Clark Gable: Signature Collection
Warner Home Video, $59.98, not rated.
Is it possible to be a great star without appearing in very many great movies? Clark Gable is probably the test of that proposition: he’s one of the few major box office stars of the 1930’s who might produce a glimmer of recognition from a contemporary audience, but after Gone With the Wind and perhaps It Happened One Night, most people would be stuck naming many more of his films.
What would Gable be without Gone With the Wind, or for that matter, what would Gone With the Wind be without Gable? It’s his leering masculinity that gives Margaret Mitchell’s weepy epic the balance and the ballast it needs to keep it from becoming the world’s longest Harlequin romance, and it’s David O. Selznick’s film that finally gives Gable a social context and a personal history to anchor his free-floating libido in something solidly dramatic.
Gable’s curse, of course, was that he spent most of his career under contract to MGM, and being a team player, never seemed to balk at the unimaginative, repetitive assignments he was given. A new box set from Warner Home Video, Clark Gable: The Signature Collection, brings together six Gable films, all but one (John Ford’s 1953 Mogambo) from his prewar period of greatest fame. (Gable spent World War II in the Army Air Corps, after his wife, Carole Lombard, was killed in a plane crash on her way home from a war bond drive.)
And while Gable’s sexual magnetism is still evident, even in a piece of cheese like Clarence Brown’s 1936 Wife vs. Secretary, there’s little in that film or the set’s remaining four (Robert Z. Leonard’s 1933 Dancing Lady, Tay Garnett’s 1935 China Seas, W. S. Van Dyke’s 1936 San Francisco, and Jack Conway’s 1940 Boom Town) that suggests the hold that Gable had over audiences of the period. Without Gone With the Wind — made, like It Happened One Night, while he was on loan to another studio — Gable would probably rank no higher in contemporary consciousness than Robert Montgomery or Robert Taylor, to name just two of his in-house MGM rivals.
This review poses some interesting questions about the career of Clark Gable. There’s no denying his iconic status, but his filmography doesn’t exactly shine.
But here is how I see it. What it comes down to is how you measure an actor’s iconic status. Is it based on awards and recognition? On career choices? On social impact? On charm? It’s a combination of all of this. What I do know is that when you starred in It Happened One Night and you were Rhett Butler, then you deserve to be a film icon, even if you don’t have the most outstanding filmography.
Clark Gable will always be an icon.