February 1, 1901– Clark Gable:
“The only reason they come to see me is that I know that life is great – and they know I know it. “
Somehow Gable’s charms eluded me for a long time, odd for a film fan, I know. I really came around after a recent viewing of It Happened One Night (1934), when suddenly, I got it.
It Happened One Night is a pre-Code film directed and produced by Frank Capra, where a pampered socialite played by Claudette Colbert tries to get out from under her father’s thumb and falls in love with a roguish reporter (Gable). The plot is based on a short story Night Bus (1333) by Samuel Hopkins Adams. The film is among the last romantic comedies created before rigidly enforced 1930 Motion Picture Production Code in July 1934. It Happened One Night was released just four months prior to that enforcement.
Gable and Colbert were not the first, second, or even third choice to play the lead roles. Miriam Hopkins rejected the part. Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy were offered the roles, but they both turned it down. Loy later stated that the final film was nothing like the screenplay that she and Montgomery had been given. Constance Bennett was willing to accept the role if she could produce the film herself, but Columbia Pictures nixed that notion. Bette Davis wanted the role, but she was under contract with Warner Bros. and Jack L. Warner refused to lend her. Carole Lombard wanted it also, but the filming schedule conflicted with her work on the musical Bolero at Paramount. Loretta Young turned it down.
Co-producer Harry Cohn suggested Colbert, who also said no. Colbert’s first film, For The Love Of Mike (1927), had been directed by Capra, and it had been such a dud that she vowed never work with him again. Eventually, she agreed to appear in It Happened One Night if her salary was doubled to $50,000 and if the filming of her role was completed in four weeks so that she could take a well-deserved vacation.
Gable was lent to Columbia Pictures (then considered a minor studio) as some kind of “punishment” for refusing a role at his studio MGM, who was paying him his contracted salary of $2,000 per week whether he worked or not. Louis B. Mayer lent him to Columbia for $2,500 per week, netting MGM $500 per week while he was gone with Capra.
When filming finally began, things were tense on the set. Gable and Colbert were unhappy with the quality of the script. Capra understood their dissatisfaction and had screenwriter Robert Riskin do a rewrite. Colbert, however, was still unhappy. She resisted the scene where her character pulls up her skirt to entice a passing driver to provide a ride. Yet, when she saw the chorus girl who was brought in as her body double, an outraged Colbert told Capra:
“Get her out of here. I’ll do it. That’s not my leg!”
Capra later claimed that Colbert “….had many little tantrums, motivated by her antipathy toward me, but she was wonderful in the part.”
After filming was done, Colbert complained:
“I just finished the worst picture in the world.”
Columbia had low expectations for the film and did little to advertising campaigns to promote it. Despite the positive reviews, the film only did middling business in its initial run. After it was released to the secondary movie houses, word-of-mouth brought brisk ticket sales, especially in smaller towns where the film’s characters and simple romance were loved by Depression era film fans. It turned out to be a major box office smash, easily Columbia’s biggest hit to date.
It garnered critical acclaim and is now widely considered one of the greatest films ever. It Happened One Night is is first of only three films along with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and The Silence Of The Lambs (1991) to win all five major Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. In 1935, after her Oscar nomination, Colbert decided not to attend the ceremony, feeling confident that she would not win, and instead planned to take a cross-country railroad trip. After she was named the winner, Cohn sent someone to “drag her off” the train, which had not yet left the station, and take her to the ceremony. Colbert arrived wearing a two-piece traveling suit which she was made especially for the journey by Paramount Pictures costume designer, Travis Banton.
When Gable first arrived in Hollywood in 1925, he would do anything and anyone to advance his career. His first two wives were decidedly unglamorous much older women; he was a kept man living like a movie star. When he started to get good film roles, he abandoned his second wife, and began a series of affairs with female stars, with one important exception.
Gable had at least one gay encounter for certain. The great silent film star Billy Haines, the most popular male film star of 1930, was an out and proud gay guy. He told his friends about his hookup with Gable in the late 1920s, which was unusual, because Haines was known for being discreet. Haines knew better than anyone the damage that could be caused by the public knowledge of gayness. Joan Crawford confirmed Haines’ story, which holds up under scrutiny because she had a lifelong friendship to both men; she loved them both dearly.
A decade later Gable avenged his assignation with Haines. Hollywood had more than a few homosexuals and Jews in the biz, and Gable let it be known that he held both in disdain. I have it on good authority by a Hollywood insider that by 1939, Gable had become the personification of the macho male star. During filming of a little picture titled Gone With The Wind, Gable was made to feel uncomfortable by the presence of Haines, who visited the set as a guest of gay, Jewish director George Cukor. When Gable overheard someone on the set comment: ”Cukor is directing one of Billy’s old tricks…”, Gable walked off the set and vowed not to return unless Cukor was replaced.
MGM decided it needed Gable more than Cukor, and the butcher Victor Fleming was brought in to replace Cukor, even though Cukor had worked for two years on preproduction and had already had done some filming.
Gable and Carole Lombard met first in 1932, while making No Man Of Her Own. Gable was a new leading man; it had only been four years since he was touring in second-rate stock. Lombard was a former Mack Sennett comic actor trying to make her reputation as a serious actor. They were both married. Gable’s wife was a rich Texas widow ten years his senior. Lombard’s husband was handsome, elegant star William Powell. While filming, Gable and Lombard showed little interest in each other.
But three years later, at a party given by Countess di Frasso, they met again. By this time, Lombard was divorced from Powell and Gable was separated from his wife. Di Frasso’s party was white-themed and Lombard arrived in a white ambulance, wearing a white nightgown, lying on a white cot which was carried in by three white-clad attendants. She and Gable drank and danced together that evening. The next day, Lombard had the ambulance, decorated with a red heart, sent to Gable. He drove it for the next two years. Lombard sent him hams with his picture painted on them. He sent her a gift of a fire engine. Soon, Gable and Lombard were calling each other “Ma” and “Pa”.
The day that Gable acquired a divorce from the Texan, he picked up Lombard in his cream-colored roadster, and they drove 350 miles to Arizona and got hitched. Immediately after the ceremony, Mr. and Mrs. Gable returned to Hollywood and told reporters they would not take a honeymoon until Gable was done filming Gone With The Wind and Lombard was finished with her work in In Name Only with Cary Grant for RKO. They moved to Gable’s Ranch in the San Fernando Valley.
The Gable-Lombard union took on the status of the Hollywood classic pairings like Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford (divorced), Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Joan Crawford (divorced), John Barrymore and Dolores Costello (divorced), Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard (never married).
Gable was crowned “The King of Hollywood”, but Lombard joked:
”If his cock was one inch shorter, they’d be calling him the Queen of Hollywood. God knows I love Clark, but he’s the worst lay in the town.”
Tallulah Bankhead said:
“If his dick was one inch shorter, his name would be Betty Grable, not Clark Gable.”
LIFE magazine called Gable:
“All man … and then some.”
I have read many accounts that early in his career Gable was ”gay for pay”. Who knows? He made more than 70 films in many genres during his 37-year career, three decades of which he was a leading man. Gable died of a heart attack; his final role was as an aging cowboy in The Misfits (1961), released posthumously.