Happy birthday, Clark Gable!
Clark Gable may be best-known for his performance as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, but for my money, he gave us some of his most memorable characters during the pre-Code era. In celebration of his birth, 113 years ago today, I offer you my favorite Gable pre-Code films.
The Easiest Way (1931)
This feature stars Constance Bennett as Laura Murdock, a working girl who finds her way to Easy Street when she becomes the mistress of a wealthy older man (Adolphe Menjou). Gable was featured as Nick, Laura’s brother-in-law, who is none-too-approving of her lifestyle. Amiable, hard-working, and very much in love with his wife, Peg (Anita Page), Nick was a bit of a moralistic ass where Laura was concerned, sniping about her pulling up to his house in a limo and refusing to allow Peg to accept her sister’s fancy hand-me-downs (“My wife don’t have to wear the castoffs of a woman like you.”) But he turned out to be a good egg in the end.
A Free Soul (1931)
Oooh, whee! Gable was something else in this one, portraying gang leader Ace Wilfong (don’t know where they got that name from), who catches the eye of a free-spirited society gal when her dipsomaniac dad defends him for murder. We have no problem seeing why the attorney’s daughter, Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer), falls for Ace – he’s powerful, fearless, and sexy as hell. Later on, though, we’re cheering Jan’s efforts to get as far away from this guy as she can!
Night Nurse (1931)
Speaking of wanting to get away from guys, Gable’s character in Night Nurse was 10 times worse than Ace Wilfong ever aspired to be – he portrayed another guy named Nick, this time a dastardly chauffeur whose dirty deeds include trying to kill the two young offspring of his alcoholic employer. He also socks nurse Barbara Stanwyck in the jaw. Bastard!
I loved Gable through and through in this one. He played moneyed attorney Mark Whitney, who has a longtime affair with admitted gold-digger Marian Martin (Joan Crawford), transforming her into a lady and falling for her in the process. There was everything to love and (almost) nothing to dislike – except maybe his reluctance to marry the obviously devoted Marian. But we forgive him even that.
Red Dust (1932)
In one of Gable’s best-known pre-Code features, he played rubber plantation owner Dennis Carson, a real man’s man whose magnetism attracted both down-to-earth, good-time gal Vantine (Jean Harlow), and high-class married woman Barbara Willis (Mary Astor). If you look too close, Dennis was actually kind of a jerk – he was rude and intolerant with the workers on his plantation, treated poor Vantine like trash, and had an affair with Barbara under her husband’s nose – but you were still rooting for him in the end.
Hold Your Man (1933)
Here, Gable was re-teamed with Jean Harlow, this time playing a small-time con man who goes on the lam when he delivers a lucky punch that’s not so lucky after all. Once again, Gable managed to create a likable persona out of a character with less than stellar morals. This is definitely Harlow’s film, but Gable’s character, Eddie, is very much a presence throughout. (Plus, it’s got that great title song!)
So, those are my favorite Clark Gable pre-Codes – what are some of yours?