Gable is easily the most famous of any actor we’ve talked about from the pre-Code era. But the “King of Hollywood,” who is mostly associated with the squeaky-clean, censored, Golden Age of movies, has his own contribution to pre-Code.
Born in Cadiz, Ohio (near Akron), in 1901, Gable came from a hardscrabble background. He worked on the family farm and, as a teenager, discovered acting here in Toledo. What and where in Toledo is unclear, but accounts of the actor seeing the play “The Bird of Paradise” at age 17 may have been in Toledo. He wanted to work in theater, but his stepmother’s death in 1919 delayed his acting plans and he left Ohio for the oil fields of Oklahoma.
Clark Gable in 1917, around the time he discovered acting in Toledo. To see his hometown, look at dearmrgable.com Note- Dangerous Men by Mick LaSalle specifically cites Toledo as the place he discovered acting. This is a story I also heard when taking a class at The Toledo Rep theater in the 1980's. Anyone who has specific information leave a comment in the section below!
Gable wasn’t always the male version of a sex bomb he would become in Hollywood. Early photos show a skinny kid with bad teeth and big ears. Later he would fix his teeth and pin his ears back. Something of his later charms must’ve been evident though, because he attracted a lot of women who acted not only as girlfriends, and later wives, but who became patrons for his career. The first, Josephine Dillion, was his acting coach and 17 years his senior. They were married in 1925, but in his New York theater days he had an affair with Rita Langham whose influence brought him to Hollywood.
Clark Gable in the early 1930's
In 1931 Clark Gable wasn’t yet sporting his famous mustache and didn’t smile much. In his early films “Dance Fools Dance,” “A Fee Spirit,” and “Night Nurse” he plays bad guys who accept themselves as bad guys, having given up acquiring any capacity for kindness. “He’s a celebration of cruelty in an unapologetic, completely masculine way – his handsomeness made him sexy in a way that was incorrect, unjustifiable, and yet undeniable.” **
Director Mervyn LeRoy had seen Gable onstage in a production of “The Last Mile” in Los Angeles and considered him for a part that ultimately went to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in “Little Caesar.” When Gable came on stage in “The Last Mile” as a convict stripped to the waist, LeRoy saw the tough guy he was looking for. “He was powerful, brutal, animal-like,” said LeRoy, who arranged to test the actor at Warner. LeRoy thought he had “the same quality on screen as he had on stage, only magnified.” Zanuck (head of Warner) didn’t see Gable’s power. “Do you know what you’ve done?” Zanuck told LeRoy. “You’ve just thrown away five hundred bucks on a test. Didn’t you see the size of that guy’s ears?” *
From the cartoon Have You Any Castles? featuring storybooks and stars, Clark Gable is featured in House of the Seven Gables - and drawn with huge ears.
Next, Gable was cast in the part of Nick the chauffeur in “Night Nurse” with Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell. Stanwyck said, “The instant Clark walked onto that set, I knew, we all knew, that here was a striking personality. He commanded attention.” Actress Joan Blondell recalled that when she and Stanwyck saw Gable for the first time they grabbed each other’s pinkies and squealed in shear delight. Director William Wellman begged Warner to sign him, but they refused. That refusal would forever haunt them after Gable was quickly put under contract by MGM.
Stanwyck and Gable go toe to toe in Night Nurse, 1931. Gable has no scenes with Blondell but after making Adventure, 1945 (his first film post WW II), when both were single, he asked Blondell to marry him. She foolishly turned him down.
As Nick the chauffeur in the pre-Code classic Night Nurse, 1931.
Later in 1931, Gable had his breakout performance when he starred with Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard in “A Free Soul.” Interestingly this film pits Gable against Howard for the affections of Shearer just as they would later in “Gone with The Wind.” But for the purposes of this pre-Code film, it announced a raw, male sex appeal. Howard clearly represents refined old-fashioned manhood that’s safe and therefore boring. Gable isn’t witty and urbane like William Powell — he’s got something that’s primal and dangerous. It was in this film that audiences responded to him as a new, electrifying personality. After Gable slapped Shearer in the film, he never played a villain or a supporting role again. Although Gable’s presence is commanding and chauvinist, it’s an admittance not only of his animalistic side, but of the animal in women too.
Star making turn in A Free Soul, 1931 with Norma Shearer.
With Joan Crawford in Possessed, 1931. Gable and Crawford generated heat on and off screen when their pairing lead to a several years long affair that ended both their marriages.
1932’s “Red Dust,” with Jean Harlow and Mary Astor, pushed the idea of his animal attraction even further with a story set in the jungle. Gable plays the head of a rubber plantation in Indochina. He wants to rise above his station in life and be part of the gentrified social set when he has affairs with two women — one a wise-cracking prostitute, and the other a virtuous, but married, woman with a better standing in society. Gable’s character has direct parallels to a tiger who prowls the jungle at night. An enormous hit in 1932, audiences flocked to see what was admittedly the sexiest film put out by Hollywood to date.
With Harlow in Red Dust, 1932
Gable himself was never overly confident about his success. In real life he was a notorious worrier and a heavy drinker. He always thought he was one film away from never having a job again. His career never did falter, and he worked until his death in 1960 at age 59. More than ninety years later, he remains the undisputed King of Hollywood.
* Excerpt from A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson
** From Dangerous Men - by Mick LaSalle
Research for this article