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Gable the gallant

Source: The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, Australia), 02-27-2001, pp 030.

Who can forget that famous line: ``Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn''? It was spoken as Clark Gable's macho Rhett Butler stepped out of Scarlett O'Hara's stormy life in Gone With The Wind. Men wanted to emulate him; women wanted him to woo them. When, in the film Broadway Melody in 1938, Judy Garland sang ``Dear Mr Gable, you made me love you'', she was expressing the dreams of several million women.

Not that Gable was destined to head to Hollywood. His father wanted Clark to follow him into farming and oil drilling, but Gable had a mind of his own.

Born 100 years ago this month, in Akron, Ohio, he left school at 14 and worked in a tyre factory and one evening saw his first play.

He was hooked on acting immediately. There was no stopping his ambition -- even though his first ``role'' was an unpaid job as a call boy in the local theatre.

But just as he started to get small bit parts, his father took him to the Oklahoma oilfields. He hated his job there but persisted with it until, reaching adulthood at 21, he left his father to join a travelling troupe.

When this folded up he was left penniless in Oregon and worked as a lumberjack and sold neckties before joining another travelling company.

The company was headed by a veteran actor, Josephine Dillon. Although he was 14 years her junior, she became his mentor and coached him.

They married in late 1924 and he began to get small parts in various films but his career ground to a halt and they divorced in 1930. He returned to the travelling companies and finally found himself with parts in two Broadway plays.

Lionel Barrymore -- one of the famous Barrymore family -- got him screen tests with MGM and then Warner Bros. Both turned him down, with Warner producer Darryl Zannuck saying his ears were too big and he looked like a monkey.

Finally he found a job with Pathe and he played the villain in the Western The Painted Desert. Within a year he was signed with MGM and he played supporting parts -- often as a rogue or a villain.

He made his first major mark when he played the second leading role in A Free Soul with Leslie Howard, whom he completely overshadowed. And now the celebrated career and the birth of a star began.

In 1931 he not only appeared in a dozen films, and was recognised as MGM's leading star, but he married a wealthy Texan socialite, Rhea Langham. Again, she was considerably older than he was.

Three years later, Gable was voicing dislike of the rough, tough roles in which he was becoming typecast. So he was lent to Columbia where he made his first outstanding film, It Happened One Night.

Initially, he was reluctant to be part of the minor project, as was his co-star Claudette Colbert. She was so convinced that she had no chance for an Oscar that she fled by train, only to have to be escorted back to the ceremony with police outriders.

Gable echoed her success for the same film -- the only Oscar he won outright but he was nominated for best actor for Fletcher Christian in Mutiny On The Bounty (MGM, 1935) and Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind (MGM, 1939).

And in 1939, Gable -- by now known as the King of Hollywood -- married the love of his life, Carole Lombard, while he was still filming Gone With The Wind.

They were soon considered one of Hollywood's happiest couples but tragedy loomed.

In 1942, a plane crashed into a mountain near Las Vegas, killing all on board, including Lombard.

The widower was swamped by female fans and did end up with a total of five wives. But Gable never recovered from the loss of the witty, intelligent Carole Lombard.

With her death his life and personality changed. He had also lost his mother-in-law and a close friend in the flight and only his determination held him and his grieving companions from falling apart.

Even as a bereaved widower, who shook with sobs after Carole's death, his diary was packed with the names of Hollywood's leading ladies.

But his personality changed and his doctors begged him not to drink so much -- mainly Scotch. He suffered some kind of a breakdown where even getting out of bed in the morning was an effort.

But gradually, after attempting suicide on his ranch by riding a high-powered motorbike, he began to get his life together again.

Perhaps to bury his grief, Gable joined the military on August 12, 1942. He became Private Gable, a gunner with the US Army Air Corps.

He applied for a commission. After gruelling training -- he was by then 42 -- he was made Second Lieutenant Clarke Gable.

In the summer of 1943, he arrived in Britain as a captain. He was based in a Midlands air base, Polebrook.

At first his fame led fellow officers to shun him but when they realised he was prepared to muck in with the best of them, the atmosphere changed. He still had to overcome the stigma, however, of the top brass basking in his fame.

Hitler, who soon learned the identity of this apparently gung-ho new airman, ordered Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering to catch Gable. The prize announced was $5000 (a vast sum then), instant promotion and extended leave.

But it was, despite many dangerous missions Gable undertook, a failed operation for the Germans.

Gable was fatalistic about the chance of being shot down and taken prisoner-of-war. He maintained there was no point in being issued with false identification papers and escape kit.

He muttered that, if he did have to bale out: ``How could I manage to hide with this well-known mug?''

He added that there was no way he was going to be placed in a cage like a monkey and, for this reason, he refused to wear a safety kit.

With his world-wide fame, he was feted everywhere he went, while lesser warriors such as John Wayne chose to keep their careers -- and their skins -- intact in Hollywood.

He once narrowly missed death when a 20mm shell crashed through the fuselage and knocked the heel off his boot.

He also became a familiar figure among the English lasses when he tootled around the countryside on his motorbike.

But he was still the hero of Gone With The Wind and buttons from his uniforms were often neatly cut off as souvenirs.

When he could relax away from the base, he chose such old Hollywood friends as David Niven.

After the war, his last film was The Misfits, directed by John Huston, co-starring Marilyn Monroe and written by her husband, Arthur Miller.

But Gable did not warm to Monroe and her unprofessional habits, including being frequently late.

His stressful life led to a coronary and his greatest comfort was listening to the heartbeat of the baby that his fifth wife, Kay Spreckles, was carrying.

But he died on November 16, 1960, weeks before his son, John Gable, was born. The father was buried beside his beloved Carole Lombard.

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