How a Country Bumpkin Turned Into the 'King of Hollywood'
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it wasn’t only female stars who received a makeover in early Hollywood.
By Sean Braswell
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In 1924, a 23-year-old ruffian from small-town Ohio named Billy Gable moved to Hollywood, where he worked as a studio extra and as a garage mechanic while he pursued his dreams of acting. The deck was stacked against Billy’s Hollywood dreams: He was lanky and somewhat effeminate, with big ears and unattractive teeth. His acting résumé consisted mostly of a handful of theatrical productions in Portland, Oregon, where he had also worked as a logger and necktie salesman.
Ten years later, Billy — now the über-masculine Clark Gable — won an Oscar for best actor and was anointed the “King of Hollywood,” a title he would hold for more than three decades. Gable starred in some of Hollywood’s best films, including It Happened One Night, Mutiny on the Bounty and, of course, Gone With the Wind. But stardom itself did not happen one night. It was the result of a lengthy personal and physical transformation, one that took years — and many attempts — to perfect.
Louis B. Mayer told Gable that he was “too elephant-eared and unattractive” to be a leading man.
Clark Gable’s makeover began before he arrived in Hollywood. His first wife, Josephine Dillon, who was also his acting coach and 18 years his senior, took on the flawed but handsome young Ohioan as a sort of Pygmalion project. She taught him elocution and helped him develop a lower, more masculine-sounding voice. Dillon also paid to fix his teeth … for the first time.
Gable rewarded Dillon’s investment in him by leaving her to marry another woman — a wealthy Texas divorcée named Ria Langham, who was also almost two decades his senior. Langham’s support (and deep pockets) helped her young husband get established on Broadway. In Manhattan, Gable also blossomed into a suave urbanite who wore Brooks Brothers suits and derby hats. “Clark Gable’s first two wives,” says Anne Helen Petersen, author of Scandals of Classic Hollywood, “were both older women and were pretty instrumental in changing the type of man that he was both physically and the way that he comported himself.”
Still, once back in Hollywood in the early 1930s, Gable struggled to break through. The legendary MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer told Gable that he was “too elephant-eared and unattractive” to be a leading man. And so for years Gable played mostly minor villains and thugs, from an ex-con turned cowboy in The Painted Desert to a murderous chauffeur in Night Nurse. But moviegoers, especially females ones, responded to his rugged charisma. MGM soon changed course and the studio began to groom Gable as a star — and continue the transformation begun by the actor’s wives.
Gable was a tall, physically imposing man, and the studio set about crafting an image for him as a sort of gentleman lumberjack. MGM fit Gable for dentures, restyled his hair, plucked his eyebrows and sent him to the gym. They even tried pinning his oversize ears back with tape. Gable pulled the tape off, informing his studio masters that he would return to the theater if they didn’t leave his “flops,” as he called them, alone. The flops stayed. Instead, he grew his hair longer and cameramen were instructed to film him from the sides and avoid shooting him straight on.
MGM gave Gable’s masculinity yet another boost. The studio revamped his wardrobe, taught him how to fish and be an outdoorsman and encouraged him to drive sports cars, not the beat-up pickups he preferred. “Gable was a complete studio creation,” says E.J. Fleming, the author of several books on early Hollywood. “The Clark Gable that everybody saw in the movies was the antithesis of the real Clark Gable.”
The renovations worked. And when Gable’s first batch of films as a leading man came out in 1931, moviegoers had never seen anyone like him. On screen, Gable was tough, but tender, and almost everyone responded to him. Female fans quickly fell in love with what Petersen calls his “swarthy, unshaven masculinity,” while male fans began emulating his brash, macho style. Liberty magazine dubbed him the “Great God Gable,” observing that “a year ago not a soul in Hollywood had ever heard his name. Today he ranks ahead of every established favorite.”
And, eight years later Gable, as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, walked into the evening mist, and film immortality, after uttering perhaps the most famous — and masculine — line in Hollywood history.