Dark Cinema: Gable and Crawford - The Great Pre-Code Love Affair

'Our relationship was private, between us. It was a glorious affair, and it went on longer than anybody knows. It was sublime...' -Joan Crawford

Hepburn and Tracy. Bogart and Bacall. Crawford and Gable? You don't hear those last two names paired as much as those before them. Their partnership isn't nearly as legendary, most likely because none of the eight films they made together were true classics. But there was no hotter pair in pre-Code films, and this was partly because the passion was real.

For a time in the thirties, audiences were in love with the pairing of Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. That the films they were given weren't always top notch was beside the point, because their chemistry transcended uninspired plots and less than sparkling dialogue.

Gable and Crawford appeared together onscreen for the first time in Dance Fools Dance (1931). At the time, Clark had appeared in seventeen films, but had yet to make much of an impact with audiences. He was recently divorced and soon to marry his second wife. Fresh off her success in a series of flapper silents and early talkies, and married to Hollywood royalty Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Joan received top billing. She plays a socialite, who, overnight, goes from jumping off the side of a yacht in her skivvies with her friends, to mourning the death of her father and facing ruin with her brother as they find out the market collapse has left them penniless.

Crawford gets to work, finding a gig as a cub reporter. Her brother still wants a lavish life though, and finds wealth, and trouble, in the bootlegging business. It's here that he falls under the influence of Gable's tough gangster. Crawford goes undercover, and seduces Gable, to save her brother when he gets himself in trouble with the mob.

While the two had yet to take much notice of each other personally at this point, they had great onscreen chemistry from the beginning. It's as if there is a kind of understanding between them. When they look at each other, it doesn't look like a couple of actors playing a scene, they truly see each other. MGM executives certainly liked what they saw, especially as an affair between the stars was not yet a problem.

The pair would not be quite so lucky with Laughing Sinners (1931). Culled from a failed Broadway play, this drama about a young woman ditched by a traveling salesman didn't have quite the same energy or dramatic momentum. Gable is a member of a Salvation Army-like group who reaches out to Crawford and saves her from herself. According to Crawford, the passion was not entirely fiction. About that time she said, 'I hit off a few sparks, onscreen and off with [him].' That growing kinship between the two is enough to make the film worth a view.

Crawford and Gable really sizzled in Possessed (1931), their third pairing and perhaps their greatest pre-code together. They were never more beautiful, glamorous, or in sync with each other than in this drama about a small town box factory worker who becomes the mistress of an ambitious lawyer. Crawford's biographer Donald Spoto wrote that it was during the production of this film that the pair began a relationship which would ebb and flow over thirty years.

According to Spoto, Crawford and Gable related to each other because they came from similar circumstances. Both had endured poverty as children, had very little formal education and felt out of place in the glamorous world of Hollywood. They were comfortable confiding in each other, building a mutually supportive friendship that would long outlive the passion they felt in the early years. The relationship which, much to the distress of MGM executives, had gone strong in the years after Possessed had cooled by now.

With its musical background and comic interludes, Dancing Lady (1933) is the most upbeat of the Crawford and Gable pre-Codes. It is also notable as the screen debut of Fred Astaire, playing a small role as himself in a rehearsal sequence.

With comic bits by Ted Healy and the Three Stooges, and Crawford's new real life love interest Franchot Tone in the cast, things were a bit more crowded for the pair this time around. They were also more turbulent, as Gable became ill with a mysterious infection during filming. He was eventually hospitalized to have an emergency appendectomy, while on the set Joan overdid it in a dance scene and suffered a serious ankle sprain.

The two troupers carried on though. By now, Joan and Clark were seasoned partners, capable of more nuanced worked together. This is especially evident in a gymnasium scene where they smoothly make emotional shifts between comedy, drama and romantic tension. It's mesmerizing watching them interact so effortlessly.

Their next film, Chained (1934) could easily have drowned in melodrama, but because of their playful interplay, it is among the most charming of the Gable and Crawford movies. Crawford is a secretary in love with her shipping magnate boss, who is married only in name. When her lover's wife refuses to divorce, he encourages her to take a cruise to think over her options. Still determined to stick by her boss, she reluctantly accepts. Though planning to spend her time in solitude, Crawford falls in love with a South American rancher played by Gable. The shipboard scenes between the two are among the best in the film. They appear so relaxed together and their personalities have ample room to shine, giving the scenes a warm, natural feel. When they part after the cruise, you truly understand the misery they feel without each other.

In Forsaking All Others (1934), the stars' last pre-Code together, Crawford spends most of her screen time romancing an undeserving childhood friend, played by Robert Montgomery. When he leaves her at the altar for another woman, her other childhood chum, Gable, is there to console her. He loves her, and had been on his way to propose when he learned of her engagement. Though Joan and Clark don't have a romantic relationship for most of the film, the growing affection between their characters is sensitively played.

By the time the Code came into effect, the romance between Gable and Crawford had cooled, though their devotion to each other endured. While Gable may have considered marriage with Crawford, she would later say she never thought they could have had lasting wedded bliss. She knew of her lover's reputation with the ladies, and that he would not be faithful. Joan also believed that the King could not marry a woman as strong and successful as she was which may have been somewhat true, as eventual wife Carole Lombard worked hard to cater to Gable and his interests.

Gable and Crawford appeared in two more films together. Neither of them would have the heat of their pairings before, but each are successful in their own way. In Love on the Run (1936), Joan is a bride who ditches her wedding and goes on the run with reporter Gable. There definitely were no off-screen clinches between the two, as their costar was Franchot Tone and Gable was deeply involved with Carole Lombard. Onscreen there is noticeably less passion between the two, but they are still a charming pair. Gable plays his role with masculine ease and Crawford is charming, though her part often seems like it would be a better fit for Lombard.

For their last film together, Gable and Crawford slogged through the tropics as prisoners escaping Devil's Island in Strange Cargo (1940), a drama with strong spiritual themes and also starring Ian Hunter as a mysterious Christ figure. Here they seem to have traded in passion for a comfortable familiarity, somewhat at odds with the tension between their characters. When Clark gives Joan's leg a casual tap in the midst of a conversation, it is as if they are an old married couple, friendly, and at ease with each other.

Kendahl Cruver is a writer and editor. She writes about classic movies at the aptly-named A Classic Movie Blog.