At her breathless, frazzled, sexy best, Carole Lombard defined the screwball comedy genre of the 1930s. A hot blonde made for clinging white satin, she was most distinctive when encouraged to be slaphappy and out of control, working up a full head of steam and building comic sequences to crescendos of hysteria. Her basic good nature always shone through her performances, so that even when her work was uneven (which was often), she always managed to get a viewer rooting for her. With her high forehead and penetrating blue eyes, Lombard was obviously intelligent, yet she had a talent for playing none-too-bright, childish women who lived exclusively and triumphantly in their own world.
Known for her practical jokes and her colorful use of profanity, Lombard consolidated her standing by marrying the crowned King of Hollywood, Clark Gable (“If his pecker was an inch shorter, he’d be the Queen of Hollywood,” she quipped). She always seemed to be getting wet in the rain or soaked in a lake: is there a more erotic moment in Alfred Hitchcock’s work than the scene where she is caught drying her hair by the fire in Mr. and Mrs. Smith? Lombard was a beautiful woman whose sharp-featured face had an edge of gaunt desperation. James Harvey discerned “something careworn and mind-driven at the center of (her) improbable glamour.”
At 13, she was discovered by director Allan Dwan and put in her first movie, A Perfect Crime. After a few small films, her career was almost ended by a serious automobile accident (it left a faint scar on her cheek that is visible in most of her close-ups). She served her apprenticeship as a bathing beauty for Mack Sennett, then served an even lengthier tenure as an all-purpose leading lady at Paramount, making dozens of forgotten films there before her big breakthrough, Howard Hawks’s Twentieth Century, where the hammy abandon of John Barrymore stimulated her talent for lusty histrionics.
This generous DVD set includes two rarely seen early Lombard movies, Man of the World and We’re Not Dressing. The first is a small drama with a rather personal, self-loathing screenplay by Herman Mankiewicz and a compellingly quizzical, melancholy lead performance by William Powell (who briefly became Lombard’s first husband). Lombard isn’t quite herself yet; she seems to be struggling to keep the natural sense of fun out of her voice, and gives overly cadenced, solemn line readings, as if she’s counting. It’s clear that she has promise, but it took her a long while to warm up. Paramount threw her into anything, even a cheap horror movie (Supernatural) and two excruciating musicals with George Raft (Bolero and Rumba). In We’re Not Dressing, a musical shipwreck with Bing Crosby, Ethel Merman, and George Burns and Gracie Allen, Lombard seems self-conscious and pissed-off, especially when she has to listen to Der Bingle croon at her.
Hands Across the Table was her first all-out starring vehicle at Paramount, and it’s a dark comic look at selfishness and longing for security. As a burned, impatient manicurist, Lombard is in her element at last. Ginger Rogers played these sorts of parts, too, but Lombard adds her own unique brand of emotional recklessness to the working girl prototype: unlike Rogers, she seems capable of being deeply hurt, which is why her tough talk is so necessary and so transparent. Her Regi Allan has been scarred by an impoverished upbringing and has pledged to marry for money. When she meets a millionaire, not only does he turn out to be Ralph Bellamy, but Ralph Bellamy in a wheelchair. She then gets involved with former rich kid Fred MacMurray, who is set to marry a pineapple heiress.
In true screwball fashion, they fall in love by being silly together, but their silliness has an immature, unpleasant aspect. When they have to decide what to do, director Mitchell Leisen suddenly drops the creamy Paramount house look for some startlingly moody noir lighting, sensualizing his star’s faces in lingering close-ups. Taking leave of MacMurray’s catty fiancee, Lombard’s anger and nihilism is palpable when she says, “I’m quite accustomed to wasting my time on people.” This is Lombard’s most disturbing film and character; it ends with the image of a coin standing on end in a grate, a visual expression of what lack of money does to people.
The next two movies in the set are disjointed comedies that Lombard strenuously tries to hold together with forced flakiness. In Love Before Breakfast, made at Universal, Lombard whoops and hollers frenziedly at her unappealing leading man, Preston Foster. When he accidentally gives her a black eye, it’s supposed to be funny; then again, a Universal comedy is really a contradiction in terms. Lombard has better luck in The Princess Comes Across as a Brooklyn chorine pretending to be Swedish royalty. Her accent is hilarious, and she gets to parody the solemn glamour pusses she always pretended to be in her stills, but the film collapses into a standard whodunnit early on. Lombard regained the ground she lost by being the cream in two classic sour comedies, My Man Godfrey and Nothing Sacred.
The last film in the set, True Confession, is a real rarity, and it contains what is arguably Lombard’s best performance (it is certainly her most characteristic). As an inspired pathological liar who literally sticks her tongue into her cheek before letting out another whopper, Lombard is in full command of her daffy talent, dominating a number of long, virtuoso takes. One scene with slow-burning cop Edgar Kennedy is like a master class in comic timing. Her character is crazy and completely corrupt, yet she’s basically innocent, like a child, and full of evasive, energetic hopes (Lombard is emblematic of America in the ‘30s, even America in general). She’s a whirligig in constant motion, entering the film rushing up the stairs of her apartment house, muttering wildly to herself, her go-getter spirit worn ragged by the demands of the Depression.
Lombard can never sit still for an instant or her doubts and fears will overtake her, and this sense of danger made her the best-loved comedienne of her era. Her last film was a masterpiece, Ernst Lubitsch’s bold To Be or Not to Be, where she takes chances with moods and intonations that most actresses would blanch at. After that appropriately risky summit, she died in a plane crash coming back from a war bond tour. Lombard had avoided death before in one freak accident and always carried the mark on her face afterward. This gave her a special kind of turbulence that filled her comedies with depth of feeling. When death finally caught up with her no one could say Lombard hadn’t led her cruel fate on a taunting, merry chase.
The image and sound on these discs is quite impressive. Man of the World, which has barely ever been shown since its first release, looks especially good, and True Confession doesn't seem to have a mark on it. We're Not Dressing is the only one that looks a little faded and grainy.
None to speak of.
With its bargain price, this DVD set is a no-brainer purchase. The little-seen True Confession alone would be worth the money, let alone backed up by so many other rare titles.