Hail to the King

Happy Birthday, Clark Gable. Today, had you taken better care of yourself, you would be 114. Let that be a lesson to you.

Come to think of it, Mr. Gable, I guess no matter how many cigarettes you had eschewed, no matter how many bottles of Chivas Regal you hadn’t consumed, you wouldn’t be around at 114. That’s a lot of years, and how they do fly by.

Some places reflect the years better than others. This past week I found myself in a city that feels very old: San Francisco. I was there on business, business so intense that I had barely a moment to see the sights, but a friend and I scaled Telegraph Hill from Chinatown to Pioneer Park and Coit Tower and looked out at Alcatraz, my first-ever glimpse of The Rock. Hard not to think about Al Capone or Clint Eastwood’s Escape from Alcatraz. Or his Dirty Harry, for that matter. It’s going on 70 years since Capone died; almost 40 since Escape was made; more than 40 for Dirty Harry. Hell, it’s already been 52 since The Rock closed as a prison. Years, years, years, speeding by.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

My discovery: the top of Lombard Street. Pioneer Park is above.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

It’s a long way down Lombard Street from here, all the way down Telegraph Hill to Columbus Avenue in the Italian part of town.

Exploring the streets that radiate out from Pioneer Park, I stumbled on Lombard Street, and it was one of those moments when my mind went boinggg! I had read someplace decades ago that Jane Peters took the name Lombard because of Lombard Street; it was here in San Francisco that mother Elizabeth Peters had first lighted with the kids in 1914 after leaving Fred in frosty Fort Wayne. Now, here I was at the head of Lombard Street all these years later, in another century, feeling some magic about the name and exploring on down the long hill to Corso Cristoforo Colombo—yes, Lombard intersects with Colombo. (Another intersection of the two would take place in 1933. Sort of.) Up yonder hill to the west Lombard Street turns serpentine in a crazy little section that’s a kick to drive down as I found out later in the evening.

I asked Carole Lombard authority Vincent Paterno, proprietor of bold and sassy Carole & Co., if he had ever heard this story about the origin of Lombard’s name, and he said he thought she took Lombard from family friend Harry Lombard. I had heard this too, but part of me wonders if she would have appropriated the name of a friend, which could have made an awkward moment or two had he said no. But I could see her using the name of the wildest street in San Francisco, Lombard Street.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Original poster art from San Francisco, selling the bad boy and the warbler with the gams.

Birthday boy Clark Gable made a picture about San Francisco called San Francisco while banging his new girlfriend, Carole Lombard, in the spring of 1936. The picture San Francisco featured a different kind of banging as it details the earthquake of 1906 that leveled parts of the city. Does anyone know if the picture premiered in San Francisco? I like to think it did, back in the day when studios took their stars and the press on junkets amid much ballyhoo to launch the A-pictures.

This was a landmark film for its recreation of the Big One and shows off Gable at his finest as yet another black-hearted rogue, the kind of role that established him as a man’s man and bad boy who made the ladies swoon. Women didn’t want to own Clark Gable because they knew he couldn’t be owned—but they spent a great deal of time imagining what it would be like to get roughed up a little by Clark Gable, who was 35 at the time of San Francisco and in his absolute prime. It became a great part of the legend between them: Lombard in her prime, the year she made My Man Godfrey, landed Gable in his prime, causing a great stir among the gods. It was quite a year on Olympus.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Clark and Carole early in their relationship. Customary Coca-Cola in hand, she wears a look that admits she just ate a canary.

Carole was always very big on birthdays, so somewhere, maybe up there on Olympus, she is calling Benny Massi to make sure the catering from Brown Derby is perfect for Pa’s surprise party to celebrate this, his 114th birthday.


  1. Well, Robert, there’s a lot to like about San Francisco. I’m talking about the movie now, not the city, which I’ve never visited (though it’s my understanding that it, too, has more than a few recommendations going for it).

    But I love the Barbary Coast atmosphere of the 1936 film long before that big earthquake sequence which can still drop a few jaws as a special effects tour de force set piece. Gable was at the peak of his macho strut as Blackie Norton, that rascally saloon proprietor and unoffical “King” of the Barbary Coast.

    It may have been co star Spencer Tracy who walked away with an Academy Award nomination here (I figure seeing a tough guy actor suddenly playing a priest had a lot to do with impressing Academy members) but it’s Gable who seizes my attention and to whom the picture truly belongs (along with that earthquake).

    It’s a film I also remember for a number of moments in it, too. Now some movie buffs today run for the hills whenever Jeanette MacDonald appears on screen. If the lady’s an acquired taste, then I guess I’ve acquired it (particularly the pre-MGM MacDonald when she was such a saucy wench in those Lubitsch musical concoctions at Paramount).

    But in this particular film I recall MacDonald when she first meets Gable, trying to get a job in his saloon joint. “I’m a singer,” she tells him. “Let’s see your legs,” responds Gable, getting right down to the matter of what really counts when working in a place like his. “Pretty thin for down here,” he comments, before hiring her anyway.

    And I remember MacDonald for that rousing rendition of “San Francisco” that she later belts out, getting the whole crowd to join in with her and start cheering.

    I also remember when priest buddy Tracy suddenly shows up in MacDonald’s dressing room, objecting to the black nyloned leggy outfit in which Gable wants her to perform. When Gable tells him that he’s going to marry her, Tracy responds, “Not if I can stop you you’re going to marry her. You can’t take a woman in marriage and then sell her immortal soul.”

    Have to be honest now. Right here this buttinski wearing a collar lost me, and I was rooting for “blaggard” Blackie. Gable then gets a little heated and lets fly with a fist. That is followed by a magnificent closeup shot of Tracy’s suddenly now martyred face, with a long stream of blood trickling from his mouth.

    Tracy’s wounded lamb look is suppose to make the audience feel that Gable has gone too far. So how come I feel like taking another shot at the priest myself for the way in pushes in on other people? (Except that I wouldn’t have dared in real life because Tracy was no priest and he would have probably knocked me through a wall if I had tried).

    Of course, following the magnificence of the earthquake scene, the Breen Office and reformers just had to have their way. So we have the agony of the screenplay having a Gable who has been humbled and grateful to see his girl still alive, now fall to his knees and thank God.

    Now this is a scene that I figure no one in the audience really wants to see. We all want to watch Gable as a bad boy, not someone who is now reformed and ready to join a choir. But the “saving” of Gable’s soul was always a big subject at MGM and the code-enforced system of movie making then, so a superstar who was sold as a sexy bad boy had to pretend for the moralists that he had reformed. It’s particularly painful, in my opinion, in San Francisco.

    So Blackie/Gable falls to his knees and, tears in his eyes, thanks God. “I really mean it,” Gable says in a closeup with all the sincerity of a little boy who just got caught with his hands in a cookie jar.

    Painful reformed-Blackie-on-his-knees scene protest aside, this film still works well, in my opinion, clearly one of the most satisfying of Gable’s long career. I wonder, though, if Lombard snickered a few words into one of Pa’s jug ears about that reformation scene. “Ah, Ma,” I can almost hear Gable wincing, “You know they made me do it.”

    1. Tom, I couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly with every single point you make. Gable was the perfect Blackie until the moralists gelded him. You make me realize how vicious the Code was in terms of gutting the ability of writers and filmmakers to tell honest stories.

      And Blackie’s instant assessment was spot-on: her legs were too thin (for any part of town).

  2. There was no love lost between Gable and MacDonald during the making of San Francisco. She was pretty vocal about it. And I’m sure when he wasn’t happy about something like making a movie he didn’t want to do, he could be a complete d***. None of it was helped by having “One-Take Woody” at the helm or a studio that catered to Gable. So one can understand why it was a miserable experience for Jeanette. TCM has a great article about this: http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/288495|0/Behind-the-Camera-San-Francisco.html.

    I always thought what was interesting was that there were plenty of people still living at the time of the premiere in June of 1936 who remembered the pre-1906 San Francisco, the writer Anita Loos among them having lived there as a girl. I imagine for those folks it would’ve been a hard movie to watch. The special effects were very good for the time. That and the title song stand out, and of course, MacDonald, Gable and Tracy.

  3. When I think about it now, Gable plays the macho role of Blackie Norton with swaggering conviction. Just as with Rhett Butler, it’s difficult to think of another actor who could have matched this particular actor in that role. Fortunately for Gable as Butler, though, he was spared the indignity of the equivalent of that reformation scene at the end of San Francisco.

    And it’s only in the final scene of Frisco, I feel, that Gable’s performance falters. His discomfort in the scene is pretty obvious, particularly in that closeup. Either he was too honest a man or just not a good enough actor to sell the pure Code-enforced BS of that writing.

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