Launching a Career
Growing up in Cadiz, Ohio, the small-town boy probably had no idea he would grow up to become one of the most revered men in motion pictures. The son of an oil-well driller, William Clarke Gable was raised to be a manly man, helping his father rebuild cars and going hunting with him. However, he also had a love of language, especially Shakespeare sonnets, and was taught music at an early age.
As many actors do, Gable started out his career on stage after he was inspired to become an actor at 17-years-old when he saw “The Bird of Paradise”. However, he didn’t start performing until he turned 21 and inherited some money. Gable toured the country with stock and second-rate theater companies, going from the Midwest to Seaside, OR and working in the oil fields as well as a horse manager along the way.
Almost giving up on acting while selling ties in Portland, he was encouraged to return to the stage after meeting a stage and film actress. As mentioned in a Clark Gable biography, he hired an acting coach in Portland, Josephine Dillion, who helped him transform his appearance by getting his teeth fixed, styling his hair and beefing up his naturally skinny frame. She also worked with him to change his high-pitched voice to one with a lower register and more resonance.
After helping change Gable’s appearance and voice, Dillon suggested he try film acting and they moved to Los Angeles in 1924, where they were married despite their 17-year age difference. He began his film career as an extra in silent movies like “Forbidden Paradise” in 1924, “The Merry Widow” and “The Plastic Age,” both in 1925. He even met the woman who would someday become a screen legend herself, and his third wife, Carole Lombard, on one of his movie sets.
After not being offered any major roles in films, Gable returned to stage acting, encouraged by fellow actor Lionel Barrymore, who would be his life-long friend. It was in 1927-1928, during the theatre season in Houston, that he would gain experience and find success as a matinee idol. It would prompt a move to New York City, where Dillon began to find him work on Broadway.
While Gable earned several good reviews in Broadway plays, world events would soon prompt another change in his career. With the start of the Great Depression and the advent of the “talkies” his Broadway career stalled because many of the plays during the 1929-30 season were cancelled and work was hard to get. However, he did get a part on the stage in a 1930 production of “The Last Mile” which would catch the attention of Hollywood studios.
Becoming the “King”
Although at first he failed screen tests with Warner Brothers and MGM, in 1930 Irving Thalberg signed him up with MGM. He would also divorce Dillon the same year and marry his second wife, Rhea Langham, a socialite from Texas, who was also 17 years his senior. To the studios, Gable’s masculine appearance was exactly what they were looking for and he began to find success with parts in films like “The Painted Desert”.
Clark would soon move from supporting roles to those of a leading man and, within a year, he was working with leading ladies such as Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford. He played opposite Joan Harlow in “The Red Dust” in 1932 and become MGM’s most important leading man, starring in several movies the next year. In 1934, he was loaned to Columbia Pictures, where he would earn his path to superstardom in classic movies and become known as the “King of Hollywood”.
The film he made at Columbia was Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night” starring opposite Claudette Colbert. It made him an Oscar winner for Best Actor and it was the first film to sweep the awards, also winning Best Actress for Colbert and an Oscar each for writing, directing and Best Picture. After his success with Columbia, he went back to MGM and starred in several successful movies and was nominated for another Oscar in 1935 after starring in “Mutiny on the Bounty”.
In 1939, another MGM film would propel him even higher in fame as he starred in the Civil War film “Gone with the Wind” with Vivian Leigh. The film spawned what is probably one of the most famous Clark Gable characters, Rhett Butler, and his most famous line, which is still widely recognized 78 years later, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”. You can discover Clark Gables’ and other famous one-liners by reading The Best 100 Classic Movie One-Liners (The Greatest Quotes In Film History) on Geeker.
Losing the Love of His Life
Amid his superstardom, Gable divorced his second wife in March of 1939 and married Carole Lombard, with whom he’d been having a long-term affair, just a few days later. They became one of the first power couples in Hollywood and Gable finally seemed content with this personal life with a woman he described as the love of his life. Unfortunately, Lombard died in a plane crash in January 1942 while on tour selling war bonds.
After Lombard died, Gable was devastated and began drinking heavily. He decided he wanted a change in his life and joined the Army Air Corp at the age of 41. He would become a photographer and a tail gunner based out of England and flew combat missions in Europe. During his service in World War II, Gable would receive the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.
He returned to making films after leaving the military and starred in several more films. However, after losing his wife, his personal life was never the same and he married twice more, had numerous affairs and fathered two children. Clark Gable’s death was in 1960 after suffering from four heart attacks, but his last film wasn’t released until 1962, which was “The Misfits” starring with Marilyn Monroe.