Clark Gable Gone With the Wind


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

Seventy-six years ago today, March 30, 1939, Carole Lombard and Clark Gable addressed the media at her Bel Air home and announced that they had wed. Newsreel cameras rolled, flashbulbs popped, and a cultural phenomenon was born. Gable then reigned as the hottest thing in Hollywood—the number-one box-office draw in the world and definitive sex symbol of the movies. Lombard was a popular leading lady known as the “screwball queen” for her comedy pictures and madcap Hollywood parties.

Their relationship was more than three years old by this time. Lombard had made herself available on the social scene 16 months after the Labor Day 1934 shooting death of her lover, 26-year-old popular singer Russ Columbo. She emerged from a period of mourning with a vengeance, landing a very married Gable at the end of January 1936 and carrying on a public love affair based from her home right there on Hollywood Boulevard, in full view of the movie colony and the press. But scrutiny proved withering and Lombard left her Hollywood “party house” for a home in secluded, difficult-to-access Bel Air where she continued her activities with Gable.

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

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

I’m not sure that we can imagine today what a sexual playground Hollywood was in the 1930s. We think of the stars of the day as above it all, but nobody was immune and everybody was doing it with everybody. They were beautiful people dressed by professionals and promoted by powerful ad men. They cavorted with other beautiful people, and sex became a sport of who could bag whom. Many stars came from troubled backgrounds and brought emotional baggage with them to a city without morals. This was Clark Gable, certainly, a narcissist by definition because he was an image created by his acting teacher/wife and projected by MGM. Lombard, on the other hand, had bounced westward as a child after her parents’ separation back in Indiana, but she had enjoyed a solid Los Angeles upbringing thanks to her practical, loving mother. Solid, yes; conventional, no. Lombard had grown up a sexual athlete from her teens on and been made wise beyond her years due to a car crash that chopped up her face just shy of her 18th birthday.

The couple that met the press this day 76 years ago had been galvanized by years of couplehood in the glare of the public spotlight. He had been crowned king of Hollywood and she had made some big pictures and now earned more than any other actress in town. Their out-of-wedlock shenanigans had earned scorn in the Bible belt, and the backlash reached the board room at MGM, where Gable was ordered to divorce his wife and make an honest woman of Lombard. Gable didn’t take kindly to orders from anyone about anything, but he had been beaten down from all sides, and so during a day off from production of Gone With the Wind, he sneaked out of town with his girl and got hitched.

Fireball tells the story of the elopement for the first time thanks to an unpublished account by Jill Winkler, whose husband Otto had driven the disguised couple out of Hollywood and clean to Kingman, Arizona, for the ceremony. They didn’t have a proper wedding night, or any sleep at all for that matter. You can see it in their faces in the thousand-and-one photos snapped at the Bel Air press conference. One has to laugh at Lombard’s acting job, playing it demure for the newsreels complete with shy and loving gazes at King Gable.

The press conference on this date proved to be a brilliant move as it established these two, dressed to the nines and appropriately bashful, as the closest thing America had to a royal couple. They wouldn’t enjoy even three years past this date as husband and wife due to the plane crash that removed Carole Lombard from the living in January 1942. As explored in this column recently, the union was in rough waters and possibly heading for the rocks by the end of their second year as an official couple, but her tragic passing erased any trace of negativity and pressed these two into America’s book of memories as one of the perfect couples of all time.

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

Carole’s mother, known as Tots or Petey, stands with the happy couple at the Bel Air press event. Less than three years later she would ride into history with her daughter aboard TWA Flight 3.0


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

Glamour pusses Gable and Lombard share an ‘up’ moment exiting Ciro’s on the Strip in August 1941.

Why do we need there to be a happily ever after? When I was interviewed during the Fireball book tour, I would often hear things like, “Gable and Lombard had the kind of love that would have endured.” There would be such conviction in the voice of the interviewer, and at moments like that I found myself in an awkward place because the interviewer believed what was being said and, in fact, it was and was not true.

During the years that Carole Lombard and Clark Gable were together, she was in love with him in a mature way and he was in love with her in his own way. She was an older soul and possessed a strong altruistic streak. He was a perpetual adolescent and quite selfish the way males can be. Up to the time they became an item, he had relied only on himself, number one, and there was no number two. But suddenly she became number two and worked like hell to maintain that position, which must have been, for her, something like barbequing in a snowstorm. As the premiere sex symbol in the world and therefore a male of unquestionable power, Gable cut a swath through the female population of Hollywood. He slept around and continued to sleep around until the day Lombard died. She approached this fact as practically as she could: This is the price I’m paying to be Mrs. Clark Gable. He can get his rocks off wherever he likes because I know he comes home to me.

But that doesn’t mean she found rationalizing easy, and even a self-confident soul and sexual libertine like Carole Lombard had her limits.

Every indication is that if she had lived, he’d have gone right on as a brigand for as long as the marriage could endure. There were rumors at the time of her death that their union had already hit the rocks. A particular photo that appears in Fireball bears this out. They are sitting together in a restaurant, and she is smiling politely but looking like hell and he looks as miserable as you’ll ever see Clark Gable looking. It’s not the kind of grouchy-miserable that you see when Clark Gable is acting. This is vulnerable-miserable, pained-miserable, as if they are arguing and he’s wrong and he knows he’s wrong.

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

Three months later, here they are, her smile painted on, his nonexistent. She rests her hand on top of his hand, but she’s not holding his hand and he’s not playing along.

When the host of a Fireball interview would turn the statement into a question, “Gable and Lombard had the kind of love that would have endured, didn’t they?” there was my opening and I would answer with the truth: They loved each other, yes, but there were problems with the marriage that I think would have ended it before too much longer. Probably by 1945 or 1946, had she lived, she would have given up and left Clark Gable. Sometimes, loving someone and giving it your all isn’t enough. Sometimes, unconditional love causes the self to endure too much, give away too much; in this case she would have given away the prime of her life. I could easily see her reaching age 36 or 38 and no longer being willing to serve as consort to a hard-drinking, womanizing sovereign. Or I could see Gable waking up one morning and beholding a Lombard whose looks were beginning to wane from smoking, drinking, stress, and the natural process of aging. You can see the beginnings of it in the photo discussed earlier. At that point Gable might decide to trade his wife in for a newer model, say the sleek, 10-years-younger Lana Turner.

Whether Carole would have ended it or Clark would have, I don’t think this relationship was headed for happily ever after, and it was the shattering event of her death at age 33, after only two-and-a-half years of marriage, that bronzed the timeless, forever love of Gable-Lombard legend, the kind of love this twosome sometimes captured but was beginning to find elusive.

Looking even further down the line, I could see the Gables divorcing and remaining friends like she was friends with her ex William Powell and somewhere around 1955 getting together again for a Gable-Lombard picture or two. Precedent: Lombard made My Man Godfrey with Powell three years after their divorce. Gable made Key to the City with Loretta Young 16 years after she bore their love child—a child he would never acknowledge. Stars set personal feelings aside for the sake of box office. Astaire and Rogers weren’t exactly fond of one another; Abbott and Costello grew so far apart they didn’t speak except in front of the camera.

That’s life is how I look at it. Happy endings don’t come about very often and “for keeps” usually isn’t for keeps, especially in Hollywood. But that doesn’t detract from the story of Lombard and Gable. They were real people, “juicy people,” Loretta Young called them, and they deserve to be remembered for who they really were, not who we wish they would have been.

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.


A couple of anniversaries are worth mentioning amidst this joyous season that has left me bewildered and many around me anything but joyous. Did you know that George Washington died 215 years ago this past Sunday at age 67? Did you know that he died of a sore throat? Everybody has to die of something, but a sore throat is a nasty way to go when you are treated by doctors who have no earthly idea what they are doing.

George Washington was a massive human, six-foot-three and most of it muscle, even at 67. He had been a natural athlete all his life and a splendid horseman. He spent five hours on horseback riding his range the day he got sick, arrived home, went to bed, and the next day was so bad off, apparently from a strep infection, that his doctor “bled” him five pints. You know how when you give blood they take one pint and then tell you to rest and eat well to replenish what you just lost? Well they stole one pint times FIVE from the ill former president, and for good measure they gave him a mercury concoction to make him better. Mercury, as in the stuff that is poison. Among the prexy’s last words were, “I die hard,” which he murmured at the end of 1799 and which may be the understatement of the entire century, uttered just under the wire. So December 14, a couple days ago, marks 215 years since we lost the Greatest American of any generation.

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

Among George Washington’s last words in December 1799: “Please tell me Dr. House is on duty this evening.” He wasn’t; the rest is history.

Seventy-five years ago yesterday, the finished version of Gone With the Wind premiered in Atlanta, Georgia. Movie stars imported from Hollywood began arriving two days earlier, on December 13. The picture’s producer arrived on December 14 with cast members Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland via Eastern Airlines DC-3. Later, on an American DC-3 (because he couldn’t stand Selznick), Clark Gable arrived with his bride, Carole Lombard, and the pair of them stole the show from the other VIPs and held the city spellbound for 36 hours.

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

The fireball, Carole Lombard, arrives in Atlanta on American Airlines with husband Clark Gable and bandleader Kay Kyser on December 14, 1939.

Many activities took place over three crazy days, which the governor of Georgia declared a state holiday. The teeming throngs of Atlantans that clogged Peachtree Street 300,000 strong have been described in many books. Still, a few pieces of trivia astound me.

Did you know that city schools and public buildings in Atlanta were closed the day of the premiere, a Friday? Imagine any movie commanding such attention in a top-10 U.S. city today.

Did you know that there were still many Confederate Civil War veterans living at the time of the premiere, and when they trooped into the Loew’s Grand Theater from the Old Soldiers’ Home, the crowd erupted in cheers and rebel yells?

Did you know that among the non-cast members attending the Atlanta festivities were World War I fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker, Wimbledon tennis champ Alice Marble, and Clark Gable’s Oscar-winning It Happened One Night co-star, Claudette Colbert?

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

No Gable isn’t falling asleep at the Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind. Lombard is whispering something in his ear; probably something snarky.

Did you know that the ticket price in the sold-out, two-thousand-seat theater was $10 but scalpers were getting $200+?

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

A charming tike, age 10, who would participate in Gone With the Wind festivities and then change the world.

Did you know that certain cast members were barred from attending the Atlanta festivities at all because of the color of their skin? This group included Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen, who would not have been permitted to socialize with the white stars in segregated Georgia. (David Selznick fought against this segregation almost to the point of threatening cancellation of the entire Atlanta experience.) McDaniel would become the first African American to win an Academy Award just a couple of months later.

Did you know that among the costumed “slaves” performing at a charity event during premiere activities was Martin Luther King, Jr., age 10, as part of the Ebenezer Baptist boys’ choir?

As noted in this column earlier, the time of Gone With the Wind has largely gone, but in an America recovering from Depression, it was the biggest thing ever, a social phenomenon like nothing seen before or since. If you lump The Graduate with the original Star Wars and pile The Godfather on top and serve Jaws as whipped cream and Titanic as the cherry, and plunk it all on a platter of Lord of the Rings pictures resting on a table of The Hunger Games, you would still not equal the pop culture earthquake that was Gone With the Wind 75 years ago yesterday.

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

Gable and Lombard in the motorcade through Atlanta. They shut the city down for the day. Note the stars and bars at upper left. In 1939 it was no big deal; today, not so welcome.

The Machine

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

The stars of Deliverance, Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight (as much as you would like to believe it’s not Jon Voight but really Robert Matzen).

I haven’t thought much about Burt Reynolds for a long time. Way back when, I remember thinking he was pretty cool. Burt got his start in TV as brooding half-breed Quint on Gunsmoke and moved to his own detective TV show before hitting it big in Deliverance and then The Longest Yard. I remember liking him in this romantic western he made called The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing when I was a kid, but right after The Longest Yard, I lost interest in Burt Reynolds. I dismissed him as a one-trick pony who could only play Burt Reynolds. Granted, in Deliverance he was good, and he would call Deliverance “the best film I ever did,” a film that “gave me credibility as an actor.” What an unsettling picture. It was made by John Boorman in 1972 when movies had taken a hard left into nastytown, and thankfully Boorman wasn’t in an artsy mood when he exposed his film in the wilds. Here’s the Deliverance trailer to give you a three-minute primer on one startling weekend on the rapids. Deliverance also features Jon Voight, who people used to mistake me for (and often) 25 years ago. These people weren’t deterred by the fact that Voight had many years and four inches on me and there was this one time in a Sizzler in L.A. that was downright embarrassing when a woman exclaimed, “Oh my God!” and attracted a lot of attention because she thought I was Jon Voight. I would like to think that Jon Voight wouldn’t be caught dead in a Sizzler. All the attention might have been flattering if I happened to like Jon Voight’s looks, which I never did. But I digress.

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

Long before Katniss there was … Burt.

Right around the time of Deliverance, Burt Reynolds appeared as the gatefold in Cosmopolitan, which was beyond a big deal at the time. You can go ahead and Google “Burt Reynolds Cosmo” and the image will come right up. Reynolds may not have invented the beefcake photograph, but he sure did give the concept a boost at the height of the Sexual Revolution. He spent the 1970s as the definition of virility and put the cherry on his own sundae by directing and starring in the gritty cop picture Sharky’s Machine in 1981.

The real machine was Reynolds himself, who starred in a picture I will always have a soft spot for, The Man Who Loved Women as a man who, well, loved women, as he was transitioning into Phase II of his career as panderer to the lowest common denominator of audiences in several car pictures, Smoky and the Bandit, Cannonball Run, Stroker Ace, et al ad nauseam. Some of these co-starred two-time Oscar-winning actress Sally Field, with whom Burt fell “in like” (his term) for a while. But wait. Wasn’t it about 15 minutes ago that Burt was young stud to cougar Dinah Shore and they carried on admirably for quite some time? I mean, these two were hot stuff there for a while despite a 20-year age difference; hot stuff to the extent that when you saw them together, you just knew that the headboard had been rockin’ and would soon be rockin’ again. I will double-check Webster’s, but I am pretty sure that the definition of “chemical attraction” still reads, “See Burt Reynolds and Dinah Shore.” [Note to whippersnappers: Tennessee-born Dinah Shore started out as singer around the beginning of World War II and went on to greater fame as a TV personality in the 1960s and 70s–the Oprah of her day. She was soft-spoken and demure, except with Burt. Dinah passed on in 1994 at the age of 77.]

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

Dinah’s daughter pleads with Mom to steer clear of Bad Boy Burt. But there was no fighting the attraction.

I missed the entire 1990s Reynoldsance—Phase III of his career—when Burt (apparently, as I’m just reading this) appeared in two big pictures I never saw, Striptease, which I didn’t watch because I feared becoming impotent at seeing Demi Moore strip, and Boogie Nights, which was a concept that had no appeal for me at all.

That’s my background for an unsettling-going-on-sad experience just now as I thumbed through 674 Burt Reynolds-owned items that are being auctioned off December 11 and 12. These are hard times for Burt, apparently, and this scenario is all too common these days for people living beyond their capacity to produce income. Burt’s awards are on the block, everything from high school sports trophies to many Top Box Office Star awards (proving the vast appeal of the Reynolds machine), several People’s Choice Awards, and an Emmy. Burt’s gun collection, real and prop weapons, are going. Burt’s cars, going. Dozens and dozens of photos and books inscribed to Burt by presidents, athletes, and fellow actors will be sold off. Clothing, pieces of his art collections—both paintings and statuary—will scatter to the winds.

Why would somebody want a Top Box Office Star statuette that was given to somebody else? If you didn’t earn it yourself, why put it on your mantel? But mine is a minority opinion: Almost everything has bids, mostly multiple bids, so I figure that Burt will do all right out of this endeavor. He claims he is only getting rid of stuff he’s tired of having around, and I’m gratified to see that there are only four Dinah Shore items being offered, three of them canvases she painted. It would be nice if there were many Dinah items in Burt’s possession; items he was determined to hold tight. (Yes, I have a special fondness for this couple and their time together.)

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

Reynolds has always been a larger-than-life character, as was Dinah. Together the chemistry was off the charts.

I hope I make it to death before my estate hits the auction block. I like my stuff too much to see it go prematurely. Actually, I was sort of hoping to build a great pyramid and take it all with me to the afterlife, and I’m feeling a little down that Burt didn’t think of this as well. After spending some time looking back at Burt Reynolds, I appreciate him a lot more. Is it sacrilege to label Burt Reynolds as Clark Gable in the same place but at at a different time and without the backing of the biggest studio in Hollywood? I’ll let you ponder that one as I admire Burt’s life of accomplishment. Believe me, I’ve just skimmed the surface here of a career spanning more than 50 years. Reynolds has hobnobbed with the elite. He has done good work that he’s proud of, and he has entertained millions. Now I hope he can go on and live a comfortable life post-auction and enjoy a grand Reynoldsance IV.

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

One more for the road. They were in popularity something akin to the Gable and Lombard of the 1970s.



Hammer Time

Just call me Robert Matzen, influencer. A person of influence. One of the influential.

It’s like this: the TCM Hollywood auction conducted by Bonhams New York on Monday included several Fireball-related items of Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, and others in the storyline. These came from two sources: some were given by Clark Gable’s widow, Kay, to a World War II collector who consigned them to the auction. Others were consigned by the family of Otto Winkler and became available after the passing of Jill Winkler’s niece, Nazoma Ball, with whom I worked closely to understand and develop the characters of Otto and Jill. This group of material included a portrait of Clark Gable inscribed to Jill, several notes written by Carole Lombard to Jill or the Winklers, a handwritten postcard from Clark to Jill, and some personal candid photographs of Clark and Otto taken at the MGM studios.


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

The portrait that Clark Gable inscribed to Jill Winkler.

As readers of Fireball know, Otto Winkler was Clark Gable’s personal publicist at MGM. Gable entrusted Wink with the well-being of Carole Lombard, Clark’s wife, during the bond tour to Chicago and Indianapolis. Gable wasn’t close to many people and realized after the crash of Flight 3 and the passing of Lombard and Winkler that Otto had been his best friend in spirit and deed.

It was Otto who drove Clark and Carole to Arizona for their elopement at the end of March 1939 while Jill stayed back in Hollywood and pretended to be Carole for a day, driving Carole’s car and running Carole’s errands. After that the couples became pals, and along with Wink, Jill lived a storybook life with King of the Movies Clark Gable and his queen, Carole Lombard Gable. These were characters that had been all but lost to antiquity; few knew Otto Winkler from Adam or Jill from Eve. In fact, if I hadn’t been able to spend so much time with Jill’s niece, a woman who at age 93 also remembered Otto in life, I wouldn’t have been able to access these characters from the inside. The narrative of Fireball brought them to life once again and made their story so human and so important.

I was a phone bidder for the Bonhams auction on Monday and placed bids on five lots: the Gable-Winkler candids; the Lombard correspondences to the Winklers, the Clark-to-Jill candid, and the handwritten postcard. I also took a flyer and managed to place one bid on the worn 14k wedding band that—according to documentation from Kay Gable—was given to Clark by Carole. But bidding got out of hand mighty fast and hammered at an astonishing $40,000.

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

A candid photo once owned by Otto Winkler shows Otto and Clark Gable at MGM in 1937.

Afterward, I sat there with new awareness of the impact of Fireball, because I had lost out in a furious wave of bidding on all the lots except the postcard from Clark to Jill, which was the most significant item and one that will factor into the revised edition of Fireball. The other items all went at prices that were, to me, beyond practical. I felt then, as the dust was settling after my involvement in the Bonhams auction, that Fireball had affected the value of the Winkler-related items. And that was a good feeling.

The auction was, for the most part, about what I expected. It is a rare bird who wants a costume worn by Lisa Gaye in 10 Thousand Bedrooms. But the items from Casablanca that I mentioned in my last column blew the roof off of Bonhams, as reported in the New York Times. The playscript Everybody Comes to Ricks, which was the basis for the Casablanca story and which I pooh-poohed for its pre-auction estimate of $40,000-80,000, hammered at $85,000 (take that, Mr. Influencer). The battered front doors to Rick’s Café Americain, rescued at some point from the Warner Bros. prop department, fetched $92,000 ($115,000 with buyer’s premium); the prop-department-created letters of transit hammered at $95,000 ($118,750). And Sam’s piano hammered at a smart $2.9 million—or $3,413,000 with add-ons. Also of note, Aragorn’s sword from Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), hammered at $360,000, and the elaborate Cowardly Lion costume worn by Bert Lahr in The Wizard of Oz (1939) hammered at $2.6 million, topping $3M with buyer’s premium. Watch out I don’t write a book about these pictures, or the values will go up still further. After all, I am an influencer.

Man’s Man

Fifty-four years ago today, Clark Gable died. He had been hospitalized for days after having suffered a heart attack at the ranch in Encino and was thought to be recovering, but succumbed suddenly on November 16, 1960. He passed out of this world as the logo of the Golden Age of the motion picture. His face, toothy grin, and jug ears were IT for Hollywood. He made only two features that stand the test of time, It Happened One Night and Gone With the Wind, but two were enough. Oh, sure, he made other big pictures and many movie buffs will remember Red Dust and Honky Tonk, but by the time Gable’s wife Carole Lombard died on Flight 3 in 1942, Gable’s best work was behind him. He went off to fight in World War II and came back to a huge box office return in 1945 when he made Adventure with Greer Garson, but this was a bad picture and would be followed by many other pictures that were, if not bad, then indifferent.

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

On top of the world, Ma! Or so Clark Gable thought, seen with Carole Lombard here at the announcement of their wedding in March 1939.

Why didn’t the Gable brand endure? Simple. When Carole died, Clark died. He would go on roaming the earth for 18 years as a guy in a Clark Gable suit, but the essence of what made Gable Gable, the swagger, the growl, the I’ll-smack-you-around-and-you’ll-like-it, were gone. Once his character Rhett Butler had thrilled the world by saying, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” and then life imitated art and he didn’t give a damn after his wife died on an airplane on a freezing Las Vegas night.

I was chatting in Detroit with my new friends Joe and Marsha the other day about Fireball, and about the Clark Gable that emerged from the Flight 3 disaster. Joe admires what Gable did with the rest of his life, just as I admire it. Clark learned from tragedy; he appreciated what he had lost; he put one foot in front of the other; he kept breathing; he endured. Gable was never the same man, but he was a man—he was called a “man’s man” and proved it. He gave himself a month to grieve; he went back to work; he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and he went to Europe to fight. He was 41 then, and served with men 20 years younger. He asked for no special favors and ran the obstacle course just like anyone else. He went up in B-17s and secretly wished to go down in flames so he could experience Lombard’s last moments and then lie with her at Forest Lawn.

But, goddammit, he lived. And he kept on living, always haunted by the woman who blew into his life like a tornado, challenged him, adored him, cast her spell…and then was gone. She haunted him every day, her face, her voice, her perfume, the things she said, the way she said them, always there. But not there, because she was gone.

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

Just killin’ time, waiting for his ticket to be punched in 1951.

The self-righteous among us will condemn Clark Gable and say from the soap box, “If he loved her so much, why wasn’t he faithful? Why did he carry on with Lana Turner and cause Carole to rush to her doom?” I always go all biblical at that point and advise that those out there without sin should cast the first stone.

There’s nothing in this world quite like sitting with Clark, Carole, and Petey in the Great Mausoleum of Forest Lawn. The three of them and me, sitting there, in utter peace and quiet in a sequestered corridor. It brings so much to mind, first and foremost the sadness of it all, the way Carole and Petey died, and the way Clark, in his way, died with them. Three crypts side by side by side, with simple faceplates and dates of birth, dates of death. There’s a story of a million words there in that tiny little 10 feet of corridor. He purchased three crypts in January of 1942, two for his wife and mother-in-law, and one for himself. He married twice more, but his wishes were ironclad: place me next to Ma.

On this date 54 years ago, Clark finally got his wish. After years of smoking too much, years of drinking too much, years of enemy flak, fast cars, fast motorcycles, eating food too rich for him, he finally, finally got his wish. He punched a ticket to see Ma. He returned to the only human companion who ever made sense to him. This day, 54 years ago.

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

I wonder if Spencer Tracy (left) is thinking about spending two days with Gable at the El Rancho Vegas awaiting word of Carole’s fate. Here the greats, including Robert Taylor and James Stewart, gather for the King’s funeral at Forest Lawn in November 1960. At this same Church of the Recessional, Gable had endured the funerals of Ma and Petey 18 years earlier. In this shot, Air Force Chaplain Johnson E. West accompanies Kay Williams Gable, widow of the actor, after the service.

Rhett Butler, Take 2

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

A sign of trouble: too much to read on the movie posters in the lobby of the theater.

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.

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

Clark and Kay at the Encino ranch. She landed the King; he drank to numb the pain of it all.

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.

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

On location in Louisiana with the sternwheeler, Gordon C. Greene. This was more of the authentic Old South than even Selznick gave audiences.

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.

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

Yvonne De Carlo as Amantha Starr. Spoiler (for all of us): she survived the suicide attempt.

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.

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

Wait a minute. He’s Rhett, but she’s not Scarlett. This carefully photographed still represents the Clark Gable that Warner Bros. wanted theater patrons to see.

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.