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Notebook Primer: Carole Lombard

In films often characterized by glamour, romance, and, above all, humor, Carole Lombard became the foremost queen of screwball comedy.
Jeremy Carr
The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
Speaking after her tragic death at the age of 33, President Franklin D. Roosevelt testified to the legacy of Carole Lombard. “She is and always will be a star,” he stated in 1942, “one that we shall never forget, nor cease to be grateful to.” Although the president’s words were at least in part influenced by Lombard’s recent patriotic zeal (she died in a plane crash after traveling to sell war bonds), his comments resonated throughout the country, especially Hollywood, where the actress’s impact had been progressively pronounced for years. Her films were like a breath of fresh air to Depression-era audiences, adding silver screen levity to individuals seeking a brief reprieve from day-to-day hardship. By contrast, Lombard’s cinematic sphere was often one of glamour, romance, and, above all, humor. Acting alongside some of America’s most popular leading men, Lombard was adept at matching and regularly besting her male counterparts. In scenarios both dramatic and downright zany, she reveled in the verbal jousting, excitedly oscillating emotions, and physical outbursts that defined much of her finest work. She was remarkably prolific, particularly early on, and even in initially minor roles she displayed a rich breadth of talent. Her beauty was staggering and her knack for comedic timing was impressive, while in real life she was hilariously profane, compassionate, and every bit as amusing as she was in the movies. She was, at the time of her death and from then on, the foremost queen of screwball comedy.
Above: True Confession
But before all that, Carole Lombard was Jane Alice Peters, a young girl born in 1908 who was out playing with the neighborhood boys when she was spotted by director Allan Dwan. Accounts of the incident vary, but apparently Dwan noticed the energetic 12-year-old and enlisted her for his 1921 film, A Perfect Crime. She was only on set for two days and appears in just a few scenes, but the movie bug had bitten the child and even if she had to temporarily return to a regular life, that routine would not last for long. At age 15, a talent scout noticed Jane in her high school’s May Day Carnival and she was summarily tested for Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925). Although she didn’t receive the role, she did sign a short-lived contract with Vitagraph Studios, where she adopted the screen name “Carol.” By the time she was 16, the burgeoning teenage performer was working at the Fox Film Corporation, mainly playing bit parts. Attaining the new moniker of Carol Lombard (still no “e” yet), she nearly made films with directors like John Ford and Frank Borzage but was instead forced to settle for low budget fare and quickie westerns. “To the collective mind of Fox Films,” writes biographer Larry Swindell, she was "merely a face.”
 Above: No Man of Her Own
Not long after securing the lead in 1925’s Marriage in Transit, Lombard was in a car accident and underwent then-experimental plastic surgery, leaving only a slight scar on her cheek. It was a career-saving procedure and she then signed with Pathé, appearing in more than a dozen Mack Sennett shorts including 1927’s The Girl from Everywhere where she is, in the words of Swindell, “funny with a vengeance.” Lombard was extremely skilled when it came to the tempo and spirit of slapstick comedy and Pathé began casting her in feature films, giving her more prominence and loaning her out to other studios, usually Poverty Row houses but also returning to Fox for a small but credible turn in Raoul Walsh’s Me, Gangster (1928).
 Above: The Racketeer
Lombard made her talking film debut in 1929, playing a spirited criminal in High Voltage (1929), followed by Big News and The Racketeer, both also released in 1929 and both co-starring Robert Armstrong, to whom Lombard essentially played second fiddle despite delivering admirable degrees of refinement in the latter feature. After the Warner Baxter western The Arizona Kid (1930), she signed a new contract with Paramount Pictures and made more than twenty features for the studio, among them Fast and Loose (1930), based on an adaptation by Preston Sturges and co-starring Miriam Hopkins. (Erroneous marketing of the picture dubbed Lombard “Carole” and the full name stuck.) Other highlights included Man of the World and Ladies Man (both 1931), where Lombard broadened her charming presence opposite soon-to-be first husband William Powell. Numerous titles of varying quality and success ensued: she was a dynamic, carefree, and boozy heiress in No More Orchids (1932), displaying hallmark traits of determined independence and knowing sexual allure, and in a film that would only years later carry real-world romantic overtones, she starred in the tantalizing pre-Code feature No Man of Her Own (1932), acting for the first and only time with Clark Gable, eventually husband number two.
Above: Lady by Choice
Lombard’s 1933 output included Supernatural, where she evinces great fun in changing the personas of a woman possessed, and The Eagle and the Hawk, a war picture starring Fredric March and Cary Grant. She is an outcast nightclub singer in Brief Moment, proud and notably radiant, and in White Woman, she is aloof, exotic, and enticing, especially for leery Charles Laughton. The next year, she danced at the side of George Raft in Wesley Ruggles’s musical Bolero, and she was the level-headed voice of reason opposite Gary Cooper and Shirley Temple in Now and Forever. Lombard met her match in the form of sassy septuagenarian May Robson, conveying empathy and autonomy in Lady by Choice, and she was the bitterly antagonistic foil to Bing Crosby in the same year’s We’re Not Dressing.
Above: Twentieth Century 
A decisive turn of events occurred in 1934, when Columbia cast Lombard in Twentieth Century and the full extent of her manic qualities were put to uproarious use by director Howard Hawks. And beginning in 1935, she found a complementary comic partner in Fred MacMurray, appearing in the first of their four films together, Hands Across the Table. With this performance, as a cynical manicurist keen on love and money, Lombard felt her career was just beginning and Swindell declared the film “the first of the great Lombard vehicles.” Subsequent MacMurray pairings included The Princess Comes Across (1936), where Lombard is delightfully devious as she masquerades as a Swedish princess, and the consecutive successes Swing High, Swing Low and True Confession (both 1937). Lombard also reunited with ex William Powell for 1936’s screwball exemplar My Man Godfrey, for which she earned her only Oscar nomination as a vacuous, wealthy eccentric, and in 1937, she appeared in her only Technicolor feature, Nothing Sacred, one of her personal favorites.
Above: Made for Each Other
By 1937, Lombard was among Hollywood’s most popular and highest paid stars, but she was increasingly eager to earn an Academy Award. Deciding more serious roles were the best path forward, she starred in the effective tear-jerker Made for Each Other (1939), with James Stewart, followed by In Name Only (1939), as a reserved widow hesitantly falling for married Cary Grant, and the somber medical drama Vigil in the Night (1940). After 1940’s They Knew What They Wanted, a box office disappointment, Lombard elected to return to more overtly comedic parts, choosing first a film by a director hardly known for his straightforward comedies. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) was the sort of wildly farcical vehicle in which Lombard excelled, and for her follow-up she worked with a director who, contrasting with Hitch, was in fact renowned for his comedies. Ernst Lubitsch’s audacious To Be or Not to Be (1942) poked clever fun at the Nazi occupation of Poland and offered Lombard another opportunity to capitalize on her well-honed jocular range. She was back in the genre best suited to her abilities, but as fate would have it this return to form was fleeting. To Be or Not to Be was her final film.
Above: Nothing Sacred
RECOMMENDED VIEWING
  • Twentieth Century (1934): Both Howard Hawks and co-star John Barrymore expressed some reservations with Lombard’s acting during rehearsals. But after Hawks (who happened to be Lombard’s second cousin) encouraged her to adopt a more naturalistic approach, the advice was taken to heart and there was no turning back. As stage diva Lily Garland (Lombard) manically plays against Barrymore’s tyrannical Svengali Oscar Jaffe, Twentieth Century reaches a breakneck pace and its over-the-top antics become riotously absurd. Barrymore, whose career was waning just as Lombard’s was on the rise, declared her “probably the greatest actress” he had ever worked with, and with her exuberant physicality and vivacious vocal inflections, it was just the beginning of the essential Lombard persona.
  • My Man Godfrey (1936): Lombard often did her best when entrenched within a crazy premise, and My Man Godfrey is no exception. Her capricious socialite Irene Bullock, who hires the downtrodden “forgotten man” Godfrey (William Powell) to be her family’s butler, is a comic turn for the ages. The romance and frivolity provided a welcome escape for viewers who enjoyed mocking the affluent class, and the film provided Universal Pictures with six Academy Award nominations, including Lombard’s, one for Powell, and one for director Gregory La Cava, who, like screenwriter Morrie Ryskind, preferred an informal, spontaneous style that seemed tailor-made for Lombard.
  • Nothing Sacred (1937): Based on what he saw from Lombard in My Man Godfrey, Producer David O. Selznick recruited the star for this hysterical satire penned by Ben Hecht and directed by William Wellman. Co-starring Fredric March as an unscrupulous journalist bent on exploiting the plight of Lombard’s Hazel Flagg, who is herself feigning fatal radium poisoning and loving every minute of it, Nothing Sacred is a high-spirited and witty affair, and Lombard’s giddiness is absolutely infectious. The charade leads to a dizzying array of deceptions and an emotional rollercoaster that Lombard rides to perfection.
  • True Confession (1937): True Confession wasn’t Lombard’s “smartest comedy,” according to Swindell, “but it rivaled My Man Godfrey as her wackiest.” Much to the chagrin of her fledgling lawyer husband (Fred MacMurray), Lombard’s Helen Bartlett is a compulsive, if good-natured liar, and the resulting flood of fibs induces one haphazard scheme after another. This brisk screwball prototype was directed by Wesley Ruggles, with whom Lombard had by this point worked three times, the most of any director, but as the last film under her Paramount contract, True Confession proved contentious for the Production Code Administration, which objected to the madcap fun had at the expense of hallowed institutions of justice and for some of its sexual suggestiveness.
  • Made For Each Other (1939): Directed by John Cromwell from a script by Jo Swerling, the assorted struggles of Made For Each Other’s newlywed couple (Lombard and Stewart) may seem rather trite by today’s standards, but thanks to the convincing, unaffected countenance of its legendary leads, the melodramatic appeal is undeniable. Vigil in the Night is Lombard at her most transparently solemn, but here she manages a subtler grace in the fluctuations between joy and grief. Providing the supportive pillar for Stewart, whose character largely drives the narrative while Lombard is its emotional core, she avoids the otherworldly opulence so frequently synonymous with her comedies and demonstrates the reach of her engaging affability.
Above: My Man Godfrey
RECOMMENDED READING
How Carole Lombard Became Hollywood’s First Casualty of World War II,” by Cynthia Littleton: Citing Will Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, and Arthur Ungar, Daily Variety editor, Littleton’s article explores the events leading to Lombard’s heartbreaking death—who else was involved, where and apparently why it happened—and summarizes the stunned response from the Hollywood community. As Littleton observes, while there was still some polarization in America concerning World War II and the nation’s involvement, Lombard had been an outspoken supporter of Roosevelt and his policies. Littleton also details how Lombard and Hays kicked off America’s first bond drive at a rally in Indianapolis (a setting of personal significance for the Indiana-born star), and although the Treasury Department’s goal was to sell $500,000 worth of war bonds and stamps, Lombard did her part to boost the total to more than $2 million.
Clark Gable and Carole Lombard: Hollywood’s Greatest Romance,” by Val Lauder: The Lombard-Gable romance was one of the most adored in Hollywood history, and Lauder provides a fascinating vantage on the affair: she was 93 at the time of the article’s writing and could actually remember the fanfare. Lauder recalls how Lombard and “The King” first co-starred in No Man of Her Own, but both were married at the time and it was only at a party four years later when “the spark was struck.” After Gable’s wife finally granted him a divorce, he and Lombard eloped to Kingman, Arizona, and later that year, at the world premiere of Gone with the Wind in Atlanta, Lombard was in formal dress on Gable’s arm. Lauder notes how Lombard paused at the microphone to “address the crowd and nation through the newsreels of the time, saying, ‘This is Margaret Mitchell’s night.’” Maybe so, but as Lauder writes, “I remember Carole Lombard and Clark Gable.”  
Carole Lombard and What Remains,” by Christina Lane: Lane, an associate professor at the University of Miami, created this video essay as a companion piece to her article “A Modern Marriage for the Masses: Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, and the Popular Front,” published in the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. “Part creative collage, part fan tribute, part critical inscription,” Lane states the video is meant to “raise open-ended questions and quests related to images, sounds, stars and stardom, reality, specificity, history, memory, fans, authorship, and sites.” Her overall attention to sound is “inspired by Lombard’s distinctive ‘movie voice,’ which makes grand, undulating, performative gestures while gliding along the aural register as if on a dream plane.” Lombard’s characters, she adds (and demonstrates), “speak not only theatricality and comically, but cinematically.”
Carole Lombard—Iconic Actress, Humanitarian, Baha’i,” by Vargha Mazlum: One of the least known facets of Lombard’s life was her Baha’i faith, which Mazlum sheds appreciable light on in this post from 2017. “Elegant but accessible, beautiful yet unpretentious, lovable and wacky,” Lombard, writes Mazlum, “fostered a strong sense of identification with her audience. Her fans recognized in her the small-town girl who had made good despite the odds.” Mazlum traces the path of Lombard’s involvement with the Baha’i religion to her mother, Elizabeth Knight Peters, who traveled with her three children to Los Angeles in 1916 and soon thereafter accepted the emerging faith. As Mazlum states, “[a]t a time when women had yet to gain the right to vote in much of the U.S., Bess also became a feminist in her own right, and so did her daughter.” Mazlum also attributes Lombard’s gregarious nature, at least in part, to this upbringing, writing she “insisted that all her coworkers be treated fairly, and she wasn’t afraid to use her new stature to protect them from being bullied by directors and studio executives who misused their power.” In 1938, the same year Lombard married Gable, she officially became a Baha’i.
Screwball: The Life of Carole Lombard,” by Larry Swindell: According to its promotional material, this “vibrant biography of the hometown girl who became one of greatest stars of Hollywood’s golden age” is told by a “master chronicler of the movies.” Indeed, Swindell’s account of Lombard’s life, first published in 1975, remains one of the most authoritative, detailed, and absorbing works on the subject. Writing for The New York Times, Robin Brantley’s review of the text makes a strong case for the biography’s value. Notwithstanding some of her more “mediocre” movies, Brantley comments, “during the thirties Lombard was thought to epitomize the spirit of screwball comedy, and it is that spirit Larry Swindell has tried to capture in his biography of the actress.” Brantley applauds the book’s abundant anecdotes about Lombard’s personality but argues, quite rightly, that Swindell is “fairly restrained with more sensational gossip.” Combining exhaustive research about Lombard herself and the innerworkings of her varied films, Swindell captures the essence of the star at this captivating period in American film history. Furthermore, notes Brantley, Swindell “doesn’t betray the Lombard credo: he gives the reader a pretty good time.”

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