There is this difference between Valentino and the man now being groomed as his successor. While women adored the Italian, men were prejudiced against him. With Gable it is far different. He is equally popular with men as with women. It is felt by no less an authority than Irving Thalberg that within a year Gable will be the most popular film player in the period, if not in screen history.
Not long afterward, Gable was dubbed the "King" of Hollywood and carried that royal title as a nickname for the rest of his life. He embodied a new masculinity, not just in contrast to those qualities that prejudiced male audiences against Valentino and his peers, but in contrast to an older Hollywood idea of a rugged he-man. While Gable played the villain in a Hopalong Cassidy picture for Pathe in 1930, M-G-M was trying to put Charles Bickford over as a virile leading man. Bickford certainly was virile, but was perhaps too much a man's man in his burly frame and manner and not enough a lady's man. The silent era seemed to draw a line separating sexiness from manliness, depending on your vantage point. In the sound era, Gable erased the dividing line. But whatever Thalberg was saying as 1931 neared its close, M-G-M seemed less certain of what to do with Gable after signing him early in the year. Producers saw something vicious in him and cast him as villains; Warner Bros. followed suit in the two pictures he made for them (Night Nurse being the better known) that year. It's almost as if Gable was too powerful and too sexy to be safe.
Gable was the Star of the Day on Turner Classic Movies on August 25, and TCM started the day with three films from his apprentice year of 1931. All three happen to be Joan Crawford star vehicles, with Gable rising from pure menace to humble underdog to powerful exploiter. Harry Beaumont's Dance, Fools, Dance, released in Feburary, was Gable's second M-G-M film and his first with a really prominent role. The story is like Three-Cornered Moon taken seriously. Crawford is a frivolous heiress forced to find work after the Great Crash wipes out her father's fortune and leaves him (the original William Holden) dead on the floor of the stock exchange. Before this, the film opens with a sequence often shown in Pre-Code highlight reels in which young partygoers strip to their underclothes to go swimming. Afterward, Crawford becomes an intrepid girl reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper while her shiftless brother (William Bakewell) falls in with bootleggers, providing them an in with his old society buddies. Gable as the head bootlegger gets an ominous introduction. His moll plays the Moonlight Sonata as a door opens to reveal the arrogant villain, who later blows smoke in her worshipful face to show his contempt for all decency. The hapless brother ends up the getaway driver for a St. Valentine's-style massacre of rival gangsters, and is later forced to pull the trigger himself on a tricky reporter (Cliff Edwards), Crawford's mentor, to whom he'd blabbed about his role in the earlier slaughter. Crawford gets the idea to infiltrate Gable's gang for the paper, though she initially proposed a more discreet role than the one she lands as dancing star of the floorshow at Gable's nightclub. Ever since her silent hit Our Dancing Daughters Crawford was expected to dance in her pictures, and here's her chance. She has an eccentric style that would have made her an interesting partner for James Cagney. Anyway, her looks get her an in with Gable, and in his office she learns through an indiscreet phone call of her brother's role in the massacre. That complicates things, but it's nothing a little gunplay can't resolve.
Gable has no redeeming qualities in Dance, Fools, Dance, and Beaumont clearly saw him then as no more than a thug type. A few months later, in the May release Laughing Sinners, Beaumont thinks better of him. In between these pictures, Gable had played a gangster in The Finger Points, the first of his Warner Bros. pictures, but more importantly M-G-M had cast him as a heroic reporter in The Secret Six, his first chance to court popularity. In Laughing Sinners he's not just a good guy, he's arguably a Goody Two-Shoes of the worst sort, a Salvation Army man. The film is careful to let us know, however, that he's an ex-con who turned to religion after two years in prison for an undisclosed offense. No softy, he. Gable's soul-saver befriends an initially-hostile Crawford after preventing her suicide. A nightclub dancer -- she performs with a fake nose and an Old MacDonald beard before stripping for Pre-Code action -- she's been jilted by her salesman boyfriend (Neil "Commissioner Gordon" Hamilton) so he can marry the boss's daughter. Eventually, Crawford warms to Gable and to the charitable work of the Army, which the film portrays less as a religion than as selfless friends of the poor in a time of need. Her idyll is interrupted when Hamilton reappears, sick of his job and sick of his wife and looking to strike some old sparks. He and Guy Kibbee (almost too convincing as a cynical drunk) manage to loosen her up, with help from Kibbee's dangerous "White Mule" hooch, until she's dancing on tables. While Gable's indignant at the way the men have degraded her, giving Hamilton a well-earned sock, he's the soul of forgiveness toward Crawford herself, wanting only her happiness whichever path she chooses. Poised between Gable and Neil Hamilton, you can guess how she chooses.
Clarence Brown's Possessed was Gable's last film of the year, a November release. By then, he had caught fire as the romantic villain of Brown's A Free Soul, a part star Lionel Barrymore reportedly recommended Gable for. After his turn as the evil chauffeur of Night Nurse, M-G-M cast him as Greta Garbo's leading man in Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise. Having worked alongside another queen of the lot, Norma Shearer (i.e. Mrs. Thalberg) in Free Soul, Gable was reunited with Crawford as if he had just now completed a trifecta of the studio's leading ladies -- almost as if he was really teaming up with Crawford for the first time.
Possessed is a more ambitious picture than the other Crawford vehicles; the proof may be that she doesn't dance in this one. She's a factory-town girl (the early scenes are shot on location) and the girlfriend of dull, bourgeois Wallace Ford. Living literally on the other side of the tracks, she watches the trains go by like a panoramic fantasy of affluence. More fantastic still, one of the passengers talks to her and gives her his card. She blows her burg and heads to the big city, only to get blown off by her new friend. She hangs around long enough to find a new friend. Gable has a role fit for a star: a rich and powerful lawyer with political ambitions. Once divorced, he's determined to love Crawford at a distance, setting her up in a fancy apartment while she tells the folks at home that she married well but ended up an early widow. Gable's philosophy is that losing a mistress is a private embarrassment, but losing a wife is a public scandal. Crawford's OK with that up to a point, resenting the subtle and not-so-subtle slights from Gable's peers. When Ford shows up in the big town, successful and ambitious for more success, Crawford is tempted to go back with him. When she learns that Gable is willing to give up his gubernatorial ambitions to risk scandal by marrying her, she goes into renunciation mode, nobly giving him up (by telling him she's cheating) with confidence that she'll hook up with Ford. But Ford proves himself a heel by repudiating her when she tells the truth about her relationship with Gable, only to beg forgiveness when he realizes the menage could endanger the highway contract he'd hoped Gable would fix for him. She dumps him on the spot. The drama climaxes with a scene that may have influenced Frank Capra's Meet John Doe, in which Gable's political rally is disrupted by hecklers and a rain of leaflets hinting at his scandalous relations with Crawford. She just happens to be in the audience and stops the scandal by telling the truth, including the fact that she gave Gable up to the people, so he could be their worthy servant. In a close that may have influenced Singin' in the Rain, Gable chases her down as she flees tearfully from the arena to profess his love. With this, his apprenticeship is just about done. Possessed is the best film of these three, though all suffer from the contrivances of romantic melodrama. In it, Gable is almost too much an establishment man, just as he's almost too much of a goody-good in Laughing Sinners and definitely too much of a fiend in Dance, Fools, Dance. He couldn't really be his fully formed star self while he was still squiring the likes of Crawford; once teamed with a junior starlet, Jean Harlow, he really hit his stride. His charisma is obvious in all these pictures, however, which together provide an illuminating lesson in the trial-and-error process of making a star in the classic studio system.