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Clark Gable - Tormented Star

by Steve Weinstein
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Nov 27, 2008
Clark Gable - Tormented Star

Clark Gable was the man's man. The superstar known simply as "the king" ruled Hollywood from the mid-1930s until the mid-1950s. Although his bed hopping never became as legendary as Errol Flynn's (the popular World War II catchphrase "in like Flynn" came from his famous trial for statutory rape of an underaged--but eager--girl), Gable was as prolific in the sack as he was in front of the camera.

He pays lip service to Gable's huge film output, but it's the latter aspect of his life that really interests author David Bret. The title of his biography, Clark Gable: Tormented Genius, now in paperback, shows his hand. Gable wasn't a relatively simple he-man, like, say John Wayne. Nor was he a well-adjusted guy from the Midwest blessed with good looks like Ronald Regan.

No, his Gable is tortured by self-doubt about his talent and his manhood. Bret traces this back to his father, an oil wildcatter-turned-roughneck who insisted his son follow equally "manly" pursuits and never cottoned to his artistic aspirations--even when his son made enough money to support his old man.

According to Bret, Gable turned for solace--and, not infrequently, at least at the beginning of his career--money to men. The rumors about Gable having been gay-for-pay at the beginning of his career have persisted through the years during and long after his death.

Warren Harris, who wrote a far more conventional biography in 2002, barely touches on the rumors. But for Bret, they're a key to his personality. Or, at any rate, they're something that appears to fascinate Bret to the point of mania.

The emphasis on all of the same-sex carrying on in Hollywood is a never-ending source of interest to the author. I don't know what Bret's sexual orientation (or, should we say, self-identification?), nor do I much care. He acknowledges his wife in his frontispiece.

But then, early on, in a comment on one of Gable's early screen appearances, he comes out with this howler: "In extreme close-ups he is almost feminine in composition, like that of a modern day Bel Ami gay porn star, almost too beautiful to be true."

Now I couldn't care two figs about Bret's sexuality or what he does in private or would like to, because it shouldn't make any difference to the subject at hand. But I cannot, will not, understand how anyone but an aficionado of male porn could be so knowledgeable about the aesthetics of the Bel Ami productions.

Bret seems to have an ax to grind here. He seems to resent that Gable got away with his gay exploits. Over and over again, he hammers away at "incidents" that threatened to "expose" Gable's gay life.

After the suicide of fellow Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer conract star Ross Alexander, reportedly because of blackmail from a hustler, Bret reports Gable as being ushered into studio head Louis B. Mayer's office and threatened that "There but for the grace of God go you!"

Mayer's continual hanging of the Damoclean sword of outing over Gable's head (as if any studio head would ever do that in those days) is one of the book's' main threads. Harris writes about Gable's dislike of Mayer, and Mayer's distrust of Gable. But he nowhere attributes Mayer's power over Gable as anything but monetary.

Typical of Bret's posturing is this passage exploring Gable's personality. He calls him "the archetypal repressed bisexual, the hallmarks of which were clearly evident in his early years: his marriages to strong, significantly older women frequently of Sapphic orientation. Like Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, Randolph Scott and a host of other 'he men,' he would quite unnecessarily overplay the machismo and take immense pains to conceal a feminine side that if brought to the fore would have made him a great actor instead of an inordinately good one."

If you parse that, it reveals how dumb the thoughts behind it are. Cary Grant never underplayed his soft side. In "I Was a Male War Bride," he famously dresses in a negligee and prances around screaming "I've gone gay!" (the first time the word used that way in films, incidentally). Even Rock Hudson had some subversive fun playing with his true sexuality, when he acted like a "sissy" in some of the Doris Day sex romps. And since when are male bisexuals attracted only to older women?

Bret's obsession with gayness extends to nearly every film and endeavor Gable was involved in. About "Red Dust," a sexy little film he made with his frequent bedmate Jean Harlow (probably the great love of his life after Carole Lombard and Joan Crawford): "Every male associated with the film was a screaming queen!"

The above also points to one of Bret's other annoying ticks. He uses exclamation points! All the time! Everywhere! Usually for no reason! The book is also riddled with grammatical errors and typos.

Most of the factual errors are just stupid and could have been corrected with a tiny bit of research. To take one minor example: He calls Aunt Pittypat in "Gone with the Wind" Melanie's (and hence, her brother Charles') mother. Nope, she was her aunt, which is why everyone, including Scarlett, calls her "Aunt" Pittypat. As Charles' widow, that would have made her her mother-in-law.

That's pretty minor compared to some of the howlers that litter this tome. More serious is accusing director Ernst Lubitsch of being a Nazi spy. According to Bret, FBI agents (called in at the instigation of Carole Lombard, no less) "discovered he was part of a Nazi espionage ring, was arrested and interned." A neat trick, since Lubitsch was German-Jewish. This is not only weird, but insulting.

He also has Mayer trying to bed young Judy Garland. He even has Scarlett, in that incredible fadeout that ends the first part of "Gone With the Wind," declaim "If I have to lie, cheadle, cheat or kill, I'll never be hungry again." Well, as long as she doesn't have to cheat, I guess.

OK, one more. Sorry, but I can't resist and anyway, this one's a howler. He says of Gable co-star Carroll Baker, Baker "who a few years earlier had shocked Middle America with her portroyal of the mentally retarded sex kitten in 'Lolita.'" Lolita wasn't retarded. She was played by Sue Lyon. And the film went into production years after the film Baker did with Gable.

Bret throws out that Gable was virulently anti-Semitic, as well as having a disgust for Asians (although he acknowledges that he was harbored no such prejudice toward blacks). Harris never mentions that, but even if it were true, it would require some back-up.

That's the problem. Bret's dealing with people who are long gone and can't defend themselves. His long secret history of Gable's male sex comes from his sharing bed quarters with an actor while he was learning his craft as part of a tumbledown troupe in the Pacific Northwest. But there's no indication they even fooled around, and dirt-poor actors sharing a room or a bed is hardly unusual.

The other "proofs" are an offhand comment Billy Haines apparently made to Joan Crawford and perhaps some others that he had Gable in the men's room of a Beverly Hills hotel. Haines, who was an out-gay actor and then decorator, may or may not have said it. But Bret never entertains the idea that maybe, just maybe, Haines was guilty of bragging rights for the one of the most desirable men in the world. Such things are known to happen.

The third leg in this shaky chair is Gable's ongoing friendship with journalist Ben Maddox. The two palled around for several years and took trips together. It never seems to occur to Bret that Maddox may have had other sides to him than his work and sex life and may actually have enjoyed some of those "manly" pursuits like hunting, fishing and camping without the late-night campfire circle jerk.

There are some interesting tidbits in here. And when Bret gets away from the gay crap long enough, he does fill out the Gable legend with some salient observations. He notes that, given Gable's serial adultery, his marriage to Lombard probably wouldn't have survived even if she hadn't died in a plane crash. And he's more honest about Gable's wartime service than Harris, even if he does kite his very real flights into enemy territory.

He also clarifies Gable's remarks about George Cukor, the original director of "Gone with the Wind." Gable apparently really did call him "that damned faggot"--and often. But never on the set. Harris ignores this whole aspect of the imbroglio between the two men.

But then, just as soon as you read something insightful, along comes a passage about how Gable was insulted that Irene Dunne christened a Naval vessel named after Lombard--when in fact, men never christen ships, only women, as per longstanding tradition.

That's not nearly as bad as all of the leering passages worthy of Confidential, the sleazy 1950s magazine Bret disdains, such a notation that, if you freeze frame the scene where Gable, as Fletcher Christian, frolics in Tahiti with Franchot Tone in "Mutiny on the Bounty," you can get a glimpse of Tone's private parts sticking through his sarong.

Such passages made me want to take a shower after reading this ridiculous excuse for a biography.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).


  • , 2011-07-03 17:44:55

    Mr. Weinstien, I believe the film you incorrectly reference as " I Was a Male War Bride " is , in fact, "Bringing up Baby " ( where Cary Grant dons a neglige and announces ’ I’ve gone gay all of sudden... ’... Not salient to your argument, per se, but when and editor is calling out another author on his fact checking,perhaps worth noting.

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