Photos from the set of Gone with the Wind:
Gone with the Wind had an absolutely stellar cast, and as I have discussed with many a fellow film fan, it is a great launching pad for anyone to delve into classic films. You can start with any of the four leads–Leigh, Gable, de Havilland, Howard–and start diving into their films and you are awash with classic film fabulousness.
And for many of these players, it wasn’t their first time sharing the screen. Let’s see who Clark Gable met up with elsewhere:
Clark and Laura Hope Crews (Aunt Pittypat) also co-starred in Idiot’s Delight (1939), which they made just prior to GWTW.
In A Free Soul (1931), (SPOILER ALERT) Leslie Howard (Ashley) ends up killing Clark, all for the love of Norma Shearer.
Ward Bond (Yankee Captain) was uncredited as a bus driver in It Happened One Night (1934).
Thomas Mitchell (Gerald O’Hara) and Clark were pals in real life, and he was Clark’s sidekick in Adventure (1945).
Harry Davenport (Dr. Meade) also played a doctor in Adventure (1945). (Random fact: he was yet again a doctor in the Carole Lombard film Made For Each Other (1939)!)
Let’s take a look at the stars of Gone with the Wind before they starred in their iconic roles 75 years ago…
Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O’Hara)
Olivia de Havilland (Melanie Wilkes)
Ann Rutherford (Carreen O’Hara)
Evelyn Keyes (Suellen O’Hara)
Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes)
Barbara O’Neill (Ellen O’Hara)
Thomas Mitchell (Gerald O’Hara)
and…a young Clark Gable (Rhett Butler)
In a Nutshell: A Free Soul (1931)
Directed by: Clarence Brown
Co-stars: Norma Shearer, Leslie Howard, Lionel Barrymore
Synopsis: Gable is Ace Wilfong, a gangster on trial for murder being represented by upper class defense attorney Stephan Ashe (Barrymore). Stephan, while successful as an attorney, is an alcoholic who is frequently an embarrassment to his family, including his high spirited daughter, Jan (Shearer), who catches Ace’s eye at their first meeting. Stephan gets Ace cleared of the charges and Ace starts pursuing Jan once he is free, much to the chagrin of Jan’s stuffy fiancé, Dwight (Leslie Howard). Jan is quickly swept up into a passionate affair with Ace, excited by his dangerous lifestyle. When Ace tells Stephan he wants to marry Jan, Stephan is furious. Jan makes a deal with her father that if he agrees to give up drinking, she will give up Ace. Ace doesn’t take this well and Jan finds that she can’t untangle herself from him so easily.
Best Gable Quote: “Why, the way I love you, there’s nothing left to think about. It ain’t polite maybe but it’s what you want. Well, maybe not everything, but you can live without the rest. But you can’t live without me! That’s why you came back here, you had to. And that’s all marriage is, just two people that want to live together. You can call the rest just nothing. You’re through, you’re mine and I want you!”
Fun Fact: After the film was released, critics barely mentioned the relative newcomer Gable, reserving their praise for Barrymore (who ended up winning an Academy Award for his role). Moviegoers, however–especially female ones–wrote the studio in droves demanding more Gable and his fan mail started pouring in. Movie magazines took notice and hailed him as “the man’s man all modern women dream about!” Because of this, his $650/week contract with MGM was ripped up and he signed a new one for $1,150/week.
My Verdict: Clark is electric in this role, stealing every scene he is in with a violent, commanding, urgent lust. Norma is at her sexy pre-code best, and Lionel is top notch as the drunken father oozing with disappointment. Eight years before sad-eyed Ashley and debonair Rhett square off over Scarlett O’Hara, Leslie Howard is the good guy again vs. Clark’s brute. A must see film to see why a young, mustache-less Clark was catapulted into stardom.
In my years of vintage magazine collecting, I haven’t come across many interviews with Leslie Howard, but here’s one! In the July 1939 issue of Hollywood magazine, Leslie discusses Scarlett and Gone with the Wind, in an interview conducted at Busch Gardens in Pasadena, while on location filming the Twelve Oaks barbecue scene.
Here’s Howard’s take on Scarlett:
“…what people seem to overlook is that Scarlett was so modern! Scarlett O’Hara was a new-fashioned girl in an old-fashioned setting She was a 1939 sub-deb…in hoopskirts.”
“Possibly my idea of Scarlett differs from that of some people. But I’ve studied her carefully. I think I’m right. She was fascinating, even more for some vital quality in her character than for her beauty. She would do what she set out to do, no matter if in doing it she went to her own destruction. You admire her determination, and her courage. When things went wrong, she didn’t submit. She smashed and hammered till she rearranged them or found a way out. But no man could endure Scarlett for a lifetime. She would drive him mad. She was ruthless, dazzling, and hard. Even Rhett Butler leaves her, you know. There is some indication in the book that he may come back–but I don’t think he did.”
“Of course I don’t mean that modern women are necessarily ruthless and hard. When I say that Scarlett was modern, I mean that she didn’t bow to fate or remain quietly at home weeping for what she wanted. She went right out and tried to get it. She had a fine confidence in her own ability, a thoroughly up-to-date self reliance. To her day, it wasn’t the thing for a owman to be aggressive, you know. A woman didn’t go out into the world and fight for what she wanted, whether it was a livelihood or anything else. The nice girl stayed at home, very ladylike, and married well.”
“Naturally, if the Civil War hadn’t come along, Scarlett might not have developed into quite the clever business woman and the shrewd oppurtunist which she became. But, mind you, those characteristics were there all the time; ready to undld under the right conditions. I’ve said Scarlett was ruthless. I’m wondering if all really great women–and she had elements of greatness–weren’t ruthless, too. Perhaps they have to be. Queen Elizabeth, Catherine of Russia…Nevertheless, Scarlett is a character whom women admire more than men do. Oh yes, I believe that. Women like her because she does what she pleases, and often gets the better of men ina battle of wits. This doesn’t please men so much.”
I began writing “Movie of the Month” posts in July two years ago, to start something new to celebrate the first anniversary of the site. For the first one, I selected Wife vs. Secretary because it’s one of my personal favorites and the following July I selected It Happened One Night because of its importance. I’m continuing the tradition of selecting an “important” Gable film in July with A Free Soul, the film that made Clark Gable a star.
Gable is Ace Wilfong, a gangster on trial for murder being represented by upper class defense attorney Stephan Ashe (Lionel Barrymore). Stephan, while successful as an attorney, is an alcoholic who is frequently an embarrassment to his family, including his high spirited daughter, Jan (Norma Shearer), who catches Ace’s eye at their first meeting. Stephan gets Ace cleared of the charges and Ace starts pursuing Jan once he is free, much to the chagrin of Jan’s stuffy fiancé, Dwight (Leslie Howard). Jan is quickly swept up into a passionate affair with Ace, excited by his dangerous lifestyle. When Ace tells Stephan he wants to marry Jan, Stephan is furious. Jan makes a deal with her father that if he agrees to give up drinking, she will give up Ace–each giving up their vice. Ace doesn’t take this well and Jan finds that she can’t untangle herself from him so easily.
Roughneck Clark Gable, fresh from a little Houston stock company and small Oregon stage school, seemed hardly destined to be the next lothario. The movie stars women were swooning over in 1930-31 were the likes of John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks–suave and svelte, romantic and tender. Most women were still dabbing at their eyes recalling the tragic death of Rudolph Valentino, the uncrowned king of movie lovers. Enter Clark, with his snarly voice, broad shoulders and hair flopping in his face. His Ace Wilfong was supposed to be the villain, the evil corrupt criminal that you are supposed to root against–it’s Leslie Howard you are supposed to hope Norma ends up with–plain vanilla Leslie Howard.
Well, the fans spoke and spoke loudly–the 1931 woman didn’t want plain vanilla and no longer wanted “powder puff” men with styled hair and ruffles on their shirts–they wanted a real man, a rough man, a man who was a bit dirty and not afraid to put them in their place. Norma’s Jan even says it in the film, “You’re just a new kind of man in a new kind of world.” A new era of leading man began and Clark’s onscreen persona was from then on set in stone. After A Free Soul, Clark went on to threaten Joan Crawford with a hairbrush, trade barbs with Jean Harlow, swing Claudette Colbert around like a bag of feathers and, most memorably, tell Vivien Leigh he could rip her apart with his hands.
When reflecting about Clark at his death in 1960, Norma Shearer was quoted as saying, “Perhaps that was where Noel Coward got the idea for his line: ‘Every woman should be hit regularly—like a gong.’ And for that sort of thing it was Gable who made villains popular. Instead of the audience’s wanting the good man to get the girl, they wanted the bad man to get the girl.”
Clark was fourth billed in the film, behind Shearer, Barrymore and even James Gleason. Clark’s Ace appears about seven minutes into the film and is immediately suave and charming–you can’t blame Norma’s Jan for being instantly smitten.
Some sixty years before the OJ Simpson trial, Ace gets found not guilty because the hat of the murderer doesn’t fit his head–if it don’t fit, you must acquit!
Starting out as suave and charming, Ace becomes angry and violent when Jan runs out on him for three months with her father. Now he is messy- looking, threatening and growls like a bear. “The rest of my life can’t wash the filthy mark of you out of my soul!” Jan proclaims.
Clark’s co-star Norma Shearer was married to MGM’s head of production, Irving Thalberg. Like the new guy wasn’t nervous enough and now he has to seduce the boss’ wife! Norma had been a star since the mid 1920’s and her marriage to Thalberg had solidified her status as Queen of the MGM Lot. She had been cast in rather virginal, lily-pure parts until 1930, when she desperately wanted the lead role in a rather scandalous film MGM was producing about a woman who slept around to get back at her cheating husband, called The Divorcee. She posed for some sexy photos to earn the role, proving to her husband she could play a sexpot. The role not only changed her screen persona, it also earned her an Academy Award. In this film, she goes from preppy Daddy’s girl in her cloche hat to seductive rebel pretty quickly. In fact, her first scene has her asking her father for clothes and he comments that they are only enough to cover a sparrow! The “pre-code era” fits Norma like a glove, as it turns out.
Norma is indeed at her sexiest here. Hair untamed and obviously without underwear, she is perfectly alluring. “Put ’em around me,” she purrs as she reaches her arms out to Clark. She makes fun of him when he wants to talk one night and says that men of action should stay in action. No mistaking it–he is her booty call! She is “a free soul” and wants to do what she wants to do.
Norma tends to call upon her silent era roots too much. Especially in a scene when she theatrically smacks her father and then is horrified immediately afterward. A bit over the top. But the scenes with Clark have sizzle, much more than in their two other films, Strange Interlude and Idiot’s Delight.
This being the “pre-code” era, before the crackdown on film content, this film is the definition of pre-code taboo. There is no mistaking that Norma’s Jan is spending the night at Ace’s place and that they are not exactly playing checkers up there.
One of my favorite lines here is when Ace is telling sweet innocent Dwight why he won’t want to marry Jan now. “When I get through you won’t have the guts to marry her. Let me lay it on the line for you: She tossed all her ritz overboard months ago. She came to my place and she stayed there, you get that? She’s mine, she belongs to me.” In other words, don’t expect a bride in white…
Even though audiences had now grown accustomed to seeing Norma in sultry roles such as Strangers May Kiss and The Divorcee, it was quite shocking for them to see their Queen of the Lot being pushed around by this relative newcomer. “Sit down and take it and like it!” Clark snarls as he pushed her onto the sofa.
Lionel Barrymore earned an Academy Award for his role as Jan’s falling-down-drunk attorney father and he is a bit hammy but pulls off the pain a father would feel discovering his little girl has become a “loose woman.” His last scene, in which he delivers a long monologue, is still counted as being the longest take in a commercial film at 14 minutes.
This is a pre-code but still, bad behavior must be punished. You can’t go running around sleeping with dangerous gangsters and not pay the price. Jan gives up Ace to care for her alcoholic father, which enrages Ace. In the end, she must repent for her sins. As for Ace, well, he gets what’s coming to him–courtesy of Leslie Howard! Eight years before Rhett and Ashley were intertwined with Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, Clark and Leslie face off for the affections of Jan. Yet again, Clark is the bad rogue and Leslie is the pure and perfect gentleman–it’s always struck me how their names ae so fitting even; Ace Wilfong is definitely a gangster’s name, while Dwight Winthrop is no doubt a preppy goody-two-shoes! Well, Leslie gets the last word in this one…shooting Clark square in the chest!
Quite a gutsy and unexpected move in the last moments of the film. Imagine, Ashley shooting Rhett!
Famous writer Adela Rogers St. Johns wrote the book this film was based on about her own experiences with her alcoholic father. After she met Clark on the set of this film, they became lifelong friends. The play was on Broadway in 1928 for 100 performances, with Melvyn Douglas in the role of Ace.
In addition to Barrymore being nominated for Best Actor, Norma Shearer was nominated for Best Actress and Clarence Brown as best director.
It’s interesting to read what public opinion was when Clark Gable was just a newcomer. This article from raises the question if Clark has staying power as a star or not, based only on his weak resume at the time.
Clark, like Garbo, introduced a new vogue in screen personality. He became the pattern from which screen idols who followed him were moulded. He is the epitome of the ruthless, handsome, knock-‘em-down, treat-‘em-rough he-man, the strong, virile, modern cave man. And not only women in Keokuk and Medicine Hat went crazy about Clark, but the actresses of Hollywood as well. Once he had become a sensation, Hollywood backed up the public’s preference.
Now, just as long as women remain interested in that type of man, he will last—provided the studios give him that type of role.
But when women change their minds?
When a new screen hero comes to replace the old—what then? Will Clark Gable be able to change his type of screen behavior? Why not be honest about it! Can he act—as Leslie Howard can, for example?
There were numerous protests from his vast public when he played the role of a minister in “Polly of the Circus.” Those who have seen “Strange Interlude” in which he has one of the greatest acting chances of the screen, say that Norma Shearer tucks the picture under her arm and leisurely walks away from it. This is not so much a discredit to Clark as it is a tribute to Norma’s superb acting.
Whether Clark wears the garb of a minister or changes, as he goes in “Strange Interlude”, from a young man to an old man, he remains Clark Gable, they say. Costume, make-up, characterization—all are submerged in his own personality. Leslie Howard, on the other hand, has already proved that he can play a variety of roles.
I can’t help but snicker at this comparison to Leslie Howard—as, no offense to Leslie, but I would definitely not consider him a versatile actor by any stretch. And I don’t think you could find anyone who claims he stole the show away from Clark with his portrayal of Ashley in Gone with the Wind! But this article is right–women did change their minds. After World War II and into the 1950’s, Clark became part of the old school and the young women had posters of Van Johnson, Eddie Fisher and Elvis Presley on their walls. And Clark did lose signficant footing on the ladder of stars. But forgotten? Nope.
I doubt if he can change any more than he has—either as an actual person or a screen type.
Therefore I repeat that he will last just as long as women accept him as he is and just as long as the film companies give him typical Clark Gable roles.
When the powers that be try to make him versatile and allow him to step out of the character that he has created, his days will be over.
For, powerful as the camera is, it can’t give Clark qualities which he does not have!
That’s a bit harsh! But interesting. When Clark did step out of the box of his typical roles to make Parnell, he did indeed fail and it was an embarrassing flop. After that he felt that he had let his public down and he scurried back into the safe rabbit hole MGM had made for him. But I have always felt that if Clark had really stepped up to the plate and taken a real shot at a big dramatic role, he could have done it well. I think The Misfits could have been a foreshadowing of a great career as an older actor.
You can read the article in its entirety in The Article Archive.