February 8, 2010
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  Who is the number one star working in movies today?  

      Not the best actor; the biggest star.   Tough one, isn’t it?   It seems to change from year to year.   Heck, it seems to change from movie to movie.   Box-office drawing power is literally as fickle as we are.   So now I ask all of you out there in LaVerne OnLine Nation—who do you think is the absolute biggest male movie star in the biz, the box-office champ, the biggest of the big, the top dog, the big cheese, the head honcho.   The man among leading men.


I myself asked that very question to quite a few people this week.   Got almost as many different answers as times I asked the question.   Because there’s simply no clear-cut most popular leading man nowadays.   Some of the people I asked said George Clooney.   Some said Brad Pitt.   My girlfriend is convinced it’s Johnny Depp.   My son came up with Leonardo DiCaprio.   Harrison Ford is still big box-office.   Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington are in the mix as well.   It wasn’t too long ago that Tom Cruise might have easily won this definitively imprecise, unofficial popularity poll, and he did in fact get mentioned to me a couple of times, even though his star is clearly on the wane.   The co-publisher of this very newspaper voted for Cruise, with an honorable mention for Sean Connery.   My sister wanted to vote for Gerard Butler, whom she loves, but admitted that the winner was probably Clooney or Pitt.   There were even a couple of you who voted for 79-year-old Clint Eastwood, including my ex-wife, and Clint did in fact win a recent “People’s Choice” survey to identify the most popular and well-liked living film star; albeit narrowly.   The point is that there is no longer any Hollywood monarchy.   No one man rules over this magical, celluloid kingdom….

      However, there was a time when there was no question as to who, in Hollywood, was King.   In fact, that was his nickname.

   The decade was the 1930s.   And the actor’s name was William Gable.   Some of his old friends called him Billy.   You might know him better by his middle name.   Clark.

      Yes, back in Hollywood’s “Golden Age”, Clark Gable was Hollywood’s biggest star, by far, by acclamation, and beyond dispute.   His off-the-charts popularity even spawned a popular catch-phrase of the time: If you caught a friend of yours acting a little too big for his britches you were likely to quip, “You do you think you are—Clark Gable?”

      Gable is also the star of this week’s movie selection, “Test Pilot”, a boiler-plate MGM yarn co-starring MGM’s other big star, Spencer Tracy, as well as one of the 1930s’ leading leading-ladies, Myrna Loy.   Test Pilot” hit the theaters in 1938, which, as a point of reference for you, was exactly one year before Gable reached his absolute pinnacle, starring in what is still probably (all things considered) the consensus mega-movie of all time, “Gone With The Wind”.   Can you imagine anyone else playing Rhett Butler?   Of course not.

 Test Pilot” is no “Gone With The Wind” (despite both films being nominated for Best Picture and both films having the same director), but it is certainly a snappy little vehicle with a crackling-good script, at lease as far as the sharp, witty dialogue is concerned.   The story itself is a bit shallow; Gable is a test pilot who literally falls out of the sky and lands in a Kansas cornfield where Myrna is magically waiting for him (or any acceptably dynamic Prince Charming) to just happen to stop by, and they immediately fall in love.   Tracy plays Gable’s loyal sidekick.   The film articulates the dangers of the profession, particularly the toll it takes on family and friends.


Long Live the King!


      But the reason to watch “Test Pilot” is to watch Gable.   Period.   He was as masculine as a battering ram and as sure as the sunrise.   He was the rarest of the rare; loved by male and female moviegoers alike.   Men loved him because he toppled women like bowling pins and ate and drank like a tiger.   Women loved him for his unabashed virility.   And it all, all of it, translated to the screen.   Here’s the proof.   Spencer Tracy was probably MGM’s 2nd biggest star in the 30s, and one of the greatest actors ever.   Yet whenever they are both on screen, two things are apparent.    One, you can’t look at Tracy; only Gable.   Gable is where your eyes and attentions go.   Two, it often seems as if Tracy is following Gable around, a step of two behind him, sort of like a puppydog.   Because he is.   The ultimate sidekick.   And always 2nd banana.   That’s how big of a star Gable was.    

      And that discrepancy soon became a problem for Tracy, just as Tracy’s acting brilliance was a problem for Gable.   Gable envied Tracy’s ability to play any role with absolute conviction.   Tracy envied Gable’s ridiculous popularity.   They never became close friends.

      Ironically, it was Tracy who was responsible for giving Gable his nickname.   One morning in 1938 Tracy arrived at work and Gable’s car was blocking the entrance to MGM.   The reason for this is that Gable’s car had been swallowed by swooning, adoring female fans.   After waiting patiently for a few minutes, Tracy finally stood up in his seat and yelled out something like, “Long live the King!   Now can we all get the hell to work?”

      The anecdote could have stopped there, but later that day they crowned Gable the king of the MGM commissary as a gag and a good laugh.   And the next thing you know, a young, enterprising newspaperman named Ed Sullivan (yep, same guy) was engineering a national contest in his column to select a King and Queen of the Movies.   Over 20,000,000 fans from all over the country weighed in.   Naturally Gable was overwhelmingly elected King; that was a foregone conclusion.   And interestingly enough, the aforementioned Myrna Loy was narrowly elected Queen, primarily because she had recently been observed in the process of making a movie with the King; yes, “Test Pilot”, this week’s ancient movie selection and my staunch recommendation to you to pull up on-line.

      Gable was known as “the King” for the rest of his life.   Thus endeth the history lesson.

      But I just wanted to say, after reading my own words, about Hollywood, the movies, the 30s, and the great Clark Gable, that sometimes it makes me long for a time….no, makes me wish I lived at that time, in that time, a time when men were men, and stars were stars, stars thirty feet high and bigger than life.   No one had to ask who the biggest movie star was back in the 1930s.   Everybody knew.   I guess the second best thing is to pull up films like “Test Pilot” on-line, and catch a few frames of a real star ruling over his fantasy domain.

      The King is not dead.   Long live the King….


Brad Eastland, our Dr. of Ancient Filmology, is a movie buff and film historian, as long as the film was made before 1985 or so.  (If you want to hear about new-release films, pick up a Times).   Special effects and gratuitous anything have no place in his celluloid world.   Primarily a fiction writer, Brad has written four novels and over 20 short-stories.  Here are some samples of his best work:


Brad Eastland, Dr. of Ancient Filmology




3 Responses to “THE GREATEST MOVIE STAR OF THEM ALL by Brad Eastland”

  1. Clark Gable…really? How about The Duke? Or Gregory Peck, Ben Johnson, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda?


  1. UPON FURTHER REVIEW: HERO WORSHIP RUNS DEEP by Brad Eastland, Dr. of Ancient Filmology
  2. Puppen

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