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"What Hath Gable Got?" Rhett Butler in "It Happened One Night" [by David Lehman]

It Happened One Night posterII could have called it "Hail to the King" or "Odysseus Hitches a Ride," but I went with "What Hath Gable Got?" for my American Scholar piece on the actor who played Rhett Butler & won Claudete Colbert's heart in "It Happened One Night":

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 Happened One Night 2It 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.

It_Happened_One_NightGable 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.

For the rest of this piece, click here to reach the current "Talking Pictures" column on the web site of The American Scholar.

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"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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