In 1934, British housewife, Violet Norton, went to the movies. On the bill? It Happened One Night starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Imagine Norton’s surprise as she recognized the film’s leading man—her former lover, next-door neighbor and chicken farmer, Frank Billings. He even fathered her child. She hadn’t seen Billings in years. Now she knew why. He’d left her for Hollywood and the likes of Claudette Colbert.Norton penned letters to Gable demanding he take responsibility for 'their' daughter. Thinking the whole idea ridiculous, Gable never mentioned it to the brass at MGM. He hadn't been to England during the early 1920s and he’d never once called himself Frank Billings. Norton then dragged her daughter to Canada where she ran an ad in a movie magazine hoping to grab Gable’s attention. When that didn't work, she wrote to Mae West, the British Consul in L.A. and the U.S. District Attorney. She finally convinced a retired Canadian businessman to take her to Hollywood.
Once in L.A., Norton hired a P.I., who contacted the Motion Picture Producers Association. He wanted blood tests and urged Gable to establish a $150,000.00 trust fund for his illegitimate daughter. If Gable refused, the P.I. threatened to tell the world just what kind of heel their Hollywood heartthrob really was. Once MGM got wind of Norton’s antics, however, studio officials contacted the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Charged with mail fraud, Norton went to trial insisting Gable was Billings. According to Norton: "This 'ere Clark Gybles is an arrant fraud. 'E's Frank Billings, that's oo 'e is, I can tell by the way he mykes love to that Joan Crawford-just the syme as 'e did to me. 'E often cyme to see me, that 'andsome young fellow did. 'E waited till me 'usband went and then 'e cyme in."
Gable had his own defense. Jack Powell, Assistant U.S. Attorney, stated under oath that Gable, an American citizen, hadn't been issued a passport until 1930. The president of the lumber company where Gable once worked provided payroll vouchers during the time period in question. Even Harry Billings, Frank's brother, testified that Gable was not related to him. Norton, however, took the stand with a photograph of Frank Billings in a British Army uniform swearing that Billings and Gable were one and the same.
But it was Gable’s ex-fiancée, Franz Dorfler who sealed the case. She was Billy Gable’s main squeeze long before he came to Hollywood. When asked to testify, she never hesitated. Under oath, Dorfler described her romance with young Billy Gable and confirmed that they were together at the Dorfler family ranch in September 1922. That did it. Norton, found guilty of using the mail for fraudulent purposes, was summarily deported.
And just to clarify—Frank Billings never made a movie or kissed Claudette Colbert. Clark Gable never owned a chicken farm or, despite her accusations, kissed Violet Norton.