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April 24, 2020

A Shotgun for Clark Gable's True Love

By Mike Burns

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Clark Gable is arguably one of the most iconic actors of all time. With roles in such movies as It Happened One Night, The Misfits, and Gone with the Wind over a nearly 37-year long career, it is no wonder that Gable was nicknamed “the King of Hollywood.” It is Rock Island Auction Company's distinct pleasure to be auctioning a well-documented, presentation inscribed, Erich Klebe, 20 gauge, side opening, over/under shotgun during our Premier Auction that was made on special order for Clark Gable as a gift for his wife, Carole Lombard. It is a shotgun that embodies the thrill of romance, the excitement of success, and the extreme sorrows of tragedy.

Well-Documented Golden Age of Hollywood Presentation Inscribed Erich Klebe 20 Gauge Side Opening Over/Under Shotgun Made on Special Order for the “King of Hollywood” Clark Gable as a Gift to His Wife and Legendary Film Actress Carole Lombard

Clark Gable Early Life

William Clark Gable was born on February 1, 1901 in Cadiz, Ohio. Gable’s mother died when he was only ten months old, leaving his Father, an oil driller and a farmer, to raise the family. It was Gable’s stepmother, an avid piano player, who would introduce young Gable to music and theater. However, it was after seeing The Birds of Paradise in a local theater when he was 17-years -old that Gable decided to become an actor. After unsuccessfully attempting to break into the industry, along with the passing of his stepmother in that same year, a defeated Gable ventured to Oklahoma to work with his father drilling for oil. Gable’s yearning to be on stage would only grow and after almost 3 years of waiting, he would finally get his chance to become an actor. In Portland, Oregon, Gable met Laura Hope Crews who encouraged him to return to acting and inspired him to take a second shot. Ironically, 20 years later, Crews and Gable would share the stage in one of his most iconic movies, Gone with the Wind. Gables hired an acting coach who offered resources to help Gable “look the part:” his teeth were fixed, his hair styled, and he was given proper acting lessons to improve facial expressions, body language, and voice. Practically a new man, Gable was ready to enter the spotlight.

The King of Hollywood

Clark Gable had a modest beginning to what would become one of the most famous and successful careers in the industry. He worked as an extra in various projects and was initially dismissed during screen tests with some criticizing the size of his ears. After finally landing a speaking role in Painted in the Desert in 1930, his hard work, determination, and talent finally paid off by attracting the attention of some large studios. Gable signed a contract with MGM Studios where he would go on to star in movies alongside actresses such as Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and Jean Harlow. At first his roles were limited to villain types, but this wouldn’t last for long after movies like Red Dust, Possessed, and Strange Interlude would ultimately prove his strength and popularity as a romantic lead.

During the filming of Dancing Lady in 1933, Gable developed pyorrhea that spread from his gums (leading to the total removal of all his teeth) to the rest of his body requiring him to be hospitalized. This put the film’s expenses almost $150,000 over budget. Once he returned to work, it was rumored that MGM “punished” Gable for this incident by loaning him out to Columbia Pictures which was, at the time, a low-budget studio, to star in the film It Happened One Night. However, the film would go on to win Gable an Academy Award and launched his career into a new realm of different high-caliber roles in movies like Boomtown, San Francisco, and the iconic Gone with the Wind. Clark Gable was now one of the most famous actors in all of Hollywood.

What is a King without His Queen?

Throughout his life, Gable had many different romantic partners and remarried several times. None however, compared to the love of his life and legendary actress, Carole Lombard. The two married in 1939 after meeting on the set of No Man of Her Own. Gable often described the period of his life with Carole as the happiest he had ever been, remarking, “You can trust that little screwball with your life or your hopes or your weaknesses, and she wouldn’t even know how to think about letting you down.” They lived a life of luxury together; frivolous spending, exotic vacations, and custom gifts became the norm. After marrying during the filming of Gone with the Wind, the two purchased a 20-acre ranch in Encino, California where they raised chickens and some livestock.

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard with some of their hand-raised chickens.

Tragedy would strike the happy couple on January 16, 1942 when a flight carrying Lombard home from the filming of her latest movie crashed into Potosi Mountain located outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. The loss of his wife was devastating to Gable and lead him to find solace through enlistment in the U.S. Army. Serving as a tail-gunner on five bombing missions over Germany, Gable contributed to the war effort in various ways, even playing roles in multiple propaganda films. Even Adolph Hitler was not immune to the charm and popularity of Gable and even offered a sizable reward to anyone who could capture him. Gable was awarded multiple different honors for his service during the war such as a World War II Victory Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Despite the honors, awards, and career boost because of his patriotism, Gable would still mourn profusely over the loss of his love.

After the War, Gable returned back to acting, his legacy cemented by not only his outstanding performances but his military service as well. His films following his discharge were more popular than ever with crowds rushing to the box office. It was during this time that such roles in Solider of Fortune and The Tall Men would further define his career in the history books. The Misfits was his last film starring alongside Marilyn Monroe, her last completed film as well. While many regard this film to be his best work, Gable would not see the film’s release after suffering a heart attack and passing away in 1960. He was 59-years-old.

Hunting and the outdoors were a part of life for the married couple.

A Golden Shotgun in the Golden Age of Hollywood

During the happy years of their marriage, not only did the couple enjoy tending to their own livestock, they also were active hunters. Gable even had in his contract with MGM that he would make "no pictures during the hunting season." A quick online search will reveal no shortage of photos showing both husband and wife hunting together, most often for ducks or upland birds. Gable owned numerous firearms, some of which were gifts from Carole, who quickly picked-up the hunting bug after the two were married. A period article in "Ladies Home Journal" recounts that on her first duck hunt with Clark, she bagged more ducks than he did, and he couldn't have been happier about it. It should come as no surprise then that in 1940 he presented this extravagant and rare golden shotgun to the woman who was his hunting buddy as well as the love of his life.

Even at a distance, this O/U shotgun is striking; it's bright gilt parts contrasting sharply with the blued barrels and rib. The receiver, single trigger, trigger guard, and release lever are all lavishly gold plated and have been set wonderfully into deluxe stock complete with fleur-de-lis checkering on the forend and wrist. Stippling texture covers the receiver, rib, break lever, and trigger guard, while a diamond-shaped gilt plaque on the right forend indicates the shotgun's provenance with a simple inscription: "1940, To Carole. Love, Clark."

However, it is this same forend that gives the viewer the first hint that it is not a typical fowling piece. A closer inspection reveals this to be a side-opening shotgun, one of just 14 hand-made by gunsmith and Erich Klebe.

Klebe was born in Berlin on September 23, 1893 and served as a gunsmith's apprentice at the age of 13. After 5 years, he began work for a gun dealer in his hometown and quickly found himself handling and repairing the hunting pieces for Paul von Hindenburg, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and other high ranking German officials. Klebe tells of building guns with curved stocks for men with a blind eye so they could sight their rifles with their good eye, and building iron frames on which a taxidermist could mount the Kaiser's trophies. He also served as an armorer during The Great War. In August of 1923, he and his family emigrated to the United States, and took up residence in Minneapolis, MN. There he worked in residence at sporting goods store Kennedy Sports rent free due to the amount of customers he attracted to the business. It is even said that baseball great Ted Williams owned one of Klebe's custom shotguns.

Erich Klebe with some of this custom shotguns

It was in 1940 that Klebe made this exceptional, one-of-a-kind shotgun for Hollywood royalty. Chambered for 3-inch, 20 gauge shells, the barrels were made in full choke. Intended as a duck gun by Klebe, this combination would have worked wonders for downing mallards at distance. A 1945-dated letter from Klebe accompanies the shotgun and confirms its origins. Of particular note is the last line of the letter which states, "I had made a gun like this earlier for Mr. Gabel (sic) for his own use in 12 gauge." One hopes the owner of that gun would be able to reunite the pair.

Clark Gable's Shotgun for Carole Lombard

Carole Lombard was the love of Clark Gable’s life. If he was the King of Hollywood, she was certainly its queen. The two shared a life together that was abruptly cut short by tragedy. However, a symbol of their love still exists to this day. It is an honor to have briefly in our possession a rare piece of history, a snapshot of the love shared between two of the most famous actors to have graced the stage, and we look forward to finding it a new home where it can be appreciated even further. It appears alongside incredible lifelong collections and a host of remarkable opportunities across a wide number of genres. With such an abundant assortment of rare and exquisite items, this auction is surely to be something that frankly, my dear, you’ll give a damn about.

Carol Lombard's custom duck gun

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