Clark Gable & Joan Crawford: The Affair that Nearly Burned Hollywood Down

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One of the most notorious affairs in Hollywood history was undoubtedly the romantic liaison between Clark Gable and Joan Crawford that blossomed on the backlot of MGM. The two stars appeared in no less than eight films together and five of them (DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE; 1931, LAUGHING SINNERS; 1931, POSSESSED; 1931, CHAINED; 1934 and STRANGE CARGO; 1940) will air on TCM this coming Sunday (Aug. 25th) during the network’s ongoing Summer Under the Stars celebration. Today I thought I’d share some of Crawford’s memories of working with Gable as well as some of her personal observations about the actor who may have been the only man she ever truly loved.

There’s been a lot of speculation about Gable and Crawford’s affair and there seems to be some confusion about when and where their passionate romance was first ignited. Some have suggested that Crawford became enamored with Gable after she spotted him on an MGM set and if that’s true, it could have been during the making of Erich von Stroheim’s THE MERRY WIDOW (1925), where the two would-be stars were cast as uncredited extras. But their romance really didn’t begin to take shape until 1931 when Crawford insisted Gable play opposite her in DANCE, FOOL, DANCE. At the time Joan Crawford was blossoming into one of MGM’s most recognizable stars and she had the power to pick and choose her leading men. Both Gable and Crawford had similar rough and tumble backgrounds but his somewhat unconventional (at the time) good looks, sense of humor and easygoing attitude must have also held a lot of appeal. Before filming began Crawford admitted to being nervous about working with Gable due to his previous stage experience but that nervousness soon melted away when sparks started to fly between the two actors.

“I was a wreck. I kept thinking he knows how to read lines. I’m suffering in comparison. I recall vividly how, in one scene, he grabbed me and threatened my brother. Clark’s nearness had such an impact, my knees buckled. If he hadn’t held me by both shoulders I’d have dropped. Every girl on set remarked about him.”
– Joan Crawford, from The Golden Girls of MGM by Jane Ellen Wayne

“We were attracted to each other instantly. I had what he wanted and he had what I wanted. Call it chemistry, call it love at first sight, call it physical attraction. What’s the difference? The electricity between us sparked on screen. It wasn’t just acting; we meant every damn kiss and embrace. God, we both had balls in those days!”
– Joan Crawford, from Clark Gable by Chrystopher J. Spicer

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At the time that Gable and Crawford met he was married to his second wife, Maria ‘Ria’ Franklin, and Crawford was married to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. who was considered Hollywood royalty. Both marriages were troubled but no one could have guessed how serious Gable and Crawford’s affair would become. Following the success of DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE (1931), Crawford and Gable appeared in LAUGHING SINNERS (1931) together. The film got mixed reviews but what was happening behind the scenes may have been more interesting than what was on screen.

“I hit off a few sparks, on screen and off, with an up-and-coming young actor named Clark Gable.”
– Joan Crawford, from Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford by Donald Spoto

“I was falling into a trap that I warned young girls about–not to fall in love with their leading man. Boy, I had to eat those words, but they tasted very sweet . . . nobodies transformed into somebodies by Hollywood, and married to people who had tried to change us. We asked for it, brought it, had to live with it, but we were scared shitless. He was relieved to know I felt the same, even though I was a star and he wasn’t. God, how we talked and sometimes cried . . . Clark was the first one I could talk to candidly in Hollywood.”
– Joan Crawford, from Clark Gable by Chrystopher J. Spicer

The third film that Gable and Crawford appeared in was the career defining POSSESSED and by this time their affair had become explosive. Both actors were now big box office draws and movie audiences loved seeing them on screen together. But much to studio executives’ dismay, the romance didn’t just stay on screen and in-between takes Gable and Crawford would sneak away to a nearby beach house for romantic rendezvous.

“In the picture, we were madly in love. When the scenes ended, the emotion didn’t–we were each playing characters very close to our own.”
– Joan Crawford, from Clark Gable by Chrystopher J. Spicer

“Occasionally we’d break away early, go for a quiet ride along the sea. And all day long we’d seek each other’s eyes. It was glorious and hopeless. There seemed nothing we could do about it. There was no chance for us. We talked of marriage, of course. But I dared not ruin the dream. I’d rather live with them unfulfilled than have them broken.”
– Joan Crawford, from Long Live the King: A Biography of Clark Gable by Lyn Tornabene

“I think one of the sexiest scenes I ever did was with Clark Gable. I have to admit it’s easier to do an effectively sexy scene with an actor you are attracted to. Clark was the co-star on screen that I was most attracted to in all my years as an actress. I have to admit that I was more attracted to him off-screen. In POSSESSED, we had a scene in which he came up behind me and undid a string of pearls I was wearing. The string of pearls dropped to the floor. Fade to black and use your imagination.

Clark was all man. I’ve been asked many times about him and what was so attractive about him. I can tell you, and I can tell you in one word if you won’t be shocked: Balls! Clark Gable had balls. There were people who said we were having an affair. Well, they could say what they wanted, but the source of the information wasn’t me and it wasn’t Clark. We weren’t that kind of people. And I never saw any witnesses in the bedroom.”
– Joan Crawford, from Not the Girl Next Door: Joan Crawford: A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler

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During the making of POSSESSED Gable and Crawford’s relationship reportedly became public knowledge and MGM studio heads were not happy about it. According to journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns, their affair “nearly burned Hollywood down” thanks to the many people it implicated, including the studio itself which seemed complacent and almost encouraging. Louis B. Mayer is said to have finally demanded that the two stars end their relationship and even threatened to destroy their careers if they didn’t comply with his wishes. Gable and Crawford did separate and were later happily (by most accounts) married to other spouses but they never lost touch. It’s been suggested that their on-again/off-again romance lasted for nearly 30 years but we’ll probably never know the true extent of their steamy affair. The only real evidence we have are the movies they made together but there’s no denying that these two Hollywood giants made magic on screen.

“Lovemaking never felt with anyone like what it did with Clark.”
– Joan Crawford, from Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography by Lawrence J. Quirk & William Schoell

Further Reading:
- Crawford & Gable at Legendary Joan Crawford
- Gable and Crawford: King and Queen of Hollywood

20 Responses Clark Gable & Joan Crawford: The Affair that Nearly Burned Hollywood Down
Posted By Doug : August 22, 2013 11:37 pm

I admit it-my perception of Crawford was colored by “Mommie Dearest”. It isn’t fair, but there it is.
Growing up with no TCM, no Morlocks blog, no VHS even, Gable I knew from “Gone With The Wind” and Crawford was only a name, a Star from an earlier era who had something to do with Pepsi. I admit my ignorance. When “Mommie Dearest” came along I had very little else to base an opinion on.
Now, with all of the resources available through media, I am trying to educate myself about the Crawfords, the Lombards, the true stars of classic Hollywood. Just watched “The Great Ziegfeld” tonight, as I love to see Loy and Powell together. It was fine, and it was fascinating to see Fanny Brice, but the one to tug the heartstrings was Luise Rainer. The one to boo was Virginia Bruce, who could do mean/cynical like nobody’s business.
Back to Crawford/Gable-there may have been sparks, there may have been an affair, but what matters to me is on the screen.
If we knew the entire secret history of Hollywood, would we still be able to enjoy the films that we love?

Posted By Gene : August 23, 2013 1:31 pm

What an interesting write-up. Like Doug I am jaded a bit, both by Mommie Dearest and others things I have read – quotes and the such by an older Crawford. I recall something of her NYC apartment where she kept only silk plants because real ones collected too much dust. And, I am a Bette Davis devotee as well. I realize Davis in her personal life was hardly sainted. I always thought the young Crawford to be a stunningly beautiful woman, a very good actress, but I think the hardship of her early years and her later stardom took its toll on her. As to this affair – I guess I see this as somehow tragic more than romantic. What a price there is to be paid for those who seek the limelight.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 23, 2013 1:50 pm

I knew JC and CG had a steamy affair. Thanks for the quotes and the first-person account. I was always skeptical of Mommy Dearest, esp. with Crawford not around to defend herself and the battle over her estate after she died. I am sure she had her dark side but the only people who don’t have a dark side are those who are really boring. And, Crawford was never boring — onscreen or off.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : August 23, 2013 2:01 pm

From bits I’ve read over the years, Crawford was not approved of by Fairbanks Senior or his second wife, Mary Pickford. Fairbanks, Jr. and his father had had a rocky relationship and as an adult, Jr. tried to patch things up. I am sure that the fact his father and stepmom didn’t like his wife didn’t help that marriage at all. Then, enter Clark Gable, not too difficult to see how all of that led to an affair.

Posted By swac44 : August 23, 2013 3:56 pm

I knew Carol Burnett’s version of Joan Crawford years before I ever saw one of her movies, and only knew Mommy Dearest by reputation, but once I saw Mildred Pierce I became fascinated, fuelled even further by watching Whatever Happened to Baby Jane shortly after. It feels like I’ve still only really scratched the surface of her career (a few pre-codes, some ’40s melodrama, a few ’60s thrillers), and need to see more of her pairings with Gable, but it’s nice to know there’s still some great stuff to discover.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 23, 2013 5:07 pm

I love Joan Crawford and I hope this post shows people another side of her personality that’s too often overlooked. She was a real romantic! And a lot of the friends she made in Hollywood were friends for life. She & Gable remained very close until he died.

As for “Mommie Dearest” … I have no sympathy for child abusers, especially since I suffered some pretty serious abuse myself, but the book’s been proven to contain a lot of misinformation & flat out lies. And the silly movie based on the book was almost a complete fabrication. Like Suzi, I don’t think Crawford was an angel (who is?) and she obviously had some serious problems including an ongoing battle with alcoholism, but I think it’s sad that “Mommie Dearest” has come to define her.

For a different look at Crawford I recommend visiting the Legendary Joan Crawford website that I linked to above (Crawford’s grandson contributes) and Vanity Fair published an interesting article about the book and it’s impact on Crawford’s legacy that worth a read: “Daughter Dearest” http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2008/03/crawford200803

Posted By LD : August 23, 2013 5:40 pm

The only Gable and Crawford movie I have seen is DANCING LADY a few years ago and I don’t remember much about it. Crawford gives a wonderful performance in MILDRED PIERCE but I think she gives an even better one in 1947′s POSSESSED. This is not the 1931 POSSESSED with Gable that will be shown Sunday on TCM. To me she is her most beautiful in HUMORESQUE.

Posted By George : August 23, 2013 7:16 pm

The 1931 POSSESSED is an excellent pre-Code melodrama. Also try to see the hard-boiled DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE (1931) and the very strange, quasi-religious STRANGE CARGO (1940).

Posted By medusamorlock : August 23, 2013 9:37 pm

Lovely and exciting post, Kimberly!

So many of us forget what a gorgeous and talented actress Crawford was, and Gable’s image is all wrapped up in the Confederate flag from GWTW. Great to read about them both as flesh and blood people and performers who were tremendously popular and touched audiences so deeply.

What you’ve written will make us all take another look at both these actors! Even proper MGM couldn’t squelch those flames!

Posted By jbryant : August 24, 2013 3:22 pm

One of my favorite Crawford films is Otto Preminger’s shamefully underrated DAISY KENYON (1947), which also features what may be Dana Andrews’ best performance.

The only Gable/Crawford vehicle I’ve seen is STRANGE CARGO, which I liked a lot.

Posted By Aurora : August 25, 2013 3:25 pm

I’m fascinated by these two – individually and together – and never tire of reading about or watching them. Thank you for the pingback to THE KING AND QUEEN OF HOLLYWOOD write-up.

Aurora

Posted By LD : August 25, 2013 4:12 pm

Thanks George for recommending DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE and 1931′s POSSESSED. Found both totally enjoyable.

Posted By Grace : August 25, 2013 4:20 pm

Joan Crawford was stunningly beautiful is her 30s films. Her acting continued to improve in the 4os and 5os. One of my favorite Crawford film’s is Harriet Craig. I think Crawford was a strong female in her films and I admire her for that. I love to see Crawford and Gable together. They made such a gorgeous couple and their chemistry was palpable. I would’ve loved to have met her…

Posted By Amy : August 26, 2013 9:26 am

Crawford AND Gable fan here. I don’t think the studios served Crawford very well in their choices of leading men for her – often they didn’t seem to be able to hold their own against her forceful presence. Often, at least to this viewer, it doesn’t seem likely that any character she played would have been involved with them at all seriously.

Gable is one of the few exceptions to that rule. Check out “Strange Cargo” sometime – TCM shows it fairly frequently. Frank Borzage directed which is just another great reason to see it.

Whenever I’m watching Crawford at her best, I always think of how she said she learned so much from watching Lon Chaney. Like many here I grew up with the shadow of “Mommie Dearest” over Crawford’s reputation and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to reconsider her work through Turner Classic.

Posted By robbushblog : August 26, 2013 11:24 am

I love Mildred Pierce and I love Joan’s turn as the sexy, bitchy “other woman” in The Women. I also admit that my opinions of her have been colored by Mommie Dearest and by the opinions of the females in my family who do not like her at all. I, however, have come around to notice how very attractive she was early on and what a superb talent she had.

There was no problem seeing Clark Gable in a positive light in my home growing up though. He was highly adored and still remains one of the favorite actors of the women in my family, and the star of the favorite movie of half of them. One guess what that movie is.

Posted By swac44 : August 26, 2013 1:38 pm

Hmmm….Callaway Went Thataway?

Posted By vp19 : August 28, 2013 1:24 pm

Crawford indeed was a superb actress with the right material, and much of her early ’30s work is sublime, but to me the main reason she doesn’t get the respect she deserves is that she never quite got the hang of or feel for comedy, unlike contemporaries such as Lombard, Loy, Colbert or others. (Stanwyck was at home in comedies — heck, she was at home in virtually every genre — and future Crawford foe Bette Davis rarely got a chance to do comedy at Warners after the end of the pre-Code era, though she was capable the few times she was given a comedic property.) Save for “The Women” and a few other vehicles, Joan simply lacked the deftness required for comedy. Sub Myrna or Carole for her in “Love On The Run,” one of her teamings with Gable, and a decent comedy would have turned into a good or potentially great one.

Posted By swac44 : August 31, 2013 9:42 am

It’s also possible that she never really got the chance to do enough comedy, it feels like the studios just wanted to see her in weepers or thrillers. I’m currently watching Laughing Sinners, and she does a great hayseed dance number early on that shows a lot of physical dexterity and Joan smiles like she’s having a great time doing it. The result is quite funny, until Joan takes off the fake nose and beard, and the legs to her coveralls, and really gets down to business.

I really need to go back and watch her silent flapper pics Our Dancing Daughters and Our Modern Maidens one of these days.

Posted By George : August 31, 2013 4:36 pm

The early Crawford talkie UNTAMED (1929) is a fascinating antique. Neither she or Robert Montgomery could act very well at that point — and they certainly couldn’t sing — but it doesn’t matter. They have sheer movie star charisma.

Someone (maybe Leonard Maltin?) once said UNTAMED is, by any objective standard, a terrible movie. But it’s oddly fascinating and likeable.

OUR MODERN MAIDENS is superior to the more famous OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS,in my opinion. It’s worth watching just to see Fairbanks Jr. doing parodies of John Gilbert and his father.

Posted By The MGM Birthday Photo, 1943 | silence cunning exile … maple syrup : October 7, 2013 5:52 pm

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