Clark Gable is the Oscar-winning matinee idol who starred in dozens of films before his untimely death in 1960, but how many of those titles are classics? Let’s take a look back at 12 of Gable’s greatest movies, ranked worst to best.
After appearing in bit parts in a number of films, Gable shot to stardom with his performance in “A Free Soul” (1931) as a gangster who bewitches a young woman (Norma Shearer) whose attorney father (Lionel Barrymore) helped him beat a murder rap. From there forward, the actor’s persona as a raffish leading man who’s every guy’s best friend and every gal’s dream became cemented in a number of subsequent roles.
He won an Oscar just three years later for Frank Capra‘s screwball classic “It Happened One Night” (1934), in which he played a newspaper reporter traveling with a spoiled socialite (Claudette Colbert). The film became the first to sweep the five major Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay), a feat only repeated by “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) and “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991).
His next bid came for “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935), a high seas adventure about an uprising against a tyrannical British Navy captain (Charles Laughton). Made before the introduction of the supporting categories in 1936, the film holds the record for most Best Actor nominations with three (Gable, Laughton, and Franchot Tone as a fellow seaman). All three lost to Victor McLaglen (“The Informer”), and “Mutiny” walked away with a lone Best Picture win.
Gable’s third and final nomination came for what is undoubtedly his most iconic role: the dashing Rhett Butler in “Gone with the Wind” (1939). His rebuttal to pampered Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) — “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” — remains the most memorable line in movie history. The box office behemoth swept the Oscars, winning eight prizes including Best Picture and Best Actress for Leigh. Sadly, Gable was overlooked for Robert Donat (“Goodbye, Mr. Chips”).
Tour our gallery of Gable’s 12 greatest films, and see if your favorite made the cut.
12. A FREE SOUL (1931)
Directed by Clarence Brown. Written by John Meehan and Becky Gardiner, based on the novel by Adela Rogers St. Johns. Starring Norma Shearer, Leslie Howard, Lionel Barrymore, James Gleason, Lucy Beaumont.
“A Free Soul” launched Gable from bit player to leading man and won Lionel Barrymore a Best Actor Oscar, but it’s not much talked about today. Directed by Clarence Brown, it centers on an alcoholic attorney (Barrymore) who successfully defends a corrupt gangster (Gable) against a murder charge, only to have his free-spirited daughter (Norma Shearer) fall in love with him. Creaky and melodramatic by today’s standards, the film is an interesting Pre-Code examination of the link between sex and violence.
11. CALL OF THE WILD (1935)
Directed by William A. Wellman. Screenplay by Gene Fowler and Leonard Praskins, based on the novel by Jack London. Starring Loretta Young, Jack Oakie, Reginald Owen, Frank Conroy.
Jack London’s oft-adapted adventure yarn has never been more exciting than in this 1935 William A. Wellman version. Gable takes on the iconic role of Jack Thornton, a rugged traveler who purchases a dog to lead him towards buried treasure during the Klondike Gold Rush. He soon reconsiders his decision after meeting a beautiful widow (Loretta Young). Jack Oakie is best in show as Gable’s partner, who spent time in prison for reading other people’s mail.
10. TEACHER’S PET (1958)
Directed by George Seaton. Written by Fay Kanin and Michael Kanin. Starring Doris Day, Gig Young, Mamie Van Doren, Nick Adams.
Gable teamed up with Doris Day for this charming romantic comedy about the love that can blossom from deception. “Teachers Pet” centers on a veteran newspaper reporter (Gable) who poses as a night school student so he can humiliate a journalism teacher (Day) who mocked him. Yet he soon finds himself falling in love with his instructor. Gig Young earned a Supporting Actor nomination for playing a worldly psychologist who might be the newsman’s main competition for love. Gable earned a Golden Globe bid, but was ignored by the Academy.
9. TEST PILOT (1938)
Directed by Victor Fleming. Screenplay by Vincent Lawrence and Waldemar Young, story by Frank Wead. Starring Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore.
This rousing adventure from Victor Fleming casts Gable as a daredevil test pilot whose drinking endangers his life. When he’s forced to land on a farm in Kansas, he falls in love with the farmer’s daughter (Myrna Loy) and decides to reform his ways. Yet the thrill of danger (and booze) are too great to avoid, much to the dismay of his wife and best friend (Spencer Tracy), an airplane mechanic. The film earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Story (written by former Navy pilot Frank Wead), and Best Film Editing.
8. RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP (1958)
Directed by Robert Wise. Screenplay by John Gay, based on the novel by Edward L. Beach, Jr. Starring Burt Lancaster, Jack Warden, Don Rickles.
Gable squares off with Burt Lancaster in this tense submarine drama, a sort of “Crimson Tide” for classic movie fans. During WWII, a U.S. sub commander (Gable) becomes obsessed with sinking an enemy Japanese ship, butting heads with his first officer (Lancaster) and the other sailors (including Jack Warden and Don Rickles). Director Robert Wise does an expert job building suspense within a confined space, but it’s the performances by Gable and Lancaster that really put you on the edge of your seat.
7. RED DUST (1932)
Directed by Victor Fleming. Screenplay by John Mahin, based on the play by Wilson Collison. Starring Jean Harlow, Mary Astor, Gene Raymond, Donald Crisp.
In Victor Fleming’s “Red Dust,” Gable stars as the crusty overseer of a French Indochina rubber plantation. He soon enters into a love triangle with a beautiful prostitute (Jean Harlow) and the wife (Mary Astor) of a new engineer (Gene Raymond). Made in the days before the Production Code took all the sex out of movies, this is hot, trashy fun. Gable later remade the film as “Mogambo” (1953), directed by John Ford and starring Ava Gardener in the Harlow role and Grace Kelly in the Astor one.
6. SAN FRANCISCO (1936)
Directed by W.S. Van Dyke. Screenplay by Anita Loos, story by Robert E. Hopkins. Starring Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy, Jack Holt, Jessie Ralph, Ted Healy.
“San Francisco” is the type of big budget, star-studded spectacle MGM excelled at in its heyday. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke, the film centers on a Barnaby Coast saloonkeeper (Gable), a talented yet impoverished singer (Jeanette MacDonald), a kindly priest (Spencer Tracy), and a Nob Hill socialite (Jack Holt) whose lives are interrupted by the devastating 1906 earthquake. It’s hard to imagine “Titanic” without this one setting the stage for melodramas set against the tragedies of history. The film won an Oscar for its sound and received five other nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Tracy.
5. MOGAMBO (1953)
Directed by John Ford. Screenplay by John Lee Mahin, based on the play ‘Red Dust’ by Wilson Collison. Starring Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, Donald Sinden, Philip Stainton, Eric Pohlmann, Laurence Naismith, Denis O’Dea.
Gable remade his 1932 adventure yarn “Red Dust”, reprising his role as a raffish safari hunter who starts an affair with a socialite (Ava Gardner) and an anthropologist’s unfaithful wife (Grace Kelly). Whereas the previous version was filmed on the MGM backlot, director John Ford insisted on location shooting in Africa in glorious Technicolor, giving this reimagining an extra bit of scope and authenticity. Gardner and Kelly earned Oscar nominations in lead and supporting, respectively, though Gable was ignored.
4. THE MISFITS (1961)
Directed by John Huston. Written by Arthur Miller. Starring Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Thelma Ritter, Eli Wallach.
John Huston’s “The Misfits” occupies a sad place in cinema history due to the fate of its three stars: Gable died before it’s release, Marilyn Monroe shortly thereafter, while Montgomery Clift would make only three more movies before his own untimely demise in 1966. Written by Monroe’s then-husband, Arthur Miller, it revolves around a beautiful divorcee (Monroe) in love with a past-his-prime cowboy (Gable) who, along with his partners (Clift and Eli Wallach), grinds up “misfit” horses into dog food. A flop in its time, the film has found a second life as a minor masterpiece, thanks in large part to its tragic significance.
3. MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1936)
Directed by Frank Lloyd. Screenplay by Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman, Carey Wilson, based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Starring Charles Laughton, Franchot Tone, Herbert Mundin, Eddie Quillan, Dudley Digges, Donald Crisp.
Frank Lloyd’s Oscar-winning classic remains the best adaptation of Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall’s epic novel, itself based on a true story. Charles Laughton gives the performance of a lifetime as Captain Blight, the tyrannical captain of the HMS Bounty. When his cruelty towards the crew reaches its breaking point, Lieutenant Fletcher Christian (Gable) stages a mutiny. Released before the supporting categories were introduced in 1936, the film holds the record for the most Lead Actor nominations with three (Gable, Laughton, and Franchot Tone as midshipman Roger Byam). All three split the vote, swinging the prize to Victor McLaglen (“The Informer”). In fact, the only award it won was Best Picture.
2. IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)
Directed by Frank Capra. Screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on the short story ‘Night Bus’ by Samuel Hopkins Adams. Starring Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Jameson Thomas, Alan Hale, Arthur Hoyt, Blanche Friderici, Charles C. Wilson.
Gable won the Best Actor Oscar on his first try for Frank Capra’s screwball classic. “It Happened One Night” centers on a spoiled heiress (Claudette Colbert) who runs away from her family with a down-to-earth reporter (Gable) who’s using her for a story. The film set the gold standard for romantic comedies to come with its sparkling screenplay (by frequent Capra collaborator Robert Riskin) and charming performances by two leads with electrifying chemistry. It made history, in fact, by becoming the first movie to take home the top five Academy Awards (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenwriting), a feat that’s only been repeated by “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) and “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991).
1. GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
Directed by Victor Fleming. Screenplay by Sidney Howard, based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell. Starring Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Thomas Mitchell, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen.
“Gone with the Wind” holds a dubious place in film history. On the one hand, it’s a sweeping example of top-notch Hollywood filmmaking. On the other hand, it’s portrayal of the Old South as some kind of Camelot fails to acknowledge the inhumanity of slavery (though Hattie McDaniel, who made history as the first black Oscar winner, is at least granted some common sense and humanity as Mammy). Yet what makes this classic stand the test of time is the romance between the feisty Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and the dashing Rhett Butler (Gable), whose final rebuttal (“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”) remains the greatest line in movie history. The box office behemoth won 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Leigh. Gable lost Best Actor, however, to Robert Donat (“Goodbye, Mr. Chips”).