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Definition: Gable, Clark from Philip's Encyclopedia

US film actor. His virile magnetism made him 'king' of 1930s Hollywood. Gable won his only Academy Award for best actor in It Happened One Night (1934). His performance as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind (1939) is one of cinema's most enduring. His best post-war acting was in the posthumously released The Misfits (1961).

Summary Article: Gable, William Clark (1901–60)
from The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Thematic Encyclopedia

Clark Gable was known as the “King of Hollywood” in the late 1930s. He acted in a vast number of films; his most famous role was that of Rhett Butler in 1939’s Gone with the Wind.

William Clark Gable was born in Cadiz, Ohio, on February 1, 1901. His mother died when he was very young, and his father, an oil driller, sent Gable to live with other family members. Later, Gable returned to Cadiz, where he spent the rest of his youth. At the age of 16, Gable dropped out of school. He later worked with his father in the oil fields of Oklahoma for several years and then joined a traveling theater company. While he was with the company, he met Josephine Dillon, who became his acting coach. Though she was more than 10 years his senior, he married her on December 13, 1924. Gable and Dillon moved to Hollywood so that he could pursue his acting career, and he found work as an extra in several silent movies, including Forbidden Paradise (1924) and The Merry Widow (1925). Gable and Dillon divorced in April 1930. Following the breakup, Gable went back to the stage briefly, appearing on Broadway, and then returned to Los Angeles, where he played a killer in the play The Last Mile. His performance attracted the attention of film recruiters, which finally landed him his first real part in a movie, a small role in the 1931 film The Painted Desert. That same year Gable married another much older woman, Ria Langham.

Clark Gable and Greta Garbo embrace in the film Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise, 1931.


The early 1930s were productive years for Gable. He worked for both the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and Warner Brothers studios in such films as The Finger Points, Night Nurse, Dance, Fool, Dance, and A Free Soul, all in 1931. Gable often played gangsters. His first starring role was in 1931’s Sporting Blood. Women loved his seemingly dangerous on-screen persona, and MGM capitalized on that image, placing him opposite all of the studio’s best leading ladies, including Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Myrna Loy, and Jean Harlow, with whom he acted in the popular 1932 film Red Dust. In 1934, Gable starred with Claudette Colbert in Frank Capra’s film It Happened One Night and won an Oscar for his performance. Legend has it that Gable’s performance also caused an unintended stir in the men’s underwear business. In one scene, he removed his shirt to reveal that he wore nothing underneath it, instead of the then-ubiquitous white undershirt. Sales of men’s undershirts reportedly plummeted thereafter. In 1935, Gable starred with Loretta Young in The Call of the Wild. He also had an affair with her, which resulted in the birth of a daughter whose true parentage was only acknowledged many years later. That year, Gable also played Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty, which earned a huge sum of money for MGM and brought him an Oscar nomination. He continued to produce hits through the late 1930s, including Wife vs. Secretary (1936), Saratoga (1937), Test Pilot (1938), Too Hot to Handle (1938), and the song-and-dance film Idiot’s Delight (1939). The year 1939 proved to be a busy one for Gable. He and Langham divorced and he married again, to Carole Lombard, with whom he had starred with in No Man of Her Own (1932). Also that year, he starred as Rhett Butler in the film version of Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s blockbuster novel about the Civil War and Reconstruction. Gable was reluctant to take the part and the production was plagued with difficulties; however, the film was an immediate success and remains one of the most successful movies ever produced. Gable was at the peak of his popularity and made several successful films over the next three years, including Boom Town (1940), They Met in Bombay (1941), and Somewhere I’ll Find You (1942).

By all accounts, Gable was content with his third wife, Lombard, but the marriage came to an untimely end when she died in a plane crash in January 1942. Devastated by the tragedy, Gable volunteered for the U.S. Army and spent several years serving in Europe during World War II. He earned the rank of major and the Air Medal for his participation in bombing raids over Germany, though he spent much of his time making training films and doing public relations tours.

When Gable returned home after World War II, he resumed his acting career with MGM. Though he continued to work regularly, observers have noted that Gable had appeared to lose some of the spark he had prior to Lombard’s death, and he never regained his former matinee-idol status. He starred in The Hucksters (1947), Homecoming (1948), Any Number Can Play (1949), Key to the City (1950), Across the Wide Missouri (1951), Lone Star (1952), Never Let Me Go (1953), and Betrayed (1954), none of which was a major success. His only notable films of the period were 1948’s Command Decision and 1953’s Mogambo, a remake of his 1932 film Red Dust. In 1949, he married Sylvia Ashley; however, they divorced a few years later. In 1954, Gable left MGM to work as a freelance actor. A year later, he married Kay Spreckels. He continued to appear in films through the late 1950s, including Soldier of Fortune (1955); The King and Four Queens (1956); Band of Angels (1957); Run Silent, Run Deep (1958); But Not for Me (1959); and It Started in Naples (1960). His last film was John Huston’s The Misfits (1961) with Marilyn Monroe, in which he performed some of his own stunts. Critics deemed it an excellent film.

On November 16, 1960, shortly after he finished work on The Misfits, Gable suffered a fatal heart attack and never saw the completed film. He was buried in Los Angeles next to his third wife, Lombard. His son by Spreckels, John Clark Gable, was born after his death.

References and Further Reading
  • Harris, Warren. 2002 Clark Gable: A Biography. Harmony Books New York.
  • Harris, Warren G. 1974 Gable and Lombard. Simon and Schuster New York.
  • Spicer, Chrystopher J. 2002 Clark Gable: Biography, Filmography, Bibliography. McFarland Jefferson, NC.
  • Tornabene, Lyn. 1976 Long live The King: A Biography of Clark Gable. Putnam New York.
  • Wayne, Jane Ellen. 1993 Clark Gable: Portrait of a Misfit. St. Martin’s Press New York.
  • Blackwell, Amy Hackney
    Copyright 2010 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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