September 6, 2014

Clark Gable, Gone with the Wind


There's a moment in Babes in Arms where Mickey Rooney, trying to put on a show, attempts to coach a peer into playing "...a Clark Gable type, very modern and polished and full of suaveness," and when said peer doesn't do a very good job, Rooney instructs him to be more "virile". It's an on-point description. Gable is the type of star who effortlessly oozes a rugged yet clean and sexy suaveness. It's ironic then that Rooney would face Gable in 1939's Oscar race, with Gable personifying these adjectives to full effect in his legendary turn as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. There is a part of me that feels that this performance is more legendary not due to quality acting but due to the iconography associated with Rhett's image and Gone with the Wind as a whole. However, I can't deny that Gable owns the part and does the absolute best he possibly can with it.

I admit that I didn't see the significance in Gable's work when I first watched Gone with the Wind a long long time ago, and I'm still not completely crazy about his work. That's because Gone with the Wind is first and foremost about Scarlett O'Hara; it is she and only she who is central to the movie...everyone else exists merely to provide flourishes to her life. Rhett/Gable is only here to be the male foil to Scarlett/Leigh, kind of an interesting reverse gender swap as we typically just see thankless female foils to prominent male characters nominated at the Oscars. And for much of the film Gable isn't required to do a whole lot; he pops up here and there to offer a smirk and a smart aleck remark for a little over half of the picture (which is sort of significant seeing as half of Gone with the Wind is the same as an average picture). When he's around, he talks with that charming and cocky Gable self-assurance that we've seen time and time again by now, so there's not exactly a whole lot there to be impressed by. Once Rhett and Scarlett marry is when Gable has more to work with, and from there on out is where he improved with me. He does a great job at giving Rhett a wounded pride, showing shades of hurt underneath a hardened and jeering exterior. He's fascinating to watch in the scene where Rhett drunkenly harrasses Scarlett. And he's effectively tender in the scene following Scarlett's miscarriage. In fact, he pretty much owns much of Gone with the Wind's last act, and provides an honest vulnerability that Scarlett never really does. But much like Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, his persona completely dominates his work. I always feel as though I'm watching "Clark Gable" and not "Rhett Butler, scandalous southern gentleman" (though he's got the charming gentleman act down to a tee). There's not much transformation here--you could line Rhett, Peter Warne, and Fletcher Christian up together and there'd be little difference between the characters aside from their wardrobes, but I do feel that Rhett is a more cohesive rendering of Gable's best qualities. In terms of other actors who were considered for Rhett, it's hard to envision Gary Cooper or Ronald Colman tackling Rhett's qualities as well as Gable did. He does a solid job, quite an accomplishment when up against a goliath performance by Leigh, but hardly one that floors me.


  1. I love all main performances in Gone With the Wind and I'd give him a perfect five.

  2. Folklore has it that after the Oscars, a dejected Gable, riding home in the limousine with Lombard stated, "Well, that was it. I'll never get another one." Lombard replies, "Cheer up Pappy, we'll bring it home next time." He answers, "No, that was my last chance." "I meant me, you egotistical pig!"

  3. Even if this film wasn't a legend I want to see any movie with this much Hattie McDaniel. Mammy is one of the most dignified characters in the film, more than once serving as Scarlett's conscience, as well as being the final authority on what's fittin'. Rhett even states directly Mammy is the one person whose respect he'd truly like to have. The growing appreciation between the two is one of the movie's strongest pluses.

    The camaraderie extended beyond the screen too. In the scene after Bonnie Blue's birth, where Mammy and Rhett share a drink, Gable, ever the prankster, switched the typical stand-in cold tea for the 80 proof real McCoy which teetotaler McDaniel then downed in a single, shocked gulp.

    Though she also had some talent as a singer, sensible insight informed McDaniel she'd be no forerunner of Lena Horne, and in 1930s Hollywood would only be offered parts of cooks and maids. McDaniel's reasoned reaction was that she'd rather play one than be one. Today she has her own postage stamp, and that's fittin'. :)

  4. I'll admit it: I've never thought Clark Gable was much of an actor. That said, however, I don't think GWTW would be nearly as successful without his presence. He's what I call a 'charm actor', meaning that his persona and star quality were more integral to his work than his thesping skills. Still, he brings a rugged individualism and, especially, a sensitivity to Rhett that are indispensable to this film.

    Rhett is relegated to a supporting part in the first half of the film, but he damn near steals the show during part 2 and, more importantly, in the hands of Gable he makes Scarlett's increasingly callous machinations more palatable. Gable cues the viewer on how to interpret Scarlett's behavior. His Rhett is not only on to her high-jinx, he's thoroughly charmed by them. Gable is like a one-man Greek Chorus who allows us to both understand and accept Scarlett with all her flaws.

    Gable's work in this film is subtle rather than flashy, which is often the kind of acting that goes unnoticed or is underrated. It shouldn't be here. With all of the massive goings-on that brought GWTW to the screen, it's Gable who grounds and centers it while ceding center stage to his memorable leading lady.