LONG LIVE THE KING

  Studio publicity shot of Gable (left) and Gable and wife Sylvia fishing in Colorado during filming of Across the Wide Missouri (right).

Studio publicity shot of Gable (left) and Gable and wife Sylvia fishing in Colorado during filming of Across the Wide Missouri (right).

I recently read Adriana Trigiani’s novel, All The Stars In The Heavens, about Clark Gable and his Call of the Wild affair and “love” child with Loretta Young. So when I happened upon episodes of the old Loretta Young Show, I DVRed the lot and found myself watching one episode every night after dinner, sort of like enjoying a rich dessert without consuming all those frightening calories. Young always begins the half hour shows swirling through a doorway in fashions of the day. Among the first Hollywood stars to understand the power of radio and television, Young wisely prohibited including these classic entrances in the first syndication of the show because she was aware that nothing dates as fast as yesterday’s haute couture. But by now, her mid century dresses add luster to the show.

Everything back then looks glamorous—of course it was a glamorous time—or, more accurately, ours surely is not a glamorous time. It is getting summer again—how many feet in flip flops and unshaved legs will make you wonder if you wandered into some boardwalk pizza stand on a Saturday night when you are dining alfresco big-check/small-table in town? City life. Did you ever ride down early morning in a high-rise apartment elevator with people out to score their take-out morning coffee costumed in unisex dorm garb for a Zac Efron/Ariana Grande re-make of Good News? I mean, can’t they master Keurig? It evokes nostalgia for Claudette Colbert needing to borrow Gable’s topcoat so she can decently cover his borrowed PJs to wait in line for an outside shower in It Happened One Night—one of only three movies, and the only comedy, to sweep Best Movie, Screenplay, Director, Actor, and Actress Oscars. According to legend, Gable gave his Oscar to a kid who admired it, and it was returned to Gable’s widow and mother of his posthumously born son.

Although contested by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Gable’s Best Actor Oscar sold at auction in 1996 for $607,500.00. Gable was tentative about playing Peter Warne, but the Capra masterpiece provides Gable every opportunity to chew up the scenery. Gable is a power house—lashing out at bus drivers, hitchhikers, highway thieves—and Colbert, even taking a shot at men’s underwear by not wearing an undershirt when he strips on screen. Gable defines the classic “women want him, men want to be him” movie hero.

Gable would play that part on Studio System demand until after he was a real-life war veteran and as a freelancer after the Paramount Decision in a career of more than 60 films. He plays the same “all man” lead character twice two decades apart (Red Dust and remake Mogambo) and plays it most famously when he personified the classic uber-male, Rhett Butler. And he plays it right into his senior years as the night school teacher’s bad boy pet to Doris Day and as the Ugly American Philadelphia lawyer who finds and loses his heart to Capri, his orphaned nephew, and Sophia Loren. As the highest paid actor, earning the industry’s largest advance salary paid to date against a percentage of the gross with a weekly stipend for overtime, Gable plays it the last time in The Misfits—Marilyn Monroe’s and his macabre cinematic swan song.

Both in biographies and in Hollywood lore, it appears Gable also played that part off screen. A heavy smoker and a serious drinker, Gable loved fishing, hunting, camping, horseback riding, and working on his own cars. Gable is rumored to have had affairs with many to most of his leading ladies: one leading lady (this quip will sound like a salty Shelley Winters zinger, but it is apocryphal) is reported to have declared, and I paraphrase, Clark Gable is so clean you could eat off him. Two of his many liaisons were enduring. His affair with Joan Crawford, on again, off again, through eight film pairings, was labeled as “the affair that almost burned Hollywood down” in the press, and he had a daughter with Loretta Young. He married five times (acting teacher, Josephine Dillon; Maria Langham; Douglas Fairbanks’ widow Lady Sylvia Ashley; Kay Williams Spreckels; and his classic Hollywood marriage to comedienne Carole Lombard),

Darryl F. Zanuck hadn’t signed young Gable because of his big ears; by age 32, chronic trouble with his teeth resulted in Gable’s having full dentures; nevertheless, Clark Gable was—and is—King of the Movies.