Gable's most famous role was Rhett Butler in the Civil War epic film Gone with the Wind, in which he starred with Vivien Leigh. His performance earned him his third nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor; he had won the award for It Happened One Night and was also nominated for Mutiny on the Bounty (). Later memorable performances were in Run Silent, Run Deep, a classic submarine film, and his final film The Misfits (1961), which paired Gable with Marilyn Monroe in one of her last roles.
In his long film career, Gable was paired with some of the best and most popular actresses of the time. Joan Crawford, who was his favorite actress to work with, was partnered with Gable in eight films, Myrna Loy was with him seven times, and he played opposite Jean Harlow in six productions. He also starred with Lana Turner in four features, and with Norma Shearer in three.
When he was six months old, his sickly mother had him baptized Roman Catholic. She died when he was ten months old, probably of an aggressive brain tumor. Following her death, Gable's father's family refused to raise him as a Catholic, provoking enmity with his mother's side of the family. The dispute was resolved when his father's family agreed to allow Gable to spend time with his mother's Catholic brother, Charles Hershelman, and his wife on their farm in Vernon, Pennsylvania.
In April 1903, Gable's father Will married Jennie Dunlap, whose family came from the small neighboring town of Hopedale. Gable was a tall shy child with a loud voice. After his father purchased some land and built a house, the new family settled in. Jennie played the piano and gave her stepson lessons at home; later he took up brass instruments. She raised Gable to be well-dressed and well-groomed; he stood out from the other kids. Gable was very mechanically inclined and loved to strip down and repair cars with his father. At thirteen, he was the only boy in the men's town band. Even though his father insisted on Gable doing manly things, like hunting and hard physical work, Gable loved language. Among trusted company, he would recite Shakespeare, particularly the sonnets. Will Gable did agree to buy a seventy-two volume set of The World's Greatest Literature to improve his son's education, but claimed he never saw his son use it. In 1917, when Gable was in high school, his father had financial difficulties. Will decided to settle his debts and try his hand at farming and the family moved to Ravenna, just outside of Akron. Gable had trouble settling down in the very rural area. Despite his father's insistence that he work the farm, Gable soon left to work in Akron's B.F. Goodrich tire factory.
At seventeen, Gable was inspired to be an actor after seeing the play The Bird of Paradise, but he was not able to make a real start until he turned 21 and inherited money. By then, his stepmother Jennie had died and his father moved to Tulsa to go back to the oil business. He toured in stock companies and worked the oil fields and as a horse manager. Gable found work with several second-class theater companies and worked his way across the Midwest to Portland, Oregon, where he found work as a necktie salesman in the Meier & Frank department store. While there, he met actress Laura Hope Crews, who encouraged him to go back to the stage and into another theater company. His acting coach was a theater manager in Portland, Oregon, Josephine Dillon (17 years his senior). Dillon paid to have his teeth repaired and his hair styled. She guided him in building up his chronically undernourished body, and taught him better body control and posture. She spent considerable time training his naturally high-pitched voice, which Gable slowly managed to lower, and he gained better resonance and tone. As his speech habits improved, Gable's facial expressions became more natural and convincing. After the long period of rigorous training, she eventually considered him ready to attempt a film career.
In 1930, Gable and Josephine Dillon were divorced. A few days later, he married Texas socialite Ria Franklin Prentiss Lucas Langham. After moving to California, they were married again in 1931, possibly due to differences in state legal requirements.
"His ears are too big and he looks like an ape," said Warner Bros. executive Darryl F. Zanuck about Clark Gable after testing him for the lead in Warner's gangster drama Little Caesar (1931). After several failed screen tests for Barrymore and Zanuck, Gable was signed in 1930 by MGM's Irving Thalberg. He became a client of well-connected agent Minna Wallis, sister of producer Hal Wallis and very close friend of Norma Shearer.
Gable's timing in arriving in Hollywood was excellent as MGM was looking to expand its stable of male stars and he fit the bill. Gable then worked mainly in supporting roles, often as the villain. MGM's publicity manager Howard Strickland developed Gable's studio image, playing up his he-man experiences and his 'lumberjack in evening clothes' persona. To bolster his rocketing popularity, MGM frequently paired him with well-established female stars. Joan Crawford asked for him as her co-star in Dance, Fools, Dance (1931). He built his fame and public visibility in such important movies as A Free Soul (1931), in which he played a gangster who slapped Norma Shearer (Gable never played a supporting role again after that slap). The Hollywood Reporter wrote "A star in the making has been made, one that, to our reckoning, will outdraw every other star... Never have we seen audiences work themselves into such enthusiasm as when Clark Gable walks on the screen". He followed that with Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (1931) with Greta Garbo, and Possessed (1931), in which he and Joan Crawford (then married to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) steamed up the screen with some of the passion they shared for decades to come in real life. Adela Rogers St. John later dubbed the relationship as "the affair that nearly burned Hollywood down. Louis B. Mayer threatened to terminate both their contracts and for a while they kept apart and Gable shifted his attentions to Marion Davies. On the other hand, Gable and Garbo disliked each other. She thought he was a wooden actor while he considered her a snob.
Gable was considered for the role of Tarzan but lost out to Johnny Weissmuller's better physique and superior swimming prowess. Gable's unshaven lovemaking with bra-less Jean Harlow in Red Dust (1932) made him MGM's most important star. After the hit Hold Your Man (1933), MGM recognized the goldmine of the Gable-Harlow pairing, putting them in two more films, China Seas (1935) and Wife vs. Secretary (1936). An enormously popular combination, on-screen and off-screen, Gable and Jean Harlow made six films together, the most notable being Red Dust (1932) and Saratoga (1937). Harlow died of kidney failure during production of Saratoga. Ninety percent completed, the remaining scenes were filmed with long shots or doubles; Gable would say that he felt as if he were "in the arms of a ghost".
According to legend, Gable was lent to Columbia Pictures, then considered a second-rate operation, as punishment for refusing roles; however, this has been refuted by more recent biographies. MGM did not have a project ready for Gable and was paying him $2000 per week, under his contract, to do nothing. Studio head Louis B. Mayer lent him to Columbia for $2500 per week, making a $500 per week profit.
Gable was not the first choice to play the lead role of Peter Warne in It Happened One Night. Robert Montgomery was originally offered the role, but he felt that the script was poor. Filming began in a tense atmosphere, but both Gable and Frank Capra enjoyed making the movie.
A persistent legend has it that Gable had a profound effect on men's fashion, thanks to a scene in this movie. As he is preparing for bed, he takes off his shirt to reveal that he is bare-chested. Sales of men's undershirts across the country allegedly declined noticeably for a period following this movie.
Gable won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his 1934 performance in the film. He returned to MGM a bigger star than ever.
The unpublished memoirs of animator Friz Freleng's mention that this was one of his favorite films. It has been claimed that it helped inspire the cartoon character Bugs Bunny. Four things in the film may have coalesced to create Bugs: the personality of a minor character, Oscar Shapely and his penchant for referring to Gable's character as "Doc", an imaginary character named "Bugs Dooley" that Gable's character uses to frighten Shapely, and most of all, a scene in which Clark Gable eats carrots while talking quickly with his mouth full, as Bugs does.
Gable also earned an Academy Award nomination when he portrayed Fletcher Christian in 1935's Mutiny on the Bounty. Gable once said that this was his favorite film of his own, despite the fact that he did not get along with his co-stars Charles Laughton and Franchot Tone.
In the following years, he acted in a succession of enormously popular pictures, earning him the undisputed title of "King of Hollywood" in 1938. The title 'King' was first offered by Spencer Tracy, probably in jest but soon Ed Sullivan started a poll in his newspaper column and more than 20 million fans voted Gable 'King' and Myrna Loy 'Queen' of Hollywood. Though the honorific certainly helped his career, Gable grew tired of it and later stated, "This 'King' stuff is pure bullshit...I'm just a lucky slob from Ohio. I happened to be in the right place at the right time".Throughout most of the 1930s and the early 1940s, he was arguably the world's biggest movie star.
Gable was an almost immediate favorite for the role of Rhett Butler with both the public and producer David O. Selznick. But as Selznick had no male stars under long-term contract, he needed to go through the process of negotiating to borrow an actor from another studio. Gary Cooper was Selznick's first choice. When Cooper turned down the role, he was quoted as saying, "Gone With The Wind is going to be the biggest flop in Hollywood history. I’m glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling flat on his nose, not me". By then, Selznick was determined to get Gable, and eventually found a way to borrow him from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Gable was wary of potentially disappointing a public who had decided no one else could play the part. He later conceded, "I think I know now how a fly must react after being caught in a spider's web". It was his first film in Technicolor. Also appearing in Gone With The Wind in the role of "Aunt Pittypat" was Laura Hope Crews, the friend in Portland who had coaxed Gable back into the theater.
During filming, Vivien Leigh complained about his bad breath, which was apparently caused by false teeth. They otherwise got along well. His most famous line was his closing, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.
Gable didn't want to shed tears for the scene after Scarlett (Leigh) has a miscarriage. Olivia de Havilland made him cry, later commenting, "... Oh, he would not do it. He would not! Victor (Fleming) tried everything with him. He tried to attack him on a professional level. We had done it without him weeping several times and then we had one last try. I said, "You can do it, I know you can do it and you will be wonderful ..." Well, by heaven, just before the cameras rolled, you could see the tears come up at his eyes and he played the scene unforgettably well. He put his whole heart into it.
Decades later, Gable said that whenever his career would start to fade, a re-release of Gone with the Wind would instantly revive everything, and he continued as a top leading man for the rest of his life. In addition, Gable was one of the few actors to play the lead in three films that won an Academy Award for Best Picture.
Gone with the Wind was given theatrical re-releases in 1947, 1954, 1961, 1967 (in a widescreen version), 1971, 1989, and 1998.
On 16 January 1942, Lombard, who had just finished her 57th film, To Be or Not to Be, was on a tour to sell war bonds when the twin-engine DC-3 she was traveling in crashed into a mountain near Las Vegas, killing all aboard including Lombard's mother and MGM staff publicist Otto Winkler (best man at Gable's wedding to Lombard). Gable flew to the site and saw the forest fire ignited by the burning plane. Lombard was declared the first war-related female casualty the U.S. suffered in World War II and Gable received a personal condolence note from Franklin D. Roosevelt. The CAB investigation cited 'pilot error'.
Gable returned to their empty house and a month later to the studio to work with Lana Turner on Somewhere I'll Find You. Gable was devastated by the tragedy for many months and drank heavily but managed to perform professionally on the set. For a while, Joan Crawford returned to his side to offer support and friendship.
Gable resided the rest of his life at the couple's Encino home, made 27 more movies, and married twice more. "But he was never the same," said Esther Williams. "His heart sank a bit.
In 1942, following Lombard's death, Gable joined the U.S. Army Air Forces. Before her death, Lombard had suggested Gable enlist as part of the war effort, but MGM was obviously reluctant to let him go, and until her death he resisted the suggestion. Gable made a public statement after Lombard's death that prompted Commanding General of the AAF Henry H. Arnold to offer Gable a "special assignment" in aerial gunnery. Gable, despite earlier expressing an interest in officer candidate school (OCS), enlisted on 12 August 1942, with the intention of becoming an enlisted gunner on an air crew. MGM arranged for his studio friend, cinematographer Andrew McIntyre, to enlist with and accompany him through training.
However shortly after his enlistment he and McIntyre were sent to Miami Beach, Florida, where they entered USAAF OCS Class 42-E on 17 August 1942. Both completed training on 28 October 1942, commissioned as second lieutenants. His class of 2,600 fellow students (of which he ranked 700th in class standing) selected Gable as their graduation speaker, at which General Arnold presented them their commissions. Arnold then informed Gable of his special assignment, to make a recruiting film in combat with the Eighth Air Force to recruit gunners. Gable and McIntyre were immediately sent to Flexible Gunnery School at Tyndall Field, Florida, followed by a photography course at Fort George Wright, Washington, and promoted to first lieutenants upon completion.
Gable reported to Biggs Army Air Base on 27 January 1943, to train with and accompany the 351st Bomb Group to England as head of a 6-man motion picture unit. In addition to McIntyre, he recruited screenwriter John Lee Mahin; camera operators Sgts. Mario Toti, Robert Boles, and sound man Lt. Howard Voss to complete his crew. Gable was promoted to captain while with the 351st at Pueblo Army Air Base, Colorado, for rank commensurate with his position as a unit commander (as first lieutenants he and McIntyre had equal seniority).
Gable spent most of the war in the UK at RAF Polebrook with the 351st. Gable flew five combat missions, including one to Germany, as an observer-gunner in B-17 Flying Fortresses between 4 May and 23 September 1943, earning the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts. In November 1943 he returned to the United States to edit the film, only to find that the personnel shortage of aerial gunners had already been rectified. He was allowed to complete the film anyway, joining the 1st Motion Picture Unit in Hollywood.
In May 1944, Gable was promoted to major. He hoped for another combat assignment but when D-Day came and passed in June without further orders, he requested and was granted a discharge. He completed editing of the film, Combat America, in September 1944, providing the narration himself and making use of numerous interviews with enlisted gunners as focus of the film.
Adolf Hitler esteemed Gable above all other actors; during the Second World War he offered a sizable reward to anyone who could capture and bring Gable unscathed to him.
After Joan Crawford's third divorce, she and Gable resumed their affair and lived together for a brief time. Gable was acclaimed for his performance in The Hucksters (1947), a satire of post-war Madison Avenue corruption and immorality. A very public and brief romance with Paulette Goddard occurred after that. In 1949, Gable married Sylvia Ashley, a British divorcée and the widow of Douglas Fairbanks. The relationship was profoundly unsuccessful; they divorced in 1952. Soon followed Never Let Me Go (1953), opposite Gene Tierney. Tierney was a favorite of Gable and he was very disappointed when she was replaced in Mogambo (due to her mental health problems) by Grace Kelly. Mogambo (1953), directed by John Ford, was a Technicolor remake of his earlier film Red Dust, which had been an even greater success. Gable's on-location affair with Grace Kelly sputtered out after filming was completed.
Gable became increasingly unhappy with what he considered mediocre roles offered him by MGM, while the studio regarded his salary as excessive. Studio head Louis B. Mayer was fired in 1951 amid slumping Hollywood production and revenue, due primarily to the rising popularity of television. Studio chiefs struggled to cut costs. Many MGM stars were fired or not renewed, including Greer Garson and Judy Garland. In 1953, Gable refused to renew his contract, and began to work independently. His first two films were Soldier of Fortune and The Tall Men, both profitable though only modest successes. In 1955, Gable married his fifth wife, Kay Spreckels (née Kathleen Williams), a thrice-married former fashion model and actress who had previously been married to sugar-refining heir Adolph B. Spreckels Jr.
In 1955, Gable formed a production company with Jane Russell and her husband Bob Waterfield, and they produced The King and Four Queens, Gable's one and only production. He found producing and acting to be too taxing on his health, and he was beginning to manifest a noticeable tremor particularly in long takes. His next project was Band of Angels, with relative newcomer Sidney Poitier and Yvonne De Carlo; it was a total disaster. Newsweek said, "Here is a movie so bad that it must be seen to be disbelieved". Next he paired with Doris Day in Teacher's Pet, shot in black in white to better hide his aging face and overweight body. The film was good enough to bring Gable more film offers, including Run Silent, Run Deep, with co-star and producer Burt Lancaster, which featured his first on screen death since 1937, and which garnered good reviews. Gable started to receive television offers but rejected them outright, even though some of his peers, like his old flame Loretta Young, were flourishing in the new medium. His next two films were light comedies for Paramount: But Not for Me with Carroll Baker and It Started in Naples with Sophia Loren (his last film in color). At 58, Gable finally acknowledged, "Now it's time I act my age".
Gable's last film was The Misfits, written by Arthur Miller, directed by John Huston, and co-starring Marilyn Monroe, Eli Wallach, and Montgomery Clift. This was also the final film completed by Monroe. Many critics regard Gable's performance to be his finest, and Gable, after seeing the rough cuts, agreed.
According to Lewis, Gable visited her home once, but he didn't tell her that he was her father. While neither Gable nor Young would ever publicly acknowledge their daughter's real parentage, this fact was so widely known that in Lewis's autobiography Uncommon Knowledge, she wrote that she was shocked to learn of it from other children at school. Loretta Young never officially acknowledged the fact, which she said would be the same as admitting to a "venial sin." However, she finally gave her biographer permission to include it only on the condition the book not be published until after her death.
On 20 March 1961, Kay Gable gave birth to Gable's son, John Clark Gable, born four months after Clark's death.
Others have blamed Gable's crash diet before filming began. The 6'1" (185 cm) Gable weighed about at the time of Gone with the Wind, but by his late 50s, he weighed . To get in shape for The Misfits, he dropped to 195 lbs (88 kg). In addition, Gable was in poor health from years of heavy smoking (three packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day over thirty years, as well as cigars and at least two bowlfuls of pipe tobacco a day). Until the late 1950s he had been a heavy drinker, especially of whisky.
Doris Day summed up Gable's unique personality, "He was as masculine as any man I've ever known, and as much a little boy as a grown man could be – it was this combination that had such a devastating effect on women.
David Bret's book Clark Gable: Tormented Star (2007) claims that Gable had relationships with openly homosexual men and was "gay for pay" in his early career. It claims that Gable was branded a "sissy" by his father as a child, prompting him to adopt a macho image and denounce homosexuality.
Gable is known to have appeared as an extra in 13 films between 1924 and 1930. He then appeared in a total of 67 theatrically released motion pictures, as himself in 17 "short subject" films, and he narrated and appeared in a World War II propaganda film entitled Combat America, produced by the United States Army Air Forces.