He was crowned “the King of Hollywood” in a 1938 poll conducted by newspaper columnist Ed Sullivan, and for once the hype was accurate. Whether he was striking sparks with Jean Harlow in “Red Dust” or bringing Claudette Colbert down to earth in “It Happened One Night” or standing up to Charles Laughton (and romancing a Tahitian babe) in “Mutiny on the Bounty,” Clark Gable was every moviegoer’s ideal of the all-American male. He didn’t want to play Rhett Butler in “Gone with the Wind,” but no one else was ever seriously considered for the role; the fans wouldn’t have stood for it. No other star of the studio system’s golden age inspired such uncomplicated affection. Women swooned over Gable’s virile charisma, and men didn’t mind because he seemed like a regular guy. It wasn’t an act, as Warren G. Harris’s no-frills biography makes plain.
“I’m just a lucky slob from Ohio,” Gable once said. “I eat and sleep and go to the bathroom just like everybody else. There’s no special light that shines inside me and makes me a star.” Only the last sentence was untrue. Gable’s rapid rise to the top was in many ways a matter of luck; when MGM signed the 29-year-old actor in 1930, the studio was short on leading men for its huge roster of dynamic actresses, so he quickly got featured roles in major releases starring such big names as Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and Greta Garbo. And his popularity definitely had something to do with the fact that audiences could imagine this big, not unusually handsome fellow with the oversized ears living in their hometown. His off-screen amusements were also those considered typical of the average Joe in the first half of the 20th century: he liked to hunt, fish, read murder mysteries, drink hard, and chase any pretty woman who crossed his path. He seldom had any trouble catching them, because despite his disclaimer Clark Gable did have a special quality that made him a star.
“What Gable had in a measure that no other star quite matched — or projected as ferociously as he did — was a true masculine personality,” the New York Times editorialized after his death in 1960. “Whatever the role, Gable was as certain as the sunrise. He was consistently and stubbornly all Man.” It was the certainty as much as the masculinity that appealed to everyone. Being “all Man” was never that simple, even in the 1930s check out the wry self-deprecation in performances by Cary Grant and William Powell, or the simmering neurotic aggressiveness projected by James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. But if Gable had any doubts about himself or about a man’s role in the world, he didn’t voice them.
Neither does his biographer. Harris, whose previous books include biographies of Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren, provides a brisk narrative with scant speculation about any hidden depths. (He dismisses out of hand, for example, longstanding rumors that Gable got George Cukor fired from “Gone With the Wind” because the director knew of a homosexual incident in his past.) This is an appropriate approach for a subject not inclined to self-examination. Granted, it’s mildly intriguing that someone whose mother died when he was nine months old twice married women nearly 20 years his senior, but neither of them was exactly a Mom substitute. Acting coach Josephine Dillon managed Gable’s early career in regional theater; wealthy divorcee Ria Langham helped the burly Midwesterner and former factory worker acquire the sophistication he needed on Broadway. It was probably their ability to smooth his professional path that attracted him. Why did Gable want to be an actor? Harris’s short explanation will serve: “He was simply a six-foot high school dropout who’d stumbled into an amazing new world and wanted to belong.”
Gable’s life story, like the parts he played, requires no Actors Studio introspection. Harris devotes less than 70 pages to his subject’s first 30 years, and his coverage of the three subsequent decades is basically an enjoyable rehash of familiar material. The author briefly describes nearly every movie Gable made, and if he’s missed any of the women the actor bedded it can only be due to exhaustion. Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Loretta Young (whose illegitimate child he never publicly acknowledged), Merle Oberon, Grace Kelly, countless starlets, prostitutes, and the occasional sexy journalist — not even his happy marriage to Carole Lombard in 1939 slowed Gable down much. Herself the veteran of many affairs, Lombard looked the other way; she didn’t consider sex the most important aspect of their relationship. (Naturally, Harris quotes her famous comment that the King of Hollywood wasn’t such a great lay.)
Lombard’s death in a1942 plane crash devastated Gable, and when he returned from military service in World War II the most glittering portion of his career was over. The visible impact of heavy boozing and smoking made him a less potent sex symbol in middle age, and he never really found a niche as a freelance actor in a changing movie industry. Dealing with more mundane films like “Teacher’s Pet” and less glamorous fourth and fifth marriages, Harris’s narrative flags somewhat. Yet Gable remained “the King” until his death, which was rightly eulogized as marking the end of a fabled era in Hollywood history. With just enough detail and plenty of glitz, this new biography captures that era through the story of its biggest male star.