April 17, 2008


Clark Gable: Tormented Star. By David Bret. Carroll & Graf/Da Capo. $26.

      There is never a shortage of biographies of dead celebrities – who can no longer speak up on their own behalf (or file libel suits). David Bret is a significant contributor to the genre: he has written about Edith Piaf, Tallulah Bankhead, Maria Callas, Joan Crawford, Rudolph Valentino and others. Unfortunately, he is a terrible writer, and one whose work in Clark Gable: Tormented Star appears never to have seen the hand of an editor. In writing about the early talkie The Painted Desert, Bret says, “Complicating matters is Bill’s love-interest Mary-Ellen (a wildly over-the-top performance from weepies queen, Helen Twelvetrees), who also happens to be Jeff’s daughter) [sic] and Jeff’s thuggish factotum Rance Brett (Clark), who is also sweet on her.” This appears to mean nothing at all, and it is by no means an isolated instance of incomprehensibility. “While working with Clark in The Secret Six she [Jean Harlow] had become involved with MGM executive Paul Bern. Known as ‘Little Father Confessor’ on account of his puny build and fondness for listening to other people’s problems – though not always helping them to resolve them or indeed facing up to his own troubles – German-born Bern (Paul Levy, 1889-1932) was Irving Thalberg’s right-hand man.”

      Built largely around name-dropping and plot descriptions of Gable films, Bret’s book offers little insight into Gable the actor or Gable the man. What supposedly made Gable “tormented” was the fact that he was bisexual – or at least Bret says this was a fact, although he supports the statement with little more than backdoor gossip, and certainly never shows any way in which Gable was clearly “tormented” by his sexuality. If there is evidence supporting Bret’s thesis, it is hard to extract from his prose, which becomes babble even when he describes well-known movies, such as Gone with the Wind: “Rhett does have a bad reputation. He was expelled from West Point, though we are not told why, none of his family have anything to do with him – and he once ‘ruined’ a girl by taking her out, without a chaperone, then refusing to marry her!”

      It’s very hard to figure out what Bret is trying to accomplish with this book, other than the obvious goals of titillation and making money. The whole thing is just plain sloppy: how many ways is it possible to misspell “Encino”? (Bret offers “Encinal” and “Elcino.”) And at the end, Bret turns genuinely nasty, questioning the paternity of Gable’s son, John Clark Gable (born four months after his father’s death), and impugning the morals of Gable’s widow, Kay (his fifth wife; he was her fourth husband): Gable’s son “was baptized John Clark and because he did not resemble Clark – lacking the large ears and melon-smile inherited by Judy [Lewis, Gable’s daughter with Loretta Young] – there have always been rumors that he was not Gable’s child at all.” This is typical of Bret’s writing: a bald and unsupported assertion, unattributed and unrefuted, involving people no longer around to defend themselves. Clark Gable: Tormented Star turns out to be tormenting mostly for readers who have to endure Bret’s tabloid incoherence.

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