By Steve Starr
The handsome movie idol chartered a plane to search for his gorgeous wife who fell from the sky with her mother, press agent, twelve army pilots, three passengers and crew. Climbing through a snow covered mountain, he found her three days later.
William Clark Goebel was born February 1, 1901, in Cadiz, Ohio. His frail 32-year-old mother died nine months later on November 14, and, while his father was stricken with grief, little William was put into the care of his maternal grandparents. When Goebel was two, his father remarried and reclaimed his child, who had been pampered beyond belief. Goebel’s stepmother loved him, and constantly nurtured his artistic side.
By the age of fourteen, Goebel was six-feet-tall, and at sixteen, he quit school and accompanied his best friend to Akron, Ohio, where they worked in a tire factory. After seeing the play Bird Of Paradise, the highly impressed young man decided to become an actor, and took an unpaid backstage job as a call-boy. When his beloved stepmother died in 1920, he accompanied his father to Tulsa, Oklahoma where they both worked in the oil fields. William finally got sick of the intense twelve hour days, seven days a week, and primitive living conditions, and he announced to his father he was leaving. At the end of their heated argument they both swore to never see each other again.
In 1924, Goebel was working with a touring stock company, and at the end of their tour near Portland, Oregon, he proposed to fellow member Franz Dorfler. Franz let Willaim live at her parents farm, but not wishing that they spend their future in such a place, she encouraged him to contact acting teacher Josephine Dillon, who later told him that if he put himself completely into her hands, she would make him a star. In 1924, Goebel dumped his fiancee and followed Dillon to Hollywood where she opened The Dillon Stock Company.
Though Dillon financially supported Goebel, he found work as a telephone repairman to help pay the bills. It was later reported that they met when he came to fix her phone. Goebel soon married the plain, plump Dillon, fourteen years his senior, the first of his five wives, who groomed and coached her young husband in speech and movement, paid to have his teeth fixed, and used her contacts to find him extra work in silent films. The tough, down-to-earth type of man was being sought after for movies as a contrast to the collegiate-type of man which was so popular in the 1920's, and Goebel suited the bill. While Goebel’s career built up momentum in theatre roles and as an extra in silent movies, his marriage with Josephine deteriorated.
Performing in a Houston play, Clark met wealthy Texas socialite Ria Langham, who was seventeen years his senior. They moved to New York where Goebel appeared in various shows while they lived on her money in luxury. With Langham, Gable learned the mannerisms and social graces of the very rich. When Gable landed a role in a play in Los Angeles, Langham followed him.
In 1930, the newly christened Clark Gable was signed by MGM's Irving Thalberg, who cast him in his first talkie role in The Painted Desert (1931). Next, Clark was cast opposite Thalberg’s movie star wife Norma Shearer in A Free Soul (1931). That same year, Shearer's jealous rival Joan Crawford asked Gable to be cast opposite her in Dance, Fools, Dance (1931), which was the first of eight films the beautiful couple made together. Their spectacular screen chemistry continued into real life where they had an on-and-off affair for years.
In 1931, the masculine, swaggering Clark divorced Josephine, who bitterly and promptly revealed his shortcomings to the Hollywood press. One of the conditions of their divorce was that Gable not marry anyone for at least one year. Later, Dillon blackmailed MGM into giving her a monthly check so she would not tell the press more about Gable’s life. Gable’s movie contract contained a morality clause, and he was told he must marry Langham.
Glowing star, platinum-blonde Jean Harlow, brazen and braless in her movies, was a perfect match with the rough, unshaven Clark Gable when they made love in Red Dust (1932) and Gable became a star equally admired by both male and female moviegoers. Living as a star, he insisted his hand-made Deusenberg be created one foot longer than friend and rival Gary Cooper's model. In 1933, Gable’s father, now a refugee of the dustbowl, hammered by the depression, showed up at the gates of MGM filthy and sickly, begging to see his son.
Once, refusing an assignment, MGM punished Clark by farming him out to the lesser Columbia Studios to accept a role they thought would demean him in It Happened One Night (1934), opposite Claudette Colbert. The picture turned out to be a phenomenal success, winning the Oscar for Best Picture, and earning Gable his first and only Oscar for Best Actor.
Other films with Gable include Night Nurse (1931) with Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell, Susan Lennox: Her Rise and Fall (1931), with Greta Garbo, Dancing Lady (1933) with Joan Crawford, Chained (1934) with Joan Crawford, Manhattan Melodrama (1934) with Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy, Mutiny On The Bounty (1935) with Charles Laughton, Wife Vs. Secretary (1936) with Myrna Loy, San Francisco (1936) with Jeanette McDonald, Cain and Mabel (1936) with Marion Davies, Idiot's Delight (1938) with Norma Shearer, Boom Town (1940) with Hedy LaMarr and Claudette Colbert, Strange Cargo (1940) with Joan Crawford, Saratoga (1937) with Jean Harlow in her last role, and Honky Tonk (1941) with Lana Turner.
In Call Of The Wild (1935), Gable had an affair with his beautiful co-star Loretta Young, who became pregnant. Loretta, devoutly Catholic, retired from films for a year and later "adopted" her own pretty baby girl who grew up to look exactly like her famous father, and who also inherited his famous ears which Loretta later paid to have surgically pinned back. Loretta claimed she had fallen in love with the child while decorating a Christmas tree at a San Diego orphanage. When Loretta and Clark were recast years later in Key To The City (1950), during its filming, Loretta was rushed to a hospital suffering a miscarriage.
Gable’s popular and obvious casting as Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind (1939) made him forever legendary, and he was often referred to as "The King Of Hollywood." It is reported that Gable was responsible for the firing of the first director of Gone With The Wind , George Cukor, because Cukor knew Gable had let himself be sexually serviced by Cukor's friend, handsome star William Haines, when Gable was still climbing the ladder early in his career. During the making of Gone With The Wind, Clark divorced Ria and married movie star Carole Lombard, with whom he finally found true love. Clark Gable was the most popular star in the world, and was highly regarded and loved by his fellow actors and associates.
Shortly after the United States entered World War II, Gable, who was chairman of the Hollywood Victory Committee, reneged on a bond-selling tour, and appointed his beautiful, popular wife to take his place. On January 16, 1942, returning from a successful trip in which her fame helped sell $2,107,513 in bonds, Carole's plane crashed into deep snow on the Table Rock Mountains, only thirty minutes after a refueling stop in Las Vegas.
Clark chartered a plane that took him to the mountains where he personally climbed through the snow to search for his beloved wife. Devastated, Gable joined the Army Air Corps as a buck private, and soon served as a tail-gunner in fighter planes. Gable was also the favorite film star of Adolph Hitler, and the German madman offered his troops a hefty reward to capture the actor and bring him back alive and unscathed.
After the war, Gable returned to Hollywood to star in Adventure (1946) with Greer Garson, and The Hucksters (1947) with Deborah Kerr. In 1949, he married a woman who resembled Carole Lombard, once married to Douglas Fairbanks Sr. until his death, Lady Sylvia Ashley, who tired of living under the shadow of her famous husband and divorced him in 1952. Clark reprised his own role, twenty years later, in the remake of Red Dust, called Mogambo (1953) this time co-starring Ava Gardner. Clark continued his film career with Soldier of Fortune (1955), The Tall men (1955), and Teacher's Pet (1958), opposite Doris Day.
Marilyn Monroe was thrilled when she learned she would work opposite her childhood idol Clark Gable, who was equally thrilled to play her aging cowboy lover in The Misfits (1960), a prestigious production written by Monroe’s famous playwright husband, Arthur Miller.
Gable worked vigorously to lose weight on a crash diet. He also worked diligently in his stressful role alongside the younger Montgomery Clift, and the eternally late for work and very trying Monroe who was feuding with Miller. Gable insisted on doing his own stunts, which included his being dragged through the dust by a horse in the scorching Nevada heat.
Several re-takes left him badly bruised and bloody. When the movie was completed, he returned home to his fifth wife, former fashion model, stock actress and socialite Kathleen Spreckles, who was pregnant with Clark's first legitimate child. Clark told an associate, "Christ, I'm glad this picture's finished. She (Marilyn) damn near gave me a heart attack."
Two days later, while Clark was looking forward to a calm and peaceful future, he suffered a mild coronary thrombosis as he changed a tractor tire. Seeming to recover in a hospital, he suffered a second attack and died November 16, 1960.
Marilyn always blamed herself for his demise. Five months later, Kay Gable gave birth to John Clark Gable, who grew up to be a racecar driver and sometime movie actor. The Misfits also turned out to be Marilyn Monroe's last film. She died two years later in 1962, and Montgomery Clift died in 1966.
Clark Gable's last words on a movie screen, uttered in The Misfits, were, "Just head for the big star straight on. The highways under it take us right home."
Steve Starr is the author of Picture Perfect-Art Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications. A photographer, designer, artist, and movie star historian, Starr is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in original Art Deco photo frames and artifacts, and celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2007. His personal collection of over 950 gorgeous frames is filled with photos of Hollywood's most elegant stars.
Steve Starr's column, STARRLIGHT, about movie stars of the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's, appears in various publications, including Entertainment Magazine Online-www.EMOL.org/reporters/Starr, the Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine, and the Windy City Times.
You may email Steve at [email protected], and visit www.SteveStarrStudios.com where you can enter The Starrlight Room and view part of his collection, read STARRLIGHT stories, and enjoy many of the letters, photos, and autographs he has received from his favorite luminaries.
Steve Starr is a Nightlife Photographer for Clubline Magazine, a photo contributor to various periodicals, and the House Photographer for the gorgeous Rumba Restaurant and Nightclub, 351 West Hubbard Street, Chicago. STARRGAZERS-Radiant Digital Photography by Steve Starr is available for portraits and events. Phone 773-463-8017 for further information.
Photo of Steve Starr in Chicago, September 2, 2007, by Patrick Hipskind
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