Monday, November 3, 2008

Discovering Carole Lombard

During October 2008 Turner Classic Movies paid tribute to Carole Lombard as its Star of the Month, giving me the chance to learn more about this actress. One of the major stars of the early Hollywood studio period, Lombard is an actress who has a devoted following. There is even a film/fan site (Carol & Co.) that publishes almost daily articles about her. But before the TCM tribute I had seen her in only a couple of films, both of them well-known screwball comedies from the 1930's, one of my pet genres. Having now seen several more of her films from the late 30's and early 40's (she died in a plane crash in 1942 at the age of 33), I can understand why she has inspired such devotion among her fans. She will not supplant my absolute personal favorites of the early studio era—Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, and Irene Dunne—but she will now be one of my also-greats, joining the likes of Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Arthur, Myrna Loy, Greta Garbo, and Margaret Sullavan—not bad company to be in.

Carole Lombard appeared in her first movie in 1921 at the age of thirteen. She had appeared in around 60 films before she got the lead in the movie that made her a star: Howard Hawks's Twentieth Century (1934). This was the year screwball comedy was born in Hollywood with It Happened One Night, setting off a craze for the genre that lasted nearly ten years. (According to the website, Lombard turned down the lead in It Happened One Night.) Twentieth Century was the other notable example of screwball comedy from that year and exhibits the take on the genre that Hawks would continue with his masterpieces Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940). It's all there in Hawks's very first attempt at the new genre—the trademark frenetic pacing, rapid-fire witty dialogue, contrived but hilarious situations, put-upon supporting characters, and egotistical lead characters.

Twentieth Century was just about the last remaining classic screwball comedy that I had never seen, and what a treat it was to see it at last. The movie has now joined my list of the top examples of the genre. John Barrymore, lampooning his own image, stars as Oscar Jaffe, a flamboyant, manipulative, often hysterical Broadway director given to intoning melodramatic pronouncements like "The iron door slams!" and "Anathema! Child of Satan!" at moments of heightened emotionalism. Lombard plays his new discovery, an inexperienced newcomer, a shopgirl named Mildred Plotka who Jaffe aims to transform into a star, renamed Lily Garland. Only Jaffe has any faith in her ability, and at this point the screenplay requires that Lombard be weepy, immature, and so insecure that she is ready to give up the idea of acting and return to the sales counter. But with gentle cajoling, patience, and encouragement Jaffe succeeds into molding her into his star.

Three years later Lily is the most esteemed actress on the New York stage, and Jaffe, like a true Svengali, is now romantically involved with her. But he has become so possessive, controlling, and jealous that Lily can no longer stand him. Now Lombard must play her character in a completely different mode—successful, confident, mature, independent, and rebellious. She walks out on Jaffe ("That's not love. It's sheer tyranny," she says of their relationship. "I'm no Trilby.") and heads for Hollywood.

The plot now shifts ahead even further. Lily is a hugely successful movie star, and Oscar is close to financial ruin, not having had one successful production since Lily left him. By chance he finds himself on the same train, the Twentieth Century Limited, as Lily, traveling from Chicago to New York. Convinced that his career will be saved if he can just get her to star in his next venture, he determines to get her to agree to do so before the train reaches its destination. The dirty tricks campaign he embarks on (not dissimilar to Cary Grant's efforts to stop his ex-wife from remarrying in His Girl Friday) and the complications that follow occupy the bulk of the movie.

The rub, though, is that Lily, having achieved Hollywood stardom, has become as much of a temperamental egomaniac as her former mentor, and Lombard is now required to portray Lily as a swollen-headed, self-centered shrew. Reportedly, Lombard was so intimidated by working with Barrymore, who at the time was still at the height of his profession, that Hawks had to take her aside and threaten to replace her if she didn't loosen up and stop holding back in her scenes with him. Whatever Hawks did, it must have worked, for Lombard easily holds her own with Barrymore for the rest of the movie and gives as good as she gets. It was no surprise that Barrymore was up to the demands of his role. The surprise is how well Lombard, pretty much untried in this type of exaggerated, broad comedy, does with her role, which unlike Barrymore's requires her to act convincingly in three different keys—first insecure, then independent, and finally insufferable.

If Twentieth Century clearly showed how good Lombard was at broad comedy, it only hinted at her remarkable range as an actress. It took a whole series of movies to do this. In My Man Godfrey (1936), another classic screwball comedy, Lombard plays Irene Bullock, one of those proverbial madcap heiresses. But her performance is much less theatrical than in Twentieth Century, and her sweet-natured, guileless naiveté is utterly charming. Her speech is fast and breathless, rather like Katharine Hepburn's in Bringing Up Baby. Like Hepburn in that movie, Lombard's character is impulsive and mercurial, and she shows the same child-like resolve to get her man. This performance earned Lombard her only Oscar nomination.

The next year Lombard made another classic screwball comedy, Nothing Sacred. She plays Hazel Flagg, a young woman who has been mistakenly diagnosed with radium poisoning and is turned into an overnight media celebrity by a cynical reporter played by Fredric March. This is a movie loved by many, but—prepare yourselves for sacrilege—it is one that I have never totally warmed to, even after repeated viewings. For some reason the movie just doesn't click for me the way my favorite screwball comedies do. Despite mixed feelings about the film, I still find the lead performances outstanding, particularly Lombard's, in which she shows a flair for unpretentious physical comedy that pokes fun at her glamor and her astounding beauty. Many fans consider this her signature performance, and for anyone interested in her career it is essential viewing.

Lombard's work in two lesser-known movies is further evidence of her versatility as an actress. In 1935 she made a little comedy directed by Mitchell Leisen called Hands Across the Table, in which she plays a manicurist in a swanky New York hotel whose one goal is to marry a rich man. She sets her sights on rich paraplegic Ralph Bellamy but finds herself falling in love with Fred MacMurray, whom she believes to be penniless. (Of course, he isn't.) It sounds like a classic screwball comedy situation, but the movie lacks the antic quality typical of the genre. And Lombard comes across as quite level-headed and practical and maybe just a bit disappointed with life. In the end she chooses MacMurray not just because of love but also because she is simply too nice to exploit Bellamy in such a mercenary way. Lombard creates a quietly touching, gentle, and intelligent character who is quite distinct from her boisterous Lily in Twentieth Century, her energetic Hazel in Nothing Sacred, or her whimsical Irene in My Man Godfrey.

Lombard turns in another impressive performance that showcases her ability to integrate the light with the serious in In Name Only (1939). In this film she plays a widow and mother who rents a house for the summer from Cary Grant. Grant is unhappily married to Kay Francis, who he has discovered married him solely for his money. Grant and Lombard are immediately attracted to one another and quickly fall in love. The problem is Grant's possessive wife, who refuses to give him a divorce.

The movie is a showcase for the range of both Lombard and Grant, who seem to have tremendous chemistry. They are allowed to behave at times in a relaxed, loving, and light-hearted manner with each other—the considerable charm of both actors at full throttle—and at other times in a serious and troubled manner when various obstacles, including the machinations of Grant's duplicitous wife, keep them apart. The plot is pure soap, but both Lombard and Grant rise above the familiar plot to create characterizations that are completely winning. If there were ever any doubts about Lombard's ability to handle serious roles, her performance in In Name Only surely put them to rest.

In two of her last movies Lombard returned to the comedy genre she was so associated with. Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) is a screwball-type comedy that was actually directed by Alfred Hitchcock, his only effort at a totally comic picture. The movie, while enjoyable, is missing both Hitchcock's distinctive touches and the sparkle typical of the genre. Lombard is the best thing in the movie, and the presence of her by-now distinctive personality is alone sufficient reason to watch it.

The most remarkable thing about the movie is how closely Lombard conforms to Hitchcock's idealized image of blonde beauty as personified by his other leading women like Madeleine Carroll, Grace Kelly, and Eva Marie Saint. Lombard was a very beautiful woman, but she never looked lovelier than in this picture. She is photographed by the great Harry Stradling in ways that deliberately emphasize her stunning facial beauty. Time and again, as she was photographed in close-up in three-quarters profile,with her full lips, prominent cheekbones, and straight, rather long nose, I was reminded of Greta Garbo. Like Garbo, Lombard's face seems mask-like, sculpturesque, and ethereal—an archetypal image of timeless female beauty. Garbo's favorite cinematographer, William Daniels, once commented that she "had no bad angles." The same could be said of Carole Lombard in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and to adore that exquisite face is reason enough to see this movie.

Carole Lombard's last picture, To Be or Not to Be (1942), improbably manages to combine topical anti-Nazism with pointed comedy. Released the year after her death, it was directed by Ernst Lubitsch. In Lombard's entire screen career, she was probably never paired with a director whose light comedic touch was so attuned to her own comedic skills, and in this film she gives what to me is her most enchanting performance. As the beautiful leading lady of a Polish theater troupe that finds itself engaged in a battle of wits with Nazis to help the Polish Resistance and to effect its own escape to Britain, she is married to its egotistical leading man, played by Jack Benny.

Lombard's restrained performance forms quite a contrast to Benny's intentionally hammy one, and she is at times almost required to play the "straight man" to her costar. Benny's outrageous antics propel the complicated ruse the troupe concocts to dupe the Nazis, while the beautiful Lombard handles the romantic distractions involved in the ruse. She never falters in the face of Benny's purposeful overacting but delivers an understated portrait of a woman who possesses great shrewdness, poise, and dignity beneath her glamorous exterior. The Lubitsch touch and the Lombard touch turn out to be a perfect match, and the film stands as an appropriate valedictory tribute to her beauty, grace, charm, and ability to seamlessly blend seriousness with humor.

By all accounts the real Carole Lombard was an unpretentious, generous, lively person with an outsized sense of humor. In one way or another those qualities all come through in her movie characters. Add to those qualities her great acting talent and her gorgeous looks, and you have a working definition of what is referred to as Star Quality.


VP81955 said...

I'm delighted you've discovered Carole Lombard (and thanks so much for the plug for "Carole & Co."!), but just a minor clarification: she died Jan. 16, 1942, returning from the first major bond rally of World War II, held in her home stand of Indiana. "To Be Or Not To Be" had just finished filming a few weeks before.

I should also note, for any of your readers in the New York metropolitan area, that Film Forum in lower Manhattan will hold a Lombard festival from Nov. 21-Dec. 2, and more than half the films being shown weren't aired on TCM in October. Several are in new 35mm prints.

Again, thanks for remembering Carole, whose spirit and style arguably makes her the most timeless of the classic Hollywood actresses.

R. D. Finch said...

vp, thanks for your comment and for pointing out my mistake. I know I checked out Ms. Lombard's dates on IMDb (I specifically recall calculating her age), so I don't know how this slipped by me. It has been corrected in the text of the post. And it was my pleasure finally to be able to fully appreciate the delightful and lovely Ms. Lombard.

VP81955 said...

Oh, and just one more thing -- the link to my site isn't working. The correct link is:

R. D. Finch said...

vp, thanks. I re-entered it and tried it,and it seems to be working now.