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Clark Gable, Top Actor or English Chicken Farmer?

Updated on October 20, 2011
Clark Gable
Clark Gable

Clark and Violet

In 1934 Clark Gable starred with Claudette Colbert in 'It Happened One Night' and his career, which hitherto had been coasting along slowly, took off like a rocket. He received an Academy Award for Best Actor and he became a household name. His manly physique and handsome features were broadcast all round the world, including to a small village picture house in Essex, England where one night an English housewife, Mrs Violet Norton, went to the movies.... and recognised him.

She certainly knew him. He might call himself fancy names like Clark 'Mr Big Star' Gable but she knew him as her ex-next door neighbour, Frank Billings, chicken farmer and her former lover..... and father of her child. It was tweve years since he had come knocking at her door but Violet Norton never forgot a face. He might be hitch-hiking round America with the likes of Miss Claudette Colbert but he was Frank Billings all right, and Violet Norton was going to remember herself to him.

Frank Billings and Claudette Colbert in 'It Happened One Night'
Frank Billings and Claudette Colbert in 'It Happened One Night'

Violet's Campaign

She mounted a campaign, firstly by writing letter after letter to Gable in America reminding him of their passionate embraces and demanding that he take full responsibility for their daughter, Gwendolyn, now aged 12 years. Then she set off for America.

Clark Gable, in the meantime, was continuing his highly successful career as one of the biggest name actors that Hollywood had ever known. He had received Violet's letters but....and this is the important bit....he wasn't Frank Billings, he had never been a chicken farmer in Essex or anywhere, and had never had a relationship with Mrs Violet Norton. OK, he was currently in the middle of a decades-long passionate affair with Joan Crawford, but that didn't count.

Gable ignored Violet's letters. In 1935 he was surprised to read an ad in a movie magazine asking him to contact Violet and he was even more surprised to hear from Mae West that she had received a letter from Violet requesting her help.

Violet (with thanks to Dear Mr
Violet (with thanks to Dear Mr

Violet was warming up. She decided that her campaign would gain momentum if she and Gwendolyn were on the same side of the Atlantic as the errant Frank posing as Gable, and she travelled to Vancouver, Canada, with Gwendolyn in late 1935. And she kept on writing. She sent a letter to the British Consul in Los Angeles, and to the United States District Attorney. It wasn't working. She would have to go to California in person. Violet can be accused of a number of things, but adopting half measures is not on the list. In 1936 she and Gwendolyn arrived in Hollywood together with a Canadian businessman admirer whom Violet had persuaded to fund her travels.

Once in Hollywood Violet started to make her presence felt. She hired a Private Investigator, one Jack Smith, who contacted Gable through the Motion Picture Producers Association and tried to persuade him to take a blood test and to set up to set up a trust fund for Gwendolyn. He also contacted the publicity department of MGM, the studio who 'owned' Gable, threatening to expose their star for the Frank Billings he really was. MGM knew an easy opponent when they saw one and they came out fighting, and their gloves were off.

They did an investigation of Violet Norton's behaviour since her arrival in America and concluded that she had been defrauding the US mail by fraudulently attempting to obtain money from Clark Gable on the claim that he was the father of her daughter.

They took the English housewife to court and the case became a cause celebre. Violet put up a spirited defence which amounted to one thing: Clark Gable was really chicken farmer Frank Billings and had fathered her child back in 1922. The press loved the spirit of this mousey looking, grey haired 40-something English woman who wouldn't give up. She referred to Gable dismissively as 'This 'ere Clark Gybles' when she took the stand and presented a photograph of Frank Billings in a British Army uniform. She swore that Billings and Gable were one and the same man, but, the massed forces of the legal department of MGM and the US mail were not to be trifled with. They brought out several high powered witnesses who made a compelling case against Violet.

Clark Gable, third left, with reporters during a refreshment break in the trial.
Clark Gable, third left, with reporters during a refreshment break in the trial.

Firstly, Assistant United States Attorney, Mr. Jack Powell stated under oath that Gable was not only an American citizen, but hadn't been issued a passport until 1930, eight years after supposedly fathering a child in England. Then the owner of a timber company where Gable was working in 1922 produced payroll vouchers proving that Gable was gainfully employed America during that time. They even produced Frank Billing's brother, Harry, who testified that Gable was in no way related to him.

Franz Dorfler

Finally Franz Dorfler took the stand. Back in 1922, when Clark Gable was a nondescript jobbing actor taking whatever work he could find, he had a sweetheart, a young actress, Franz Dorfler, and here she was to testify for him. Clark gallantly led his former sweetheart to and from the witness stand, kissing her on the cheek. She made it clear, under oath, that in the autumn of 1922 Clark had been a guest at her father's ranch in Oregon. She concluded her testimony stating that Clark had even proposed marriage and although she had refused, she was still Clark's number one fan.

Gable thanks Franz for her help
Gable thanks Franz for her help

The Verdict

The case was over bar the shouting. And it was Violet who did the shouting, screaming "He is the father of my child!" in the middle of the court, but she had no more ammunition, and like everyone else, she had to wait for for the verdict of the jury.

After less than 2 hours deliberation the verdict came back. Violet was guilty of using the US mail to defraud. She was sentenced to either a $10,000 fine or five years in prison. Her attorney appealed for a probationary sentence, which would allow her to leave the United States immediately and never return. And that is precisely what she did. She went back to Canada and then returned to her village in England. Violet had had her moment in the spotlight. She was not heard from again.

Not a Chicken Farmer
Not a Chicken Farmer | Source


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    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 7 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      It's all new to me, too, gunsock. An interesting story. I remember seeing "It Happened One Night" many years ago. It was indeed an excellent movie, and the acting was superb. Who could ever forget the hitchhiking scene?

    • entertianmentplus profile image

      entertianmentplus 7 years ago from United States

      Great hub thanks for sharing.

    • Silver Poet profile image

      Silver Poet 7 years ago from the computer of a midwestern American writer

      Fascinating bit of history. I never heard this before. Thumbs up!