Clark Gable, one of the greatest leading men to appear on the silver screen, made 67 motion pictures in his lifetime (in which he was listed in the cast). He is best known for playing Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, a role for which he was nominated as Best Actor, although it didn’t win him the Oscar. I thought he had and Lord knows I think he should have but when I was writing this post I double checked myself, as I usually do, and discovered he actually won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in It Happened One Night.
Gable is listed as one of the top ten leading male actors of the last one hundred years by the American Film Institute. I remember seeing Gone With the Wind for the first time when I was a college student in the 1970s and I practically wept. Although I despise the cause for which the Confederacy fought, I am an eighth generation Southerner so it’s easy to get caught up emotionally in a deep way with the movie.
Rhett Butler’s classic line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” is ranked by the American Film Institute as the number one line in movie history and it is thought to be the most famous line in movie history. I once read that Gone With the Wind had been seen by more people than any other movie ever made. I don’t know if this is true.
Gable’s third wife and apparently the love of his life, was the actress Carol Lombard. According to the Internet Movie Database she was one of the highest paid Hollywood stars of the 1930s reportedly making $35,000 a week. (Gable was paid $7,000 a week during his time filming GWTW.) She was as famous or even more famous than Clark Gable. After the US went to war, she had been urging Gable to join the armed forces but MGM did not want to let him go.
While on a tour urging Americans to buy war bonds, Lombard sent Gable a telegram which read, “Hey, Pappy. (Her nickname for him.) You better get into this man’s army.” On her way home from that war bond tour, she died in a plane crash on 16 January 1942. President Franklin D. Roosevelt eulogized Lombard by saying “she is and always will be a star, one that we shall never forget, nor cease to be grateful to.” Later FDR posthumously awarded her the Medal of Freedom for being the first woman killed in the line of duty in WWII. (Source: Turner Classic Movies)
Apparently Gable was devastated by her death and began to drink heavily. “…he was never the same,” said Esther Williams about Gable after Lombard’s death. Their marriage was tragically short – 29 March 1939 to her death in January of ’42. Although he married again and had relationships with many women, it is thought he grieved for Lombard for the rest of his life. Although married at the time of his death, Gable had left instructions that he be buried next to her and he is.
Spurred by her death, Gable wrangled with MGM and in August of 1942 Gable enlisted in the US Army Air Force telling reporters he wanted to be a machine gunner on a bomber. However, Hap Arnold, commanding general of the air force refused to give him a combat assignment. Instead he gave a commission as a captain to Gable and asked him to make a training and recruiting film for air gunners.
By the time Gable got to the Eighth Air Force in England, he decided he had to fly on a few missions to make an accurate film. And did he? We’ll see in Part Two.