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Monday, January 5, 2015

THE REEL REALS: Clark Gable



Clark Gable
The continuing fan worship of Clark Gable is so obvious that it seems a boring choice to even investigate the actor. He's not one of the forgotten ones, those whose work has been swept under the rug of time. He remains very much alive. He's one of the big ones. Perhaps the biggest. While Bogie is often hailed by general consensus as the most popular film actor of all time, it is Gable that was and is King. Perhaps this is because, despite the occasional ne'er do wells and scalawags that he would play, there was always an underlying elegance, intelligence, class, and a level of sophistication that enhanced and somehow did not contradict his down and dirty personifications. In conjunction, his regular guy transformation into a cinematic God made him mythic-- desirable yet relatable; down to earth yet elite. He placed on a pedestal, but he looked down on no one.

Clark Gable was indeed born Clark Gable of Cadiz, OH, but it would take time for him to make this name synonymous with silver screen royalty. Losing his mother in his youth and having little in common with his father, his life would be marked by both a perpetual quest for maternal comfort-- which initially drew him to older women-- and a determination to recreate himself as a masculine force of whom his father could be proud. Clark, you see, had a poet's sentiment. He possessed an immediate adoration of literature, but his brewing internalism of unanswered questions and a restless need for discovery would in time be calculatingly hidden by the He-man persona he borrowed from Hollywood father figure
Victor Fleming. Again, the duality, the idea that he was hiding secrets, gave him a seductive power on the screen.

For women, he was the perfect challenge. He was the guy who didn't need anyone and wasn't going to fall for any "dame" nor be owned by one. At least, until his heart fell prey to
Jean Harlow, Vivien Leigh or Joan Crawford. Viewers fantasized about being the woman chosen to unlock his secret depths and know the vulnerable child he hid so well. Men appreciated his cocky attitude, envied his access to beautiful women, and appreciated the sensitivity that he would casually and almost accidentally reveal. It gave them permission to house the same emotions that they too caged for appearance's sake. Gable, all around, made it all right to be a man and everything that meant.

Of course, he had a little help from MGM when it came to filing down his rough edges. With gold-capped teeth that he would have to paint white, thick eyebrows, and prominent ears, the studio at first wanted nothing to do with him. Gable's passion for an almost spiritual adventure in the world of art compelled him to accept a free makeover-- new teeth and all-- and the gamble paid off. He never forgot the clown beneath the paint, however, and it is the concerted construction of the new and improved "King Clark Gable" that led him to doubt his talent and distrust his success. It wasn't until he wed Carole Lombard, another self-acknowledged clown, that he allowed himself to have a little more fun. Sadly, the loss of her in her ill-fated plane crash during WWII pushed him deeper than ever into his mistrustful, self-imposed isolation.

Hardened by the tragedy, Gable would never be the same. His acting matured with his life experience, and when one compares the the swindling "Ace Wilfong" from A Free Soul with the mammoth embodiment of "Rhett Butler" in Gone with the Wind with his nakedly raw performance in the
Huston/Miller late bloomer The Misfits, his intricacy as a man can be seen to grow, change, and intensify with each film. Cockiness turns to confidence turns to humility. Gable grew up on celluloid, as many actors and actresses of his time did. His life, therefore, is the story of Hollywood itself.

There is much to admire in his film work from his brutal and painful confessions in GWTW, to his conflicted egoism and desire in Red Dust & Mogambo, to his gravitational pull as a smooth, accidental comedian in It Happened One Night. He never thought much of himself, no; but he was something spectacular. His work, his personality, his desire to give of himself and seek truth, freedom, and sanctuary-- though he would never admit it-- has afforded us a rich kingdom of cinematic adventure. Easily embarrassed in reality, on the screen he always owned it-- the frame, the film, the fans. Indeed, the King ruled. Sorry, "rules." Now and forever.

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