It’s only fair that after giving Vivien Leigh her own post in Gone with the Ship of Fools Clark Gable should have one too. Just as I was awed by his costar’s abilty to portray a Southern Bell so perfectly, teenage me was a little stunned by Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler. I’d swooned over him first in the book, knowing full well he was played by Clark Gable, but somehow knowing to expect Clark Gable taking on the personna of that tough guy with the ooey gooey center and seeing him there larger than life are two entirely different things.

Rhett Butler is a complicated man. Seeming difficult at first, he shows a softer side toward the mousey but wonderful Melanie, and a downright marshmallow for a heart toward his daughter Bonnie Blue. His relationship with Scarlet is so complicated it’s almost unfathomable at times, but the moment when he leaves her with that line much ballyhooed for its controvisial at the time curse word set my romantic little heart aflutter, and made me cry as if I were the one left demanding that tomorrow be a better day. Clark Gable nailed that character as no other Hollywood Golden Age leading man could have. There was something about him, maybe his general sex appeal, maybe that combined with the unforgettable voice and sardonic smile, that was infinitely appealing. He was the king of old Hollywood, and king of many a swooning teen’s tender young heart far beyond Judy Garland’s touching fan letter in song to Dear Mr. Gable.

However. In a mirror reaction to the way Ship of Fools showcased Vivien Leigh’s talent for me far beyond even Gone with the Wind, I saw another old movie that did it with Clark Gable. This one was Manhattan Melodrama, starring our Dear Mr. Gable as Blackie, a black and white bad boy who made Brando in The Wild Ones look like a boy next door. William Powell, another of my old school favorites, played his childhood best friend in a position of power that still did not allow him to save Blackie from the electric chair.

Oddly, in much the same way Vivien Leigh’s Charleston moment solidified her character, heart and soul, in silent, moving glory, there was a moment in Manhattan Melodrama that threw the entire dark tragedy that was Blackie’s life into stark relief against the glorious sparkle of period Manhattan. He says his goodbyes, and is led away in cuffs. That’s the last we see of Blackie himself, but his mark is left on the ending in a shocking, hard hitting moment of a scene that left an indelible mark on my memory. Moments later, the overhead lights flicker and we know Blackie has met his ultimate, irrevocable fate. The electric chair has claimed him, and he is lost to his friend and his audience.

I won’t even try to say that part of my fascination with that movie wasn’t how gorgeous Clark Gable was at that time in his life. Young, rough around the edges, talent oozing from every pore. But that particular ending was another of those learning moments that I didn’t recognize until I started writing screenplays. The final moments in a story are vital. Whether they leave you with a smile, a laugh, or buckets of tears, they need to leave you with something indelible. That flicker of power drain at the end of Manhattan Melodrama told its audience what happened to Blackie at the moment it happened, without a single word being uttered. That’s story telling. That’s old Hollywood. And every moment that led up to it was Clark Gable at his beguiling best.

Manhattan Melodrama Trailer

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