They were one of classic Hollywood's greatest love stories . . . and greatest tragedies. Both tremendously popular actors, they would only share the screen one time and at a point prior to their romantic relationship. The timing of their marriage would come as a result of a scandalous article outing them, but the article itself would quickly be forgotten as the public fell in love with their love story. Her premature and sad death during a patriotic trip for her country would devastate and ultimately alter him until he joined her in an early death nearly two decades later.
I'm talking, of course, about Carole Lombard and Clark Gable, two of the most celebrated and successful actors of the 1930s, as well as one of the most iconic couples of Hollywood's golden era. Their love story and marriage fed many magazine columns and fan fantasies but the reality of their lives and her death were, at times, quite different. One would scrounge and scratch on the way up the ladder to make it in the industry while the other fell into the business by chance. Back histories, including previous relationships, upbringings and even a love child, would be sanitized and whitewashed by the studio, desperate to keep the fantasy alive.
It all started on February 1, 1901.
He saw the play The Bird of Paradise when he was seventeen and realized that he wanted to be a stage actor. Like many before him who suffered a crippling fear without a script or stage direction, Clark would transform on stage or in front of the camera. However, he also knew that he could not truly try his hand at it until he was of legal age - - twenty-one - - and had come into a small inheritance, ostensibly from his mother. His stepmother had died when he was eighteen and so by the time he was of age, he had no reason to stay in Ohio or to move to Tulsa, where his father had relocated. He began touring with acting companies, picking up work in between productions as a logger and tie salesman.
|Gable and his father, 1919|
It was Franz who first heard of Josephine Dillon's new acting group in Portland. Dillon had been a well known and respected Broadway actress who was now making her living as a drama coach. She encouraged Gable to write a letter to Dillon, requesting that he join her new group, known as The Little Theater.
Josephine, an industrious and yet gentle woman, was seventeen years Gable's senior and likely had no designs on him in the beginning, other than tutoring. She recognized the hungry, determined look and appreciated that he was willing to fully throw himself into learning everything he could about acting. Despite his notoriously bad teeth, skinny undernourished body and skin with a yellow pallor, Josephine saw something in him. She paid to have his teeth corrected, his hair styled and built up his malnourished body with good food. Once he had built up, she taught him posture and control. Clark possessed a naturally high pitched and nervous voice, which she taught him to lower and helped him to improve the tone, thus giving him facial expressions for which he would be noted for in the future. She also helped rid him of his mixture of accents, which Hollywood would eventually do with nearly all its stars once talkies came into fashion.
When Franz Dorfler was reunited with her fiance on Christmas Eve, after his time spent with Josephine Dillon, it was not the romantic and joyous reconnecting she desired. Instead, Gable broke off their engagement, not telling her that he was now professionally and personally involved with Josephine Dillon. Franz Dorfler was heartbroken, spending days crying, not eating or sleeping.
Thanks to Josephine's recreation and rebranding of him, Clark was ready to try his hand at the big time and set foot on a movie stage. Hollywood in 1924 was a pretty place, full of citrus groves and orchards and not yet buried under a blanket of smog. Once a tiny enclave, the population had tripled in the previous three years as more and more people moved in, willing to work as extras in order to be a part of the ever-expanding movie industry. Many of them were like Gable, unknowns looking for work; unlike Gable, though, they didn't have Josephine Dillon's contacts or funds to assist them. Also unlike Gable, the majority of them would never succeed in the business.
Josephine and Gable arrived in Hollywood in the summer of 1924 and he immediately began looking for work. She suggested that he change his stage name from W.C. Gable to Clark Gable, advice he wisely followed; she also officially became his manager. The two moved into a hotel together, with Josephine paying all the bills, while Clark went on daily runs to try and score work as an extra.
On December 18, 1924, Josephine and Clark were married in a small and quiet ceremony at the office of a church in Los Angeles. The groom claimed to be twenty-four (he was actually a year younger) and the bride claimed to be thirty-four (she was actually forty.) Josephine would later claim that she and Clark were married in name only but it seems highly unlikely that Clark would remain chaste with a woman who was living under the same roof or that Josephine, who always claimed to be in love with Clark, would allow him to remain so.
Even married to his mentor, times were tough for Clark Gable. Studio extras were not paid much - - only three dollars per day with a box lunch thrown in, unless you were working in a costume supplied by the studio, in which case you got seven dollars and fifty cents per day. The competition was fierce; it was not unusual to have 3,500 people waiting outside a casting office that had advertised extra work for thirty-five people. These cattle calls were exhausting and degrading with little encouragement for moving up or making a decent living. Clark had neither money nor car and had to hoof it to many of these calls. The experience would stay with him long after he had become a star, when he would make sure that the extras on his films were treated with respect, acknowledging them and making sure they weren't pushed around by any studio honchos.
|One of Clark's earliest film appearances|
His extra work did not lead to the much desired movie contract and so Gable returned to his first love, the stage. Los Angeles was a thriving stage city at that time, with many road companies in town and he quickly found work, which he believed would supplement his movie income until he was discovered. For the next two years, he would appear in some half a dozen plays in Los Angeles, San Francisco and in Portland, where he would once again encounter Franz Dorfler, who had no idea he had married Josephine.
|Pauline Frederick, 1926|
|The 1926 playbill for The Copperhead|
He was approached by MGM while he was appearing on stage in Chicago in 1927 and asked if he would consider coming back to the movies. Clark demurred, feeling disillusioned by his early film experience and felt his path was on stage and not in a dark movie theater. When Chicago's run ended, Josephine, still acting as Gable's manager, turned down an offer he truly wanted - - to make a series of personal appearances with actress Jean Davenport - - forcing him to accept the only other offer on the table. It was to join a Houston stock company and it would dramatically change the course of Clark's life.
Working in a stock company, with a different play each week, enormously helped Gable's craft. His range grew and his acting became better. When the leading man quit three months into the season, Gable was promoted and he quickly became the toast of Houston's artistic community and most especially by the female population of the city. One of the young ladies who couldn't get enough of Gable was a teenager by the name of Jana Lucas, whose mother was a socialite and oil wealthy widow named Maria ("Ria") Langham. Jana Lucas would later say that she was certain that Clark and Ria never met during this time but given future events, that seems highly questionable. Josephine, who had accompanied Clark on the trip to Houston, was positive they had met.
|On stage in Machinal|
Ria may not have been able to tutor Gable in acting, as Josephine had, or have theater or movie contacts but, like Josephine, she was seventeen years his senior and had the funds to assist him. She had a taste for the nicer things in life, something she shared with Clark. She taught him about fine dining and attiring himself in dapper and elegant clothing. As a socialite, she also taught him how to move and interact in society, including how to select the right drink for the right occasion.
He jumped on a train and journeyed west to Los Angeles, where he approached his wife in person and begged her to sign the papers. She got that he was serious but she did not sign. Instead, on March 28, 1929, she filed for a legal separation, asserting desertion and non-support. A year later, on April 1, 1930, the divorce would be granted.
In the meantime, he returned to New York and to Ria. He would appear in a series of plays throughout 1929 and into 1930; none of them ran for long or stuck, although Clark's notices were generally good. Later on, MGM and Clark would claim that he and Ria were married in April of 1930, before he headed back to Los Angeles but in all likelihood the 1930 marriage was a cover once Gable became Hollywood's newest prospect. Ria remained in New York while he went west for The Last Mile, a play in which he portrayed a vicious and desperate prison inmate named Killer Mears. Fate and destiny were about to knock on Clark Gable's door.
|As Killer Mears|
Even more fortuitous for Gable was that Lionel Barrymore, his former The Copperhead co-star, was in the audience one evening for a performance. Barrymore was currently an actor and director at MGM and was so impressed by Clark's ability that he insisted the actor come in for a screen test. Clark and his screen test were good enough for MGM to put him in a low budget western called The Painted Desert in which he stayed in Killer Mears type, playing the bad guy. The film was little more than a production line picture but Gable made an impact, receiving a ton of fan mail, and that made MGM take notice.
On December 4, 1930, he signed a one-year contract with MGM, in which he would be paid $650 per week -- an enormous sum for Gable (what would be almost $9,300 per week today) - - and starting what would be a twenty-five year union between studio and actor.
Ria had also relocated to California, bringing her two children; the children pleased Clark. He had a good relationship with both children; the younger, an eleven year old boy, considered Gable his father. While he was happy to be a doting stepfather, he was less generous about Ria's appearance. MGM had not wanted to rain on the fantasies of women and young girls everywhere by admitting their newest leading man was married to an older woman with children and so Gable's relationship was kept quiet.
|A new man in a new kind of world|
Clark was wanted everywhere, including at home. Ria showed up at MGM, insisting to see L. B. Mayer, Clark's boss. She didn't get to Mayer, rather his secretary, but she got her point across. She threatened to talk far and wide about how she and Gable were living together and had been living together if Mayer didn't fix the problem. Clark, as all stars did, had a morality clause in his contract that included moral turpitude or sexual misconduct. Living with a woman without benefit of legality in the early 1930s would have destroyed Clark's career and done damage to MGM as a whole. Gable knew this as well as Mayer and so, on July 19, 1931, he and Ria were married in Santa Ana, a city in Orange County, south of Los Angeles. Gable attempted to keep it quiet by taking out a marriage license under "William C. Gable" but he didn't fool anyone. The press was waiting when he and Ria showed up and shouted out questions to the newly married couple following the brief service. The two hurried into a waiting car and returned to Los Angeles, sans honeymoon. MGM explained the "remarriage" as a necessity due to a glitch in his interlocutory divorce from Josephine; while California had recognized their earlier marriage other states may not and this was more or less a backup.
The marriage did not seem to improve relations between the couple. If anything, it seems that Clark would have been more resentful at the woman who took their private business to his employer, claiming that he had wanted to dump her now that his career was taking off. Ria got the title of Mrs. Gable and all the social perks that went with it. Clark narrowly avoided a scandal but trouble was brewing on the horizon.
At the time he married Ria, two films in which he had co-starred with Joan Crawford had already been released (Dance, Fools, Dance and Laughing Sinners); he began filming their third collaboration, Possessed, on September 2. Whereas their first two films had been professional and strictly aboveboard, this one ignited the start of a very lengthy affair that was so passionate, according to Adela Rogers St. John it "threatened to burn down Hollywood." Crawford played a former factory worker who travels to New York City and becomes the mistress of Gable's attorney. What initially begins as a business arrangement - - she is given fine clothing, fine dining, fine manners, jewels and security, he is given a pretty lady that will give him sex and not demand marriage - - turns into genuine love. The two stars found the emotions they were experiencing and emoting on set carried over into their personal lives. Even while out with their respective spouses, they would leave Ria and Doug (Fairbanks, Jr., Joan's husband) sitting at a table together while the two of them crept off to get a quickie only feet away, Mrs. Gable and Mr. Fairbanks none the wiser.
The stars thought that they would leave Ria and Doug and marry each other. L. B. Mayer thought otherwise. He threatened to kill their careers should their relationship continue. While Crawford and Gable did indeed share a deep affection, they loved their professions more and Mayer's threat served its purpose and kept them apart - - at least temporarily. Joan was sent on a European "second honeymoon" with Doug and Ria began making the rounds in Hollywood as Mrs. Clark Gable. Gable was assigned to Polly of the Circus, with Marion Davies. Playing a reverend, of all things, he quickly fell into an on-set affair with Marion, the well known mistress of publishing guru William Randolph Hearst. As Hearst was around sixty-eight years old at the time, she would occasionally have flirtations and more with her co-stars; these brief affairs never went anywhere as Marion's heart, if not always her younger body, belonged to Hearst. Polly of the Circus was only a modest success at the box office and the Davies-Gable affair ended amicably with the shooting of the picture.
To make matters worse, Josephine Dillon had returned. She was apparently none too happy to hear of his marriage to Ria and so she wrote to Mayer, insinuating that she had been left in the lurch by Clark, after all she had done for him, and had no problem sharing her story in order to assist herself financially. Mayer, having cleaned up a potential tornado with Ria, and then again with the Crawford affair, was certainly not going to let Josephine Dillon taint the Gable image. He instructed his secretary that Dillon was to receive $200 per month (nearly $3,200 in today's coin) indefinitely and that amount would be deducted from Clark's paycheck.
With his cinematic partnership with Crawford temporarily on ice, MGM found a new ally for Gable and that was the platinum blonde herself, Jean Harlow. Both had appeared earlier in the year in The Secret Six but it would be their pairing in Red Dust that would set movie screens on fire and have fans demanding more. Initially intended for John Gilbert, the role of Dennis, the rubber plantation owner, was instead handed to MGM's most in-demand actor after it was decided that Gilbert, with his drinking, was not dependable enough. The fact that part of the reason he may have been drinking was due to his shoddy treatment by MGM was neither here nor there so far as the studio was concerned. Gilbert was out and Gable was in.
To be continued . . .
Part 2 of this series can be found here.