Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Love and Losses of Carole Lombard and Clark Gable, Part 1

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.

William Clark Gable was born in Cadiz, Ohio to a working class family.  His father was an oil driller and despite sharing a first name, father and son would never have a close or loving relationship.  Clark's mother, a Roman Catholic, had him baptized as Catholic when he was six months old.  Only four months later, she would die, officially of an epileptic fit.  William Gable remarried when his son was two; Clark's stepmother Jennie would play a large influence in his life. She taught him piano and instilled in him the desire to be well-dressed and well-groomed.  His father, on the other hand, insisted that his son be "manly" and pursue "manly" activities, like hunting, fishing and hard physical labor.  Later on, in spite of his son's incredible success in films, William Gable seemed dismissive of Clark's career and accomplishments, as if acting was not a real vocation.  Clark was a tall, shy child, terrified of public speaking and perhaps because of that shyness, he found he loved languages and the sonnets of Shakespeare.

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 while he was in Oregon in 1922 that Clark met the first woman that would figure prominently in his life.  Franz Dorfler was an elfin eyed, petite and very pretty twenty-two year old actress. He was taken by this sweet and focused young lady, who did not care for the gangly young man, at least not at first.  Having been raised in a convent, she believed his offer of walking her home or buying her something to drink was too aggressive.  His persistence, however, grew on her and the two became friends. Franz ensured that Gable was not cut from their acting troupe as only she could see something in him that promised a future.

Before long the Dorfler-Gable friendship turned romantic.  Franz was swept off her feet by the ardent young man and she soon wrote home to her family that she was engaged to a Mr. William C. Gable, actor. Her family, who had not been overjoyed at her decision to turn to acting, were less than thrilled over her choice to marry an actor.  Upon meeting Gable, however, they were won over by his charm and charisma, if not by his public kissing of Franz, which would have been considered scandalous and shocking at the time.  Gable wanted to marry her as soon as possible but Franz was ever conscious of their tenuous financial situation and saw no reason to hurry to the altar until they became more secure, professionally and financially.

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.

Amazingly, even while keeping up his relationship with Josephine, he stayed in touch with Franz, continually renewing her hopes that they would reunite.  Portland was a small town in those days; it's highly unlikely that Josephine would not have known what her star pupil was up to.  It may have been for this reason that she arranged for Gable to work, at least temporarily, with the same theater group that Franz belonged to.  Seeing the new Gable on a daily basis made Franz sad and skeptical. For his part, Clark did his best to avoid his one-time fiancee for the few weeks he was there.

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
Gable appeared in so many films during this period as an extra that it's nearly impossible to say in which film he made his first appearance on the screen.  He had an appearance in one for Fox called The Johnstown Flood, released in 1926, which also featured a seventeen year old extra by the name of Carole Lombard.  This was the first time their paths would cross, although only tangentially as they did not share any scenes together.

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
In 1926, Gable was given a part opposite Broadway and Hollywood star Pauline Frederick. Frederick was forty-two, an insanely gifted actress with three marriages behind her and countless affairs, including many marriages she allegedly broke up. She was known to be very passionate and thoroughly appreciated the opposite sex.  She also had the hots for Clark.  They commenced an affair that was reportedly too much for Gable; he simply could not keep up with her insatiability.  Regardless, it was supposedly Pauline who paid to have his teeth fixed yet once again; when she left for London, it appears there was no animosity on either side.

The 1926 playbill for The Copperhead
By the time Clark was cast in The Copperhead, a play in which he would appear with Lionel Barrymore, an actor he would forge a lifelong friendship with, he and Josephine had very quietly stopped living together, although neither made any type of announcement about it.  Barrymore would prove instrumental in bringing Clark to the attention of the movie studios in the very near future and he taught the young actor to never play it straight, but always with a dash of character. It was advice that Clark Gable would follow for the remainder of his career.

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
Josephine had made contact with a producer in New York, who, in the summer of 1928, offered Gable a role in Machinal and the two left Houston for Broadway. Two weeks after their arrival, he had signed with a major agency and informed Josephine that they were through, not just personally but also professionally.  Josephine left for California while Clark readied for Machinal's opening, which happened on September 7, 1928.  Both the play and Clark were well received, running for a full three months.  By the end of it, he and Ria Langham, who had also arrived in New York, were seeing a lot of each other. It was Ria who paid Clark's way when the play closed and no further work was quickly forthcoming.

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.

The beginning of 1929 did not see Clark at his best.  He was agitated as he was out of work - - the Depression was just beginning, resulting in the closing of plays and a scarcity of jobs - - and Josephine was refusing to give him a divorce, claiming she did not believe in them and besides, she didn't want one.  This wasn't the first time he had asked for a divorce nor the first time she had refused. She always believed he never meant it. This time it seems he did.

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
The Last Mile opened on June 2, 1930 and it was an immediate smash. Clark was compared favorably to Spencer Tracy, who was playing the part in a New York production. He was interviewed by The Los Angeles Times, his first interview; he greatly exaggerated his background, claiming an education he did not have and a father who was an Oklahoma oil man. He also avoided any mention of Josephine Dillon, claiming it was his sheer determination and will that landed him initially in California.

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
1931 would be a watershed year for Clark Gable. He would make an astounding thirteen films, appearing opposite Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Constance Bennett and Greta Garbo.  He was sent to First National, where he would play a leery and murderous chauffeur in Night Nurse, starring Barbara Stanwyck. His scenes were few but when he's on screen, he's mesmerizing.  You simply cannot look away. Despite, or in spite of, his limited screen time, he made quite an impact, dressing in both a kimono and a dark uniform and slugging Stanwyck unconscious. He was still playing mostly "bad boys" parts and it was one of these - - the role of Ace Wilfong in A Free Soul, back at MGM, opposite the studio's reigning queen Norma Shearer, that launched him into superstardom.  His smoldering sexiness not only got to Norma, as she threw her good girl caution to the wind, spending evenings with the less than honest Ace - - a criminal client of her attorney father - - but also got to female audiences across the world. When Norma said Gable was "just a new man in a new kind of world," all of Hollywood agreed with her.

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.

Crawford and Gable were two peas in a pod.  Both came from a hardscrabble background and had quit their formal education early. Crawford had been born in Texas and spent much of her childhood in Kansas City. As Gable had lost his mother at a young age, Crawford had lost her father when he deserted the family. Gable did not have a close relationship with his father and, deep down, yearned for his approval. Crawford had a fractured relationship with her mother, and even with her brother, and looked for approval with father figures (as Gable always seemed to be attracted to mother figures.)  Both had been called Billy/Billie during their youth and suffered, at times, with crippling self-esteem issues.  Clark had been recreated by the women in his life, Joan by MGM.  Both had risen from obscurity to become major players in the Hollywood scene, holding their position for decades. Both were fastidious about cleanliness and germs.  And both were accused of using sex to get to the top.

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.

Clark, 1931
By the end of 1931, Gable's star was exploding but his home life had a distinct chilliness to it. Ria, who, like Josephine before her, had spent a lot of her own money supporting Clark (she was still paying the majority of the bills throughout a great deal of 1931), and smarting over the Crawford affair, which she did eventually learn of, told Gable he would need to start contributing toward the household expenses.  She carried it a step further by spending Gable's money; she began buying jewels, clothing and hiring decorators for their Brentwood home. Gable was not happy about it but California community property laws would require him, in the event of a divorce, to forfeit fifty percent of his earnings to Ria.  He was stuck.

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.

There has been much speculation over the years about whether or not the Harlow/Gable relationship was ever a physical one.  If it ever was, it was likely while they were shooting The Secret Six, as by the time Red Dust rolled around, Harlow was involved with and then married to Paul Bern.  By then, Harlow and Gable had settled into a brotherly and sisterly affection for one another. Due to his friendship with her, Clark became friendly with Harlow's stepfather, Marino Bello, who he would join on hunting and fishing trips. These trips allowed him to relax and be himself while getting him out of the marital home and the strife with Ria.

As 1932 neared its final months, Gable was a leading man and one of Hollywood's newest stars but he was increasingly unhappy. MGM, in a trade with Paramount Studios for the services of Bing Crosby, sent Clark over to make a film. It was a picture called No Man of Her Own and he would star opposite a young actress named Carole Lombard.

To be continued . . .

Part 2 of this series can be found here.

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