Now, Gone With the Wind is one of those prestige movies with a giant “NOMINATE ME!” sticker on its forehead. It has big names, big music and big dresses; indeed, it nearly collapses under the weight of its own self-importance.
But there are many things to admire about it, not the least of which is Gable’s Oscar-nominated performance.
Gone With the Wind, in case you haven’t seen it, is set in Georgia during and after the American Civil War. It centres on the life of a privileged young woman, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), and is based on the popular 1936 Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Margaret Mitchell.
On the eve of war, Scarlett meets Rhett Butler (Gable). We are introduced to him through whispered gossip – “He has the most terrible reputation” – which makes him instantly fascinating.
Not only that, Gable-as-Rhett looks like a man with a Past, one who does whatever he pleases. “With enough courage,” he says, “you can do without a reputation.”
He’s a sharp observer of human nature, Rhett is, except for one glaring blind spot: Scarlett O’Hara. Even though he tells her, “You’d only bring misery to any man”, he doesn’t believe that applies to himself.
But it does.
Here’s why we think Clark Gable is a perfect Rhett Butler, despite his lack of southern drawl.
Gable’s onscreen persona is a “man’s man”: masculine, forthright, gets the Job Done. Gable has the charisma to square off against Leigh-as-Scarlett; he stands his ground in this film of strong female performances.
Gable convinces us he adores Scarlett, even while telling her he’s not in love with her. Scarlett is likely the most infuriating and passionate woman he knows, qualities that mirror his own.
When his character weds Scarlett and becomes a father, Gable shows us Rhett’s softness and tenderness, yet he refuses to be squashed by Scarlett’s meanness.
However. We can all see the marriage is doomed, and when Rhett is finished, he’s Finished. Gable packs a suitcase while Leigh-as-Scarlett implores him to stay. Gable’s resolve is firm; he speaks in the flat tone of one who’s Not Discussing This Anymore.
But he retains his sense of humour. As Scarlett sobs and pleads, Gable-as-Rhett hands her a handkerchief and says, “Never, in any crisis in your life, have I known you to have a handkerchief.”
Then we watch him stride into the night, suitcase in hand, already boarding the next stage of his life.
Surprisingly, Gable was not producer David O. Selznick‘s first choice for Rhett Butler. Selznick wanted Gary Cooper, who turned down the role. “Gone With The Wind is going to be the biggest flop in Hollywood history,” Cooper said. “I’m glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling flat on his nose, not Gary Cooper.”¹
Gable was reluctant to take the role. The novel was wildly popular, and he worried his portrayal would not live up to readers’ expectations.
He also balked at a scene that required him to cry. According to Mental Floss, “Gable was afraid such a sight would ruin his image, to the point he threatened to walk off the set. [Director Victor Fleming] shot two versions: one with crying, one with a back turned in heavy sorrow. Then, Fleming convinced Gable that the weeping version would only endear him to the audience, not make him appear weak.”²
If you’re not familiar with Gone With the Wind, we encourage you to see it. Then tell us what you think about Clark Gable’s performance as Rhett Butler.
Gone With the Wind: starring Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Thomas Mitchell. Directed by Victor Fleming (& George Cukor). Written by Sidney Howard. Selznick International/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Technicolor, 1939, 238 mins.