Clark Gable and Carole Lombard: Hollywood’s Greatest Romance

February brings Valentine’s Day and a plentitude of great romance movies: Wuthering Heights. Now, Voyager. Dark Victory. Casablanca.  Not that Hollywood hasn’t had it own great romances. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner.

I would add another, which I remember because I’m 93 (94 next month) and a longtime movie buff — Carole Lombard and Clark Gable.

Perhaps, the greatest of them all.

Equally big stars, she was reportedly the highest paid actress in Hollywood and he was so popular he was dubbed “The King.” A beautiful blonde, the equal of any star then (or since), Lombard played dramatic parts but was best known for her roles in the zany comedies of the mid-’30s, the cinematic antidote to The Great Depression. She had a comedic touch perfect for such classics as Nothing Sacred and My Man Godfrey. Gable, who starred in such films as Test Pilot and Boom Town, was the only actor American readers and movie-goers would accept for the role of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind.

They co-starred in the film No Man of Her Own in 1932, but no romantic sparks were sparked. Both were married at the time (although that has not stopped a lot of budding romances in Hollywood). A chance meeting at a party four years later — she was now single again and he was separated from his wife — and the spark was struck. His wife did not want to give him a divorce, but he prevailed, and it was finalized in March 1939. Taking advantage of a break Gable had in filming Gone with the Wind, they eloped to Kingman, Arizona.

One of my most vivid memories of movie stars when I was growing up were the photos that appeared not only in the movie magazines of the day but newspapers across the country of them shortly afterward, at his ranch in Encino, California. I can still see them, smiling happily. And later that year, at the world premiere of Gone with the Wind in Atlanta, in formal dress for the occasion, she is on his arm as they arrive, and he pauses at the microphone to address the crowd and nation through the newsreels of the time, saying, “This is Margaret Mitchell’s night.”  But I remember Carole Lombard and Clark Gable.

Photo of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard during their honeymoon
Lombard and Gable after their honeymoon. (Wikimedia Commons)

Undoubtedly, there were other photos and stories.

Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt asked the Congress for a Declaration of War. And, like the rest of the nation, Hollywood and its stars mobilized for the coming fight.  In mid-January, between pictures, Carole Lombard went back to her native Indiana on a War Bond Tour. Her mother went along, as did Otto Winkler, Gable’s friend and publicist, whom Gable had asked to accompany Carole on the tour. The tour was capped off by a dinner in Indianapolis the night of January 15, 1942. Carole Lombard had raised more than $2 million. Today, that would be more than $32 million.

Two photos of Carole Lombard and Clark Gable in Indianapolis.
Lombard in Indianapolis in 1942. (Wikimedia Commons)

They were supposed to return home by train, as the government preferred that stars on bond tours not fly. Also, her mother and Winkler were afraid of flying. But Lombard was anxious to get back to her beloved “Pappy,” her name for Gable, and reportedly didn’t want to face three days on the “choo choo train.” They decided to flip a coin. Lombard won. And they booked a flight on a commercial airline. TWA Flight 3, a transcontinental flight out of New York, made a stop in Indianapolis, at or about 3 a.m. It would get them home late that evening.

It should be remembered that commercial flights were in their early years back then — stagecoaches, if you will, compared to today’s flights. No jets. Propeller driven. No pressurized cabins. Passengers huddled under blankets to keep warm. Frequent stops. Not only for passengers to board or depart but to refuel. During the stop at Albuquerque, New Mexico, Carole and her party were almost bumped to make way for military personnel, who took precedence in wartime. But Lombard pleaded her case, and they were allowed to fly on.

What follows has come to be known as “The Mystery of Flight 3.”  It’s known that the plane made a refueling stop at Las Vegas, then a small town. It may be that the pilot mistakenly set a course used for takeoff from Boulder, Colorado, which he and the co-pilot had flown recently. Or the pilot mistook a beacon light to the right of the runway as being at its center and flew to the right, instead of going left. Or that beacon lights that would normally have been used had been turned off, due to the war, lest they attract enemy planes.

Never disputed, the pilot did not realize he had not reached the altitude needed to clear the treacherous Mount Potosi. And there were no air traffic controllers to tell him.

The plane flew into the side of the mountain, killing all 22 aboard.

“Gable rushed to the city, first hoping for a miracle,” as the Las Vegas Review Journal put it, looking back on the 75th anniversary of the crash, “and then keeping a grief-stricken vigil until rescue teams recovered his wife’s remains.”

It’s said he never recovered.

Certainly, the loss is plain to see in the photo of The King being sworn in to the U. S. Army Air Force, as a private after enlisting, August 12, 1942. The pain on his face and in his eyes is seared into my memory. Not the pain in TV shows when someone is trying to get someone else to talk, divulge a name or meeting place. The pain that comes from somewhere deep inside — dare I say the soul? — and stays with you the rest of your life.

The Air Force sent Gable to Officer Candidate School, assigned him to a film unit in Hollywood, to which he brought great credentials, then overseas to film “Combat America,” a propaganda film about air gunners. Official records show he flew five combat missions, but fellow veterans say he flew more.

He may be seen in uniform January 15, 1944 — the second anniversary of the dinner capping Carole Lombard’s War Bond Tour — watching actress Irene Dunne break a bottle of champagne against the bow of a Liberty Ship. The ship was christened the Carole Lombard in recognition of her contribution to the war. The Carole Lombard would go on to rescue hundreds of survivors of sunken ships in the Pacific.

Whether officially or unofficially, the mountain on which she died came to be known as Carole Lombard Mountain.

After the war, Clark Gable returned to Hollywood, resumed his career. In his first film he co-starred with Greer Garson (Mrs. Miniver), prompting the ad line, “Gable’s back and Garson’s got him.”  He would make movies for some 15 years, co-starring in his last, The Misfits, with the new blonde star of Hollywood, Marilyn Monroe.

In one of those twists of fate worthy of an O. Henry story or Alfred Hitchcock movie, it would be the last film for both Gable and Monroe. Two days after filming ended, Gable suffered a heart attack, sufficiently serious that he was not only hospitalized but held for further care and observation. There were those in Hollywood who thought it was his frustration with the famed tardiness of  Monroe that had driven him to passing the time wrangling the wild mustangs that were part of the film — in the heat of the desert yet — and had brought on the heart attack. And his popularity cast a cloud over Monroe that some say never ended before her death two years later.

Gable suffered a second, fatal heart attack while still hospitalized and died November 16, 1960.

Although he had married twice in the postwar years, and was happily married at the time to a woman about to present him with a son, he chose to be buried alongside Carole Lombard in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

If, unlike Romeo and Juliet, years passed between their passing, their romance may well rank up there with Shakespeare’s classic.

Certainly, the romance has those twists of fate, moments of “what might have been,” thread of tragedy, that make you wonder what The Bard would have done with Clark and Carole.

Featured image: Carole Lombard and Clark Gable in a movie still from No Man of Her Own (Wikimedia Commons)

Leading Men of Hollywood: Clark Gable

This article was originally published in the Post on October 5, 1957. This and other features about the stars of Tinseltown can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Golden Age of Hollywood, which can be ordered here. 

My wife, Kay, is stopping by at 3 o’clock to pick me up,” Clark Gable told me when he walked into my hotel room for our interview. “You ask me questions, and I’ll tell you the truth. If you ask me something too personal, I’ll say, ‘that’s a question I don’t care to answer; I’m keeping that to myself.’ But if you ask me something that I feel I can answer honestly, I will.”

After I’d tried unsuccessfully to ask him a few personal questions, I asked him about three pictures he’d been in: IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY and GONE WITH THE WIND. “I’ve heard you wanted to be in none of them,” I said, “but in each case somebody talked you into changing your mind.”

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT came along early in my motion-picture career,” he said. “For two years after M-G-M put me under contract, I pulled guns on people or hit women in the face. Then M-G-M assigned me to a bad part in DANCING LADY, with Joan Crawford—a picture I didn’t like. But as bad as the part was, it wasn’t as bad as my health.”

“What was wrong with you?” I asked.

“I’d lost a lot of weight. They’d been working me hard, and I was tired. I told myself, ‘If I have a few operations, that will take care of my health and the part in DANCING LADY too.’ I had my appendix and my tonsils out, but it didn’t take care of everything, for M-G-M was mad at me. For some strange reason they thought I’d taken evasive action to avoid their picture. They bided their time during the eight or nine weeks I was in the hospital. Then the very day after I got out they called me in and said, ‘We’re sending you over to Columbia Pictures on a loan-out.’”

“Was that punishment?” I asked.

“At that time Columbia was on the wrong side of the tracks,” Gable said, “and being sent there was a this-will-teach-you-a-lesson deal. I didn’t know anybody at Columbia, but I’d been told, ‘Report to Frank Capra,’ so I reported to him.

“Frank is a nice guy, and he was tolerant of my attitude, which, to put it mildly, wasn’t good. He didn’t know I felt that I had just been swept out of M-G-M’s executive offices with the morning’s trash. I took home the script of IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, and I read it. I had a couple of drinks and thought, It can’t be that good. I’d better look at it later. So I had dinner and read it again. It was still good. The next morning, I called Frank and said, ‘I want to apologize for my behavior yesterday. I was rude, and I had no reason to be. You’ve got a fine script. Why you’ve chosen me to be in it I don’t know. You’ve never seen me play comedy on the screen.’”

“Did he ever tell you why he chose you,” I asked.

“I don’t know to this day,” Gable said. “I told him, ‘If you think I can do it, I’ll try, but after three or four days, if you don’t like what you see on the screen, you can call the whole thing o and there’ll be no hard feelings.’ We worked a few days; Frank came to me and said, ‘We’ll have no trouble.’”

In the end, the lm’s female star, Claudette Colbert, and Gable himself won Academy Awards for the year’s best performance by an actress and actor. The picture itself won the award as the outstanding production of 1934. Capra won an Oscar for his direction. Writer Bob Riskin won a similar award for the year’s best screenplay.

Other Roles Nearly Missed

“I didn’t want to be in the second picture you mentioned, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, because it was a story about
a crew of Englishmen, and since I obviously wasn’t English, I felt I was badly miscast.

“For a while there was a deadlock. It was broken by Kate Corbaley, who headed M-G-M’s story department. God rest her soul—she’s dead now—but she was a wonderfully kind, white-haired, brilliant woman. She knew I was giving Irving [Thalberg, one of the film’s producers,] a bad time, and she didn’t like civil war in the studio, so she came to me and said, ‘I think you’re making a mistake. I’ve read this story, and I can’t see anybody else playing Fletcher Christian but you.’

“‘Not me, Kate,’ I said stubbornly. “I’d have to wear knee britches and a three-cornered hat. That’s more than I can stomach.’

“‘Don’t be such a mule,’ she told me. ‘Listen.’ So I listened, and after I listened, I said, ‘O.K., let’s go,’ although I still didn’t like it.”

“Did you feel better about it as you went along?” I asked.

“Not me,” he said. “I told everybody who’d listen, ‘I stink in it.’ I didn’t realize I was wrong for several months. But after the studio previewed MUTINY, I got a cablegram from Thalberg: ‘The movie is wonderful. We’re proud of it. You’ll like yourself in it.’ I had to believe Irving because he was a guy you could believe. He didn’t kid himself or anybody else.”

“I don’t see how you could have avoided playing Rhett Butler in GONE WITH THE WIND,” I said. “The whole country cast you in it long before the cameras began to roll.”

“That was exactly the trouble,” Gable clarified. “Not only that but it seemed to me that the public’s casting of me was being guided by an elaborate publicity campaign.”

I disagreed. “That casting was a natural thing,” I said. “No studio or producer controlled it. I sat in any number of bull sessions in friends’ homes while we cast that picture. Nobody said we ought to cast it; we just did. And the way we nonmovie employees cast it was the way it was eventually cast on the screen. Almost everybody agreed on you as Rhett Butler, Leslie Howard as Ashley and Olivia DeHaviland as Melanie.”

“My thinking about it was this,” Gable told me, “that novel was one of the all-time best sellers. People didn’t just read the book; they lived it. They visualized its characters, and they formed passionate convictions about them in their minds. You say a lot of people thought I ought to play Rhett Butler, but I didn’t know how many had formed that opinion.”

“Enough,” I said.

“There are never enough,” he told me. “But one thing was certain: They had a preconceived idea of the kind of Rhett Butler they were going to see, and suppose I came up empty?”

I’d never heard that phrase before, so he explained, “I thought, All of them have already played Rhett in their minds; suppose I don’t come up with what they already have me doing. Then I’m in trouble. If they saw one thing I did that didn’t agree with their remembrance of the book, they’d howl. I’d done the same thing when I’d wanted to be a Shakespearean actor. I’d taken a copy of HAMLET or RICHARD II or OTHELLO to the theater with me, and I’d checked on the Shakespearean actors. I’d say, ‘Why that — missed an “and” or ‘He left out a “but.” He can’t do that.’”

“I’ve seen GONE WITH THE WIND three times,” I told him, “and I had the feeling you enjoyed it.”

“It was a challenge,” he said. “I enjoyed it from that point of view. But my chin was out to there. I knew what people expected of me and suppose I didn’t produce?”

“But you did produce,” I said.

“Maybe so,” he said noncommittally.

“When did you finally get it through your head you’d done all right?”

He said, “The night we opened in Atlanta, I said, ‘I guess this movie is in.’”

“How did you figure that?” I asked. “Did you enjoy it yourself or did you gauge it by other people’s reactions?”

“Other people’s reactions,” he said.

I said, “Have you ever considered retirement? What do you think about your future?”

“That’s a logical question, and I’ll give you a logical answer,” he said. “When the public doesn’t want me any longer, I’ll quit.”

“How will you know?” I asked.

“I don’t want to stay around long enough to bore people, and I won’t. They have their own way of expressing themselves, and unless an actor is looking the other way, he can see the warning. But as long as the people still go to see my films, I’ll do my best to entertain them.”

Click to read the complete interview with Clark Gable from the October 5, 1957, issue of the Post.

This article and other features about the stars of Tinseltown can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Golden Age of Hollywood, which can be ordered here. 

Gable Feared Failure as Rhett Butler

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.”

Joe Lucky
Read J.P. McEvoy’s interview of Clark Gable, “Joe Lucky”, from the pages of the May 4, 1940 issue of the Post.

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.

Call of the Wild (1935)

Movie Poster for 1935's film Call of the Wild
© United Artists

Jack London’s “Call of the Wild” was first serialized in the Post in 1903. Later published as a novel, it’s now an American classic that has been adapted to film no less than seven times since 1908.

The 1935 adaptation, starring Clark Gable as Jack Thornton, Loretta Young, and Frank Conroy, is widely considered the best adaptation thus far, despite its broad interpretation of London’s original story, and earns a 3.5 out of 4 stars from Turner Classic Movie’s Leonard Maltin. Gable is portrayed as the story’s protagonist, relegating Buck, the sled-dog-turned-St. Bernard, to a minor character who does little more than help Jack win a lucrative bet and serve as the catalyst for a romance between Gable and Young’s characters. Despite its popularity, the movie was never nominated for a single award.

In an ironic twist of life imitating art, Gable and Young had an affair on set, resulting in a hidden pregnancy and the birth of their much-speculated about love child, Judy Lewis, who confirmed the long-standing rumor in a 2004 memoir.