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Glimpse of Gable: The Thirties


Lachlan Hazelton

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Glimpse of Gable: The Thirties

© 2016 by Lachlan Hazelton




Prologue 1901-1930








The King 1938

Gable Rules

1939 Gone With The Wind


Glimpse of Gable Filmography

About The Author



The glimpse of Gable on screen has that something, elusive star quality captured by the camera. It’s something that holds an audience. For as long as that connection holds you’ve found a star. Eventually, film fades and stars wane. Some forgotten, others will always be remembered.

Gable’s energy combined with the studio formula to create a rugged male screen persona dependable in all situations. The third element crucial to enduring success, even with the Studio system at its peak, was something personal, private and genuine, something unique. Gable had it. Often, people discover the secret to personal success.

Life taught him to want something was not enough, if you work hard for it, really hard, you might get lucky. Gable grabbed his chances with both hands and rode them out. There were ups and downs, but for 30 years, if his name was on the program you knew what you’d get.

Gable was lucky to work in the time of the Studio system, using it to advantage. For some, that’s reason to dismiss any ability he had as an actor. Happily, Gable himself was the first to admit that his abilities were limited.i

Surely, few would argue that the man from The Painted Desert (1931) was the same actor who charmed Claudette Colbert and audiences in It Happened One Night (1934) His ability and his knowledge of how to use it came with experience.

Gables experiences, intentionally or not are reflected by his screen persona in the roles he was given, as well as later in the roles he chose.

Experience is key. His confidence in that ability was enough to turn a part he had approached with hate and fear, (Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind 1939), into one of the greatest and enduring portrayals in Movie history. It was also personal experience and awareness that fuelled the nuance in the faded glory behind his outmoded Cowboy in Arthur Miller’s The Misfits (1961).

Ideally, when he returned to a more relaxed work schedule after the birth of his son, this no nonsense experience would have coloured more parts, like the one that would have seen him teamed with John Wayne and Howard Hawks for Hatari (1962)ii.

It would have made a productive and fitting Hollywood retirement. But, there isn’t always the happy ending. (Gable died in November 1960). Paramount also balked at Gable’s terms. They had trouble raising the budget to meet his $1 Million dollar fee, plus 10% of the box-office.iii

Yes, Clark Gable played Clark Gable. He never pretended to do anything else. Sometimes, his unique combination of personality, presence and persona gave his loyal audience a glimpse of something timeless.

Prologue 1901-1930

Just like the scenarios Louis B. Mayer was looking for in his films this one had it all, action, drama, romance. The scene would open with a long shot of a small farm, that despite all the work seemed to be permanently undernourished and needing more attention. When we move closer, the title card would read...

Cadiz, Ohio. 1901

William Gable was a hard man whose struggle with the elements on the farm yielded little success. Not one to give in he worked harder. The softer elements that drove him on were focused on Adeline, his resolute and radiant wife. The choices had not treated her well.

It’s possible news she was expecting brought a flash of excitement followed quickly by ominous weariness for them both. As always, they would get through it.

So, one scene dissolves into another. Here William and Adeline clenched hands for a difficult birth. William Clark Gable was born on the first of February. Quickly out of danger, so William senior went back work, he knew that helped. Adeline quietly, slowly hoped to mend. Despite her efforts she silently surrendered when `Willy’ was eight months old.

He was barely old enough to remember his mother and certainly not articulate enough to yet show how he resented that sappy name.

His father was not equipped for farming and nursing, so baby William was smartly farmed out to the in-laws. 1903 was a big year for Willie and his father. The farm was still a dirt patch, but there would be a new woman in their lives. His father married Jennie Dunlap, a bright strong woman with a playful adventurous side. Willie found a playmate, as well as someone who would love and support him as a mother.iv (No matter what he got up to.)

By the time the family relocated to another farm at Ravenna Ohio, young Bill knew he wanted to get far away from farming. His father couldn’t relate to him, you did your work and did as you were told period. When their battles turned physical, Jennie quietly and calmly reasoned on Bills’ behalf. By sixteen he would do anything to get out.v

The out was dubious, there was a job in the rubber factory of Firestone tyres at Akron Ohio. With Jennie’s support and his father vehement protests he went forward into the freedom of the unknown. How bad could it be?

Our story dissolves again, revealing the constant heat, sweat and grinding stench of daily shifts at the rubber factory. If he didn’t find something to take his mind of it, he wouldn’t last. As luck would have it, he was drawn to the magical mayhem of the local music Hall. viCompared to the factory it was paradise on earth.

The carefree well-heeled lifestyle appealed to Gable so much that he began to spend every free moment there. Eventually, thanks to his persistence, he landed an unpaid job running errands. His ambitious imagination began to see a life in theatre unfold in his minds eye. Reality would soon intrude. Within a year he would be derailed by devastating news, Jennie was ill.

The loving son quickly returned home staying, despite the friction with his father, until she died. The tenuous tender connection to his old life was gone. There was nothing to hold him down.

His father, battered and beaten by the farm, sold up and hoped for better things courtesy of the Oil boom in Oklahoma.vii Young Bill hopped the first train out when his father suggested he join him.

A part did come his way, called The Jest. Brothers Lionel and John Barrymore were the headliners. Despite the optimistic title, there was little to smile at when the play quickly folded.viii

Gritting his teeth he was forced to join his father on the oil fields. At $1 a day (12 hours), the 21 year old saw little future in it, quickly hitching up to another train.ix Back on his way to Broadway for his big break, he financed the journey with a succession of odd jobs. He did anything to keep on track, from lumber jacking to work in a department store.

Determined to make a go of it he stuck it out taking work where he could. He toured with a stock company in Kansas City, hoping to learn on his feet, but the company folded. There would be better luck with an Oregon Stock Company.x They were in a tight spot and needed someone quick. Once he signed on, he was in the thick of it. It was a blur of excited experiences.

Josephine Dillon, a former actress of the New York Stage was drawn to the rugged charisma of this young newcomer.xi Josephine would refine and focus his appeal. With diligent voice training he would learn to use the lower, sexier tones so appealing to his female audience. His no nonsense style, given added force. Finally, William, or `Billy’ was nixed in favour of his stronger middle name, Clark.

By 1924 the relationship was founded on intimate mutual ambition. Dillon saw Hollywood as the next step, especially with her `star’ discovery by her side.

In December they became husband and wife. He was 23, she was 37. There were a few unremarkable parts in films, but as a mute extra he made little impression. The refined grandeur of Silents, with it’s taste for the urbane and alluring mystique of John Gilbert, or the action and romance of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, had no room for the cumbersome Gable.xii

Soon the extra jobs dried up. With his father and the farm creeping back into view Gable spurred himself on. Brushing shoulders with Lionel Barrymore in The Jest got him a small part in The Copper Head, again starring Lionel Barrymore.xiii The result was the same and Gable clung desperately to repertory theatre, grabbing a chance with a stock company in Houston Texas.xiv

The contract offered some form of security, so he could again focus on success. His masculine magnetism would again do the rest. While here, he caught the roving eye of Ria Langham. As Josephine before her, she saw the possibilities; his rugged virile male would provide her a welcome, satisfying distraction in the moneyed manicured society where she moved.

For Gable, there was the obvious physical attraction, but equally as strong, was his desire to attain all that Ria, with her polished and well moneyed sophistication, represented.

Though still married to Josephine Gable and Ria became inseparable as he tried to break into Broadway. It was 1928, this time things would be different.xv The parts were better, just not the plays. Ria put her money where her mouth was and with her backing got him the plum lead role in The Last Mile (1930)xvi

It had made a star of Spencer Tracy, in fact Gable had been awe struck by Tracy's performance. Hopefully, Gable too would get lucky.

It was his breakthrough, in part thanks to his presence, but also thanks to Al Jolson. The Jazz Singer was a sensation when it hit cinema screens in October 1927, with Al Jolson talking his way into the history books. By 1928 the first complete talkie was shown, Lights of New York. Every studio was committed to sound. Warner Brothers had been the leader, but now other studios worked faster and faster to catch up.xvii MGM would soon be the new pack leader.

The old style of acting disappeared almost overnight, some stars failing to make the transfer because their voice didn’t suit the public’s view of them. Among the uncertain first steps of a new and vibrant Industry, everyone was looking for fresh new talent.

Two well-connected film men caught Gable in The Last Mile and recognised potent potential. One was Mervyn Leroy, a Director at Warner Brothers, the other Lionel Barrymore.

Both were impressed enough to ask he be screen tested, Mervyn at Warner Brothers and Lionel at MGM. Like his first foray into Hollywood in 1924 this second attempt soon hit a snag. Warner Brothers casting rejected him upon immediately citing his large ears.xviii

Then, although Lionel enjoyed a permanent place in Louis B Mayer’s affections,(Always one of his favourites, he eventually enjoyed a lifetime contract.) his belief Clark failed to sway the talent spotters, there was no contract.

Undeterred, Gable took the next opportunity that crossed his path. It was in a William Boyd Western The Painted Desert (1931). This is where one Gable myth took hold, the fact that despite being raised on a farm and doing some Wildcatting with his father in the rough and tumble of the Oklahoma oil fields, he never could ride a horse. He was a good rider and easily impressed. Clark got the part.

The Painted Desert (1931)

This glum, laborious William Boyd western is hardly an auspicious start, but it did offer Gable his first speaking role. For the most part the dialogue and the actors are stilted and wooden, creaking like the first wagonload of ore from this frontier story. It's simple enough, two frontier men discover an abandoned baby boy, each lays separate claim to it and the movie centres on the feud between the two men. It is (naturally) complicated by Helen Twelvetrees as the young man's love interest. She is the daughter of the other man. Sabotage and action ensue.

Driven by hate the two men hurriedly face off in a duel, accidentally shooting the boy they both love so much. Suddenly, seeing what they've done they realise the folly of their ways, the wedding goes ahead and the two families live happily ever after.

The fact that this happens in just 70 odd minutes adds to the bottom of the rung "B" Movie feel.

Clark Gable does well enough as the villain of the piece, the trademark gruff delivery is there, but he isn't yet confident enough in front of the camera. His Menace is up to the job in some scenes but not in others. A fine first effort. Definitely for Gable completists only.

On the strength of this performance, Lionel Barrymore persisted and arranged a second screen test at MGM. Reluctantly, Gable was signed to a 2 year contract with six monthly options, at $350 a week in 1930.xix For someone of such humble beginnings, it was unthinkable, when times were so hard, that he would be given that much money for doing almost nothing.

The uncertainty he felt was common for many who were sudden successful throughout the young Industry. The money for several weeks work on Painted Desert alone was an absolute fortune ($11,000) compared to the dollar a day slog of the oil fields.xx

Gable suspected nothing this easy would last, and he wasn’t ever going back to Ohio, so he would be smart. Work hard for as long as it lasted and save for the day when this parade would get rained on.xxi

For some, success means always working. Throughout the 30’s Gable took this to heart. Looking back over his entire career, this was to be his most confident, productive and popular period as a star for MGM. After an uncertain start he would be a prolific and profitable earner for the studio, releasing a dozen films in 1931 alone.

His most famous roles can be found in this period, so to can all the conspiring elements of his career success. This was, for both Gable and MGM, a golden age of dreams and possibilities. Through Gable the audience caught a glimpse of both.


The contract of $350 a week was a lot of money, with all the frantic excitement of the studio sound stage, Gable recognised the competitive streak in his fellow freshman. There was a high turn-over, even the big stars were only as good as their last picture.

He was just starting out, if he didn’t catch their eye with hard work, he’d be out on his ear. He went to all the classes, learnt to ride a horse, dance, even sing. Every contracted actor attended their studio’s image factory.

This was MGM, he was starting at the top. So, he’d have to work that much harder.

Founded in 1924, MGM was the number one studio, it was built on Family Values and family entertainment. Louis B Mayer would sit at the head of this tinsletown table for thirty years as a stern but generous patriarch. Mayer had his own frantic formula for success as an independent producer when Metro Pictures Corporation and Goldwyn Pictures tapped him on the shoulder to oversee their grand plan.xxii

Late in 1923 Metro Pictures a venture of Marcus Loew, had suffered badly due to departures in management, but worse still was the decision of Rudolph Valentino not to renew his contract. Goldwyn Pictures was also suffering a bout of poor box-office.

F.J. Godsol (Joe) had seized control from Sam Goldwyn to fight for survival, but he needed help. Both men saw a Life saving and potentially lucrative merger as the answer. A mutual friend suggested Mayer was the missing ingredient. Already known for his strong family oriented approach to even the most difficult stars, which brought him enviable results, it was decided. MGM was born.xxiii

Now the new Company was six and Talkies were only 3 and still finding their feet. Even now each Studio had a definite identity which sound could add a fresh dimension to. MGM was the family Studio. The reality of the early 30’s was much darker than their wholesome fare. For many, the studio synonymous with the dirty dark reality of gangsters and hoods was Warner Bros.

Their pictures were not as glamorous, but they tapped into the harsh edge of the streets with some of the best Gangster films ever put in a can.

Gable really didn’t warrant much attention from either Mayer or Irving Thalberg, who was Mayer’s pressured, talented and ambitious chief of production. Possibly recalling his original reaction to his screen test, Thalberg saw Gable’s rugged presence as best suited to other peoples pictures, but there were a few supporting opportunities.

At least they would earn some money until they decided what to make of him. Ironically, his imposing presence gave Gable his first screen success at Warner Brothers. Both Jack Warner and Darryl F. Zanuck had all but ignored him two years ago.

He did okay in The Finger Points, so they put him into a Barbara Stanwyk flick. Night Nurse, with Gable as the menacing rugged Limo driver Nick, he got everyone’s attention. Stanwyk had top Billing, but the audience wanted to know about Gable.

Now, coupled with the chemistry between Crawford and Gable in Dance Fools Dance and public reaction to Night Nurse, MGM knew what they had and how to use it. Clark Gable had arrived.

Of course, Warner’s would find their man in movies when Mae Clark wore a Grapefruit courtesy of the high caliber performance by James Cagney in Public Enemy (1931)

The Easiest Way (1931)xxiv

A beautiful young model finds the easiest way to support her family. As a well to do pretty plaything she finds all she could want. This sudsy soap slips along until the woman in question (Constance Bennett) is slapped by true love by a genuine Mr. Nice Guy (Robert Montgomery) Will true love win the day!? Adolphe Menjou plays it cool and classy as Bennett’s meal ticket.

Gables name is on the support list in this one, Anita Page as Bennett's lively younger sister; and sturdy Clark Gable, as Page's laundry man boyfriend.

Dance Fools Dance. (1931) with Joan Crawford.

This is a Joan Crawford vehicle. She is clearly the star. Gable is menacing and suitably confident as the tough, charming and ruthless bootlegger. His supporting role is given added impact thanks to references to the character for the first 30 minutes. With such a great build up Gable makes the most of it, right from his first appearance. Crawford's star would continue to rise, but suddenly Gable was noticed by audiences and exec's alike.

The story is simple enough Bonnie Jordan (Crawford) is a good time girl from a wealthy family, popular and fun-loving. She loses her father and their fortune in the stock-market crash. It's a rude awakening, the popularity of her bank balance gone, she gets a job at a paper, The Star. After a shaky start Bonnie finds her feet thanks to Bert Scranton, a likeable fellow reporter.

She starts following the local gang wars and finds herself smack in the middle of the action. While Bonnie has been working hard, her brother Ronnie has taken a job with tough bootlegger Jake Luva (Clark Gable). When Scranton is killed the paper puts her undercover in Luva's organisation to find the murderer.

As the new Cabaret number at his club, Luva immediately takes an interest in her, sparks fly and Bonnie struggles to keep her distance as she gets further and further in. The tension spills over in a messy shot out in Bonnie's apartment after her cover is blown. Naturally, when the smoke clears Bonnie finds true love and lives happily ever after.

Thirties filming aside, the leads are fresh, the film stands up well, making good watching today. Crawford cuts a fine figure and sparkles throughout. Gable dominates every scene he's in. A Good place for a Gable collection to start.

Gable’s strong masculine presence dazzled Crawford off screen and on. It wasn’t long before she spent every possible moment at the Studio with him. The attraction was mutual.xxv Eager to exploit the chemistry, her next film Torch Song was quickly reshot with Gable replacing Johnny Mack Brown. Production was not going well and they saw firing Brown as a win win. The film was eventually released as Laughing Sinners.xxvi

The Finger Points. (1931) Warner Brothers

In this 30's Gangster flick News hound (Richard Brathelmess) crosses to the wrong side of the tracks. As a 'Finger Pointer' for the Mob he is fed stories that will help knock off their competition. Richard Brathelmess is the lead, Gable is again cast as the heavy, competent enough as the gangster. Type casting appeared imminent as his popularity with audiences grew. Such was MGM’s enthusiasm, that Gable was filming The Finger Points, Night Nurse and The Easiest Way at once.xxvii

The Secret Six. (1931)

Back at MGM he was again in gangster garb. This gangster film has a talented cast. Wallace Beery plays a Capone-like hood who doesn't let anything, or anyone stand in his way. Tax problems put his power and influence to the test, down but not out he struggles to reassert himself. Support cast includes Johnny Mack Brown, Clark Gable, Lewis Stone, Ralph Bellamy and Jean Harlow.

Wallace Beery had a prickly personality at the best of times, often disliked by those who spent time with him. He was a violent drunk, especially with his wives.xxviii (Gloria Swanson first and now Rita Beery)

The public loved his likable lug image onscreen, which MGM did it’s best to maintain.xxix At 44 he had worked in Silents for many years, before being discarded with the coming of sound. Mayer and Thalberg took him on, making good use of him in Min and Bill (1930) with Marie Dressler, before The Champ with Jackie Cooper. He was totally uncouth, ignored most of his scripted dialogue.

Most of his antics were tolerated thanks to enduring box-office. He would prove a top asset to the established Gable, clashing well in the high caliber productions of Hell Divers and China Seas. Other highlights include Grand Hotel (1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933). By the Forties time and his temperament slowed him down, before drink delivered a fatal heart attack in

Laughing Sinners (1931) with Joan Crawford

With this film their passionate attraction finally exploded on set, though clandestine, MGM did not want a scandal, no matter how good the box- office. Gable had only just married Ria, while Crawford was Cinderella to Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, prince of Hollywood.xxxi Thalberg hoped separating them for their next few projects would through enough cold water on the situation.

Jilted Josephine was not surprised when she was a victim of the same ambition that first brought them together. The unexpected twist in the scenario was not a younger woman, but an older one. Gable had dropped her like a hot potato in 1928, but things had been so hectic, the divorce wasn’t final until March 1931.

Gable hastily married Ria, the Bride was 47, Groom 30.xxxii The amorous association with Miss Crawford had already taken hold, as he strode up the isle. Problems were for other people, Clark was on the up and up.

For what it’s worth the story for Laughing Sinners is pure Hollywood fluff, in fact some of the dialogue brings a hearty laugh as you almost choke on a massive cornball, but it hardly seemed to bother audiences.

Gable suits up for the Salvation Army and struggles to keep energetic Crawford on the straight and narrow. She runs afoul of Neil Hamilton’s charms, seen here as a young, handsome, but heartless playboy. (In his next life he would be Commissioner Gordon to Adam West’s Batman.) It’s up to Clark to keep her from sliding back into trouble.

A Free Soul (1931) with Norma Shearer and Lionel Barrymorexxxiii

Here Gable found familiar faces. First there was Lionel, who had known him briefly through his stage work, before catching him in The Last Mile and going to bat for him with Mayer and Thalberg. The other, Leslie Howard, had the opposite opinion of his early career, but they remembered with a smile just the same.xxxiv

Leslie Howard had met Gable as a struggling actor round about a year ago. He was auditioning wherever he could, hoping for that big break. Gable thought a small part in Out of a Blue Sky was about his speed. The play had been adapted from German by Leslie, who also wore the director’s hat.

There were quite a few possibilities for the part described simply as German Play reader. Leslie let this brooding young man with big ears soldier on, but he and his stage manager were hoping for something softer, so Gable missed out.xxxv

The free soul of the title is Norma Shearer who is an independent woman on the outer with her well to do socially respectable family. Her free spirit been fostered by her father (Lionel Barrymore).

His performance as a lawyer on the slide, propping himself up with a bottle before finally falling in, still resonates today. The character’s self awareness is given a wonderfully subtle humanity. His enduring love for his daughter is enough to give him one more impassioned day in court, valiantly arguing for her life, attempting to make amends.

Gable is Ace, a well connected Gangster Barrymore gets off a murder wrap. At his trial he meets and sets his sights on Norma Shearer.

Sparks fly as she is dazzled by Ace’s world. So dazzled is she, that poor ever respectful Leslie Howard (Champion Polo player no less!) is cast aside.

So devastated is the jilted lover, that he confronts Ace at gunpoint. It is vintage melodrama, dated by tedious dialogue and the morality of the time in spots. Barrymore manages to steal each scene he’s in (walking of with the award for best actor). Gable and Shearer have a timeless energy together that makes this rainy day Midday Movie fare.

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