Saturday, January 1, 2011

My Favorite '30s Actors: #1

When I was in high school, CBS aired the first television broadcast of “Gone With the Wind,” shown over two nights (with commercials).

Even though I had not seen “Gone With the Wind” before, I was quite familiar with it, as it is my mother’s and oldest sister’s favorite movie. In this pre-cable and pre-video world, and growing up in a small Midwestern town, what was shown on network TV was my only access to movies.

So I enjoyed the viewing, which also was my first introduction to Clark Gable. And my reaction to him? He seemed rather slick. Not dirty or unkempt, but not terribly appealing, either. He looked like he smelled of stale cigars and washed his hair once a week. I wasn’t sure why my mother and countless others swooned at this actor or this character, or why he was dubbed “The King.”

Once I began immersing myself in films, I saw a few of his other great roles and recognized his talent. But it wasn’t until I began watching the other movies – the ones few people are familiar with – that I finally understood. That magnetism. That charisma. That virility. When combined with the talent that I knew existed, Clark Gable was like no other. From a star-making turn at the beginning of the 1930s to the role that forever defined him at the end of the decade, Gable was commanding.

His background during the 1920s consisted of acting dreams and manual labor realities. Once in Oregon, trying to find work as an actor but picking up odd jobs (such as lumber jacking), he finally joined a touring company headed by Josephine Dillon, 14 years older than him. She coached him, and they landed in Hollywood, where he found extra work but little else. They married and headed east. Finally he found success on Broadway and ended up back on the west coast on the stage, where he was spotted by a movie agent. He tested for MGM, which passed, but landed a role in a western called “The Painted Desert.”

MGM reconsidered and signed him. During the early 1930s, MGM seemed to have a wealth of female stars but needed more male ones. Gable quickly jumped into the top ranks thanks to the 1931 hit “A Free Soul,” where he play a ruthless gangster who is defended for murder by attorney Lionel Barrymore and secretly loved by Barrymore’s daughter Norma Shearer. Gable sizzles with the help of MGM’s gloss and his own star power, and audiences liked seeing him rough-house with MGM’s first lady Shearer, who looked dazzling herself (both below). If the movie is dated today, these stars shine.

MGM then paired Gable with its other top female stars – Greta Garbo in “Susan Lenox,” Joan Crawford in “Possessed” and Jean Harlow in “Red Dust.” The latter is a fine mix with Gable loving Harlow until a married Mary Astor arrives, with her falling for Gable as well.

I hate to use the word “macho,” but Gable projected manliness, with a voice, physique and manner to match. Rarely was he pushed around by any woman, yet they all swooned for him. But he had the skill to match.

For example, watch “Strange Interlude,” adapted from the Eugene O’Neill play. It’s talky, and the device of having the characters narrate their inner thoughts can be startling at first. But in addition to Gable and Shearer looking about as gorgeous as two people can, with a charisma together that’s mind-blowing, they give strong performances as a woman widowed during World War I, remarrying a man she doesn’t love, and falling instead for Gable’s doctor. I was impressed by Gable’s ability to handle the weighty material with ease.

In fact, he made it look easy, perhaps the best compliment made to any actor. In “Manhattan Melodrama,” the tired plot consists of boyhood friends William Powell and Gable now on opposite sides of the law – Powell an attorney and Gable a gangster. Unlike actors in some of the hard-boiled gangster dramas, Gable is both likable and believable, giving his performance a relaxed confidence that considerably aids this routine but profitable drama. Gable is often more appealing that Powell in this film.

Gable was known as a professional, learning his lines well in advance and showing up on time. The crews liked him and recognized that his background wasn’t far off from theirs. But his relationship with MGM boss Louis B. Mayer was cordial at best. During one dust-up, Mayer loaned Gable out to Columbia, which was then still a low-level studio. Gable considered it a punishment and was not happy when he was assigned a movie first called “Night Bus” but renamed “It Happened One Night,” directed by Frank Capra. He was paired with an equally unhappy Claudette Colbert, on loan from Paramount.

But the two realized this movie had potential, and their resentment faded. Their instincts proved right, and “It Happened One Night” (below) is considered one of the decade’s best films. Although its initial box office run was just OK, word of mouth actually forced distributors to bring the movie back, and it became a hit. In it, Gable plays a newspaper man on the trail of a runaway heiress, who doesn’t realize who he is. But he falls for her instead. Gable is just terrific, employing everything in his acting bag – a gift for comedy, a leading man’s swagger, and tenderness toward the woman he’s beginning to love. There’s a wonderful drunk scene toward the end in which he unwittingly professes his love for Colbert. It may be the film he didn’t want to make, but it earned him an Oscar.
And, it’s also the film in which Gable famously removed his shirt to reveal he was not wearing an undershirt. Urban legend has it that undershirt sales plummeted because Gable didn’t wear them. Fact or fiction, everyone believes it because Gable was that big of a star and therefore could wield that kind of influence.

“Mutiny on the Bounty” also gave Gable a chance to shine as Fletcher Christian, the officer who defends his men against Charles Laughton’s villainous Captain Bligh. In the routine “China Seas,” Gable is all movie star – great looks, brave heroics and the ability to attract both Jean Harlow and Rosalind Russell.

The decade closed with “Gone With the Wind.” His popularity was such that people simply expected that he would play Rhett Butler. Producer David O. Selznick had to make a deal with MGM to get him, and Gable reportedly admitted that the role scared him because expectations were so high.

That makes perfect sense. Vivien Leigh was unknown to American audiences. Olivia de Havilland may have been well-paired opposite Errol Flynn but her individual box office worth had not been tested. Gable was the marquee name in this production. Plus, with so many preconceived notions about the role, Gable had to play a role in which any wrong move would incur the wrath of the book’s fans. It could create his legend or destroy his career.

In re-watching the movie, I no longer see Gable as smelling of old cigars. It’s a tricky role he plays to perfection. The sparks may have flown off-screen between Gable and Leigh (below), but they flew onscreen too, which is what counts. He was strong enough to be a hero but also saw her as the rare woman strong enough for him.

And, if there’s any doubting his stature in Hollywood, just look at how Rhett is introduced in the film. The camera is at the top of the staircase and swoops down on Rhett, standing at the bottom. In that one shot he’s both a Hollywood star and Rhett Butler, a fusing of the two that I doubt anyone else could have convincingly pulled off.

With the success of “Gone With the Wind,” Gable’s career was sky high by the end of 1939. His happy marriage to Carole Lombard only added to his life. Her death in a plane accident in January 1942 was a blow in so many ways. And although he worked continuously until his death, Gable never reached the same level of fame he had during the 1930s.

In Scott Eyman’s “Lion of Hollywood,” a biography about Mayer, Eyman states that Gable was “one of those rare men that men want to be and women want to be with.” It’s an apt description. And the decade belonged to him.


  1. A solid summation of Gable's appeal, although another film I would mention as an example of the early, roughhouse Gable is "Night Nurse" with Barbara Stanwyck. Clark and James Cagney helped redefine the male role in American film, at a time when the economic downturn of the 1929 crash developed into a full-fledged depression and American audiences wanted male characterizations who were entirely different from the florid silent-era romantics of John Gilbert and Ramon Novarro. As the decade went on, MGM worked to broaden Gable's persona, as he evolved from sexy brute to likable rogue.

    Something else to note: Gable and Harlow have such a steamy chemistry that everyone assumes they were off-screen lovers. Not the case at all; while they were close, the relationship was an intense friendship, never sexual.

  2. Oh, of my faves! He was so smooth! and gorgeous! and talented!

    Thanks for putting together this awesome list of talented actors. Can't wait for the next Top 10 list!
    Happy New Year! Good wishes for continued success in your most informative blog.

  3. This was a great Top Ten!! Enjoyed it very much! (and some of these silver screen heroes are mine, too) Thank you so much for sharing!

    Oh - and: Happy New Year!!!

  4. Thank you all for your comments. VP: Believe it or not, I haven't seen "Night Nurse." I will search that one out. Also great tidbit about Gable and Harlow. Anonymous: Thank you! Have no idea what next year's year-end countdown will be. Any suggestions? Frl. Irene: So glad you enjoyed the list.

    Happy New Year to all!

  5. When you started the list, I thought Spencer Tracy would be #1. I see I was only off by one. A really fine list of actors, and one I can't make any arguments with. That was a really fun series. Thanks for doing it.

  6. Hi Kevin, Glad you liked. I'm pretty proud of the list, considering I was still thinking about the order as of Dec. 15! Admittedly it's been Spencer and Clark all along, and I just couldn't shake that the decade belonged to Gable, although Tracy would be higher on an all-time list. Breaking it down by decade has been a challenge that I've really enjoyed.

  7. This was a fabulous idea for a series of posts. I would have ranked Errol higher than #6, though. He was underrated as an actor and I still can't envision anyone else as Robin Hood or Captain Blood--those were iconic performances.

  8. I'm another one who has really enjoyed reading the list - some of those you have picked are my favourites too, like Cagney, Flynn and Tracy, but there are others you've chosen, like William Powell, where I need to see more of their work. I do like Gable too and recently saw him in Wellman's 'The Call of the Wild', which I thought was a fine performance.

  9. Thank you for all of the great comments. I'm glad everyone enjoyed this. Errol was an underrated actor, but I definitely wanted him on this list. I need to see "The Call of the Wild." Is that the version with Loretta Young?

  10. I need to see "The Call of the Wild." Is that the version with Loretta Young?

    Yes, and thanks to that film, Judy Lewis came into this world 75 years ago this past November.

  11. Wow, 75 years ago. Both Gable and Young are great in the movie, and also an enjoyable support role from Jack Oakie, even if Jack London's animal story gets slightly lost along the way. Definitely a movie worth seeing.

  12. When I think of this film, I think of "Unzipped," the movie about fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. He shows a clip from this film and talks about how you have to love classic Hollywood because Loretta Young is found nearly frozen but is wearing full Hollywood makeup.