved to New York where, at the request of Josephine Dillon, he was cast in shows on Broadway and got good reviews. During the years of 1929 and 1930 the Depression made it difficult to get work on Broadway.
In 1930 Clark and Josephine Dillon were divorced. Within days he married the Texas socialite Ria Langham, another woman many years his senior. Ria continued the work started by Josephine, refining Clark’s looks and manners and introducing him to influential members of society.
In 1930 Clark was offered a contract with MGM and appeared in his first role in a “talkie” (sound movie). It was a western called The Painted Desert that was released in 1931. The studio took note of how movie audiences loved Clark’s powerful voice and appearance.
In 1931 Clark made a total of twelve films with actresses like Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo. His career really took off after the release of Red Dust with Jean Harlow in 1932. He became MGM’s principal star and they continued to pair him successfully with Harlow, making a total of six movies together. Harlow died during the filming of Saratoga in 1937.
In 1934, MGM did not have a script available for Clark, and since they paid him a salary of $2000 a week, they loaned him out to Columbia Pictures for $2500 a week. With Columbia Pictures, Clark starred in It Happened One Night costarring Claudette Colbert and directed by Frank Capra. Clark won the Academy Award for Best Actor in this film and Colbert won the Best Actress Award. Clark became an even bigger star.
Clark won a nomination for his role as Fletcher Christian in Mutiny On the Bounty (1935). This was supposedly his favorite role. In the same year, he and Ria separated (they would divorce in ’39) and Clark began an affair with Loretta Young while filming Call of the Wild. Young had a daughter as a result of the affair – she went abroad to hide her condition and later claimed she had adopted the baby.
Clark continued to act in very successful movies and was hailed the “King of Hollywood” by Spencer Tracy in 1938, prior to the release of his most noted role.
Clark Gable is best known for his next role as Rhett Butler, in Gone with the Wind (1939). Ironically, at first he didn’t want the role but had been introduced to the book by Carole Lombard (who wanted the be cast as Scarlett). They worked together previously in No Man of Her Own in 1932 while Carole was married to William Powell. Clark was borrowed again from MGM to star in David O. Selznick’s movie that went on to become one of the most successful and popular movies of all time. It won a record-breaking 10 Academy Awards.
Clark and Lombard married on March 29, 1939 during the filming of Gone with the Wind. By all accounts, Carole was the love of Clark Gable’s life. They bought a ranch in Encino and lived simply, away from the glare of Hollywood. She raised chickens and he hunted and fished.
Carole Lombard Gable died in a plane crash on January 16, 1942. She had recently completed her 57th film and was returning from a very successful trip selling war bonds. Her mother was also onboard the plane. Clark was inconsolable. A month after Carole’s death he returned to Hollywood to film Somewhere I’ll Find You with Lana Turner. He was drinking heavily and having difficulty being professional while on the movie set.
As a tribute to Carole’s deep patriotism, Clark enlisted in August of 1942 as a gunner. After completing his training, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and eventually was promoted to major. He flew five missions as an “observer-gunner” in B-17s, earning the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
After D-Day Clark was granted a discharge and he retreated back to his ranch. His first movie after the war was Adventure, released in 1945 and costarring Greer Garson. The film did badly and Clark was no longer considered one of Hollywood’s top movie stars, although he continued to make successful movies like The Hucksters in 1947.
In 1949 Clark married Sylvia Ashley, the widow of Douglas Fairbanks. They divorced in ’52. Clark became unhappy with his contract at MGM and when it came up for renewal in 1953, Clark insisted on being released. His first independently made films were Soldier of Fortune and The Tall Men. They were both moderately successful.
Clark’s fifth marriage was to Kay Spreckels in 1955. She was a former model and actress that had been married to Adolph Spreckels, Jr., heir to a fortune made in sugar-refining. That same year Clark formed a production company with Jane Russell and her husband. Clark’s single production with the company was The King and Four Queens, in which he also acted.
Clark found doing both the producing and acting to be too much for him. His health wasn’t great and occasionally he would experience tremors. He did a handful of other movies with mixed reviews. By 57, he realized he had to slow down. He had become very overweight, and to prepare for what turned out to be his final film, The Misfits, he went on a crash diet and took diet drugs that put a tremendous strain on his health. He had been a very heavy smoker for over thirty years; smoking 3 packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day in addition to cigars and a pipe.
Clark died on November 16, 1960 from a heart attack shortly after filming of The Misfits was completed. Kay was pregnant at the time Clark passed, and his son, John Clark Gable was born four months later.
Clark Gable has become known as one of the greatest male movie stars in all Hollywood history. Most of us remember him as Rhett Butler, but he was so much more. He was in a total of 67 films in his thirty-year career. He was and still is the King of Hollywood.
Did you know:
- It’s rumored that undershirt sales in the US took a dive after Clark Gable took off his shirt in “It Happened One Night”, revealing the fact that he wasn’t wearing one.
- Actor Robert Montgomery was originally offered the role Gable played in “It Happened One Night”, but turned it down, saying the script was poorly written. The movie went on to win all 5 major categories at the Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay).
- During WWII Adolf Hitler offered a large reward to anyone who could capture Clark Gable and return him to Germany. Gable was Hitler’s favorite actor.