The King of Hollywood: Who Was Clark Gable? | History Hit

The King of Hollywood: Who Was Clark Gable?

Studio publicity photo of Clark Gable
Image Credit: Studio publicity still, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Clark Gable, the ‘King of Hollywood’ and icon of the Golden Age of cinema, died on 16 November 1960 in Los Angeles. His death came just weeks after he finished shooting The Misfits, which also marked the last screen appearance of his co-star Marilyn Monroe.

A legend of the silver screen with appearances in genre-defining films such as Gone with the Wind, Gable’s life was not without its many trials and tribulations. The loss of his wife Carole Lombard

So who was Clark Gable, and what led to

His break came through stage acting

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. There, 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.

After World War 2, America feared communist infiltration of its institutions, including Hollywood.
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He had an affair with actress Joan Crawford

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, the latter 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. This galvanised his superstar status.

Gone with the Wind propelled him to stardom

Now at the apex of his stardom, 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 release him to them, by 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, the latter whom won an Academy Award for her performance.

Film poster for ‘Gone with the Wind’. Image credit: Armando Seguso (per Heritage Auctions), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: Armando Seguso (per Heritage Auctions), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

His wife was killed in a plane crash

In 1939, Gable married for a third time to the actress Carole Lombard, who he found to be enjoyably frank and outspoken. The marriage was a happy one, and was often cited as the most contented period of Gable’s life. However, 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, which his late wife had encouraged him to do since the outbreak of World War Two. 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 career waned after the war

His initial return to Hollywood as a bonafide war hero was met with huge enthusiasm. Gradually, however, Gable’s stardom 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.

Clark Gable with his horse Beverly Hills at his ranch. Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He and Marilyn Monroe appeared in a film together shortly before they both died

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 would be dead within two years.

His use of amphetamines worsened his ill health

Gable’s health was already in decline when filming for The Misfits began in 1961. 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 with the headline ‘The King is Dead’.

Clark Gable in 1960. Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Lucy Davidson