Hollywood legend Joan Crawford holds the distinction of having been Clark’s most frequent leading lady; they starred in eight films together. Joan was already one of MGM’s brightest stars when Clark was just starting out at the studio in 1931.
Joan recalled, “To know Clark, you had to know him B.M. not just A.M. That’s ‘Before Mustache” not just ‘After Mustache’.”
Clark played a rather one-dimensional gangster villain in their first film together, Dance Fools Dance, and the movie is all Joan’s. That didn’t stop the sparks from flying. Joan claimed their attraction was not only instant, but also mutual. “I adored him. Just adored him. I don’t believe any woman is telling the truth if she ever worked with Gable and did not feel twinges of a sexual urge beyond belief. I would call her a liar.”
Soon after filming wrapped, Clark was brought in as a replacement for male lead Johnny Mack Brown in Laughing Sinners, thanks to Joan’s suggestion. By the time they starred in the steamy pre-code Possessed in 1931, their affair was in full swing. Joan said that during the film, “We were madly in love. When the scenes ended, the emotion didn’t.” Both arrived at the studio long before their call for the day and left long after shooting. It was the worst kept secret in Hollywood.
Clark’s wife at the time, Ria, ignored the rumors and held her head high. Refusing to discuss the rumors, she would even still see Joan socially!
Joan’s husband, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., recalled, “I learned about [Joan’s] purported affair with Clark from same male friends of mine. They came to me and said, ‘We have something to tell you which is for your own good.’…These so-called friends asked me if I knew that my wife was having an affair with Clark Gable. No, I didn’t. They said everyone knew. I hadn’t. I totally believed them. I was informed by those friends that my wife and Gable had begun their affair in her dressing room…it had been my wedding gift to her, which made it worse, and then, as they say, to add insult to injury, I wasn’t quite finished paying for it yet. It wasn’t very long after that we were divorced. Her idea.”
MGM head honcho Louis B. Mayer was none too pleased that two of his married stars were romping around like teenagers. He threatened both of them that he would cancel their contracts if the affair continued. He removed Clark from being Joan’s leading man in her next picture, Letty Lynton, replacing him with Robert Montgomery. He also urged Clark to appear in public more often with Ria to quiet the rumors. And so Ria and Clark made the rounds of premieres and nightclubs. They also, incredibly, double dated with Joan and Douglas, only to leave their spouses alone at the table while they snuck off into a corner together. Writer Adela Rogers St. Johns called it “the affair that nearly burned Hollywood down.”
Since they were forced to stay apart, their trysts became less and less frequent. By the time they appeared again in Dancing Lady, Clark was seeing Elizabeth Allan and Joan had eyes for her other costar, Franchot Tone, whom she married soon after. They starred together in Chained, Forsaking All Others and Love on the Run in the following three years. Joan claimed that their affair continued off and on during this time.
In 1937, Joan was suggested for the female lead in Parnell. Clark personally pleaded with her to take the part. She hated the script, found it boring and trite, and refused to play it. So Myrna Loy was brought in, and Joan took Myrna’s role in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney. Parnell was a giant flop–the biggest flop of both Clark and Myrna’s careers. After that Clark was rather distant to Joan. She said, “I don’t think he ever forgave me for that; I think he believed I bailed on him.”
In 1940, Joan was cast in the drama Strange Cargo with Spencer Tracy as her costar. Joan insisted that Clark be her costar instead. Since their last pairing, Clark was at a career high, having starred in Gone with the Wind and hits such as Test Pilot, not to mention being half of one of the most popular and romanticized marriages of the time. Joan, however, was not doing so well. She had had a string of flops and after being labeled “Box Office Poison”, her film career wasn’t looking too bright.
If Joan was looking for a rekindling of their romance, she was out of luck. Clark was still deep in newlywed bliss with Carole Lombard. Joan resented his lack of attention and it led to tension on set. She would apparently whisper things to him between scenes and he would stomp off angrily while she laughed.
All seemed to be forgiven after Carole’s sudden death in 1942. Joan was one of Clark’s closest confidantes during that time. He would go over to her house where she would lend an ear as he sobbed and drank heavily. Joan volunteered to replace Carole in what would have been Carole’s next starring role, They All Kissed the Bride. She donated her entire salary from the film to the Red Cross in Carole’s name and promptly fired her agent when he insisted on taking his usual 10%.
A few months later, Joan reportedly proposed marriage to Clark, looking for a father for her adopted children. Clark turned her down and soon after joined the Army.
Clark, as expected, never spoke publicly about their relationship.
Joan only admitted to it after his death, saying, “We had an affair–a glorious affair–and it lasted longer than anybody knows.”
In 1968, Joan Crawford did a television interview with David Frost in which she discussed Clark. Frost asked her who was her favorite leading man.
Joan replied, “Clark Gable, of course.”
“Why Gable?” asked Frost.
“Because he had balls.” replied Joan.
One of Joan’s daughters said that she thought Clark had been the love of her life. Perhaps. Joan told a biographer late in her life, “I didn’t think Clark would make a good husband–a great lover, a fine friend, but I imagined him an unfaithful husband. I didn’t think he would be satisfied with only one woman, even me, and he would face endless temptation. He never had to ask. I don’t know if he even knew how to. There was always an endless supply of attractive young things, who knew quite well how to ask, throwing themselves on him. I was also certain that he would prefer not having as a wife an actress with a career on par with his, that he would prefer someone who could be happy simply devoting herself entirely to him. I was wrong in the way I judged him. I thought he liked to live in the moment, to be free of responsibilities. Then along came Carole Lombard.”
Joan worked in films and television through the 1950’s and 60’s. She died of cancer in 1977.