Movie Stars: Icons Never Die on Screen–Gable, Stewart, Bogart

Clear resolutions, often in the form of “happy endings”–the hero’s triumphant survival against all odds–were integral to the screen image of most Hollywood stars during the Golden Age. The most enduring male stars died on screen either before their public images took shape or very late in their careers when it no longer mattered. (See my essay about the paucity of screen deaths in John Wayne’s lengthy and prolific career).

Clark Gable

Clark Gable died in only four of his 67 movies, with two of these screen deaths occurred during the first year of his career, for example, as a bootlegger gangster in Dance, Fools, Dance,” or as and an underworld leader in A Free Soul.”

Gable also died romantically in Myrna Loy’s arms in Parnell,” another uncharacteristic movie in which he was miscast as a nineteenth-century Irish politician. Gable’s fourth reel death was in a war movie, Run Silent, Run Deep,” one of his last pictures, in which he dies on duty, as a captain of a U.S. submarine during the Second World War.

Significantly, when these screen deaths occur, as in Jimmy Stewart’s pictures, they are most revealing in their insights about male heroism in the American cinema.

Jimmy Stewart

In a typical Stewart movie, it is usually his girl or his wife who dies–not he. In three of Stewart’s Westerns, his heroes lose their love interest in tragic circumstances, as in Destry Rides Again” (1939), in which Marlene Dietrich’s saloon owner is shot in the back while trying to save his life.

Even more tragic is his wife’s (Debra Paget) death in The Broken Arrow,” paying a high price in the achievement of peace between the white men and the Indians.

Stewart’s frequent screen lady, Margaret Sullavan, often found her death in his arms, as in The Mortal Storm,” an anti-War picture, in which both are shot as they cross the border to safety but she dies. Stewart’s rare screen deaths are either heroic, as in the war drama Malaya,” or accidental, as in the biopicture The Glenn Miller story,” dying in an air-crash.

Humphrey Bogart

The only Hollywood stars that have experienced multiple reel deaths were those “specializing” in the crime-gangster films, most notably James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.

It’s noteworthy that Bogart’s heroes are shot in no less than one third of his film output (25 out of 75 pictures). Eighteen of these, however, are in movies prior to The Maltese Falcon” (the movie which made him a star), when he played the heavies in films that co-star Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, or George Raft.

Bogart once ironically observed that it was his screen deaths that kept his career alive, but he was wrong. It is doubtful that he would have become such a legendary figure had he continued to be killed in the last reel of his movies. Indeed, after 1941, Bogart dies in only seven of his movies, in some of which quite heroically. The movies that made Bogart a big star and which the public associates most with his screen persona, such as Casablanca” (1943) or To Have and Have Not” (1944), are those in which he survives.

The lessons from Bogart’s career, which John Wayne exemplified in his, are that no actor in the American cinema has so far become a popular star if his roles were confined to playing heavies and destructible villains. Endurance in the audience’s collective memories off-screen also requires the hero’s immortality onscreen!