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A rough life for Hollywood king
Only one star has ever been described as the “king of Hollywood” and that title was bestowed on Clark Gable back in 1938.
Clark started off as an extra in 1931 at $150 a week, but before the decade was out, was earning $7,500 a week as the top star at MGM.
He had come from a poor background and his mother died when he was just a few months old. His father was an oil worker and Clark joined him as a teenager, but soon decided acting might be an easier lifestyle.
Clark was to marry five times during his life and the first two wives were much older than him and helped to establish him in the world of showbiz.
In the early Thirties he rapidly began to establish himself as a screen idol and was not adverse to having affairs with his leading ladies. One such encounter with actress Loretta Young resulted in her giving birth to a daughter, but it was all hushed up by the studio as such a scandal in those days could have ruined their careers. Clark never acknowledged his daughter .
Career-wise he scored a big hit in 1934 with It Happened One Night, which netted him an Oscar but it came about by pure chance. Clark had been annoying the studio bosses at MGM and as a punishment they had loaned him out to then poverty row Columbia Studios to make the film.
Back at MGM he enjoyed further success in Mutiny On The Bounty, although it was not a favourite of his, as he considered the character of Fletcher Christian a bit effeminate and feared Charles Laughton as Bligh would steal every scene.
Clark’s biggest hit was when he was cast in Gone With The Wind by popular demand and it propelled him to super stardom. He was reluctant to accept the part, fearing he would not live up to public expectation and that it was really a woman’s picture. However, the result was screen immortality and even 73 years later is considered the most successful movie of all time.
Clark also bore a lifetime grudge against MGM for not having given him a bonus for all the money the film made on release and in subsequent years.
One of his co-stars from the film, Olivia De Havilland, told me: “Clark was insecure and uneasy with his screen image. After filming we met once for a celebration meal, but we were at different studios and we never met again.”
The film was a big hit at the Oscars, but ironically Clark missed out as best actor to British actor Robert Donat for his role in Goodbye Mr Chips.
During the early Forties he enjoyed a short but happy marriage to fellow star Carole Lombard, but she was tragically killed in an air crash and Clark enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He subsequently spent part of the Second World War based in England.
In the early Fifties Clark came to MGM in Borehamwood to make his final three films for the company, the most famous of which was Mogambo, co-starring Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly.
One retired MGM cleaning lady once told me: “I used to clean his dressing room. He knew I had a crush on him so to send himself up he said: ‘Do you want to see the famous Gable smile?’ He took out his false teeth and said: ‘There they are’.”
Gable returned to Hollywood to finish some post production knowing his contract was not being renewed after many years at MGM. On his last day not a single executive came to say goodbye and that job was left to the gatekeeper.
After some years freelancing, he was cast opposite Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits in 1960. It was a difficult film but he was proud that he got the chance to act and to be his age on screen.
Sadly, within days of shooting the last scene with Marilyn he suffered a heart attack while changing a car tyre. Years of heavy drinking, smoking and being overweight had done him no favours.
Ten days later while in a hospital bed reading a magazine he died from another attack. The King of Hollywood was dead aged only 59. Ironically the son he had always wanted was born shortly after and Clark was buried next to Carole Lombard.
In this section
- The night I met the Dam Busters
- Looking back to One Million Years BC
- The wages of sin? £6,000 a time for a Hammer Horror flick and £1,000 for commanding the Death Star
- From Borehamwood to Hollywood
- Before they were famous
- Staying one step ahead of the obituary writers
- Roast beef, the Clitheroe Kid, pea soupers - and only two television channels?
- Remembering Richard Griffiths, The Devil Rides Out and the days of 'straight to video' films
- No need for big budgets - all you need is a good story
- The day I proved James Bond wrong - you can beat big business