By 1941, Clark Gable had appeared in eight movies with Joan Crawford, in six with both Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow, and in three opposite Norma Shearer. Harlow had died in 1937, and the others would soon be done with MGM, leaving the studio during World War II. But Gable was in full post-Rhett Butler glory, still the uncontested King of the Movies. Of the new crop of MGM leading ladies, it was Lana Turner, twenty years Gable’s junior, who would be his latest multi-picture teammate. After three years of studio grooming, Turner had recently shot to stardom earlier in 1941 in Ziegfeld Girl (opposite James Stewart) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (opposite Spencer Tracy). She had proved herself ready for Gable himself. They would make four mediocre films together between 1941 and 1954, and their joint success shows that sometimes genuine chemistry and potent sex appeal are enough to overcome lousy material indifferently executed.
Honky Tonk (1941) - How could MGM put Gable, their greatest asset, fresh from GWTW, into such a lackluster, routine picture? Utterly disposable, it has Gable out in Nevada, moving from con man to saloon owner to corrupt town leader, with Turner as the daughter of Frank Morgan, an ex-con man and the town’s justice of the peace. (Morgan gives the best, most honest performance, as usual.) Add Claire Trevor as, you guessed it, the whore with a heart of gold. Gable looks spiffy in his Rhett Butler suits, and petite Turner is a luscious blonde. Their sexual sizzle is the only reason to keep watching. Borrowing from the GWTW playbook, the film has Gable breaking down Turner’s door, and it even gives her some Scarlett-style morning-after bliss. Honky Tonk presents a familiar Gable, a sexy and competent new star in Turner, and a happy ending. Big hit, bad movie.
Somewhere I’ll Find You (1942) – It begins in October of 1941 and goes past Pearl Harbor, but recent history is reduced to an excuse for a typical love triangle. Cynical bad-boy Gable and bland nice-guy Robert Sterling are brothers, both war correspondents, and Turner is a reporter, though she seems more comfortable as the sex kitten caught between the brothers. Imagine sending glamour-drenched Lana Turner to cover a story in Indochina! She soon goes missing, but the brothers find her bravely rescuing children. It’s MGM gloss with the slightest veneer of “importance.” Another sub-par Gable vehicle, and another hit. (His wife, Carole Lombard, died during its making.) This was his last film before leaving the screen for three years to participate in the war effort. In this movie, after hearing about Gable’s on/off romance with Turner, Patricia Dane suggestively tells him, ”I’ll take a whack at blowing out that torch.”
Homecoming (1948) – The best of the Gable-Turner movies, though it’s not very good. It’s MGM’s idea of a post-war message picture, their simplistic and heavy-handed answer to The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Mervyn LeRoy’s direction veers from the plastic to the stodgy, while unable to resist any of the soapy tendencies in the writing. It’s got a variation of the old Citadel plot, with surgeon Gable learning what it means to truly care about people. And he brings considerable intelligence, dignity, and much-needed restraint to the film, becoming its chief asset. Turner gives a confident performance (she had The Postman Always Rings Twice under her belt by now), easily the best of her performances in her Gable pictures. Anne Baxter is Gable’s wife, and they share a perfect, successful, selfish life together. The good and the unselfish are represented by John Hodiak, Gable’s college pal and fellow doctor, and Ms. Turner, Gable’s nurse during the war, a widow with a little boy. Told as a post-war flashback, the Gable-Turner romance is chaste for a while, but it’s consummated in a bombed-out building while the war rages nearby. Through loving her, Gable finds a new, more compassionate outlook.
Betrayed (1954) - The third WWII film for the team, it’s an okay spy picture, watchable if not plausible. It has the superficiality of many of the war pictures made during the war but without the requisite snap and energy. Gable, Turner, and Victor Mature are all Dutch: Gable is an officer and an agent; Turner is a notorious woman whose husband was shot; Mature is a famed resistance fighter. Turner wants to turn her life around by becoming an agent, which she does, but then she’s suspected of being a traitor. She’s also a brunette here, looking rather fetching, while Gable and Mature look positively ragged. Gone is the sexual heat between Gable and Turner, and maybe that’s why we don’t accept or care about their love. Good color and locations help, but not enough to disguise an underwhelming venture. This was Gable’s final film on his MGM contract, not a terrible farewell, just a disappointing end to an extraordinarily successful partnership. The previous year’s Mogambo would have been a more fitting and satisfying finish to Gable’s tenure at Metro.