The King of Hollywood
Clark Gable's pal Spencer Tracy once sardonically referred to him as the "king of Hollywood," and Ed Sullivan confirmed the title in a poll he conducted among editors in 1938. The kernel of truth in this dubious honor, however, was that Gable was a powerfully strong box office draw among both men and women. For men, he was tough and uncomplicated, a great guy to have around while drinking, gambling or fighting; for women, he was the broad-shouldered, devilish man-child with the cockeyed grin, the archetype of all the super-confident, super-masculine boys on the prowl for sexual adventure -- the guy your mothers warned you about.
Born on this day in 1901 in Cadiz, Ohio, Clark Gable grew up to be an oddjobber and traveling troupe actor, finding his way onto Broadway and the L.A. stage just as talking movies were born. As an experienced stage actor, he was scouted by several studios (Zanuck passed on him at Warner Brothers, saying that his ears were too big and that he looked "like an ape") until he scored a triumph in MGM's A Free Soul (1931, with Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer), in which moviegoers were introduced to the role which would become his trademark -- the sharp, seemingly disinterested character whose mission was to break down the defenses of the frigid upper class dame.
He played a similar character all the way to a Best Actor Oscar in Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1935, with Claudette Colbert), and became a star of the first rank. When Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With the Wind became the most-talked-about book in Hollywood, the fans made Clark Gable their unanimous choice for the role of "Rhett Butler." Selznick had the rights to the book, MGM had Gable, and Gable didn't want the part, but a deal was cut, and Gone With the Wind (1939) became the biggest box office smash of all-time, with Gable playing the sharpie opposite the cool Vivien Leigh as "Scarlett O'Hara."
About the same time, Gable married the love of his life, actress Carole Lombard (his third wife); but the match made in heaven was cut short when Lombard died in an airplane crash while on a war bond drive in 1942. A distraught Gable joined the Air Force, flew bombing missions over Germany and won the Distinguished Flying Cross.
His post-war productions revealed a crankier middle-aged man who nonetheless had some sex appeal, and while often seeming tired, he showed flashes of greatness, notably in Mogambo (1953, directed by John Ford, with Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner, a remake of his 1932 film Red Dust, with Mary Astor and Jean Harlow) and John Huston's The Misfits (1961, with Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift), his last film. He died of a heart attack on November 16, 1960 in Los Angeles, just before the birth of his only son, by his fifth wife Kay.