Business - Hero's Exit
Nov. 28, 1960
"I've laughed about my so-called 'death' before," he said last year, when his health seemed excellent and he smilingly scotched the sort of morbid rumor that forever comes up in the career of an aging giant. Of course he was not dead. The lines of his face had deepened and the skin had toughened. There was less gloss and more grey in his hair. But this was like seasonal change on a mountain. The basic topography was nearly permanent. He was, after all, Clark Gable.
In 30 starring years and about 65 films, he had dominated Hollywood. He was to the American motion picture what Ernest Hemingway is to American literature. He had the same masculine appeal, conveyed the same sense of escape from oppressive city culture, and suggested that what matters in life is the things a man can do with his body and his two hands. The gulf between Gable and a newer Hollywood generation was well summed up by a Clan member, who once said contemptuously: "He's a square. What would we find to say to him? He goes hunting."
Like a Gong. There was something exhilarating about his sheer brawn, whether he was swashing across the decks of the Bounty, or boxing with Spencer Tracy in San Francisco, or pouring the carafe of water over the Big Boss's head in The Hucksters. He often pioneered shock scenes. In Red Dust (1932) he discovered Jean Harlow bathing in a rain barrel, and in It Happened One Night (1934) he shared a tourist cabin with Claudette Colbert, their beds divided by a blanket stretched on a rope. In the same picture, when he took off his shirt and revealed nothing but a glossy chest, he touched off a crisis among undershirt manufacturers.
The main thing was that he took no nonsense from women. In Gone With the Wind, when he snarled at Scarlett O'Hara, played by Vivien Leigh, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," he taught the talkies how to swear. And when he slapped Norma Shearer's face in A Free Soul (1931), he slapped into obsolescence the smooth and courtly Valentino school of hand-kissing elegance. "Perhaps," said Norma Shearer last week, "that was where Noel Coward got the idea for his line: 'Every woman should be hit regularly—like a gong.' And for that sort of thing it was Gable who made villains popular. Instead of the audience's wanting the good man to get the girl, they wanted the bad man to get the girl."
Although he was a thorough professional, few critics bothered to consider him as an actor. He was, simply, a hero, and everything he touched turned to Gable. Sometimes he played The King as if he expected someone else to play The Ace, but he knew it and said so disarmingly. "I'm no actor and I never have been," he once explained. "What people see on the screen is me."
His Coronation. The man they saw was born William Clark Gable in Cadiz, Ohio, the 12-lb. son of a Pennsylvania Dutchman who had one foot in agriculture, the other in oil. Gable's mother died before he was a year old, and the shy, chubby, awkward, somewhat spoiled only child—who played a Teddy bear in a grade-school play—was raised on a mixture of hazard and earthy practicality. For three years he worked as a tool dresser in an Oklahoma oilfield, climbing 80-ft. derricks to grease the crown block and swinging 16-lb. sledge hammers.
Just after his 21st birthday Clark Gable joined a touring theatrical company called the Jewell Players, stayed with the group until it collapsed some months later in Butte, Mont. He had 26¢. Hopping a freight, he took a gelid ride to the Pacific Northwest, piled logs, sold neckties, became a telephone repairman. One of the last phones he fixed was at the theater of the Red Lantern Players, where Josephine Dillon, then in her late thirties,, was the resident stage director. She taught him diction, projection and carriage, and married him when he was 23.
For six years Gable floated among minor theatrical jobs, then caught the attention of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. There was just one problem—those ears. Milton Berle would later describe them as "the best ears of our lives," but Warner Bros, had already decided that they made young Gable unfit for the screen. M-G-M simply pinned back the Gable flappers with adhesive tape, and cast him in The Painted Desert. As Gable rose toward his coronation as The King—a ceremony actually performed in 1937 by Spencer Tracy with a cardboard crown—he shed the tape.
Comfort & Courage. Divorced by Josephine Dillon in 1930, he married Maria (Rhea) Franklin Prentiss Lucas Langham, a Houston socialite whose first marriage had occurred before Gable was born: despite his obvious virility, he apparently needed the comfort and security provided by older women. The first Mrs. Gable is now 76, lives alone in Hollywood with her chihuahua, and provided a startling contrast last week when, white-haired and frail, she was photographed looking at a picture of her young husband of years ago. Rhea, now 70, lives alone in Houston.
Gable liked his women to be both sacred and profane, and Carole Lombard, who in 1939 became his third wife, was close to perfection in both categories. During their courtship, when she heard that another actress had plans of her own for Gable, Carole Lombard stormed the set, told the director: "Get that whore out of this film or Gable goes.'' The rival vanished. Lombard gave her man a pure white Ford adorned with red valentines, learned to handle a shotgun so she could join him on his beloved hunting trips.
Gable's smile spread wider than a river in flood—until Carole Lombard was killed in an air crash during the early months of World War II. Soon afterward he en listed in the Army Air Forces, flew combat missions in B-17s out of Peterborough, England, functioning as both the head of an aerial film unit and as a turret gunner.
On His Own. After the war, the momentum of his great days in the '30s carried him through a series of mediocre films, but not through a mismatched 1949-52 marriage to Lady Sylvia Ashley, widow of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and ex-wife of a couple of British peers.
Professionally, matters improved with films like Command Decision and Mogambo, privately with his 1955 marriage to Kay Spreckels, who in 1952 had divorced Adolph Spreckels Jr., heir to a sugar fortune. By last summer, Clark Gable had at last settled again into a life that fully agreed with him. In The Misfits, written by Arthur Miller and directed by John Huston, he had found a film he considered his best since Mutiny on the Bounty. He was playing, in Miller's words, a Westerner whose idea of living was: "You start by going to sleep. You get up when you feel like it. You scratch yourself, fry yourself some eggs, throw stones at a can. Whistle . . ." In short, he was again playing Clark Gable.
On The Misfits location in Reno, he learned that his wife Kay was pregnant with his first child (due next March). He was so literally the king of his profession that when he came into a room, people stood and clapped. Nevadans stared in admiration while Gable fixed a flat on his own car: they were watching a man who did almost everything on his own and did it well. He made his own friends, who included studio executives but also hotelkeepers, contractors, mechanics; and with some of them he would motorcycle through San Fernando Valley at 100 m.p.h.
Reason or No Reason. Standing 6 ft. i in., he was still as strong as two men back to back. During the filming of 1938's Test Pilot, he was supposed to be "killed" by an avalanche of 60-lb. sandbags, flung them around like jelly beans until the bags were refilled at 200 Ibs. to make the scene believable. He had, too, a man's modest ration of swagger. He was proud of his wide, wide shoulders, and with one extra drink in him he would turn in the broad est doorway and go through sideways.
When word came of Clark Gable's death at 59 last week, resulting from his second heart attack this month, it was no rumor, as it had been last year. Tritely but accurately, his small, quiet military funeral —before burial beside Carole Lombard at Hollywood's Forest Lawn Cemetery—was called the end of an epoch. His star had gone higher and stayed there longer than any other in the history of films. A bit of dialogue from The Misfits will long be remembered as his exit line. "Honey," the script had him say at one point to Marilyn Monroe, "we all gotta go some time, reason or no reason. Dyin's as natural as livin'. Man who's too afraid to die is too afraid to live, far as I've ever seen. So there's nothin' to do but forget it, that's all. Seems to me."