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Clark Gable's Rise to Movie Stardom in 1931

Updated on December 13, 2016

Introduction

Clark Gable is one of the biggest names in Hollywood history, and he emerged as a star in one amazing twelve-month period.

At the beginning of 1931, Gable was a supporting actor who had played a few bit parts in movies in the mid-1920s before switching over to live theater for a few years.

By the end of 1931, he had established himself as one of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's most valuable contract players, and earned star billing with such famous actresses as Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford.

The road to Gable's breakthrough year started in the middle 1920's, when he attempted to break into movies during the silent film era. He could do no better than small uncredited parts, so he decided to hone his skills on the stage in New York and on the west coast

By 1930, Gable had established himself in the theater world. That year, he starred in the Los Angeles run of the play The Last Mile, which was a "considerable hit," according to Howard Soames in the June 22, 1930 edition of of the Oakland (California) Tribune.

Gable's stage work also attracted the attention of movie actor and director Lionel Barrymore, who arranged for a screen test with Barrymore's studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The screen test did not earn Gable a role, but that didn't deter his agent Mina Wallis from finding him other film work.

Wallis' efforts paid off with a role in the RKO Pathé western The Painted Desert. While Gable was working on that movie in October 1930, Wallis found roles for him in three more films.

Two were at Warner Bros.-First National Pictures, where Wallis' brother Hal Wallis was a production executive. The third movie was at MGM, where Mina Wallis took advantage of her friendship with MGM star actress Norma Shearer, who was married to the MGM head of production Irving Thalberg. Gable's small roles in these movies enabled him to move quickly from one picture to the next, which would help with his public exposure when the movies were released.

After The Painted Desert, Gable moved on to the MGM assignment, The Easiest Way. Hollywood columnist Louella O. Parsons reported that Gable had turned down a role in the Louis Bromfield play Twenty-four Hours to take the part in The Easiest Way (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 3, 1930).

Gable then moved over to the Warner Bros.-First National Pictures studio, where he played parts in The Finger Points and Night Nurse.

A preview screening of The Easiest Way in November 1930 helped persuade Irving Thalberg to sign Gable to a contract in December 1930. From there, Gable jumped on the famous MGM assembly line and didn't get off until almost 25 years later in 1954.

Thalberg was investing in Gable as a potential new star of the new era of sound pictures, along with other actors like Robert Montgomery (who became a prominent leading man for MGM) and John Mack Brown (who ended up in B pictures as a cowboy). Gable's roles in MGM pictures gradually increased through 1931, helped along by critical praise and fan mail.

An article about Gable's MGM contract in the December 21, 1930 edition of The Detroit Free Press reported that "It is said that Gable is one of the finest young actors to come to pictures from the stage."

The optimism about Gable continued in Wood Soames' "Curtain Calls" column in the December 24, 1930 edition of the Oakland (California) Tribune:

Clark Gable is being looked up to as the newest find in Hollywood. Gable has been dabbling in stock and stage productions around Los Angeles for years without being able to crash the movies. But the magnates saw him in "The Last Mile" on the stage and now they can't find enough jobs for him.

Gable's twelve movies in 1931 were also his first sound pictures. He played villains in most of his early movies, before MGM realized his star value and cast him in a wider variety of roles.

Gable brought an aggressiveness to romantic roles that helped make him a new kind of male actor for the new era of the talking picture.

An article by Hollywood columnist Harrison Carroll in the March 12, 1931 edition of the Shamokin (Pennsylvania) News-Dispatch described part of Gable's appeal after he had appeared in several movies:

One of Hollywood's feminine stars described Gable to me as the most menacing man she had ever met. "But he is attractive," she said.

Further proof of Gable's growing importance came two months later, in another Harrison Carroll column in the May 15, 1931 edition of the Shamokin News-Dispatch:

This year's phenomenon is Clark Gable, who is soaring toward stardom at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Brought out here to do "The Last Mile," he got into the films, and has been furiously juggled ever since, from heavy roles to leads. He played the gambler in Norma Shearer's "A Free Soul," and he will be Greta Garbo's lead in "The Fall and Rise of Susan Lenox." Now they've assigned him to play Wally Beery's pal in "Sea Eagles." [the property that became Hell Divers]

Here are the twelve movies with Clark Gable that came out in 1931, in the order in which they were released, according to a general survey of movie advertising in 1931 and early 1932. The general release period of each movie is in parentheses.

The Indianapolis Star, August 9, 1931
The Indianapolis Star, August 9, 1931
The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, February 20, 1931
The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, February 20, 1931

The Painted Desert (January-March 1931)

This RKO Pathé western starred William Boyd, a silent film veteran who later became famous as Hopalong Cassidy. It also starred Helen Twelvetrees and William Farnum.

Gable played a villain who dynamites Boyd's tungsten mine and is also attracted to Boyd's sweetheart Twelvetrees.

"Clark Gable, whose experience on the screen is limited but whose excellent work speaks well for his film future, plays Brett, the villain." (The Detroit Free Press, January 31, 1931)

Dance, Fools, Dance (February 1931)

This MGM drama starred Joan Crawford as a spoiled society girl who becomes a crime reporter when her family is ruined by the stock market crash. She conducts undercover research on bootlegger Gable by getting hired as an entertainer in his nightclub.

"Miss Crawford has excellent support in William Bakewell, Lester Vail, and Clark Gable, the latter a clever actor, playing a gangster role somewhat along the lines of those that made Chster Morris famous, and yet entirely individual." (The Detroit Free Press, February 15, 1931)

"Clark Gable, as the gangster chieftain, gives an excellent performance as the racketeer." (Reading (Pennsylvania) Times, February 23, 1931)

Detroit Free Press, February 14, 1931
Detroit Free Press, February 14, 1931

The Easiest Way (February-March 1931)

This MGM romantic drama starred Constance Bennett, who played a working girl who was divided between her true love Robert Montgomery and the rich Adolphe Menjou, and ends up as a streetwalker.

Gable played the husband of Anita Page, the sister of Bennett. The married life of Gable and Page is contrasted with the rougher path taken by Bennett. Gable and Page eventually take Bennett into their home.

"Anita Page, sister of 'Laura' [Constance Bennett's character], repeats as 'Peg' her triumphs of 'Our Blushing Brides.' Clark Gable is excellent as Anita's husband." (The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, February 13, 1931)

The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), February 22, 1931
The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), February 22, 1931

The Finger Points (April 1931)

In this Warner Bros. crime drama, silent film star Richard Barthelmess played a newspaper reporter who is bribed by underworld chiefs to keep their names out of the newspaper. This film also starred future King Kong star Fay Wray. It was released around the same time as the Warner Bros. crime classics The Public Enemy and Little Caesar.

Gable played one of the underworld figures who deals with Barthelmess.

"Clark Gable, whose rise has been rapid since he made his film debut in 'The Painted Desert' a short time ago, has a role similar to the character he played in 'Dance, Fools, Dance,' an underworld leader." (The Detroit Free Press, April 11, 1931)

"Clark Gable gives another of his impressive gangster portrayals in the role of an underworld chieftain." (The Brooklyn (New York) Daily Eagle, April 4, 1931)

The Charleston Daily Mail, April 12, 1931
The Charleston Daily Mail, April 12, 1931

The Secret Six (April-May 1931)

In this MGM crime drama, Wallace Beery starred as a murderous mobster. The supporting cast included several future stars (Gable, Jean Harlow, Ralph Bellamy).

Gable played a newspaper reporter who is assigned to uncover the connection between Beery's gang and city politicians. Gable falls in love with Beery's girlfriend Harlow, who helps Gable expose Beery's crimes.

During the filming of The Secret Six, Gable's part was built up by screenwriter Frances Marion, according to Irving Thalberg: Life and Legend, by Bob Thomas.

Valley Morning Star (Harlingen, Texas), April 19, 1931
Valley Morning Star (Harlingen, Texas), April 19, 1931

Laughing Sinners (May-June 1931)

This MGM drama originally starred Joan Crawford and John Mack Brown, but a preview showing of the movie led MGM to re-shoot Brown's scenes with Gable.

Gable played a Salvation Army officer who helps Joan Crawford get over a bad love affair.

This was the first movie in which Gable was described in reviews as having a lead role, and the first movie in which his name was prominently featured in display advertising in newspapers.

"Clark Gable, the solid and appealing reporter in 'The Secret Six,' is the impressive Salvation Salvation Army man." (The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, May 30, 1931)

"Clark Gable, who plays opposite Miss Crawford, is rapidly rising to the heights of stardom. A newcomer to the screen, in other pictures he has made the role of gangster realistic. In 'Laughing Sinners,' the first picture in which he has played a lead, he proves his exceptional versatility as an actor." (The Ludington (Michigan) Daily News, June 8, 1931)

Detroit Free Press, May 28, 1931
Detroit Free Press, May 28, 1931
Detroit Free Press, June 17, 1931
Detroit Free Press, June 17, 1931

Free Soul (June-July 1931)

In this MGM drama, Norma Shearer has an affair with Gable, who played gambler Ace Wolfgang, a gangster who was saved from execution by Shearer's lawyer father Lionel Barrymore. Shearer's fiancee Leslie Howard later kills Gable, and is defended by Barrymore, who won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance.

Gable rough treatment of Shearer in a scene where he slams her into a chair has been cited as a major turning point in his career. It also helped change the image of the male leading man, according to Bob Thomas in Thalberg: Life and Legend:

Along came Gable, who shoved his sweethearts around and made them like it. Men envied and admired such technique, and they saw in Gable something more than a ladies' man.

"Gable is much better cast in this picture as the ruthless, domineering gambler with whom the girl (Miss Shearer) is infatuated than he was as the Salvation Army drummer in 'Laughing Sinners,' with Joan Crawford, in which he was recently seen here. This young man has large talents and a personality as intriguing as that of any stage or screen player that might be brought to mind." (The Detroit Free Press, June 17, 1931)

"Clark Gable, a newcomer to the screen, is a perfect gangster—but we're afraid he will die out simultaneously with gangster films." (Dan Thomas, Newspaper Enterprise Association Service Writer, Times Herald (Olean, New York), May 11, 1931)

Night Nurse (July-August 1931)

In this Warner Bros. drama, Barbara Stanwyck played a nurse on the night shift who discovers a plot to kill two young children in an attempt to get their inheritance. Also appearing was Joan Blondell before she became a familiar face in many of the great Warner Bros. musicals of the 1930s.

Gable played a chauffeur who was one of the conspirators to poison the children. In one very dramatic scene, Gable slugs Stanwyck, who later got revenge on Gable.

"Clark Gable is effective as Nick, a shady chauffeur who finally gets as good and as bad as he deserves." (The Post-Crescent (Appleton, Wisconsin), July 18, 1931)

"If our friend Clark isn't careful, his present popularity will go glimmering, unless the producers give him a 'break' once and awhile and cast him in something besides a gangster, racketeer, or bad-man part. The public gets fed up on the continual round of crime, and this man Gable is too good an actor to be constantly appearing in this type of picture." (Kossuth County Advance (Algona, Iowa), July 30, 1931)

Detroit Free Press, July 16, 1931
Detroit Free Press, July 16, 1931

Sporting Blood (July-September 1931)

In this MGM horse racing drama, Gable was top-billed for the first time. Autographed pictures of Gable were handed out to women at several showings of Sporting Blood.

Madge Evans was Gable's love interest in Sporting Blood and helped him out of some crooked dealings involving a thoroughbred race horse named Tommy Boy.

The success of this movie helped prove to MGM executives that Gable could be a strong box office draw without a top female star like Joan Crawford or Norma Shearer.

"Clark Gable is his customary ominous (but, in this movie, kind-hearted) self." (The Detroit Free Press, August 1, 1931)

"Clark Gable is the hero of the tale and quite likable despite the fact that he does little that is heroic." (The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, August 8, 1931)

Harrisburg Telegraph, August 6, 1931
Harrisburg Telegraph, August 6, 1931

Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (October-November 1931)

In this MGM romantic drama, Gable played a construction engineer who falls in love with Swedish farm girl Greta Garbo after she stumbles upon his cabin while fleeing from an unhappy love situation. They are later separated but are re-united by the end of the movie.

Susan Lenox was the only film that co-starred Greta Garbo and Clark Gable, who made several movies with other MGM leading ladies like Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and Jean Harlow.

"Miss Garbo certainly has done nothing better on the screen than her Susan, whose innate fineness she makes shine through all that is sordid and repellent. Young Gable is a good actor and knows his way about in the game, aside from his looks and undoubted personality appeal. They make a great pair, and it is safe to assume the combination will not be overlooked in the future." (The Detroit Free Press, October 9, 1931)

"Gable in playing the lead opposite Garbo essays his first straight romantic role. In his short time on the screen he has built up an enormous following." (The Cincinnati Enquirer, October 11, 1931)

Detroit Free Press, October 8, 1931
Detroit Free Press, October 8, 1931

Possessed (November-December 1931)

In this MGM romantic drama, Gable played a millionaire who gets involved with factory girl Joan Crawford. Gable's political ambitions force him to keep the relationship secret, but his political enemies find out about the relationship and try to exploit it.

"Plenty of water has flowed under the cinema bridges since the good looking Mr. Gable played a cave man gangster with Miss Crawford in 'Dance, Fools, Dance,' and made such a hit that it started him on the road to screen fame. Now he is co-starred with Joan after having played leading man to Miss Garbo and is firmly established with film fans." (The Detroit Free Press, November 13, 1931)

"This personable young man, Gable, whose rise in pictures has been sensational, now is being talked of as a 'second Valentino,' which is really unfair for he is a better actor." (Moberly (Missouri) Monitor-Index, November 21, 1931)

Detroit Free Press, November 12, 1931
Detroit Free Press, November 12, 1931

Hell Divers (December 1931 - February 1932)

In this MGM aviation drama, Gable and Wallace Beery were-re-united with director George Hill, who had directed them earlier in the year in The Secret Six. Gable and Beery played rival naval aviators, with Dorothy Jordan as Gable's love interest.

This movie was the most popular of Gable's 1931 movies for MGM, according to Clark Gable: A Biography by Warren G. Harris.

Hell Divers was released in New York and Hollywood at the end of 1931, before going into national release in early 1932.

"Both Mr. Beery and Mr. Gable bring splendid performances to their roles." (The Brooklyn (New York) Daily Eagle, December 24, 1931)

"Next to him [Beery] is the screen's latest feminine crush, Clark Gable, who isn't bad either in a subordinate role." (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 16, 1932)

Gable completed his amazing year by appearing in the MGM short subject The Christmas Party, which featured many stars of the studio.

The Brooklyn (New York) Daily Eagle, December 24, 1931
The Brooklyn (New York) Daily Eagle, December 24, 1931

Sources

Crowther, Bosley. The Lion's Share: The Story of an Entertainment Empire. E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1957.

Eames, John Douglas. The MGM Story. Crown Publishers, Inc., 1979.

Harris, Warren G. Clark Gable: A Biography. Harmony Books, 2002.

Hirschhorn, Clive. The Warner Bros. Story. Crown Publishers, Inc., 1979.

Jewell, Richard B. The RKO Story. Octopus Books, 1982.

Thomas, Bob. Thalberg: Life and Legend. New Millennium Press, 2000 (Originally published in 1969 by Doubleday & Company, Inc.)

Newspapers.com (Newspaper quotations and images)

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