Long Live the King! – Part One

Fifty years ago today, a generation of Hollywood royalty watchers awoke to the news that their king was dead.

Clark Gable died on this date in 1960, less than two weeks after completing The Misfits, which was also the final screen appearance of Marilyn Monroe, another iconic movie star.

Gable was born in rural Ohio in 1901 and his mother died of a brain tumor before Clark was a year old. He originally had the name Goebel, which the family changed around World War I because of the anti-German sentiment of the times. He left his father’s farm behind while in high school to work in a tire plant in nearby Akron. It was here that he caught the acting bug, and set out touring the country as a member of several theater stock companies.

Gable eventually found himself working as a tie salesman in Portland, Oregon, when he met acting coach Josephine Dillon, a woman seventeen years his senior. The two became lovers while Dillon set about re-creating Gable from the ground up. He emerged from the makeover with a new set of teeth, a different hair style, a deeper voice, and a more masculine physique. Gable returned the favor by making Dillon his first wife.

The two migrated to Hollywood in 1924 where Gable got parts in several silent films before returning for a time to the stage. He returned to Hollywood in 1930 and tested for the lead in Little Caesar the following year, but Warner Bros. production head Darryl F. Zanuck, in one of his – and Hollywood’s – greatest whiffs, rejected him by commenting that “his ears are too big and he looks like an ape.”

He became a major star a short time later when he was loaned out from MGM (which had him under contract) to “Poverty Row” producer Columbia to star in It Happened One Night, opposite Claudette Colbert. Gable won the Oscar that year for the role, and his mannerisms in the film were said to be the inspiration for Bugs Bunny.

By this time, the philandering Gable had dumped Dillon to marry a Texas socialite. He was again nominated as Best Actor for his role in Mutiny On The Bounty the following year and was nicknamed the “King of Hollywood,” acting opposite (and usually sleeping with) the biggest actresses in Hollywood.

But it was all just prelude to the main feature.

In 1939, Gable had his most-enduring success in the iconic role of Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind, by far the highest-grossing film ever up till that time. The role earned him his third Best Actor nomination and provided him with one of the industry’s most famous lines: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Gable next married actress Carole Lombard and enjoyed the finest years of his personal life at her side. Tragically, she was killed in a plane crash near Las Vegas in 1942 returning to Hollywood from a war bond rally.

Gable and Lombard.

Gable swallowed his grief by joining the Army Air Corps, flying missions over Germany. It was said that Adolf Hitler was a huge fan of Gable and offered a large reward for his capture and safe transport to Berlin.

Gable returned from the war to find Hollywood a changed place and many of his films over the last fifteen years of his life failed at the box office. By the time he made The Misfits, decades of drinking and heavy smoking had taken their toll. His health suffered on the film due to the stifling heat, difficult stunts, and the stress of dealing with Marilyn Monroe’s unprofessionalism. He suffered a major heart attack two days after the production wrapped, and died less than two weeks later.

Gable was almost as famous for his womanizing as for his acting. He went through wives like the real king Henry the VIII (he eventually had five) and had dozens of affairs throughout his life. One long-standing rumor claims that he was in bed with a starlet when he heard the news report of wife Carole Lombard’s death on the radio.

Clark Gable packed a ton of living into only 59 years, leaving behind one of Hollywood’s most enduring legacies.

Hollywood’s king was laid to rest in a crypt in Glendale’s Forest Lawn Cemetery alongside Carole Lombard, his favorite queen.

About deadwrite

Freelance writer, film historian, taphophile View all posts by deadwrite

3 responses to “Long Live the King! – Part One

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