A weekly feature in which my four-year-old son is let loose on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Los Angeles, and chooses a star from among the more than 2,500 honorees. His “random” picks sometimes reveal unexplained connections such as the summer day in 2012 when he sat down on the star of actress Celeste Holm and refused to budge. We later learned that the Oscar-winning actress had died only hours earlier.
It was a weekend of loss among the stars of classic Hollywood. Screen legend Peter O’Toole, star of many wonderful films but most famous for his brilliant performance in Lawrence of Arabia, died at the age of 81; film noir queen Audrey Totter, who appeared in films such as The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Unsuspected, died at the age of 95; and Oscar-winning actress Joan Fontaine, star of such classics as Rebecca, Suspicion and Letter from an Unknown Woman, died at 96. Of those three, only Joan Fontaine has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But Charlie bypassed it for one directly across the street on the 1600 block of Vine Street — his choice this week was a contemporary of Miss Fontaine’s but someone she never appeared with on screen, even though her sister and most of her co-stars did: the King himself, Clark Gable.
Clark Gable’s films spanned four decades and are among the most beloved movies ever to come out of Hollywood — from It Happened One Night with Claudette Colbert, for which he won his only Best Actor Oscar, to Red Dust with Jean Harlow, Test Pilot with Myrna Loy, Idiot’s Delight with Norma Shearer, Boom Town with Spencer Tracy, Adventure with Greer Garson, Teacher’s Pet with Doris Day, and his final and some say best performance in The Misfits with Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift.
In his most famous role, Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, Gable appeared with Joan Fontaine’s sister, Olivia de Havilland (still with us at 97), who played Melanie Wilkes. The scenes between de Havilland and Gable following the death of Rhett and Scarlett’s daughter, Bonnie Blue (is a spoiler alert necessary for a well-known film that is 75 years old?) are among the most emotionally powerful moments in the film. Gable’s co-star, Vivien Leigh, who played Scarlett O’Hara, was married to Laurence Olivier, who was off a few blocks away in Culver City with Joan Fontaine shooting Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, the film that made a star out of the actress.
Of the three actors who left us this weekend, Clark Gable only appeared with Audrey Totter, first in Victor Fleming’s Adventure in 1945 (Totter had a small, uncredited role) and then in Mervyn LeRoy’s Any Number Can Play in 1949. This was several years after Gable lost his beloved wife, Carole Lombard, in a plane crash. He began seeing Totter and some thought the two were heading toward marriage. “Yes, we dated,” Totter admitted years later. “He was a tremendous guy, very witty, with a huge romantic aura. But all the girls he dated looked a little like his late wife Carole Lombard. He was still in love with her. So we settled for being great friends.”
Gable married five times but it was his marriage to Lombard that was the happiest. The two met while filming No Man of Her Own in 1932 but both were married to others at the time, Lombard to actor William Powell and Gable to his second wife, Ria Langham. But by 1936 Gable and Lombard were inseparable. It was Lombard who encouraged him to take the role of Rhett in Gone With the Wind which he was reluctant to do. During the making of that film, his divorce to Langham finally came through and he and Carole were married on March 29, 1939. The couple bought a ranch in Encino where they raised chickens and horses. On January 16, 1942, Lombard was returning home from a successful World War II Bond tour when her small plane crashed into the mountains near Las Vegas, killing all 22 passengers. Following his wife’s tragic death, Gable enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces and flew five combat missions. Although he continued making films after the war, many of his friends said he was never quite the same.
Years later, Gable married Kay Williams who got pregnant when the actor was 59 years old. But following the physically taxing and emotionally difficult filming of The Misfits, Clark Gable suffered a heart attack and he died ten days later on November 16, 1960. John Clark Gable was born four months after his father’s death. In the end, however, it turned out that the boy was not the screen legend’s only child. It was later revealed that Judy Lewis, the adopted daughter of actress Loretta Young, was actually the biological child Young had after having an affair with Clark Gable during the making of The Call of the Wild in 1935. Young managed to keep her daughter’s true identity a secret for more than half a century even though many in Hollywood noticed the strong resemblance between Judy and the actor.
Clark Gable will be remembered as one of the most beloved actors in the history of the movies, by fans and former colleagues alike. Frequent co-star Joan Crawford declared that Gable was a king wherever he went. “He walked like one, he behaved like one, and he was the most masculine man that I have ever met in my life.” Actor Robert Taylor called his friend a “great, great guy and certainly one of the great stars of all times, if not the greatest. I sincerely doubt that there will ever be another like Clark Gable; he was one of a kind.”