A beautiful red racing car caught the attention of many people during the vintage races at Elkhart Lake, Wis. The red car became famous as the “red hot wheels” that Clark Gable drove in MGM’s “thrill-a-minute” film To Please A Lady starring Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck. While not a great movie, this flick is renowned for its star-power cast and exciting race footage. Today the red car resides in Tom Malloy’s California-based race car collection.
Don Lee started selling Cadillacs in 1906 and became the automaker’s official West Coast distributor at the beginning of 1919. He competed with Packard salesman Earl C. Anthony and both had dealerships all over the state.
In the early ’20s, Lee entered the coachbuilding business in partnership with Harley Earl, who later became the design chief for General Motors. By the mid-’20s Don Lee Coach & Body Works was designing and building several hundred custom bodies a year, many for Hollywood personalities including Fatty Arbuckle and Clark Gable.
Lee also operated a vast media empire and owned many radio stations (and later TV stations). In 1929, Lee produced Los Angeles’ first television broadcast. The Don Lee Network linked up with CBS that same year. Later, Lee split from CBS and hooked up with Chicago’s Mutual Brioadcasting.
Don Lee died in 1934 and his son Tommy Lee took over. Although he wasn’t into car sales, Tommy was an enthusiast who owned several dry-lakes speedsters. The cars were built by Frank Kurtis, who had also been employed at Don Lee Coach and Body Works. Tommy was an early sports car buff.
Tommy died in 1949. A few years later, the Don Lee Network was sold to General Teleradio, which ran General Tire Co.’s broadcasting business. Later, the whole shebang was merged with RKO Pictures to form RKO General.
With his links to cars, stars and media, it’s no wonder that the racing car that Tommy Lee got from his father became Clark Gable’s ride in the 1950 film that revolved around fictional racing driver Mike Brannan (Clark Gable).
According to Malloy, “MGM wanted to produce a big racing movie about the Indiy 500 to over-shadow United Artist’s ‘The Big Wheel’ starring Mickey Rooney.” So, production of To Please A Lady got underway early in 1950.
MGM bought the Don Lee Special from Tommy Lee’s estate. The car was a Frank Kurtis creation registered as a 1948 model. For the movie, it was painted to look like the Wolfe Special KK2000 in which Rex Mays was killed. This allowed cameramen to match racing footage from the ‘48 Indy 500 with studio footage.
Both cars were painted red with No. 17 on the side. As Don Walten noted in Fabulous Fifties: American Championship Racing, “No one would notice ‘Wolfe Special’ instead of Gable’s ‘Mike Brannan Special.” In the movie, Gable plays an ego-driven driver Mike Brannan who’s a well-known midget car champion. Brannan has been blamed for causing a fatal crash during a race due to arrogance. Race driver Bud Rosew doubled as Gable in the competition scenes.
Barbara Stanwyck played a newspaper columnist who witnesses a second fatal crash during a race she is watching. Stanwyck thinks he deliberately caused the accident and takes him to task in her column. As a result, he is barred from racing and begins driving in auto thrill shows (helldriver Joie Chitwood has a role in the film). Eventually, Brannan saves enough to buy the “Mike Brannan Special.” The film’s ending scenes were shot at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Naturally, Gable and Stanwyck fall in love during the film in what MGM promoted as a “the romance of a devil and a darling.” It’s certainly a romance that appealed to racing buffs. Sequences showing the cars in action were expertly done and, though outdated by modern standards, were state-of-the-art in 1950.