Clark Gable is one of the few actors of the Hollywood Golden age whose name is still widely recognized today. Much of the credit for this goes to his role as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, which is known even by those who aren’t classic film fans.
Gable was one of the luckiest stars of that era, a fact which he always admitted to. Though he wasn’t without talent, a large part of his popularity had to do with his public image as a man’s man and his onscreen magnetism. Men admired him and women panted after him.
No star in history had ever risen so fast or with such impact. Of course, it was a simpler time when no other entertainment medium—not even radio—had the star-creating power that movies did. He was also a beneficiary of the Depression era, which needed new heroes and role models. He was handsome, magnetic, and aggressive. On-screen at least he pushed people around, including women, but he always got what he wanted and without being evil or detestable.
I’ve long been a fan of Gable’s but uncharacteristically I had never read a biography on him like I’ve done with other screen favorites. So, when this Clark Gable biography recently went on sale, I snapped it up, determined to cure my ignorance.
When it comes to biographies, I’m always interested in the person behind the fame. I want to know who they really are apart from their jobs and accomplishments. Clark Gable: A Biography met my expectations in this regard. From birth to death, it chronicles Gable’s personal life as well as giving an overview of his professional one. At 426 pages it has plenty of time to do so, but never feels overly long.
When dealing with the facts and dates of a life, it’s sometimes hard to make them interesting. This author does a great job relaying both without getting bogged down in too much detail. In fact, they are conveyed in a personable way, that kept me interested. That being said, there are some times I would have liked a little more information concerning certain people or events in Gable’s life. Gable’s personal and professional life often overlapped. However, this book delves less into his film career than some star biographies do.
The author did include quotes from Gable’s co-stars and friends which I really enjoyed. I felt like it helped me really understand and know this great star better. I do wish even more quotes from Gable himself had been included, but perhaps they weren’t available. Still the ones that were give a unique insight to the public entity that was Clark Gable.
Clark was well-regarded by almost everyone who knew him. Even the multiple women he had affairs with spoke highly of him long after their associations had ended. This biography touches on his relationships, not only with his five wives, but also legendary “fixer” Eddie Mannix, director Victor Fleming, co-star and friend Jean Harlow, his father who never accepted Gable’s career, friends and acquaintances from his early life and his time on the stage, close friend Otto Winkler, MGM’s head of publicity Howard Strickling and others. From all accounts, Gable was very down to earth and didn’t buy into his public image.
Some of the things I found the most memorable or interesting in this biogarphy are:
- Gable’s womanizing ways are legendary. But it seems he was less of a “player” and more a guy who just loved women. He would sleep with just about anyone regardless of who they were or how they looked. He had absolutely no discipline or self-restraint in this area of his life.
- It is debatable whether he ever consummated his marriage with his much older first wife.
- Gable was drinking buddies and good friends with both John Gilbert and John Barrymore before their deaths.
- Though they made eight films together Gable and Myrna Loy did not hit it off at first. But over time, they became good friends.
- Gable’s Gone With the Wind co-star Hattie McDaniel actually had to be taught how to speak like a southern Mammy. When she won the Oscar for supporting actress the entire room of Hollywood elite stood up and cheered because she was much beloved among them.
- Contrary to his onscreen image, Gable was actually quiet and shy. Though he was an outdoorsman, he also enjoyed reading.
- Though Gable and co-star Ava Gardner were both sexually aggressive, according to Gardner, they never slept together.
- Gable was never confident in his talent and always had this, “aw, shucks” attitude when he was praised for his performances.
“He happened to be an actor, a damned good one, and nobody knew it, least of all Clark. He always deprecated his ability, pretending that it didn’t matter. He was really a shy man with a terrible inferiority in him somewhere. Something was missing that kept him from doing the things he could have done.” Myrna Loy
- Though he wasn’t stingy, Gable was very careful and risk averse with his money, stemming from his early years when he struggled with job security.
- In fact, in many areas of his life, Gable was risk averse. After his third wife Carole Lombard’s death in a plane crash, he refused to travel by plane. He passed up opportunities to freelance in favor of a steady income and roles with MGM, even though many freelance actors made more money.
- Gone With the Wind is one of the most successful films in history, both commercially and financially. Gable, however came to resent the film. He was paid a straight salary for his role, and did not share any percentage in the gross profits. So, every time the film was re-released it raked in a huge profit, but Gable never made a dime from it, even though the film benefitted from his popularity.
These are just a few of the many interesting things I learned. Overall, I found this biography easy to read and interesting. Despite the length there are times I wish the author had gone into more depth, particularly regarding Gable’s film experiences. However, after reading this book, I feel I know a whole lot more about Gable. Indeed, this biography has whetted my appetite to learn more. In closing, I would like to end with a quote from someone who served with Gable in WWII, that really sums up the focus of this biography. Of all the accolades he received, perhaps this one is the most true.
Clark was a human with heart,” a sergeant-buddy remembered.