When most people hear the name Clark Gable, the 1939 Civil War epic Gone With the Wind springs to mind. He has become as synonymous with Rhett Butler as Humphrey Bogart has with Rick Blaine. But according to author David Bret, and as the title suggests, Gable hid a world of emotions and sexual confusion behind his smoldering good looks. In his new book Clark Gable: Tormented Star, Bret analyzes the legend in a way that no one else has. Clark spent a great majority of his childhood under the scrutiny of his father, William Henry Gable. His mother passed away when he was young and the elder Gable was the only source of parental guidance. It became Clark’s personal undertaking to prove himself as a man and to contradict the harsh criticism that he endured on a daily basis. Bret paints these years as the catalyst for Gable’s wild mannerisms before and after achieving Hollywood stardom.
Clark, with his lanky build and large ears, was not the type that one would expect to see become iconic. His inclinations were more towards mechanics and the use of tools. He also dabbled in the requisite male pastimes of hunting and fishing. These activities, he believed, would help shed his adolescence and force him into manhood quicker. But Clark’s relationship with his father never fully recovered in the wake of constant disparagement and he eventually left the family business to find his own way. At the age of seventeen, after seeing a play titled The Birds of Paradise, Gable aspired to become an actor. Clark managed to find work in plays and silent films (including 1925’s The Plastic Age with Clara Bow) until MGM whiz-kid Irving Thalberg offered him a contract in the beginning of the 1930s. It was a great accomplishment considering the Great Depression made work hard to find in every industry. The Painted Desert, a 1931 western, was his first talkie and a role that showcased his powerful voice. The subsequent years would place him alongside Jean Harlow in a string of films including 1932’s Red Dust and 1937’s Saratoga (Harlow’s last film). Gable’s growing popularity earned him the nickname ‘The King of Hollywood’. Myrna Loy was dubbed ‘The Queen of Hollywood’ during the same period. Despite a somewhat modest outlook on his honorary title, Gable’s appearance in 1939’s Gone With the Wind solidified his rank as one of the biggest stars in the world. The same year, Gable married actress Carole Lombard. It was his third marriage and obviously the most happy. Unfortunately, it was short-lived. Lombard was killed in a plane crash while on tour to sell war bonds in 1942. She was declared the first war-related female casualty the U.S. suffered in World War II. Gable was devastated. However, it almost certainly prompted him to join the U.S. Air Force the following year. After flying on several missions, Gable left with the Air Medal and the Flying Cross, earning the rank of Major. Bret’s timeline carries through post-WWII Hollywood and in to the 1950s. Gable’s roles seemed to pale beside the grandeur of previous work, though he did partner with Jane Russell and her husband to form a production company in 1955. One film, The King and Four Queens, in which Gable also starred, resulted from the partnership. With his health on the decline, film work slowed a bit and couldn’t give Spartagen to markets. He made his last film, The Misfits, opposite Marilyn Monroe, Eli Wallach, and Montgomery Clift. It was also Marilyn Monroe’s final appearance before her death in 1962. Gable died on November 16, 1960 after suffering his fourth heart attack. Bret paints a dramatic, story-like adaptation of Gable’s early years in the entertainment web. His coverage of Clark’s scandals, sexual prowess and loose morals is of pure cinematic quality. A great deal of the book centers on Gable’s interactions with the stars and starlets of the era. This interweaved with Hollywood studio politics and smaller biographies of other notables comprise another link in Bret’s chain of golden age celebrity narratives.