Talking Pictures

What Hath Gable Got?

“Rhett Butler” romances Claudette Colbert in Frank Capra’s comic masterpiece It Happened One Night

By David Lehman | November 28, 2022
Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, 1934 (Everett Collection)
Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, 1934 (Everett Collection)

As a college student, I watched Gone with the Wind at a Times Square theater where the 1939 film was enjoying a revival. At the first appearance of Clark Gable-as-Rhett Butler standing at the base of a spiral staircase and looking up, the woman sitting next to me, who was old enough to be my mother, blurted out, “God bless him.” At one of the film’s climactic moments, Rhett Butler mounts that spiral staircase with the indomitable Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh at her most ravishing) in his arms.

No male actor exuded as much confidence and devilish sex appeal as this six-foot-one fellow with the best pencil mustache in the business. In his other movies, Gable frequently plays a variation of Rhett Butler. He is the take-charge guy, the born winner, whom it is impossible to dislike—unless you’re Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, who characterized Gable as a “well-tailored roughneck.”

Gable is the American male as he would like to be: crafty, capable, sure of himself, equal to any situation. Born and raised in Ohio, he loved literature and used to recite Shakespeare’s sonnets to friends. Devastated by the loss of his wife, the actress Carole Lombard, who died in a plane crash, he joined the U. S. Air Force in World II and flew operational missions over Europe in B-17s. Undershirts went out of style when Gable took off his shirt to reveal a bare chest in Frank Capra’s sublime 1934 comedy, It Happened One Night, in which Gable plays a brash newspaperman who wins runaway heiress Claudette Colbert’s heart—much to his surprise, and hers.

It was in It Happened One Night that Gable established what we today would call his brand. When we first encounter him, he is on a public phone, getting fired, and his boss hangs up on him. Several of his journalist pals are listening, and Gable doesn’t let on that he has lost the phone connection, let alone his job. With a show of bravado, he declares that he wouldn’t come back even if his boss begged him to, “and let that be a lesson to you.” He hangs up, and his chums hail him as “the almighty king.” The character’s real name is ordinary, Peter Warne, but he is more kingly than the patrician “King” Westley (Jameson Thomas), a stuffed shirt to whom the mixed-up Ellen Andrews (Colbert) is engaged. Ellen expresses her ambivalence about the nuptials by running away from her upper-crust home to the buses and trailer parks of the common folk.

Gable is a hero on the model of Odysseus. Luck favors him. On the bus from Florida to New York in It Happened One Night, he takes the one available seat, which happens to be the seat next to Ellen. She wants nothing to do with Peter, but after much disputation, they join forces. To scare the dickens out of a pest who has recognized Ellen from a newspaper photo, Peter assumes the identity of a gangster. As if to proclaim his destiny, he presents himself at a motor lodge as the husband of this chic woman with the wide eyes, the semi-circle eyebrows, and effortless charm.

“Ellie” and Peter despise each other in the manner of a romance ignited by initial hostility. Always proclaiming his superiority to his stereotyped upper-class toff, Peter lectures Ellie on everything, including how properly to dunk a doughnut. But she gets the better of him in what may be the most memorable scene in the movie. He says he could write a book on hitchhiking, but when the opportunity comes to flag down a driver, he flubs it, while she, lifting her skirt to expose a leg, triggers the wonderful montage of a foot on the brake and a screeching tire. “The limb is mightier than the thumb,” she announces.

It is when Gable and Colbert harmoniously collaborate in spur-of-the-moment theatrics that we know their characters are meant for each other. When the two pretend to be an old married couple who constantly bicker—a variant on their own situation—the ruse works, and they elude Ellie’s many pursuers. Peter has to unlearn his biases against the very rich just as Ellie, exposed to the conditions of the impoverished women at the motor lodge, has to learn about the advantages she has always taken for granted.

It may be one of the happiest scenes in Hollywood history when Ellie leaves King Westley at the altar, flying off in her wedding gown to the car her father has cheerfully hired to abet her escape from an unhappy fate. Ellie and Peter will marry and honeymoon at the kind of unassuming motor lodge where, on the run, they had stayed in a room with a blanket on a clothesline acting as “the “walls of Jericho,” a symbol of chastity separating the two individual beds. When Gable blows a toy trumpet at movie’s end, the walls come tumbling down. No voyeurism is allowed; from a safe distance, we take pleasure in Capra’s vision of democratic egalitarianism married to romantic love.

To those who argue that It Happened One Night is one of Gable’s only two or three exceptional films, check out Jack Conway’s underrated The Hucksters (1947), in which the actor plays Vic Norman, an unemployed veteran looking for a job. When he walks into an agency and demands to see the top man, Gable naturally walks out with the firm’s biggest account.

The script of The Hucksters does nice things with the notion that sincerity is something you can imitate or simulate. Looking for work as the movie begins, Vic buys a new necktie, because it makes him “look sincere.” The plot obliges Gable to be honorable, nightclub singer Ava Gardner to be a model drinking buddy, and demure Deborah Kerr in her stud earrings and short hair to win the man, a good guy with a conscience who ultimately turns his back on Madison Avenue, preferring to be sincere rather than merely play the part.

Kerr is wonderful, but Gardner, at 24 and in her breakout film, is a rare enchantress. Her best moment: when she—the former Mrs. Artie Shaw and future Mrs. Frank Sinatra — explains that singing on the beat (as in George M. Cohan’s “Over There”) is square. “Modern singing is soft and off the beat,” she says. But of course Gable, hep from the start, knew that all along.

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