Alfred Hitchcock, Alva Johnston, Ben Hecht, Bosley Crowther, Carole Lombard, Cary Grant, Cecelia Ager, Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, David L. Selznick, Ernst Lubitsch, Fan Magazines, Feminism, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Fredric March, Garson Kanin, George Stevens, Howard Hawks, In Name Only, Jack Benny, John Barrymore, John Cromwell, Love Before Breakfast, Mack Sennett, Made for Each Other, Mr and Mrs Smith, My Man Godfrey, Nothing Sacred, Olympia Kiriakou, Protofeminism, Rebecca, Rhea Langham, Screwball Comedy, Silent Movies, They Knew What They Wanted, To Be Or Not to Be, Twentieth Century, Vigil in the Night, William Powell, William Wellman, Woman of the Year, World War II
“When Carole Lombard talks, her conversation, often brilliant, is punctuated by screeches, laughs, growls, gesticulations, and the expletives of a sailor’s parrot,” Noel F. Busch wrote in a 1938 cover story for LIFE magazine, headlined ‘A Loud Cheer for the Screwball Girl.’ The actress he described was seemingly not unlike the madcap heroines she often played. At thirty, she had appeared in a diverse range of films over thirteen years, and exerted a degree of control in her career unusual for a star in the studio era. However, more than eighty years later, Lombard is still perceived as a kooky comedienne, her life’s arc defined by subsequent events including her marriage to Clark Gable, and her untimely death in 1942.
“Despite Carole Lombard’s immense success, box-office bankability and impact on the progressive feminist politics of the 1930s, historical and theoretical works about her are sparse,” Olympia Kiriakou writes in introduction to her first book, Becoming Carole Lombard: Stardom, Comedy and Legacy (2019.) A small body of mostly biographical literature, from Larry Swindell’s Screwball and Wes D. Gehring’s The Hoosier Tornado to more recent titles like Robert Matzen’s Fireball and Michelle Morgan’s Twentieth Century Star, precedes it. However, Kiriakou – a visiting lecturer at Florida Atlantic University, who has also worked at the Toronto International Film Festival – has produced, in her own words, “the first book-length study … the first to offer an extended analysis of Lombard’s ever-changing star persona.”
Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1908, Jane Alice Peters moved to Los Angeles aged twelve, and was spotted playing football in the street by film director Allan Dwan, who cast her as a ‘tomboyish kid sister’ in A Perfect Crime (1921.) Like many other silent movies, it is now lost; but the experience inspired her to pursue acting, and in 1925, she was signed to Fox Pictures. Under the name Carole Lombard (with variant spellings), she began playing minor roles in Westerns, including Howard Hawks’ The Road to Glory (1926.)
Lombard’s fledgling career was derailed when she sustained severe injuries in a car accident. While some authors date this to 1927, Kiriakou believes it actually occurred a year earlier. Fox paid for her initial hospital stay, but then dropped her contract when she was unable to work. Over the next few months, Carole underwent reconstructive surgery at her family’s expense, although a scar remained on her cheek. In 1927, she began a two-year stint at Keystone Studios, making comedy shorts with Mack Sennett.
Throughout this period, she continued appearing in features for other studios as the industry began its transition to sound. While Lombard’s time as a ‘Sennett Girl’ is often seen as a precursor to her later success in screwball comedy, Kiriakou believes this aspect of her early career deserves greater scrutiny. To this end, she provides a detailed analysis of seven surviving shorts. As befits a former high-school track star, the parts Carole played often utilised her natural athleticism and developed her skills in physical comedy.
In Smith’s Pony (1927), her first film at Keystone, Lombard plays a glamorous riding instructor and horse dealer. She is seen riding on the track, through a male spectator’s binoculars. However, Carole’s sexual objectification is disrupted when the man’s irate wife grabs the binoculars. The Girl From Everywhere (1927) kick-started the Sennett Girl Comedies, a modernised version of the Bathing Beauties who had titillated moviegoers since 1915. The Sennett Girls were rarely part of the action, but their ornamental value was not just for men as they also promoted the latest fashion and beauty trends to female consumers. Billed as ‘Bathing Girl’, she had little to do but was singled out in a Film Daily advertisement.
Though not yet a star, Lombard was becoming a ‘picture personality’ and played her first lead in Run Girl, Run (1928) opposite the diminutive Daphne Pollard, an ex-Vaudevillian who became her regular co-star, usually as the stern yet ineffectual matronly figure to Carole’s ‘junior flapper’’ Lombard played the all-girl Sunnydale School’s top athlete who is distracted by her boyfriend. After the coach sets her straight, she goes on to win the race at a meet with a competing school. Her running finesse is enhanced by Sennett’s use of accelerated motion shots, framing and tracking.
In The Campus Vamp (1928), Carole makes her entrance as a pretty collegiate, driving a car filled with boys. As Kiriakou notes, her “giddiness and bodily movements mirror the speed of her car,” and as with Sennett’s other work, capitalises on the era’s fascination with technology. The Campus Carmen (1928) takes us back to Sunnydale, with Lombard initially coming off worst in a dorm pillow-fight. This rather predictable sequence also features Maddalyne Field, who became Carole’s best friend, as another stock character: the fat girl. In another, more subversive episode, Sunnydale mounts its production of Bizet’s Carmen with Field comically miscast as the seductive heroine, rather suggestively grappling with an androgynous Lombard in form-fitting soldier’s apparel.
The second reel of The Swim Princess (1928) is missing, but the first reel contains Lombard’s most impressive stunt to date. Sunnydale’s swim team are travelling by train to a gala, when Carole’s boyfriend drives by in his fast car. She decides to jump onto this roof, and after a brief moment in which her feet are suspended between train and car, she successfully makes the leap. Although detailed information on Carole’s work with Sennett is unavailable, judging by his work practices alone, Kiriakou believes it is likely she performed the stunt without camera trickery.
Matchmaking Mama (1929) casts Daphne Pollard as an ambitious mother hoping to marry the rebellious Lombard off to a rich man’s son (although he is smitten with another Sennett Girl, Sally Eilers.) As with all the Sennett Girl comedies, the film featured two Technicolor strips; in one, Carole stands on a rock, set apart in a row of beauties. In another scene, an intertitle reads, ‘Come on Larry – you’re supposed to kiss me!’ After kissing the boy, Lombard faces the camera and mock-curtsies. She and the other girls are the only characters to acknowledge the audience, and her gesture serves as a kind of ‘cinematic wink.’
Star In Waiting
Between her last Sennett short and her first screwball comedy five years later, Carole made twenty-three films, mostly glossy dramas but also venturing into genres as diverse as crime (The Racketeer), horror (Supernatural) and the musical (Bolero.) In 1930 she signed a seven-year contract with Paramount, who built her up as a high-class glamour girl in the Constance Bennett mould. While it has sometimes been claimed that Lombard was styled as ‘The Orchid Lady’ (a term previously applied to silent film star Corinne Griffith), Kiriakou finds little evidence of this in publicity materials.
However, she was frequently lauded as filmdom’s best-dressed actress in the fan magazines which were enormously influential in creating new stars. Among the studio-approved features which appeared at this time was a piece detailing her strict diet and fitness regime, and an article attributed to Carole herself, headlined ‘Fashion Is My Business.’ Her newly sophisticated image complemented her marriage to the urbane actor William Powell in 1931. But while Powell soon graduated from character parts to leading man, Lombard remained, at best, a second-tier leading lady.
Kiriakou argues the shallowness of Carole’s public persona at this time made her unrelatable to Depression-era filmgoers, and does not consider her roles from this period in detail. But while the films she made were mostly average, her screen presence was warm and intelligent. Unsure what to do with her, Paramount loaned Carole out to other studios where she was given better material, especially at Columbia where she played an ex-streetwalker framed for murder in the gritty drama Virtue (1932), now considered an important Pre-Code film. Three of her other Columbia vehicles – No More Orchids, Brief Moment, and Lady By Choice – are collected in a DVD boxset from TCM, Carole Lombard: In the Thirties. And Kino-Lorber has restored more of her early films to Blu-Ray in the first of two upcoming sets, including the 1930 Paramount comedy, Fast and Loose, in which she replaced Miriam Hopkins; plus her initial screen outings with future husbands Powell and Gable respectively, in Man of the World and No Man of Her Own.
After her amicable divorce from Powell in 1933, Carole enjoyed a string of high-profile romances with actor George Raft, screenwriter Robert Riskin, and singer Russ Columbo (to whom she was briefly engaged before his death in a car accident.) Her much-reported penchant for playing pranks on her co-stars, and throwing elaborately themed costume parties, also revealed a more vivacious side to her character, ultimately transforming her screen persona.
Queen of Screwball
Considering how often she is categorised as a star of screwball comedy, Lombard’s work in the genre has been neglected by scholars, while others like Irene Dunne and Katharine Hepburn have received more critical analysis. Screwball comedy grew out of the socio-economic crisis of the Depression and the restrictions of the Motion Picture Code. The contrasts between rich and poor are often sharply defined in these films, while physical comedy was deployed as a substitute for overt sexuality. Screwball heroines are assertive and independent, while their male counterparts are usually passive and immature. Recent developments in sound technology, such as multitracking and mixing, facilitated the rapid pace characteristic of screwball dialogue, while the use of editing techniques like cross-cutting, quick shots and track shots harked back to the silent era.
Twentieth Century (1934) is considered one of the first screwball comedies, alongside MGM’s Oscar-winning smash hit It Happened One Night, released a few months prior. Although critically acclaimed, Twentieth Century was a box-office flop, with trade journal Variety judging it “too smart for public consumption.” Director Howard Hawks later reflected that “the public wasn’t ready for seeing two stars act like comedians the way those two did.” The film was produced at Columbia Studios, and while Lombard wasn’t Hawks’ first choice, he gave her the part after she told him that if any man mistreated her like the characters in the script, “I’d kick him in the balls.”
Twentieth Century was adapted from a play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and Lombard’s leading man John Barrymore was considered the greatest actor of his generation. She plays Mildred Plotka, a lingerie model plucked from obscurity by Oscar Jaffe, an arrogant, domineering theatrical producer, who gives her a new name, Lily Garland, and makes her a star. In the opening audition scene, Oscar bullies and humiliates Mildred into giving the performance he envisioned. Lombard initially plays her as timid and embarrassed, but after her success, she rebels against Oscar’s control and ultimately leaves him for Hollywood.
They will meet again on the cross-country Twentieth Century train, where Oscar hopes to lure her back. But it is clear that Lily has become as volatile and egotistical as the man who moulded her. When her new boyfriend argues with her, Lily throws a tantrum. But after he storms out of their compartment, Lily’s maid ignores her histrionics and she quickly drops the act and is perfectly calm, until Oscar appears and she lashes out in genuine fury. “Lombard uses the entire force of her body to kick out at Barrymore,” Kiriakou writes, “and lets out a series of violent high-pitched screams that punctuate her character’s physical attack.”
Nonetheless, Oscar tricks her into signing a new contract and by the film’s conclusion, Lily is once again in his power. This circular narrative reflects the ‘carnivalesque’ nature of screwball comedy, in which the established order is temporarily disrupted but finally restored. Although not a commercial success, Twentieth Century allowed Lombard, as she later said, to “loosen something inside me that’s been tied up all my life, and to release an entirely new source of energy.” It would also transform her star persona, as Cecelia Ager noted in a review for Variety: “She’s exchanged her makeup mask for a human being’s face.”
Walter Lang’s Love Before Breakfast (1936) capitalised on Lombard’s ‘screwball’ stardom. She plays socialite Kay Colby, who resists the advances of oil executive Scott Miller (Preston Foster.) They first meet during a bar brawl, when she refuses his protection and is punched in the face by another man. As they are driven off in a police van, Scott sees Kay’s black eye and bursts out laughing. In this sequence, the lighting makes Lombard’s facial scar visible. A later scene shows her sailing on a dinghy with boyfriend Bill (Cesar Romero), having shunned Scott’s invitation to a party on his yacht. When a storm breaks out, Kay once again rejects assistance from Scott’s crew despite her growing distress. She is finally hauled onto the yacht against her will, dragging a drunken Bill with her. This episode serves as the prelude to Kay finally admitting her feelings for Scott.
Today, Love Before Breakfast is remembered mostly for its promotional artwork showing Lombard sporting a black eye. The image is stylised and lacking in context, although arguably Carole’s steady gaze hints at her character’s defiance. She was now a marquee name, and despite mixed reviews, Love Before Breakfast was quite popular with audiences. In retrospect it is one of her lesser comedies, hampered by a bland leading man and sadistic undertones. Lombard found a more congenial screen partner in Fred MacMurray, although the four films they made together are not covered in detail (Hands Across the Table, The Princess Comes Across, Swing High, Swing Low, and True Confession.)
Another of Carole’s Universal outings, My Man Godfrey (1936) was a box-office hit and garnered her an Oscar nomination. She was cast at the behest of ex-husband William Powell. Directed by Gregory LaCava, My Man Godfrey was the first movie associated with the term screwball. Originally used in sports journalism, screwball gained its cinematic context after a Variety critic noted, “Miss Lombard played screwball dames before, but none as screwy as this one.”
In the opening scene, Irene (Lombard) and her sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick) race across a city dump in their ballgowns, on a scavenger hunt to find a ‘forgotten man.’ The term was coined by Franklin D. Roosevelt during his 1932 electoral campaign, to describe the millions of men living in shanty towns after losing their jobs in the Depression. When Cornelia grabs hold of a vagrant (Powell), he angrily shoves her onto a pile of ashes. A delighted Irene is instantly smitten with Godfrey, and invites him to be their butler. “I don’t want to play games with human beings as objects,” she says ruefully. “It’s kinda sordid when you think of it …”
“Irene is one of the most complex characters in the film,” Kiriakou writes, “because she reveals glimmers of humility, and her relationship with Godfrey is the catalyst for the film to engage with issues like unemployment and poverty. However, her social conscience remains secondary to her immaturity and love for Godfrey.”
At home, Irene claims to be suicidal when Cordelia suggests they fire Godfrey. While their eccentric mother (Alice Brady) is alarmed by this feigned hysteria, Irene pulls a bemused Godfrey in for a kiss as her browbeaten father (Eugene Pallette) reluctantly agrees to let him stay. Like Lily in Twentieth Century, Irene uses exaggerated displays of motion to get her own way, and Lombard conveys the character’s childishness with signature movements and shifting vocal tones.
While chatting with her maid, Molly (Jean Dixon) about Godfrey, Irene confides airily, “I’d like to sew his buttons on sometime when they come off.” Her girlish naïveté is at odds with Carole’s mature sexuality, and this contrast is emphasised in ‘Diary of a Debutante,’ an exhibitors’ booklet penned in the manner of Irene’s ‘dizzy debutante.’
When her Paramount contract ended in 1937, Lombard chose not to renew and instead began negotiations with her agent Myron Selznick for a lucrative three-picture deal with his brother, independent producer David L. Selznick. Their first project was Nothing Sacred, one of the first Technicolor features, reuniting her with screenwriter Ben Hecht and directed by William Wellman. Carole plays Hazel Flagg, a small-town girl diagnosed with terminal leukaemia who is invited to New York by tabloid journalist Wally Cook (Fredric March.) Dazzled by the city’s high life and her newfound celebrity, Hazel keeps up the charade even after learning she isn’t dying after all. As a media satire, Nothing Sacred still seems timely today, with Hazel personifying the ‘reality star’ clinging to her fifteen minutes of fame.
A pivotal scene where Wally, having discovered the ruse, confronts Hazel in her sickbed gave Lombard the most physically demanding action since her Sennett days. Wally informs Hazel that an eminent Viennese doctor is coming to examine her, and proposes ‘roughing her up’ to get her “gasping, panting and in a cold sweat.” When he orders her to get out of bed, she pretends to collapse and cowers under the covers. However, her antagonism towards Wally (as well as their obvious mutual attraction) soon gets the better of her, and after he shoves her onto the bed again, she bounces back up and starts boxing her fists at him.
‘I hate you! I hate you!’ she yells, swinging her arms at him in rhythm to her shouts. He finally grabs her in a bear-hug, releasing her as she screams at him to let go, and then falls backwards into a fireplace filled with bouquets of flowers. It is then that we realise that for all her scrappiness, Hazel is not quite his physical equal; and this makes the scene rather unsettling. However, unlike in Love Before Breakfast, she will be given the last punch, leaving Wally with a swollen jaw.
As with other screwball comedies, the roughhousing between the two leads covertly expresses their sexual tension. Wearing a full-length dressing gown, Carole is wholly deglamourised, although the scene was later restaged more decorously for still photos used on lobby cards. Movie posters framed this scene in the style of a boxing match, pitting ‘Lombard Vz. March.’ From the mid-1920s, female comedians like Marie Dressler played roughhouse comedy, but this had generally been at the expense of their femininity. But by the late 1930s, other actresses like Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Arthur were also engaging in vigorous physical comedy while retaining their glamour. In a tongue-in-cheek piece for the New York Times, film critic Bosley Crowther lamented the demise of ‘fragile femininity.’
Released in time for the 1937 Thanksgiving weekend, Nothing Sacred was favourably reviewed and did good business initially, but slowed down as winter set in. During the promotional campaign, the film’s opening day in Carole’s hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana was named ‘Carole Lombard Day,’ and her childhood home was dedicated as an historic building.
After the outright failure of her next comedy, Fools for Scandal (1938), she began focusing on dramatic roles. The screwball craze had passed its peak, and with Europe preparing for war, a more sombre mood prevailed. Lombard returned to comedy with Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), which includes some screwball elements but is overall more subdued, reflecting her changing star persona as she adjusted to married life with Clark Gable. While her serious parts had met a somewhat muted reception, Carole’s comedy ‘comeback’ was both well-received and profitable. She co-produced the film, with Alfred Hitchcock directing at her request.
Having established himself as Britain’s foremost director, Hitchcock was still fairly new to Hollywood, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith is often viewed as a misfire compared to his more celebrated suspense films. The plot focuses on a loving but volatile young couple, Ann and David Smith (Robert Montgomery), who after three years of marriage discover their union was never legal, and are at odds on whether to remarry. As Ann Smith, Carole is “cool, mature with an indirect sex appeal,” which Kiriakou believes makes her a prototype of the 1950s ‘Hitchcock blondes.’ The character also speaks to the tensions in Lombard’s public image, as she continued to pursue career independence while also enjoying a more settled, domestic life as part of a Hollywood power couple.
Headed by Joseph Breen, the Production Code Administration took a morally conservative view on sex and relationships. Some screwball scholars view ‘comedies of remarriage’ as upholding this standard, while using innuendo to denote sexuality. However, Kiriakou believes that Hitchcock subverted the monogamous ideal. “Mr. and Mrs. Smith offers a surprisingly flimsy legitimation of the Smiths’ common-law marriage,” she writes. “It leaves the question of whether the Smiths will actually remarry unanswered, and ends with a portrait of sexual reconciliation.”
We are first introduced to the couple in the marital bed, where they have spent three days trying to resolve one of their frequent rows. When they finally leave the bedroom to eat breakfast, the camera shows them playing ‘footsie’ under the table. After learning that their marriage is invalid, Ann leaves David and gets a job in a department store. When she begins dating Jeff Custer (Gene Raymond), partner in her erstwhile spouse’s legal practice, David follows them to a ski lodge, pretending to have the flu. Although initially attentive, Ann later catches him smoking a cigarette, and realises his deception. This sparks another fight, and when Jeff fails to rescue her, a disgusted Ann rejects both men and returns to her own cabin.
In the film’s concluding scene, David finds Ann preparing to head back to the resort’s main lodge. She seems to be having trouble putting on her skis, but when David offers to help, she falls back on her chair in disdain. With her legs in the air, it becomes clear that the skis are no longer on her feet and she could escape if she chose. In a close-up shot, we see her smiling. David catches on to her deceit, and grins smugly while loosening his tie. She briefly glares off-camera and mutters to herself, “I’ll kill you in cold blood.” She then bangs her skis on the ground and screams his name in feigned protest, before succumbing to his caresses and sighing, “Oh, David.” In the final frame, Ann’s skis are crossed together. The film’s sexual overtones are unusually bold for the era, and while rather sluggishly paced compared to Lombard’s earlier screwball comedies, Mr. and Mrs. Smith allows for a more sophisticated take on the battle of the sexes.
Her final film appearance was in Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not to Be, filmed just months before the U.S. entered World War II. Carole stars as Maria Tura, a narcissistic actress who heads a Polish theatre troupe with her husband Josef (played by radio comic Jack Benny.) The story, focusing on their efforts to infiltrate the Nazi Party after Germany’s invasion of Poland, was controversial from the outset. While Hollywood was already producing big-budget, morale-boosting films about the war in Europe, a satirical farce was unchartered territory. Ironically, the film’s distributor, United Artists, deemed the title too highbrow, proposing a change to ‘The Censor Forbids.’ Both Lubitsch and Lombard strongly objected, with Carole – an investor in the film – writing to the studio president that this alteration was “suggestive and in poor taste.”
in the opening scene, the actors are rehearsing their play about Hitler when Maria enters wearing a revealing silk halter-neck dress. When asked if the dress is appropriate for a concentration camp prisoner, she shrugs her shoulders and says “Why not?” When her appalled husband decries her “inartistic” choice, she retorts, “You’re only afraid I’m running away with the scene.” At this moment, Kiriakou comments, Lombard “personifies the beautiful female comic; she demonstrates Maria’s conspicuous glamour, and uses it to convey her self-conscious hammy theatricality.” This allows the audience to laugh at Maria’s egotism, and also nods to the superficiality of Hollywood glamour.
Later, Maria uses her feminine wiles to ruthless purpose as she sets out to seduce and blackmail Professor Alexander Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), a Nazi spy posing as a Polish resistance fighter. In this scene, neither actress nor spy is what they seem. The audience is aware that Maria’s exaggerated flirtatiousness is merely for show, as she delays their rendezvous to go home and change into her silk dress. When Siletsky kisses Maria, she murmurs in faked ecstasy, “Heil Hitler!” But as she gazes over the professor’s shoulder, her expression is cold and calculating.
When To Be Or Not to Be was released in 1942, America had joined the war and was still mourning the recent death of the film’s leading lady. It has become part of the Lombard myth that her screen swansong was a commercial disaster, but Kiriakou’s research indicates that it enjoyed fairly good attendance in cinemas nationwide. What is not in doubt is that To Be Or Not to Be was mauled by mainstream film critics. In the New York Times, Bosley Crowther condemned the film as “callous and macabre,” spurring director Ernst Lubitsch to compose a rebuttal, published in the same newspaper. “Fortunately, I am not the only one accused [of bad taste],” he remarked drily. “My co-defendant is the American motion picture audience.” History has proved him right.
Calling Mrs. Gable
In one of her famed pranks, Carole gave Clark Gable a ham affixed with his own portrait after filming No Man Of Her Own (1932.) Their romance would not begin for another four years, when they were reunited during a Hollywood party. In 1935, Gable had separated from his second wife, Rhea Langham, and spent many months travelling in South America while his studio bosses covered up his scandalous affair with actress Loretta Young, and her illegitimate pregnancy.
Although technically the injured party, it was Rhea, not Carole, who was criticised for apparently standing in the way of Gable’s love for a woman younger and more beautiful than herself, and of course, a star in her own right. As plotted by the studios, this narrative was widely propagated by fan magazine columnists.
In January 1939, Rhea took up residency in Reno, Nevada for a quickie divorce, while Gable and Lombard bought film director Raoul Walsh’s ranch in Encino, California. On a break from filming Gone With the Wind, Clark flew to Arizona and married Carole. The couple returned to Los Angeles next morning, and a studio-arranged press conference was held at the home of the bride’s mother, Bess Peters. After their marriage, the Gables were often photographed at the ranch, with Lombard partaking in her husband’s favourite pursuits of hunting, fishing and skeet shooting. (She was also an accomplished equestrian.)
The press assumed that Carole would veer towards a more domestic role, with Motion Picture magazine asking, ‘Will Carole Lombard’s Marriage End Her Career?’ This was not the case, although she did take some time off to try for a baby. At every turn, the focus was on her adapting to Clark’s rugged persona, not the other way around. Her playful ‘party girl’ image was superseded by a greater emphasis on her down-to-earth character and irreverent sense of humour, poking fun at Hollywood pretensions while embracing rural life. Like Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford before them, the Gables became an American equivalent to Britain’s aristocracy, with Lombard now frequently referred to as ‘Mrs. Gable.’ In the fan magazines their marriage became something of an aspirational celebrity brand, although few among the mostly female, working-class readership could hope to attain Carole’s wealth and financial independence from her husband.
Oddly, Gable and Lombard never worked together again, although critics had praised their natural chemistry in No Man Of Her Own, which returned to cinemas after their romance went public in 1936. In 1941, Carole expressed her interest in Garson Kanin’s screenplay, Woman of the Year, about a distinguished reporter forced to choose between career and love for a sports writer, as a vehicle for herself and Gable. She was disappointed to learn that the script had been written for Katharine Hepburn and purchased by MGM, where it was successfully filmed with Hepburn and her married lover, Spencer Tracy.
While Lombard’s screwball performances often utilised her physicality, in her dramatic roles she was more understated, using her voice and facial expressions to suggest her character’s emotions. The four melodramas she made from 1939-40 reflect her maturing persona but have been critically neglected, unlike the more celebrated ‘women’s pictures’ of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
In Made For Each Other (1939), produced by Selznick International Pictures and directed by John Cromwell, Carole starred as Jane, wife of a young lawyer, John Mason (played by James Stewart.) The film initially plays as a good-humoured romance, before plunging into murkier territory as their financial struggles impact on their relationship. While at a New Year’s Eve party, they are informed that their baby son has been taken into a Catholic hospital with a deadly respiratory infection.
While John races against time to locate a rare serum for his child, Jane keeps vigil in the hospital. She wears a black turtleneck and the shadows accentuate the scar on her cheek. While she holds her worried gaze on the baby off-camera, we notice the bags under her eyes and wrinkles around her brows. “I wish there was something I could do,” she says repeatedly. A nun takes her to the hospital chapel, where we see Jane in a kneeling position, begging God to spare her child (though she is not Catholic.) Although in Lombard’s comedies she often cries for attention, here her trembling lips and wavering voice indicate she is holding back tears.
Cromwell would also direct her next picture. In Name Only (1939) depicts a romantic triangle with echoes Carole’s relationship with Clark Gable and his ex-wife Rhea Langham. She plays Julie Eden, a widowed artist and mother to Ellen (Peggy Ann Garner), who falls in love with unhappily married Alec Walker (Cary Grant.) Although their marriage is ‘in name only,’ his spoiled wife Maida (Kay Francis) refuses a divorce, enlisting the support of her wealthy in-laws. After a despondent Alec checks into a hotel to get drunk alone on Christmas Eve, he becomes severely ill. In a scene which mirrors Made For Each Other, Julie waits anxiously outside Alec’s hospital room (his parents have forbidden her to see him.)
Whereas the screwball films emphasise her body’s malleability, in dramatic roles Lombard is predominantly shown in close-up. As Alec’s parents tell her she is unwelcome, Julie tries to maintain her composure by focusing on Dr. Gateson (Jonathan Hale), but her watery eyes and quivering mouth reveal her distress. When the doctor says there is a chance that Alec may recover, she smiles faintly. Julie then reassures Alec’s father (Charles Coburn) that she won’t see Alec again, because “it’s hopeless.” Dr. Gateson asks if this is true, and in an over-the-shoulder shot, she looks at the ground and nods slowly. The doctor then tries to persuade Julie to tell Alec there is still hope for them to raise his spirits. Her chin trembles and she bites her lip, uneasy with this deception, but reluctantly agrees; and her wide-eyed, eager expression reveals that she will do anything to save the man she loves. The moral ambiguity of Julie’s status as ‘the other woman’ is thereby redeemed by her selfless love for Alec.
A subsequent scene shows Julie confronting Alec’s wife Maida, who admits she would rather see him dead than with her. In another close-up shot, Julie’s eyes flash with contempt. Her eyebrows furrow, and she tells her rival in a low, confident tone, “You don’t love anybody.” Although Maida plays the wronged wife to the hilt, In Name Only implies that Julie is more deserving of sympathy and respect. But Kay Francis was an established dramatic actress, and a fan magazine reader slated Carole’s “lack of chic dress and make-up” and “insufficient grasp” of dramatic acting, suggesting she was outshone by her sophisticated co-star.
George Stevens’ Vigil in the Night (1940) strays even further from Lombard’s glamorous image. She plays Anne Lee, a nurse placed in charge of the isolation ward of an English children’s hospital when a deadly epidemic breaks out. After her younger sister Lucy (Anne Shirley) becomes infected and dies, she has little time to grieve. Looking down at the ground, Anne heads towards the window – and the camera – in a long-shot. As the camera tracks into a close-up, Anne takes off her nurse’s jacket, collapses against the window and bursts into tears, wringing the sleeve of her jacket. Her face is half-covered by the window frame, and in an effort to regain her composure, she lets out a series of quick sighs. She then presses her noise against the window frame and starts crying again. Finally she opens her eyes and turns away from the window, gazes below camera and whispers, “Oh my baby.”
“Although melodrama has been criticised for excessive emoting and over-acting, sometimes a heightened performance is appropriate to the genre,” Kiriakou writes, arguing that Carole’s restrained dramatic acting may have worked against her: “Lombard gives a somewhat underwhelming performance, given the scene’s emotional gravity and the intense expressivity of her more familiar comic acting style.”
Her final melodrama, Garson Kanin’s They Knew What They Wanted (1940), was adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Sidney Howard, and with the great character actor Charles Laughton as her leading man, it carried a certain prestige. Laughton hams it up as Tony, an Italian immigrant who falls in love with waitress Amy Peters (Lombard) when she stops by his vineyard in the Napa Valley. Having asked his handsome foreman Joe (William Gargan) to write to Amy in his name, Tony persuades Joe to send her his photograph too. Hoping for a better life, Amy comes to the vineyard and realises Tony’s deception, she agrees to marry him anyway. But after Tony falls ill, Amy has an affair with Joe and falls pregnant.
“Amy Peters is a more hardened, cynical and psychologically complex character than Lombard’s other heroines,” Kiriakou writes. Describing a scene in which Joe finds Amy packing her bags to leave, Kiriakou observes, “Her glaring eyes reveal the resentment she feels towards Joe. Lombard spits out her words. She had played working-class characters before, but had never significantly altered her speech … [Her] decision to modify Amy’s vocal pattern adds depth and shows just how essential her voice was.”
When Joe offers to marry Amy and save her from the shame of an illegitimate child, she angrily refuses. “Here she combines a quivering voice with clipped delivery to show Amy’s embarrassment,” Kirakou comments. “In what is arguably the climax of the film, Lombard vacillates her emotional range to convey Amy’s mix of frustration and indignation. Her performance suggests Amy’s resentment is partly self-inflicted … While Amy is not a cold character, Lombard’s performance radiates a raw weariness in keeping with the deprivation of Amy’s economic and social conditions.”
As with her other melodramas, They Knew What They Wanted earned positive reviews and was the first to draw a small profit. However, on the back of several box-office disappointments, it was clear that audiences preferred Carole in familiar comedic roles. Perhaps in a truly outstanding drama, she could have made the transition more smoothly. In late 1939, columnist Hedda Hopper announced that Carole was set to star in Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s bestselling novel. But after a strained relationship with Clark Gable during production of Gone With the Wind, David L. Selznick decided to release Carole from their contract. Joan Fontaine was cast in her place, and Rebecca made her a star.
If Women Ruled the World
Throughout her career, Lombard was outspoken on political and social issues, unusually so for a star of her calibre. She was a staunchly progressive advocate of Roosevelt’s New Deal, with many of her views pre-dating the Second Wave feminism of the 1960s and ‘70s. Kiriakou argues that Carole should be considered as a major figure in the history of Hollywood activism.
She also defines Lombard as ‘proto-feminist,’ positioned between the First Wave of suffragism and the women’s liberation era. Unfortunately, Carole lacked the supportive framework of a wider feminist movement, and her activism was confined within the narrow perimeters of a patriarchal film industry and her embodiment of the Hollywood glamour aesthetic she paradoxically resented. However, she did not suffer the backlash faced by leftist stars like Charlie Chaplin. Perhaps, as a glamour girl, she was taken less seriously.
On January 16, 1942 – less than a month after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour – Lombard died in a plane crash after completing a war bonds tour, and as Kiriakou notes, “the timing of her death imbued her star persona a deep-rooted, tragic patriotism.”
Alongside Janet Gaynor, Miriam Hopkins and Irene Dunne, Carole was one of the few leading actresses to leave their home studio and leverage their popularity for greater autonomy, ultimately helping to change the nature of star labour in Hollywood. She was the first star to propose profit participation, and in 1938, she renegotiated her three-picture deal with David L. Selznick to include a ‘no loan-out’ clause, plus her choice of publicist (Russell Birdwell) and costume designer (Travis Banton.) This subject is covered in more detail in Emily Carman’s 2013 book, Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System.
In the fan magazines, Lombard’s independent streak was framed as that of a man’s head for business in a woman’s body – as expressed in her 1937 op-ed for Photoplay, ‘How I Live By a Man’s Code.’ Advising women readers to “play fair” and cultivate their feminine appeal, she artfully presented herself as no threat to men. The article overlooks her own past experience as a contract player with few rights, and how privileged she was compared to the majority of women whose very right to work was still in jeopardy.
In 1939, Carole expanded her radio work with an ambitious new venture. Inspired by the New York intellectuals who convened at the Algonquin Round Table, The Circle was an hour-long show which aired for six months. In one surviving episode, Lombard joined Cary Grant, Ronald Colman and Groucho Marx to discuss the topic, ‘If Women Ruled the World.’ The dialogue was heavily scripted, with Carole seemingly playing a version of her screwball heroines.
“One day we’ll have a woman president,” she declares, a reality still unachieved in America some eighty years on. Her arguments are emotive and sentimental, while the men’s responses are snide and condescending.
Lombard’s most impactful political statement came in 1938, when she came out in support of President Roosevelt’s Revenue Act. That year, Carole paid $350,000 in personal income tax, and after deducting business fees and other expenses, she was left with just $20,000. Nonetheless, she believed this was more than enough. “I enjoy this country,” she told reporters. “I like the parks and highways and the good schools and everything that this government does. After all, every cent anybody pays in taxes is spent to benefit him.”
While this might be considered a rose-tinted view of Roosevelt’s New Deal, Carole stood out among the Hollywood elite in defending the so-called ‘Wealth Tax,’ ingraining the public perception of a star with feet firmly on the ground. Her stance also boosted the government’s efforts to promote ‘patriotic tax-paying’ in the pre-war years. “Probably no news item did so much to increase the popularity of a star,” the New Yorker’s Alva Johnston recalled after Lombard’s death.
After the U.S. declared war on Japan in December 1941, the Gables immediately wrote to Roosevelt to volunteer their services. Although Clark was keen to enlist, the President replied that the couple would raise morale by continuing to work in film. At the first meeting of the Hollywood Victory Committee, a series of war bond tours was proposed. On January 12, 1942, Carole left Los Angeles with her mother, Bess Peters, and publicist, Otto Winkler, commencing their tour in Salt Lake City. Two days later, they arrived in Indianapolis, her home state capital. After selling $2,000,000 in war bonds in a few hours, Lombard headed to the Cadle Tabernacle where she hosted a rally and led the crowd in singing the National Anthem.
On January 16th, Carole is said to have persuaded her mother to take a flight back to Los Angeles instead of the scheduled train journey. It has been speculated that she was worried about her husband’s relationship with actress Lana Turner, and even that she cut short a national tour. However, Kiriakou argues that Lombard was too committed a professional to allow personal matters to interfere with her work, and with the impending release of To Be Or Not to Be, an extended tour was unlikely to have been planned. Most probably, Kiriakou concludes, Carole was simply tired and wanted to go home.
In retrospect, the journey appears to have been doomed from the start. After making stops in St. Louis, Kansas City and Albuquerque, Lombard’s party was informed that military personnel were to be given priority and they must disembark. It has been said that Carole strongly objected, pointing out that they were also doing war work; although as Kiriakou notes, this grand-standing seems out of character. Nonetheless, they were allowed to remain on the flight. The airplane then stopped again to refuel in Las Vegas, due to the extra weight of passengers (twenty-two in all) and cargo.
Later that evening, Clark Gable was informed that his wife’s airplane had gone down outside Las Vegas. Carole’s brother Stuart, and Otto Winkler’s wife Jill left for Las Vegas on a flight chartered by MGM. Having learned that the aircraft had crashed in the foothills of Table Rock Mountain, Clark was keen to join the search party but studio publicists persuaded him to remain behind. He then received a cable which read ‘No survivors. All killed instantly.’
Over the next few years, Carole – the first American woman to die in the line of duty – posthumously received three national honours, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1944, a Liberty Ship was christened the USS Lombard; and in 1946, the U.S. Treasury awarded her the Silver Medal.
The Lombard Effect
“Lombard’s characters are tenacious, determined, and expressive,” Kiriakou writes, “but also prone to emotional vulnerability and occasional stubbornness – a humanising combination that, in turn, made Lombard an endearing and likable cultural figure.” In Becoming Carole Lombard, Kiriakou demonstrates how fully Carole’s persona evolved, and that her eventual rise to stardom in screwball comedy followed a long apprenticeship, “born out of circumstance, luck, and trial and error.”
Although Kiriakou pays close attention to Lombard’s silent comedies and the melodramas of later years, her ‘middle period’ from the early to mid-1930s remains somewhat under-explored. Considering why Carole’s dramatic roles were less popular with filmgoers than her screwball comedies, Kiriakou believes this proves that stardom depends on recognisability. A central concept in star studies is the audience’s ‘double identification’ with both the star and their character in a film, so that a star can never fully vanish into their role as a character actor would. And like other stars, Carole’s public image was also shaped by offscreen publicity.
“Lombard is not a ‘forgotten star’ in the sense of being absent from popular media or film scholarship,” Kiriakou admits. While Carole is a firm favourite among cinephiles, she is perhaps not as familiar to the average classic movie fan as some of her peers, like Marlene Dietrich, Mae West or Jean Harlow. And although screwball comedy remains well-regarded by critics, it doesn’t have the widespread appeal of other genres, such as film noir (the ‘Noir City’ festival tours the U.S. each year.)
“Contributing to Lombard’s relatively narrow popularity is her relative lack of canonical work and the nature of her work with auteurs,” Kiriakou writes, citing Hawks, Hitchcock and Lubitsch among Carole’s most studied directors, and adding that To Be Or Not to Be is the only film among these works to have attained canonical status. However, I would counter that My Man Godfrey, although not from a ‘canonical’ director, is also highly regarded (and both films have been given the Criterion Collection treatment.)
The filmmaker and critic Francois Truffaut dismissed Mr. and Mrs. Smith as lacking the hallmarks of a Hitchcock movie, although Kiriakou has suggested otherwise. And despite being acknowledged as one of the first screwball comedies, Twentieth Century is far lesser known than Hawks’ later contribution to the genre, Bringing Up Baby (1938.) Perhaps it was released too soon, before screwball was established as a distinct form; but even so, that does not explain its critical neglect today.
After his wife’s death, a bereft Clark Gable joined the U.S. Air Force. He resumed his career in 1946, and would marry twice more. However, his tragic romance with Carole was never forgotten by the public. In 1976, Jill Clayburgh starred in a soapy television biopic, Gable and Lombard (based on Warren G. Harris’s dual biography.) While Gable’s legacy remains secure, Lombard’s achievements have been overshadowed by her marriage to the ‘King of Hollywood,’ which may reflect on how even the most famous women are still defined by their relationships with men.
Nonetheless, Carole’s impact on women in film should not be underestimated, especially in comedy. Her friend Lucille Ball was among those inspired by her legacy, and Kiriakou traces a lineage of empowered female comedians from Mary Tyler Moore to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. However, Lombard’s talents stretched beyond the comedy sphere: and her career path can also be compared with those of her peers and immediate successors, including Jean Arthur, Judy Holliday, Kay Kendall and Marilyn Monroe; to modern stars like Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, Melanie Griffith and Meg Ryan.
“I’ll never retire, I’ll always want to be doing something,” Carole told Radio Mirror in 1939. “Maybe advertising, maybe publicity. Maybe I’d like to manage a theatre. I don’t know. I just know that when pictures turn thumbs down on me as one day they must, and radio, too, I’ll try something else. I’d go crazy just sitting around.”
With Becoming Carole Lombard: Stardom, Comedy and Legacy, Olympia Kiriakou has accomplished a study of equal interest to diehard Lombard fans and students of classical Hollywood cinema. I’m grateful to Bloomsbury Academic for providing this review copy. Becoming Carole Lombard is a worthy tribute to a woman ahead of her time, and deserves to be widely read and discussed.