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Gable Feared Failure as Rhett Butler

Published: February 26, 2015

If this year’s crop of Oscar contenders seemed thin and unappetizing to you, remember that not all growing seasons are alike. Hollywood has had some truly remarkable years.

Take 1939 for example, a year in which the motion picture industry outdid itself. Hollywood released 10 movies that, even today, seem to deserve their Oscar nominations for Best Picture. Dark Victory; Ninotchka; Of Mice and Men; Wuthering Heights; Love Affair; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Stagecoach; The Wizard of Oz; and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Topping the list was 1939’s most anticipated movie — Gone with the Wind, nominated for 13 Oscars.

Many considered Gone with the Wind and Mr. Smith the strongest candidates. Not surprisingly, the leading men of both films were nominated for Best Actor. Jimmy Stewart as the idealistic, young Congressman Jefferson Smith was up against Clark Gable as the dashing Rhett Butler.

More than 75 years after Gone with the Wind was released, Gable’s performance still symbolizes a masculine ideal for some people. The character he played, the cynical but chivalrous Butler, was one of the chief attractions of the novel on which the movie was based.

The book had been released in 1936, and hundreds of thousands of readers were captivated by the turbulent romance between Butler and the headstrong Scarlett O’Hara. In the first six months after its release, a million copies of the book were sold, despite being priced at an exorbitant $3 (equivalent to $50 today) in the middle of the Depression.

After producer David O. Selznik bought the movie rights to the book, the Warner Brothers’ studio launched a broad and well-publicized search for the ideal actress to play O’Hara. Names like Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Jean Harlow, even Lucille Ball were tossed around. But for Rhett Butler, there could only be one actor: Clark Gable.

The only person who didn’t think he should play the part, it seems, was Gable himself. He told the Post’s Pete Martin in 1957, “My thinking about it was this, that novel was one of the all-time best sellers. People didn’t just read it, they lived it. … They had a preconceived idea of the kind of Rhett Butler they were going to see, and suppose I came up empty? … All of them have already played Rhett in their minds. … If they saw one little thing I did that didn’t agree with their remembrance of the book, they’d howl.” (“I Call On Clark Gable” by Pete Martin, The Saturday Evening Post, October 5, 1957)

Even after the movie, he fretted that he hadn’t done justice to the role. He told Martin it wasn’t until he saw the enthusiastic crowds at the Atlanta premier that he admitted, “I guess this movie is in.”

Gable should have worried. Two months after the premier, Gone with the Wind was still showing in 400 theaters and earning $2 million a week ($34 million today). And now Gable was its best-paid actor, reported J.P. McEvoy in his 1940 interview with the star.

Gable’s success with the film only increased the large following he’d gained over the years. His big break, which earned him a Best Actor award, came in the 1934 film It Happened One Night.

Two years after the film’s release, a New York mob had attacked the cab he was riding in, demanding that he come out or they’d overturn the taxi. The police had to break through and drag him to safety. In New Orleans, “a yelling mob of women and girls tore most of his clothes off and made away with all his baggage,” McEvoy wrote. “In Baltimore a thousand women, waiting at the station, mobbed him. One girl hung on his neck as he dashed from the station to a waiting auto. In Santiago, Chile, he lost everything, including his pajamas.”

To a lesser degree, Gable was making a strong impression on American men, too. He was the new role model. Young men were moving away from the sleek, sophisticated look of the 1920s. Now muscular, well-built figures were fashionable, made popular by actors like Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Cagney, Gary Cooper, and, of course, Clark Gable.

American men, wrote McEvoy, “started wearing broad-shouldered coats — reversing the current style trend, still influenced by Valentino — for millions of women were now sighing to share the adventures of this dashing he-man, and millions of men were going to look like he-men, even if they had to pad out their thin, round shoulders to create an illusion of virility.”

Gable’s style even influenced men’s underwear. In a scene from It Happened One Night, wrote McEvoy, “Gable stripped off his shirt and revealed a bare and undeniably healthy torso. A million American men and boys said, ‘What’s good enough for Gable is good enough for us,’ and the undershirt business has never recovered.”

Years later, Gable revealed the reason behind his unintended bold fashion statement to Pete Martin. “That was just the way I lived. I hadn’t worn an undershirt since I’d started to school. They made me feel hemmed in and smothered. I still felt that way when I joined the Air Force in World War II and I had to put on a T-shirt. I felt swathed in fabric, like a mummy.

No one denied Gable made a strong impression on American men and women. But would his performance in Gone with the Wind make a favorable impression on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences?

On February 21, 1940, Hollywood gathered at the Coconut Grove in LA’s Ambassador Hotel for the 12th annual awards ceremony. The Best Actor award was given late in the evening. Until then, Bob Hope was busy as a first-time host. (Hope was called back to reprise this role 18 more times.)

Thomas Mitchell won Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Stagecoach, though he’d done good work in Gone with the Wind , too. Another member of that movie’s cast, Hattie McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress for her “mammy” character. She was the first black American to win an Oscar. Vivian Leigh, who played opposite Clark Gable as Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett, beat Bette Davis (Dark Victory) for Best Actress.

But Robert Donat won Best Actor for his performance as an aging English schoolmaster in Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

Not only did Gable not win that year, he never even received an Oscar nomination for any of the 28 films he made throughout the remainder of his career.

And yet, Gable’s Rhett Butler has remained a durable American icon after three-quarters of a century. Which is something else to remember when you think of the Academy Awards. While “winners” like Donat can become answers to movie-trivia questions, we remember “losers” like Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable.

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  • Clementine

    Gables’ role as Rhett Butler….established the ‘American Male’….for generations to come! Bravo! Clark Gable