WEIRDLAND: Happy Anniversary, Carole Lombard!

Monday, October 05, 2015

Happy Anniversary, Carole Lombard!

Happy Anniversary, Carole Lombard! Born Jane Alice Peters (6 October 1908, Fort Wayne, Indiana, USA - 16 January 1942, Table Rock Mountain, Nevada). She was nicknamed: The Profane Angel, The Hoosier Tornado and The Queen of Screwball Comedy.

Blonde, beautiful and spirited, Carole Lombard was, and still is to some, the finest satirical comedienne the screen has ever known, the embodiment of screwball comedy, the queen of the genre. A native of Fort Wayne, Indiana, she was a working actress by 1929. A stint with Mack Sennett, the acknowledged "king of comedy" during the silent era, taught her the impeccable timing which was at the heart of her comedic genius.

In 1934, a golden opportunity arose for her: She took a trip on a train with the great John Barrymore, who was once quoted as saying that Lombard was one of the greatest actresses he had ever worked with. Under the guidance of producer/director Howard Hawks and with a great script by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, Twentieth Century (Columbia, 1934) had scored big at the box office and made Carole Lombard a star. Though the blonde star mixed drama and comedy and did both with equal skill, the screwball comedy became her signature genre.

Her films include Hands Across the Table (1935) and The Princess Comes Across (1936), both from Paramount and co-starring Fred MacMurray, My Man Godfrey (Universal, 1936) and Mr. and Mrs. Smith (RKO, 1941), a cross-section of the genre. Ernst Lubitsch directed Carole Lombard in her last film To Be or Not to Be (United Artists, 1942).

In his book Screwball - Hollywood's Madcap Romantic Comedies, Ed Sikov quotes director Mitchell Leisen describing the effect Lombard had on MacMurray: "Carole was a great help to Fred. She'd get him down on the floor and sit on his chest and say, "Now be funny, Uncle Fred, or I'll pluck your eyebrows out." -"The Art of the Screwball Comedy: Madcap Entertainment from the 1930s to Today" (2013) by Doris Milberg

During her time under Pathé contract, Lombard adopted the salty vocabulary of a dockworker, and according to her brother Fred Peters, she did it deliberately as a way to level the playing field with the men then in charge, most of whom were wolves at the least, with some unashamed sexual predators thrown in. In short, she intended harsh language to shut down unwanted advances and she wore it like a suit of armor. Her friend Jill Winkler once asked Lombard about the swearing. Carole replied, “Oh, that’s not me swearing, honey. That’s Carole Lombard. Jane Peters would never dream of using language like that.” Carole believed that Jane Peters couldn’t hold her own in Hollywood, whereas brash Carole Lombard could. As she once admitted in an interview, and it was a telling statement, “I try to be what people want me to be.”

Carole counted among her lovers in the early Paramount days a young scriptwriter named Preston Sturges, who had done the screenplay for one her pictures, Fast and Loose (1930). The highly intelligent, well-to-do, 10-years-older Sturges fit Lombard’s bill, as did fading publishing mogul Horace Liveright, 25 years her senior, with whom she had a short liaison before Paramount dismissed him. Said Lombard, “I rapidly outgrew even older boys and gradually my escorts became men. Mature men. They were the only ones who could talk my language....”

Carole appeared in a few light comedy features before stepping up to an “A” or major studio picture called Man of the World, starring one of the hottest leading men in Hollywood, William Powell. Sparks flew between Lombard and Powell from the first rehearsals, and a healthy infatuation catapulted them to the nearest bedroom. He was almost 40; she was 22, making pictures by day and playing the field by night, and determined not to marry. “I think marriage is dangerous,” she told him. “It spoils beautiful friendships that might have lasted for years.”

Anchored by a magnificent Paramount Pictures contract negotiated by his Hollywood superagent, Myron Selznick, Powell had the means to woo Lombard, and he didn’t kid around with that wooing. Soon, she learned the true power of the mature man, if not with the imported perfume or the diamond encrusted jade cigarette case, then surely with the Cadillac for Christmas. She tried to tell him: Sex was fine, but couldn’t they agree to leave marriage out of the discussion?

She was cast with Powell again in another romantic drama, this one called Ladies’ Man. The fact that the young ingénue and the older sophisticate were now constant companions and obvious bedmates earned space in fan magazines and newspaper columns. The wedding took place at the end of June 1931, and the happy couple sailed off for a Hawaiian honeymoon. And then things went to hell right away. Suddenly, Bill and Carole were no longer workplace comrades with a standing date for lunch. Just after popular melodrama queen Kay Francis followed William Powell’s path from Paramount to Warner Bros. because she sensed payroll might not be met, Paramount went bankrupt.

Lombard, then a modest star but hardly a household name, was saved from unemployment only by the new ironclad contract that Myron had just negotiated for her. Paramount started shopping her around town to see if another studio wanted to assume her contract, but the attachment of a shark like Myron Selznick to Lombard’s name assured lukewarm interest. She ended up on a one-shot loan-out at the Columbia studios on nearby Gower Street and portrayed a hooker in a risqué pre-Code drama called Virtue (1932), which co-starred Mayo Methot, who would meet and then marry struggling actor Humphrey Bogart a few years later.

In May 1934, she headlined the article, “Carole Lombard Tells Why Hollywood Marriages Can’t Succeed” for Motion Picture magazine. With the brashness of youth, she shrugged that it might be easy for the garden-variety housewife “to put a fence around her heart,” but in the picture business, a woman was constantly in front of cameras with desirable men by the dozen and required to “syndicate her charm.” Powell, a man 16 years her senior whom she called “Popsie,” she confessed to marriage making the walls press in around her until she found herself “breathless with the loss of freedom.”With William Brimming with frustration, Lombard stated flatly that the Powell-Lombard exercise in marriage had been “a waste of time—his and mine.” Trouble was, they liked each other; they always would.

Noel Fairchild Busch from Life magazine referred to Clark Gable as the love of her life in interviews with Lombard for an October 1938 cover story. The story goes that Carole’s snippy response about Gable was to say that Russ Columbo, not Gable, was her great love, “and that is most definitely off the record.” But her actions five years earlier, viewed through the prism of Columbo’s anguished letters, speak loudly about who loved whom, and how much. During summer 1934, Carole got to
know the Colombo family with its intense Italian culture and found herself at sea.

She wasn’t Catholic; she had no desire to become Catholic. Columbo was learning that maybe he should distance himself from his ethnic heritage or he might risk hitting a glass ceiling in Hollywood. On Friday, August 31, Russ and Carole attended a sneak preview of his new picture Wake Up and Dream. On Saturday morning, Carole drove two hours up to Lake Arrowhead for some R&R. Lombard had just wrapped the only picture of her career made at MGM studios, The Gay Bride, and was, as usual, coming down with something. The next day she relaxed in the Arrowhead sunshine and finally began to unwind. Then came a phone call out of the blue: Russ Columbo had been shot.

When asked what it would have been like for a woman to meet Clark Gable, actress Ursula Theiss (Robert Taylor's second wife) described it this way: “He would have made you feel twice the woman than you think you are, because he did like the ladies. Intellectually, you might have expected more of him, but you would have been charmed…. He would have given all the attention you expected, and more.”

Underneath Gable’s charisma, that million-dollar smile and those sparkling gray eyes, was his desire not to have attention directed at what he knew to be a wounded, vulnerable soul. A divorce (Lombard’s), a shooting death (Columbo’s), an Oscar (Gable’s), a separation (also Gable’s), and three and-a-half years later, both were ready. They struck up a conversation at the Victor Hugo during the White Mayfair Ball, sparks flew, and neither looked back from that night on. Lombard had matured quite a bit, and Clark found a lot behind those topaz blue Lombard eyes. Clark found in Carole an answer to life’s romantic mystery that he hadn’t known previously, even with Joan Crawford.

Lombard managed to be as down to earth as the lemon trees, and she had this odd quality to her that he couldn’t begin to figure out, but it was a quality he liked. A lot. Carole Lombard had the capacity to love, not like a sucker, not like some doormat. She was an honest-to-God warm human being. Somehow, a real live woman had managed to survive in Hollywood and he had found her. -"Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3" (2013) by Robert Matzen

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