The histories of the Michigan Theater and the Redford Theatre are tightly intertwined with those of Ann Arbor, Detroit, theater design, organ music, and other people, places and things. These theaters also have boosted the careers of many famous movie stars, who in turn helped draw crowds to these film palaces.
In my research for the Looking Back feature of this web site, I’ve watched Clark Gable steadily rise to stardom through 1931. In those early days of the Great Depression, the Michigan and Redford depended on Gable and other new stars of the Talkie era to keep the turnstiles humming.
In March, the Michigan presented the first film in Gable’s long career with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer—The Easiest Way, starring Constance Bennett, with Gable eighth-billed (according to imdb.com). Also in March at the Michigan, Gable was sixth on the cast list in his second MGM picture—Dance, Fools, Dance, the first of three 1931 movies with star Joan Crawford. Dance, Fools, Dance hit the Redford screen in April.
After a small role in The Front Page and a loan-out to First National Pictures for The Finger Points (fifth-billed behind Richard Barthelmess), Gable ranked seventh on the cast list for his next MGM picture—The Secret Six. Wallace Beery starred in this crime drama, which appeared at the Michigan in May and the Redford in July.
Gable, who turned 30 in 1931, then moved up to third billing in his second MGM picture with Joan Crawford—Laughing Sinners, which played at the Michigan in June and the Redford in July. Also in June, Gable made a strong impression as one of Norma Shearer’s love interests in the Oscar-winning A Free Soul, which premiered in Detroit at the Paramount. A Free Soul played at the Michigan in July and the Redford in August.
A New MGM Star is Born
After a fourth-billed part behind Barbara Stanwyck in the Warner Brothers drama Night Nurse, Gable’s MGM career really took off. He topped the cast list as gambler Rid Riddell in Sporting Blood, which entertained Redford audiences in October and Michigan crowds in November.
Then came two more MGM films that solidly established Gable as a star. Only six months earlier, Gable had been a little known actor who had kicked around in several uncredited parts during the silent film era.
Gable was second-billed to Greta Garbo in Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise), which premiered at the Paramount in Detroit on October 8, and then came to the Michigan on November 8 and the Redford on December 13. An ad in The Ann Arbor Daily News read:
A month after Susan Lenox, on November 12 at the United Artists in Detroit, Gable appeared for the third time with Joan Crawford, in Possessed. This movie arrived at the Michigan on December 6, and an Ann Arbor Daily News ad for Possessed described Gable as “The most romantic screen idol since Rudolph Valentino!”
“It is difficult to understand how any young woman would not respond to the genuine masculine charms of this newcomer to the screen,” wrote Allison Ind of The Ann Arbor Daily News about Gable in Ind’s December 7 review of Possessed. “He is my personal nomination for the most convincing and the most masculine of the men stars of the screen.”
Gable had many more triumphs ahead in 30 years of stardom, including Gone With the Wind (1939), showing at the Redford on April 27-28, 2007. His drawing power was so strong, that 25 years later, on December 23, 1956, ”Ann Arbor’s Greatest Christmas Show” at the State Theater featured Clark Gable in The King and Four Queens.
Copyright © 2006 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.