Tag Archives: clark gable

The First Female Casualty of WWII

Carole Lombard 1908 - 1942.

By mid-January 1942, America had been fighting World War II for just over a month and had already suffered the loss of thousands of men during the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Most of these casualties were unknown outside of their units and families.

It was a far different story when America lost it first woman in the conflict. Her name was Carole Lombard, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and the wife of superstar Clark Gable.

Lombard, one of the most gifted screwball-comediennes at the time of her death, was born Jane Alice Peters in 1908 in Indiana. Young Carole moved to Los Angeles with her mother when she was six after her parents divorced. She began her acting career in silent films at the age of 12 after a director spotted her playing baseball. She would retain a tomboyish personality spiced with bawdy humor that contrasted sharply with her classic beauty.

She co-starred with future husband Clark Gable on the set of No Man of Her Own in 1932 and saw her career take off in 1934’s Twentieth Century. She was nominated for an Oscar two years later for her role in the screwball comedy My Man Godfrey in which she co-starred with her ex-husband William Powell (awkward!).

Later successes included Made For Each Other, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and To Be Or Not To Be, which was released after her death.

Lombard began an affair with Gable while he was still married to Rhea Langham. Louise B. Mayer, the head of MGM, was able to land Gable for the role of Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind by giving him a contract that would pay him enough money to divorce Langham and wed Lombard. The couple was married during a break in filming in Kingman, Arizona, with Otto Winkler, Gable’s press agent, in attendance. They lived together on a ranch in Encino for the next three years.

In 1942, Lombard, accompanied by Winkler and her mother, flew to Indiana on a mission to sell bonds for the war effort. The trip was very successful, with Lombard selling over $2 million worth of bonds in a single day. On the flight back to Los Angeles, the plane they were in crashed into Mt. Potosi near Las Vegas, killing all 22 people on-board.

A grief-stricken Gable, who was rumored to have been engaged in an affair with Lana Turner at the time of Lombard’s death, flew to the crash site. He purchased three adjoining crypts in Glendale’s Forest Lawn Cemetery for the couple and Lombard’s mother, where all three are now interrred.

Lombard’s final film To Be Or Not To Be (1942) was in post-production at the time of her death. After the crash, the producers cut out a line of dialogue in which her character rhetorically asks, “What could happen in a plane?”

Lombard was posthumously honored by the U.S. government with the launch of a Liberty Ship SS Carole Lombard, and with the Medal of Freedom as the first woman killed in the line of duty during the war.

The question arises: Was Lombard really the first American woman to die as a result of World War II?

Most certainly not. There were previous civilian female casualties at Pearl Harbor, but like their male counterparts, they were unknown to the general public. As a well-known personality, Lombard’s death was used by the media and the War Department to personalize the conflict, and to strengthen America’s resolve.

This plaque at Lombard's crash site was stolen in 2007.

The Debut of “G-Dub-T-Dub”

While the opening months of World War II raged in Europe, in America it was the War Between the States that had everyone talking. On this date in 1939, Gone With the Wind had its world premiere in Atlanta, Georgia, which young Jimmy Carter later remembered as the “biggest event to happen in the South in [my] lifetime.”

The celebrations surrounding the premiere of the film stretched over three days and were attended by most of the film’s stars, including Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, who were treated by Atlanta’s celebrity-starved hordes as visiting royalty. The celebration included motorcades, elegant balls, and trips around the city. Normal life in Atlanta shut down as Governor E.D. Rivers declared a three-day holiday, asking Atlanta’s citizens to dress in costumes from the antebellum era.

Since GWTW takes place in the Civil War, it was only fitting that the stars met with some of the last surviving Confederate Civil War veterans and took a tour of the Cyclorama – the 360-degree depiction of the Battle of Atlanta. Clark Gable joked with the museum curators that the battle scene needed a soldier who looked like Rhett Butler. When I was at the Cyclorama earlier this year during a visit to Atlanta, the tour guide made sure to point out the Clark Gable mannequin that was added after his comment.

Friday, December 15 was the night of the premiere at Atlanta’s majestic Loew’s Grand Theatre, whose marquee was remodeled for the occasion to look like the Tara plantation. 300,000 people lined the freezing streets to cheer the film’s stars, as well as local celebrity Margaret Mitchell, who wrote the book the film was based on.

The celebration had everything you would expect from a party in the Deep South. Everything, that is, but African-Americans. No blacks were allowed to attend the events, including the film’s stars Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen who were barred from the premiere at the all-white theater. Clark Gable hated the way his co-stars were treated and threatened to boycott the event, but was talked in to attending by his friend McDaniel. (Incidentally, a young Martin Luther King Jr. did make it to the ball, but not as a guest. He was a member of the “negro boys choir” that performed for the all-white attendees.)

There was an earlier premiere of the film, though not an official one. On September 9, producer David Selznick and three others dropped in on the Fox Theatre in Riverside, California with the unfinished reels of the film and asked the theater’s manager if he would host an impromptu test screening. He agreed, and after the scheduled evening’s program concluded, the audience was invited to stay for the screening, but no one was told what they were about to see. When the crowd saw the title for the film and realized they were getting a sneak peek at the much-anticipated Gone With the Wind, the roar was described as “thunderous.” Selznick would later describe the response as the “greatest moment of his life.”

The Loew’s Theatre was razed many years ago and its former site is now occupied by the Georgia-Pacific headquarters building. After a major renovation, the Fox Theatre reopened this year as a performance hall.

Hattie McDaniel won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress that year for the role of “Mammy,” becoming the first African-American to win an Oscar. After she died in 1952 from breast cancer at the age of 57, she suffered a final indignity because of her race when she was denied her last request to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery, which didn’t accept blacks. In 1999, after Tyler Cassity purchased the grounds, now known as Hollywood Forever Cemetery, he offered to have McDaniel’s body reburied at the cemetery, but her family chose not to disturb her remains. Instead, the cemetery erected a marker next to the lake to honor Ms. McDaniel, and to right an old wrong.

Hattie McDaniel's cenotaph at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

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.

The Casting Curse

The Misfits, which concluded filming 50 years ago today, must have been a particularly tough shoot.

The filming took place in the blazing Nevada desert where temperatures regularly topped 100. The director was often hung over and had to borrow money from the producers to cover his gambling losses. The leading lady, just months away from her own mysterious death, was strung out on pills and booze, and was in the midst of a breakup with her husband, who just happened to be the film’s writer. Another star was dealing with his own addictions and couldn’t remember his lines, and the leading man – a Hollywood icon – would suffer a heart attack two days after filming concluded and be dead within a week.

The Misfits is a depressing tale about a divorcee, played by Marilyn Monroe, who becomes romantically involved with Clark Gable, who plays an aging cowboy. Gable’s character rounds up wild horses for a living to sell to a dog food company. Montgomery Clift costars as a rodeo rider. The film was directed by John Huston, and written by Arthur Miller, who was Monroe’s husband at the time.

With this list of principles, it would be tempting to assume that The Misfits is a Hollywood classic. While technically a good film, showcasing what is arguably Monroe’s finest screen performance, it’s a tough watch, especially with its very PETA-unfriendly subject matter. The film is only remembered today as the final screen appearance for Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, who would both be dead within months.

Despite all of their personal peccadilloes, Huston was still able to get solid performances out of all of the actors. But the real drama took place off screen.

This “cursed” production seems more a victim of when they cast their leads rather than of who they cast in the roles. Monroe’s life was unraveling in front of everyone’s eyes at the time. She was usually late to the set, when she decided to show up at all, and Huston once had to shut the production down to send her to a rehab hospital. Montgomery Clift, who never fully recovered from the trauma of an automobile accident in 1956, was in a serious decline. He was described by Monroe as, “The only person I know who is in worse shape than I am.” The stress of dealing with Monroe’s unprofessionalism and being overtaxed by performing his own stunts was too much for Gable’s heart. He suffered a massive heart attack on November 6 and was dead only a few days later at the age of 59.

The film also featured the final screen appearance of 1930s Western star Rex Bell, who was the Lt. Governor of the state of Nevada at the time, as well as the husband of former “It” girl Clara Bow. He would also die a few months later – on July 4, 1962 – which is memorable to me personally since it just happens to be the day I was born.

This “war of attrition” claimed its final victim in 1966 when Montgomery Clift was asked by his personal secretary if he wanted to watch The Misfits on television that evening. “Absolutely not!” was his reply, which turned out to be the last words he ever spoke to anyone. He died of a heart attack later that night.