This is the grave of Clark Gable.
Born in 1901 in Cadiz, Ohio, William Clark Gable had a tough childhood. His mother died when he was a baby and his father, a Protestant, might have loved his mother, but he sure hated her Catholicism, which led to a lot of family in-fighting between dad and the in-laws over how to raise the boy. Gable was super shy as a child but his father remarried and his stepmother did the work to teach the boy higher class manners, including proper dressing and how to play the piano. It turned out he had quite a proficiency for music and he learned to play most of the brass instruments too. As he became a teen, he turned into a sort of combo of his manly-man father and his cultured mother. His father was all about fixing cars and hunting and that’s what he wanted his boy Bill (as he was known then) to become. He did become that, but he also became the music and literature loving intellectual that his stepmother wanted. Gable as it turned out was a huge Shakespeare guy and would recite sonnets to his friends. Trying to imagine teenagers reciting Shakespeare sonnets today.
In any case, as a teenager, Gable moved to Akron and took a job with Firestone. He started going to plays and thought he could do that. It took awhile though. In 1920, his stepmother died and his father decided to go to Oklahoma and become an oil wildcatter. Gable went with him, then went onto the Northwest on his own. He was a young man who was unafraid of hard work and in search of adventure. While in Portland, he got a job selling ties while working in local acting companies. He took acting very seriously. He hired a coach named Josephine Dillon who told him how to build up his body (he was very skinny then), how to lower his naturally high voice, how to stand, and all that. Soon, he and Dillon married, even though she was 17 years older than he.
Dillon told Gable to change his acting name to Clark and that was a good idea. He began to appear as an extra in some fairly important silents, including Erich von Stroheim’s The Merry Widow and The Plastic Age with Clara Bow. But he had trouble getting the roles he wanted, so he went back to the stage. He became friends with Lionel Barrymore, who routinely made fun of Gable’s acting (let’s be clear here, no one is calling Gable one of the great actors that ever lived), but his overt masculinity was appealing on the stage and he started getting better reviews, including in New York.
By 1930, Gable was returning to Hollywood, where he got a key role in the bad western The Painted Desert, released in 1931. He also divorced Dillon and married the rich socialite Maria Langham a few days later. Gable would go through women about as often as he went through roles. The first film I know Gable from is Night Nurse, with Barbara Stanwyck, where she is a nurse who saves some children the gangster Gable is starving to death. It’s pretty good for a pre-code film. He was in a bunch of stuff in a minor role, but it was his friendship with Joan Crawford that really moved him up a notch. She liked being cast with him and they had good chemistry so they did a bunch of films together that moved along both of their careers very well. Meanwhile, they started sleeping together, which was definitely not the kind of scandal Hollywood wanted at the moment that Washington was cracking down on the movies through the Hays Code. This might have hurt him, except that It Happened One Night came out in 1934 and it was a huge hit. Gable won Best Actor. Robert Montgomery was offered the role, but he thought the script was bad and turned it down. Whoops.
Well, now Gable was pretty well untouchable. Mutiny on the Bounty in 1935 was another huge hit and he was nominated for Best Actor again. He did a bunch of successful films teamed with Spencer Tracy and then he took the role of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. My hatred for everything to do with that film is well-established, but I am hardly surprised he would take the role. Of course he was nominated for Best Actor again. Gary Cooper was initially offered that one and turned it down. Gable did pretty well stepping up to the plate on roles other guys didn’t want. The same year (1939) he married Carole Lombard. She died in a plane crash in 1942 but is buried next to him (we obviously will get to her soon). She seems to be the wife he actually loved and adored, but honestly, it’s hard to see how that wouldn’t have gone south too given his constant fucking around with every woman in Hollywood.
There were more successful if forgettable films and then Gable joined the Army Air Force in World War II. He was a pilot and took it seriously. He wasn’t a coward like John Wayne. He fought. He became a bomber pilot with multiple missions over Germany. He nearly died on one mission. When Hitler found out Gable was fighting him, he offered a reward to bring him back alive so the Fuhrer could meet his favorite actor. Gable was discharged in 1944 with the rank of major.
It didn’t take Gable too long to get back in the pictures as a huge star, though he took a little time off. A lot of the films from this era are really pretty whatever. He was also sleeping through all the actresses he could find, including Paulette Goddard, Sylvia Ashley (who he married briefly), and plenty more. Gable got frustrated by the mediocre roles MGM was giving him and he refused to renew his contract with them. He ended up at Paramount and made a lot more forgettable films. Most of these aren’t bad per se. They are just 1950s Hollywood churn. Good stars, OK acting, kinda dumb stories, pleasant enough, but other than catching them on TCM, no one really watches them much anymore.
Gable was a total right-winger. His politics really sucked. He was close not only to people such as Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan, but also Ayn Rand, which is super gross. As early as 1944, he involved in anti-communist politics, being a co-founder of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. I guess the American Ideals Gable wanted to preserve was having sex with every co-star he could. He was a critical figure in creating the blacklist in the McCarthy period and he was more than happy to testify before HUAC on all the commies he hated. Interestingly though, Gable hated segregation and threatened to quit the production of Gone with the Wind if the set was segregated.
Gable’s last film was a great one though. The Misfits, directed by John Huston, is a real favorite of mine. Arthur Miller writing the script sure didn’t hurt. It is also the last Marilyn Monroe film. Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, and Thelma Ritter co-star (what a cast!!!) in a story about lost men who round up wild horses to turn them into dog food. Miller wrote the whole thing as a vehicle for Monroe, then his wife, and it was too weird for audiences at the time, but it is a great, great film, one of the best modern-day westerns of the period, along with Lonely are the Brave, in my opinion.
By the time this film came out, Gable was dead. Heart attack. He was 59 years old.
Clark Gable is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California. Now, a note on this place. It is a famous place. But it is also annoyingly exclusive. Much of it, both in the mausoleum and in various parts of the real cemetery, are closed to the public. Basically, it is designed for Hollywood people to buy the kind of exclusion they had in real life and then continue it forever. So many of the people you might want to see here are off limits. This is in fact true of Gable too, but when I realized that the barrier to this section was just a rope instead of a gate, I decided the rules don’t apply to the Internet’s Least Important Series and snuck in and took the picture anyway. As you can see, I am not the only one who has visited Gable’s grave. Unless I am actually the one who left the lipstick kisses on the grave!
If you would like this series to visit other actors who Gable competed with for the Best Actor Oscar in 1934, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Frank Morgan, also nominated for The Affairs of Celini, is in Brooklyn and William Powell, nominated for The Thin Man. is in Cathedral City, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.