Clark Gable, the ‘King of Hollywood’ and icon of the Golden Age of cinema, died 16 November 1960 in Los Angeles.
His death came just weeks after he finished shooting The Misfits, also the last screen appearance of his co-star Marilyn Monroe.
Gable was born in Ohio in 1901. After dropping out of school at sixteen, he saw his first theatrical production and set his heart on becoming an actor.
At 21 he moved to Portland where he met his first wife, acting coach Josephine Dillon. After sharpening her new husband’s acting talents, Dillon took Gable to Hollywood. Despite securing several small roles, he failed to make a real impression.
It was through stage acting that Gable scored his big break. His performance in the 1928 Broadway production of Machinal was described by one critic as “brutally masculine” and a contract with MGM followed in 1930.
His early screen appearances were mostly supporting roles, often the villain, but as his female following grew so did his screen time.
His newfound success coincided with the demise of his first marriage. Gable and Dillion divorced in 1930 and Gable married wealthy socialite Maria Franklin Prentiss Lucas Langham.
On screen he starred with the biggest female stars of the day: Greta Garbo, Mary Astor, Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford, with whom he embarked on a passionate affair.
By the mid-1930s Gable was MGM’s biggest star. In 1934 he starred in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, a role that earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor, galvanising his gold plated status.
A career-defining role
At the apex of his power, in 1939 Gable was cast as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind.
Producer David O. Selznick was so desperate to cast Gable in the role that he made an extremely expensive deal with MGM to get them to release him, even agreeing to pay MGM a share of the film’s profits.
The lengthy search for an actress to play the film’s anti-heroine Scarlett o’Hara is the stuff of movie legend. After auditioning over one thousand unknown actresses and dozens of Hollywood’s leading ladies, the part was eventually won by Vivien Leigh, a British actress little known in America.
The film made icons of both Gable and Leigh, who won an Academy Award for her performance.
Tragedy and war
Gable married for a third time in 1939 to the actress Carole Lombard. In Lombard he found a frank and outspoken partner who kept him on his toes. The marriage was a happy one, often cited as the happiest period of Gable’s life. But it was short lived.
In January 1942 Lombard was killed in an air crash whilst travelling home from a war bond drive. The loss devastated Gable.
In August of the same year, in what some perceived to be a death wish, Gable abandoned his acting career and enlisted in the US Army Air Service. In his role as gunner he received the Distinguished Flying Cross and was promoted to Major.
He was supposedly the favourite actor of Adolf Hitler, who by some accounts offered a handsome reward for his capture.
His initial return to Hollywood as a bonafide war hero was met with huge enthusiasm. But gradually Gable’s star began to wane. His fourth marriage, to Lady Sylvia Ashley, whom many thought bore a striking resemblance to Lombard, ended in divorce three years later. In 1955 he also parted ways with MGM.
Gable continued to make films throughout the 1950s, though none received the same critical and commercial acclaim as his earlier work.
It was through his final performance, in John Huston’s The Misfits, that audiences were once more reminded of the acting prowess of their fading screen icon. Written by Arthur Miller for his then-wife Marilyn Monroe, the film is a melancholy drama set in the sparse expanses of the Nevada desert.
The film ends with Gable and Monroe’s characters, Gay and Roslyn, driving away together into the night, a scene made all the more poignant by the knowledge that both were dead within two years.
Gable’s health was already in decline when filming for The Misfits began. This was no doubt compounded by his use of amphetamines to lose weight for the role and his insistence on doing all of his own stunts.
Two days after filming wrapped, Gable suffered a major heart attack. He was rushed to hospital but died ten days later from coronary thrombosis. Newspapers ran the story of his death beneath the headline “The King is Dead”.
His funeral took place at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles on 19 November. Jimmy Stewart and Spencer Tracy were among the pallbearers. Frank Capra, Arthur Miller and Norma Shearer were in attendance, as was Gable’s fifth wife, Kay Williams, at the time pregnant with their son John.
Gable was interred in the Great Mausoleum beside his great love, Carole Lombard.