Clark Gable was a star tailor-made for the thirties. Stage training gave him a perfect voice for talking pictures, while his size and rough features made him both heroic and down-to-earth–a fitting idol for Depression-weary Americans who wished they could stand up to adversity so well. Gable always joked that he turned to acting in search of an easy job. In truth, as a motherless child, he fell in love with the stage, eventually dropping out of school to join a touring company. His first important film assignment was as the gangster who roughs up Norma Shearer in A Free Soul (1931). MGM production head Irving G. Thalberg had suggested the violence to make Gable’s character less sympathetic, but fans found his presence so exciting they didn’t care. When the studio capitalized on that by teaming him with Jean Harlow in Red Dust (1932), his career took off. For a while, Gable was so typecast in roughhouse roles he started refusing scripts in that vein. Studio head Louis B. Mayer decided to punish him with a loan- out to Columbia, a much less successful studio, for a film that seemed to be just another programmer. Instead, It Happened One Night (1934) was a huge hit that put director Frank Capra on the map, won Gable an Oscar, and made him a bigger star by adding a touch of roguish humor to his image. When the book Gone with the Wind became a runaway best seller, fans clamored for him to play Rhett Butler. Gable resisted (he hated period films after the failure of 1937’s Parnell) but gave in when MGM agreed to pay a divorce settlement to his second wife so he could marry Carole Lombard. Three years later, Lombard’s death in a plane crash sent him into a tailspin. Over the studio’s objections, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, distinguishing himself with wartime service. Returning home, he had trouble regaining his career momentum, and MGM ultimately decided to let him go. Then his last two films at the studio—Mogambo (1953), with Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner, and Betrayed (1954), with Lana Turner—were surprise hits, putting him in a position to launch his own production company. He got the best role of his later years when director John Huston cast him opposite Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits (1961). During production, he also was thrilled when he learned his fifth wife was pregnant. Sadly, he died before his only son was born.
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