Why Clark Gable is a Perfect Rhett Butler

Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) admires a feisty woman. Image: Sequart

The last Oscar nomination Clark Gable received was for his portrayal of Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind (1939).

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.

Gable-as-Rhett is overcome with grief. Image: Giphy

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.

Gable with director Victor Fleming (R). Image: Luxe Beat

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.

Notes:
  • ¹Wikipedia: “Searching for Rhett” (January 21, 2018).
  • ²Mental Floss: “20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Gone With the Wind” (January 20, 2018).
  • This is part of the DEAR MR. GABLE BLOGATHON hosted by Love Letters to Old Hollywood.

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.

Prod DB © Selznick International Pictures / DRAUTANT EN EMPORTE LE VENT (GONE WITH THE WIND) de Victor Fleming (avec non crédités George Cukor et Sam Wood) 1939 USAaffiche francaise R-1955 de Roger SoubieGrand classique, romantisme, robe, coiffureD’APRÈS LE ROMAN DE MARGARET MITCHELL
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42 comments

    • Thanks! I haven’t read the book since I was a teenager, but I can remember not being able to put it down. The next time you’re under the weather or you have a snowy/rainy day, you should see this one again. It would be interesting to see if your opinions have changed in the meantime.

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  1. This is my favorite Gable performance. He is just SO GOOD. I know he had some really stiff competition at the Oscars, and many of the men nominated deserved it, but I always wished he had won for this movie. Maybe I’m biased because Gone with the Wind has been in my life ever since I can remember —
    it’s my mom’s and my sister’s favorite film, and I have hanging on my wall a very dapper portrait of Gable-as-Rhett that used to be my mom’s.

    Anyway, this is a very excellent look at Gable’s performance, and I’m so glad you chose this topic for my blogathon. Thanks again for participating!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. It almost seems like Clark Gable was born for this role. And you’re right when it comes to Oscar noms that year – it would’ve been a tough choice in every category.

      Thanks for organizing this blogathon, and thanks for being OK with me posting so early. Please send a kiss-hello to your Gable-as-Rhett portrait from me!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The one time I saw (and the only time I will ever see) WIND I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to Gable’s performance — possibly because it’s such an iconic role, referenced and parodied so many times, that it was hard for me to focus on it as a performance. Was he good in the part? Sure, but I kinda took that for granted, so this piece of insight is valuable — not that it changes my feelings on the movie as a whole.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s true that Gable’s performance has been parodied ad infinitum, which may be a double-edged sword for an actor (being iconic vs being typecast). I think you’re right about our taking Gable’s performance for granted. In fact, I think I take almost all his performances for granted…

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  3. Hi Ruth. You have certainly highlighted the many reasons why he was terrific as Captain Butler. I love how he conveys the tough on the outside, but soft and gentle on the inside thing perfectly. The way he played him made me really frustrated with how Scarlett treated him. Girl! Wake up and realise he is the man for you!

    Rhett was her match in personality, and he adored her, looked after her and pampered her too. Great film and Clark is terrific in it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Gable is indeed wonderful as Rhett Butler. Margaret Mitchell and the public demanded him as Rhett, and he was perfect.
    My other favorite Gable performance is in his last film, The Misfits…in this film, as in GWTW as Rhett, he steps out of his he-man persona to show some weakness and vulnerability. He should have been nominated for that one too, in my opinion.
    Another terrific article! I always enjoy your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I loved your smart look at Gable’s performance. Peter Warne is still my favourite, but I have a newfound respect for his work in Gone With the Wind.

    Oh, the first part of the movie with all those namby-pamby southern accented fops at the party is enough to make one tear her hair out by the roots. And then the camera pans down to Clark Gable! Oh my, what an entrance.

    PS: My contribution to the blogathon features a similar build-up and introduction, but with a totally different character.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gable-as-Rhett has one of the best film introductions, like you said. All those “mealy-mouthed” people (to borrow Scarlett’s words), and then the camera sweeps down the stairs to Rhett Butler = fabulous.

      I’m looking forward to reading your entry on “Night Nurse”. I just saw that for the 1st time a few weeks ago. This is going to be good!

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  6. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen Gone with the Wind. There are many reasons I love it, but the primary one is Gable’s performance of Rhett Butler. His crying scene is one of his most human in all of his films. He took a scoundrel and made him loveable, which come to think of it, he did with his real life persona too.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Could not agree more. Gable IS the perfect Rhett Butler :-D. I’ll confess it took me a long time to warm up to Gable. His whole “uber macho” attitude turned me off for a while. But the more of his films I saw the more I realized that, as an actor, he was multi-faceted and he wasn’t shy about showing a tender, complex side to his characters. I actually think my favorite role of his was in “The Misfits”. Even though he plays a macho cowboy, he plays it with such charm and charisma and it’s like the machismo isn’t aware of itself. I know it was his last role but I think it was his best.

    Tam May
    The Dream Book Blog
    http://thedreambook.wordpress.com/

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like your analysis of Clark Gable I “The Misfits”. He is SO GOOD in that film. I also like what you said about “the machismo isn’t aware of itself.” I’m going to keep that in mind the next time I see “The Misfits”.

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  8. I’m about to commit sacrilege by declaring I’m one of the few moviegoers on Earth who thinks that GWTW is overrated. IMHO, Clark Gable is the only actor in the movie who makes it watchable. On that basis, you did a very good blog. (Years ago, I was amazed to read that the original authoress, Margaret Mitchell, wanted Groucho Marx to play the male lead. If you watch the movie closely, you can certainly see and hear Groucho in Rhett Butler’s “voice.”)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Clark Gable is handsome and charming in this film, isn’t he? He really shows his comedic timing, along with his dramatic chops.

      I really like Olivia we Havilland in this film, too. She gives her character intelligence and strength – someone you can admire.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. While I’m not a huge Clark Gable fan, I agree that he was a fine choice for Rhett Butler. I cannot imagine Gary Cooper in the role; I think he would have been too reserved. I’ve often thought that Errol Flynn would have been an interesting choice (and was briefly discussed for the role). However, I don’t think he was seasoned enough in 1939 to capture Rhett’s frustrations. Clark was ready for the role.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. That was a very interesting read. He was really the match for Leigh as Scarlett. You can instantly sense when watching that the two have similar temperaments and can quickly become admirers of each other (even though Scarlett’s blind devotion to Ashley prevents her from feeling anything more).

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Gone With the Wind has many amazing performances and this applies to Clark Gable. I wonder what the film would have been if Gary Cooper would have accepted the role! Overall I prefer Coop to Gable, but I think this last one was perfect in the role.
    Excellent article Ruth!

    Like

  12. The “weeping version” of the scene is so much better – it’s the most humanized we see Rhett Butler, and aso Gable himself until his last film, The Misfits. Gable is amazing because he is never crushed by Leigh’s Scarlett, but provides an interesting battle of strength.
    Oh, if we think Margaret Mitchell said she wanted her favorite actor – Groucho marx – for the role of Rhett! 😀
    Thanks for the kind comment! Kisses!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Was Margaret Mitchell serious when she suggested Groucho Marx? I read that in a few places, but didn’t know what to make of it.

      Like you said, Gable gives a powerful performance here – and in “The Misfits”, too.

      Like

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