The current image of Gable is that of a macho, yet amiable romantic, a charming rogue...and with that mustache, he's viewed as sort of a precursor to Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck. But if you took a journey back to 1931, you'd find a Gable who was a rogue, all right -- a menacing one.
The above shot is Gable, with Norma Shearer, in "A Free Soul," the film that put Clark on the map when it was released in June 1931. It wasn't just the lack of a mustache that made him look so menacing, though to our eyes it does in retrospect. Rather, it was his attitude, as gangster Ace Wilfong, that made him such a threat.
American film was changing, and with it the view of masculinity; the "great lover" epitomized by John Gilbert and Ramon Novarro seemed out of place in sound film. Tougher characters were needed and in 1931, they came.
In January, Edward G. Robinson lit up the screens as Rico in "Little Caesar." Three months later, Warners stablemate James Cagney soared to stardom in "The Public Enemy." Gable completed the triumvirate of gangsters, but he was clearly different than Robinson or Cagney. Not only was he substantially larger than either one, creating a more intimidating cinematic presence, but as Mick LaSalle writes in "Dangerous Men," his fine pre-Code complement to "Complicated Women":
"His criminals were scarier than Robinson's or Cagney's, perhaps because nothing in his manner suggested a connection to some humble past that made him vulnerable or hungry. If the Gable gangster had a single weakness, it was an inexplicable hint of self-disgust, wholly not present in Cagney's crooks and, at most, only latent in Robinson's."
That's Leslie Howard, who would work with a far different Gable eight years later in "Gone With The Wind," in the first picture. He plays Shearer's genteel fiance, who is simply no match for Gable.
Whereas Cagney and Robinson were the leads in their breakthrough films, Gable was a supporting player -- albeit a crucial one -- in "A Free Soul." It was Lionel Barrymore, as an attorney, who claimed the best actor Academy Award in that film. Had there been a best supporting actor category in 1931, Gable almost certainly would have been nominated...and given the impact he had, he'd have stood a good chance of winning.
Gable appeared in 12 films during 1931, and while few of them were lead roles, almost all capitalized on his magnetism. Here's Gable with Anita Page (who had a lead role in the 1929 best picture winner, "The Broadway Melody," and is now 97) from the Constance Bennett vehicle "The Easiest Way":
Or how about Gable and...Greta Garbo? Here's the only film they made together, "Susan Lenox: Her Fall And Rise":
Gable also made his first films with two future screen partners, working with Joan Crawford in "Dance, Fools, Dance" and Jean Harlow in "The Secret Six." He was loaned out to Warners, where he played a scheming chauffeur in "Night Nurse" with Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell.
And speaking of that...imagine an alternate universe where Gable was a Warners player and Robinson was on MGM's roster. Both things very well could have happened.
It's Hollywood legend how Warners rejected Gable in 1930, ostensibly because his ears were too big. (Several other studios did likewise.) But according to LaSalle, in 1930, Robinson, who had achieved considerable success on the New York stage, was offered a three-year, $1 million contract from MGM. However, Robinson wanted four months off each year to do live theater, something Irving Thalberg wouldn't allow. While Robinson initially regretted passing up the big money, it surely was the right decision; his tough urban style turned out to be better-suited for Warners. An MGM Robinson might have been more urbane, but lacking that pizzazz that made him a star. Conversely, could Gable have thrived at Warners, especially since his appeal was similar, but not identical, to Cagney's?
Gable's persona would gradually evolve during 1932 and '33. He was still dangerous, and threatening, but his personality was becoming more well-rounded. Having Crawford and Harlow as leading ladies also softened his edge a little, just as Blondell did for Cagney.
If you're not familiar with the very early Gable, rent "A Free Soul" or some of his other pre-Code fare. It will be a revelation. And that includes a certain film he made while on loan to Paramount in late 1932...