What an irony that Clark Gable’s last picture at MGM would be called Betrayed, because that’s exactly how Gable felt when the company that had ridden his back for two decades suddenly dumped him in 1954, the last of Hollywood’s Golden Era stars to be let go. Right about now he could have used Carole Lombard’s advice on “how to be a free agent.” As it was, Gable made several mediocre pictures in a row because now he was taking on scripts that had not been tailor-made to fit the King and his brand. He was just earning a paycheck. Then late in 1956 he considered an offer that must have made him smile the famous Gable smile, and for several reasons.
Band of Angels was a hot property at the time, a bestselling Civil War novel by Robert Penn Warren about a highborn Southern belle, Amantha Starr, who learns upon the death of her father that she is really a half-caste, born of his black mistress. As a result she’s chattel, loses everything, and is sold into slavery.
Warner Bros. owned the rights, and it was Jack Warner himself who reached out to Gable to play Hamish Bond, Southern plantation owner with a dark past. I imagine Pa heard Ma’s voice in his head squealing for him to take the part, how he’d be great in it, Rhett Butler all over again, his greatest triumph, the role everyone knew him for. Clark Gable back in the Civil War. It was a can’t-miss proposition, especially since Gone With the Wind had been reissued in 1947 and 1954 and still packed ’em in. Always packed ’em in.
Gable was expert at playing 50 shades of himself and never, once he became a star, enacted an out-and-out villain. Gable didn’t go taking risks like John Wayne just had with The Searchers because, as noted in Fireball, Clark was an insecure actor and sought to play it safe. Friends and directors alike noted his limited range and said there was a “Gable way” to do things. So Rhett Butler was going to resemble Gable and Hamish Bond was going to resemble Gable and any way you looked at it, with Gable’s Rhett aboard, Band of Angels couldn’t miss.
Warner Bros. at the time was still a thriving studio and for the next 20 years would continue to stare down the unblinking eye of television and turn out hit pictures. Bold-as-brass Jack Warner loved the idea of luring the King to Burbank for a Civil War epic and offered him 10 percent of the net skimmed right off the top. As added incentive, all the Band of Angels exteriors would be shot on location in Louisiana, at The Cottage plantation in St. Francisville, north of Baton Rouge, and on—or in front of—the last of the old-time paddleboats, the Gordon C. Greene. The location work offered Clark and his bride of two-plus years, the former Kay Spreckels, a chance to travel together and be treated like, well, a king and his queen.
But sometimes sure things don’t work out. Sometimes planes smack into mountains for no good reason. Band of Angels was not, in the end, another Gone With the Wind. In fact, in execution and through no fault of Gable’s, it burst into flames like one of Hamish Bond’s sugar cane fields. Yes, Clark and Kay went on location, and, yes, they were treated like royalty, made the rounds, were feted, toasted, given keys to cities, and crushed by fans. Yes, Clark played Rhett Butler all over again and putting him back in sets and wardrobe depicting the antebellum South took 10 years off his appearance and son of a gun if he didn’t become Rhett Butler again. What was missing was David O. Selznick fretting and caressing and adding layer after layer of nuance, and throwing hundreds of thousands of extra dollars at the screen. Without the Selznick excesses, Band of Angels seems today almost threadbare, despite its authentic locations.
It’s hard to say when the picture’s director, “Uncle” Raoul Walsh, lost his fastball and became just another guy behind a camera. But he had lost it by The Tall Men, the 1955 picture he made with Gable, and Walsh was far more detrimental to Band of Angels. Or perhaps nothing could save a picture where the three leads are named Hamish, Amantha, and Rau-Ru. How dem dawkies love Massuh Hamish; they even sing to him in great choruses as the sternwheeler floats him on in to the dock, making this cinematic depiction of slavery problematic at best and typical of vintage Hollywood. All his slaves love Hamish Bond but one: the African child that Hamish saved from a massacre, the aforementioned Rau-Ru, who grows into firebrand Sidney Poitier in an early role. Poitier is way too sophisticated for something like Band of Angels and sticks out like a hammer-pounded thumb with all his New York, new-wave internal conflict, despising Hamish Bond and everything he stands for. Poitier, who turned 30 during production, classes up the proceedings too much. This is a picture that didn’t need class. It was bodice-ripping soap opera and needed movie stars fit to fill a frame alongside Clark Gable.
And speaking of what Gable didn’t have, there’s Yvonne De Carlo, a woman of so little warmth and sex appeal that when she fetches a rope and hangs herself in reel two rather than succumb to the advances of a slave trader, I cheered—and I don’t think I was supposed to.
Amantha was saved at the last minute and kept planting herself in front of the camera through the rest of the picture, giving Gable about as much to play off of as a dressmaker’s dummy. This role screamed Ava Gardner in all her sultry darkness, but posterity played a cruel joke and gave us the equivalent of Ava Gardner’s stand-in. I don’t mean to be unkind, and timing and circumstances come into play when casting pictures, but in this case DeCarlo just couldn’t infuse sympathy into this character, and sympathy was crucial.
Gable biographer Lyn Tornabene labeled Band of Angels “the nadir of Gable’s career” but I don’t see it that way. Even considering the liability of the leading lady, Band of Angels turned a slight $92,000 profit according to John McElwee of the Greenbriar Picture Shows BlogSpot. This was stout box office considering the $2.8 million cost of its production. People did flock to see Gable in another tale of the Old South, and word of mouth must have been OK or better for returns so good.
I feel for Gable as the years piled up and he coasted on reputation. He was a man of simple pleasures and little joy, lugging around guilt and grief over lost love Lombard as if bearing a lead-filled backpack. He does some nice acting in the scene where Hamish reveals to Amantha, who is now in love with him, that once he had been a villain who kidnapped Africans into enslavement. He delivers a monologue, staring off and reliving a particular dark event, and it’s effective. The moment, however, lacks a payoff because DeCarlo hasn’t established emotional parameters for us to care how she feels about the revelation. The script doesn’t help her and feels at times like a Classics Illustrated version of Band of Angels; Raoul Walsh’s lack of close-ups also saps power from this critical plot point, so much so that his decision seems to be the director’s way around Gable’s aging. The man turned 56 the second week of shooting and all the drinking, cigarettes, guilt, and grief had rendered Rhett Butler’s face into something different than audiences saw in 1939, and in more recent GWTW reissues. With the lighting and angles just right, with the sets and wardrobe and use of medium shots, the illusion works, but in a scene like the one where Hamish comes clean, dramatic tension suffers because of a lack of close-ups.
Gable made some solid pictures after this one. He was by no means out of gas and seemed to delight in poking fun at himself ever more as time went on. No, Band of Angels isn’t the picture he figured it would be, but it’s still a kick seeing self-serving, cynical Rhett Butler loose amidst the magnolias one more time.
Note: My next column covers the 1938 Carole Lombard picture, Fools for Scandal, which TCM U.S. is airing on Thursday morning July 10 at 4:15 A.M. Eastern time.