Saturday, October 8, 2011

Some Random Thoughts On Carole Lombard

Thursday, October 6, 2011 marks the 103rd anniversary of the birth of Jane Alice Peters of Fort Wayne, Indiana.  Sadly, this great screwball beauty, who we have come to know and love as Carole Lombard, never made it past her 33rd birthday, having died in a plane crash on the way back from a war bond rally in 1942.  In the 1930's this petite actress (she was 5' 2") would become known as the queen of the screwball comedy, and though her career was truncated as it were, the films she did leave behind all share that rare mark of an actress with both pinpoint comic timing and stunning beauty.  Graham Greene praised the "heartbreaking and nostalgic melodies" of her faster-than-thought delivery. "Platinum blonde, with a heart-shaped face, delicate, impish features and a figure made to be swathed in silver lamé, she wriggled expressively through such classics of hysteria as Twentieth Century and My Man Godfrey."

The fine folks over at Carole & Co. are hosting a blogathon in honour of Ms. Lombard's (or Mrs. Lombard Gable's as her epitaph reads) birthday.  Said blogathon has the wonderful title of Carole-tennial(+3).   In lieu of a review of one of Lombard's films or an overview of her career, as I have done in many a past blogathon piece, I have chosen to create a potpourri-like post, filled with random trivia, thoughts, quotes, photos and anecdotes on the sublime comedienne.  And of course, as anyone who knows me will not be surprised by, a Best of list will be tossed in there as well.  So without further ado...

  • Carole was the second cousin of directing legend Howard Hawks, who said of the lady, "Marvelous girl.  Crazy as a bedbug." 

  • After her death, a WWI Liberty ship was named in the actress's honour.  

  • On January 18, 1942, Jack Benny did not perform his usual program, both out of respect for  his dear friend Lombard and grief at her death.   Instead, he devoted his program to an all-music format.

An interesting quote from the very patriotic Ms. Lombard goes a little something like this: "I enjoy this country. I like the parks and the highways and the good schools and everything that this government does. After all, every cent anybody pays in taxes is spent to benefit him. I don't need $465,000 a year for myself, so why not give what I don't need to the government for improvements of the country. There's no better place to spend it."  Ah, what a simpler time it must have been.

One of my favourite Carole Lombard anecdotes is this one:  Around the time the actress's relationship with stud Clark Gable was beginning (1936ish), Carole had just read the book "Gone With the Wind" (a new release best seller at the time).   Loving it, she sent a copy of the book to Gable, with a note attached reading "Let's do it!".   Gable, of course, assumed the young actress was making a sexual advance to him, and quickly called Carole to organize a date for said mistaken rendezvous. When he found out Carole wanted to make a film of the book, with him as Rhett Butler and herself as Scarlett, he flat-out refused (probably cheekily so, considering he was in the mood for other things at the time).  Gable would thereafter keep the copy of the book she had given him in his bathroom (out of spite or shame, who knows).  We all know how the story ends - Lombard being one of thousands of actresses turned down for the so coveted part.

  • Carole Lombard had a little dachshund named Commissioner that ignored hubby Clark Gable completely.   After her death in 1942, the dog would not leave Gable's side.

  • Her good looks combined with her abundant use of profanity (Lombard had a sailor's mouth and a siren's face and body) made many dub her the "Profane Angel."

  • Lombard's favourite movie, of those she made, is 1937's Nothing Sacred, directed by William A. Wellman and co-starring Fredric March.

Another quote from the lovely and acerbic actress on the subject of marriage (a thing she did twice):  "I think marriage is dangerous. The idea of two people trying to possess each other is wrong. I don't think the flare of love lasts. Your mind rather than your emotions must answer for the success of matrimony. It must be friendship -- a calm companionship which can last through the years."

I remember the first time I saw Carole Lombard.  It was in the 1934 screwball comedy Twentieth Century.  The reason I watched the film had nothing to do with Ms. Lombard though.  It was shortly after seeing both Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday for the first time (the latter of which, Lombard had turned down the role that would then go to Rosalind Russell) and the beginnings of my obsession with all things Howard Hawks.  Considered the vanguard of the screwball genre, the film is an appropriately fast-talking, witty and quite hip comedy, full of lying, backstabbing and general bad behaviour.  Much of this bad behaviour comes courtesy of the man known as "The Profile", the great bard John Barrymore.   The aforementioned wit comes from Carole Lombard, as she more than holds her own against the great actor of stage and screen (playing an aging alcoholic egomaniac - basically himself), but bests him quip for quip and lunge for lunge.

As far as Lombard's romantic life goes (which you can guess at from the quote above) she had two very notable relationships.  The first was with William Powell.  The two were married in 1931 and divorced just two years later, but would remain close friends for the rest of the actress's life.   Powell and Lombard would actually go on to star in a film together a year after their divorce.  My Man Godfrey was a big hit and would garner Carole her one and only Academy Award nomination (she would lose, wrongly if you ask me, to Luise Rainer for The Great Zeiegfeld).  The big love of her life though, was Clark Gable.  On March 29, 1939, during a break in production on Gone with the Wind, Gable and Lombard would drive to Kingman, Arizona and get married in a quiet ceremony with only Gable's press agent, Otto Winkler, in attendance. They bought a ranch, previously owned by director Raoul Walsh, in Encino, California and lived a happy, unpretentious life, calling each other "Ma" and "Pa" and raising chickens and horses.  Even though Gable would eventually remarry, he is interred next to his great love in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.

My 5 Favourite Carole Lombard Performances:

1. Maria Tura in To Be or Not To Be - Lombard's final film (she sadly never saw its release), is the sometimes hilarious, sometimes harrowing story of a troupe of actors in Nazi-occupied Warsaw who use their acting abilities to fool the occupying troops and hide their Jewish compatriots.  Starring with Jack Benny (with whom, like the aforementioned Mr. Barrymore, the actress was able to go toe to toe), Lombard was at her comic peak in this film.   A fitting comic finale to a still budding Hollywood career.

2. Irene Bullock in My Man Godfrey - Made with her ex-husband, William Powell, this hilarious screwball comedy is about a somewhat snarky socialite who hires a homeless man (Powell) to be her family's butler, only to find herself falling in love with him. 

3. Lily Garland in Twentieth Century - Playing naive Mildred Plotka, who changes her name when she becomes a star of the stage, and going head-to-head with John Barrymore's ego-maniacal Broadway producer,  Lombard is both sweet and tangy in this role that rolls down the tracks with the titular locomotive.

4. Hazel Flagg in Nothing Sacred - Playing a worrisome young woman who is mistakenly thought to have a fatal disease, Lombard's naive Miss Flagg is swept away to New York City by newspaperman Fredric March, and becomes the rather reluctant toast of the town.

5. Ann Smith in Mr. & Mrs. Smith - Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (the Master of Suspense's only pure comedy in the U.S.), Lombard co-stars with Robert Montgomery as a bickering, but not-so-secretly happy married couple who find out that due to a clerical error, are not legally married.  Another fun, fast-talking screwball from Lombard.

Lombard gave many more fine performances than just these five of course.  They include her roles in such films of varying degrees of quality (the film's qualities, not the performances) as Hands Across the Table, No Man of Her Own, Lady by Choice, Swing High Swing Low & The Gay Bride.   The great comic actress would try her hand at dramatic roles as well, but these were merely mediocre vehicles, and they did not go over well with a public that wanted to see her being funny instead.

To say something along the lines of how great a loss it was when Lombard's plane went down, is of course merely just stating the quite obvious, but it is a great loss nonetheless.  Just 33 years old, and even though she had been acting for twenty years at this point (Lombard's tomboy upbringing got her cast at the age of twelve, after Allan Dwan saw her playing baseball) the actress was just getting started on a career that was sure to go much further than what it already had.   With a salary that made the President's seem piddly in comparison (as is still the case in today's world of Hollywood stardom), Lombard was at the height of stardom when she died.  Since then, it is her legend of comedy that has lived on and on.  Even friend Lucille Ball claims to have been visited by Lombard's ghost, who supposedly talked Ball into taking a chance on a little show called I Love Lucy.  I will now leave you with a lovely image from Ms. Lombard's personal favourite.


FlickChick said...

What a woman. She was a great star and a most exceptional person.

Christine said...

I love this post. I watched a lot of classic films growing up and she was one of the first actresses I adored.

Natalie said...

"Marvelous girl, crazy as a bedbug". Haha! I love that. Great contribution, Kevyn. :)

VP81955 said...

Thanks for your contribution to "Carole-tennial(+3)!"

Kevyn Knox said...

Thanx to all. It was a fun piece to write. I have always quite enjoyed Ms. Lombard and her sense of giddy screwball antics.

Page said...

A fun addition to the Carole-tennial. I enjoy trivia so this one was an interesting read.
I don't know why I always assumed that Carole was taller. Perhaps because looked tall next to Gable and not as short next to her leading men as some actresses.
A beauty and a talent that left us too soon. I'll always wonder how her career would have turned out, what roles she would have been offered had she lived longer. But then there's the fact that Hollywood considers you over the hill at 33.

Aubyn said...

You picked some of the best Lombard photos for this post, Kevyn. The one with the glasses is one of my favorites. Something about her expression and her eyes; she looks so focused and content.

Great combination of anecdotes and personal reflections. Just a great post overall.

Kevyn Knox said...

Thank you.

I love that pic of Carole in the glasses. Dorothy Parker be damned, I love a girl in glasses.

Unknown said...

I was wondering if you'd be interested in reviewing my book, Dreaming I Wake, on your blog. It features the spirits of Carole Lombard and Russ Columbo in a modern-day ghost story. I'd be happy to provide a hard copy for you to read, and we could also provide a signed copy for a giveaway if you like. Here's the Amazon link.
Thanks for your consideration.
Kim Robson

Frank said...

Nearly 80 years after Potosi Mountain took her from the world, not time and not death can stop her from reaching out and gently breaking my heart. Several times a month I see that bleak and unforgiving mountain and I am reminded that not even a wall of granite can silence the voices of courage, decency and love of America that were lost that night in 1942. I've been told that if you have the fortitude to scale the beast that is Potosi to visit the place where Heroes breathed their last and you ask if Ms. Lombard is there, the wind will give you her answer.

Anonymous said...

Looking at the picture of her in the glasses, and knowing her reputation as energetic, career-minded, and (yes) profane, I think she was born about 50 or 60 years too soon. I think she'd fit right in today. I also think she must have been a fun person to be around.

Unknown said...

What a loss it was when she was taken too soon in 1942. I've seen many of the films she was in, including the author's favorites listed, and found her to be extremely funny. But, I believe her dramatic work was well done, although she is most remembered for the comedic roles. The film "In Name Only" is a great example of her dramatic ability. It would have been nice to see what could have been, had she lived longer, but that is only left to speculation.
D. Henderson, Texas

Anonymous said...

She was 5’5. Wherever you got the 5’2 I don’t know. But it’s wrong.

Barbs said...

Beautiful. Thank you for the nice read about my favorite actress. I agree that she was born probably 50 years before her time, but I also believe that we, at this time needed a Carole Lombard as shr was, from her time to break through walls to help actresses from today. Love her, Love her movies. Thank you again.