House Logo
Explore categories +

Now and Forever: Early Carole Lombard at Film Forum

Comments Comments (0)

Now and Forever: Early Carole Lombard at Film Forum

[The Carole Lombard retrospective runs at Manhattan’s Film Forum from November 21st—December 2nd. Click here for more information.]

In at least seven movies, all of them comedies with serious undertones, the exuberant Carole Lombard became emblematic of the whole screwball comedy genre of the thirties, and she passed into folklore with her marriage to Clark Gable and her early death in a plane crash in 1942, at age 34. It’s her centenary this year, so there have been tributes, including a “star of the month” program on the indispensable Turner Classic Movies. TCM showed her seven wonders, starting with Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century (1934) and ending with Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942). In between those very different peaks, Lombard was the archetypal madcap heiress in Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey (1936), a small town girl caught up in the publicity machine in the cutting Ben Hecht satire Nothing Sacred (1937), a manicurist on the make in Mitchell Leisen’s Hands Across the Table (1935), a congenital liar in the overlooked True Confession (1937), and a demanding, hot-to-trot wife for Alfred Hitchcock in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941).

On TCM, these seven testaments to Lombard at her best were garnished with select samplings from her frustrating early sound years, when she was a contract player for Paramount studio. Turner doesn’t own early Paramount movies, but they recently bought a few hundred Columbia films, so they were able to show two early thirties Lombard loan-outs to that studio, No More Orchids (1932) and Brief Moment (1933). By and large, these two films prove that Columbia chief Harry Cohn knew how to display Lombard’s talent far better than her home studio; in the first scenes of No More Orchids, where she’s cannily cast as a flighty, drunken heiress, Lombard’s sense of fun shoots off the screen, as does her frank sexuality (she strips to her underwear with no self-consciousness). And she’s nicely tough/tender in Brief Moment, even if her face sends unintentional signs of her uncertainty with her role, a drawback that marks much of her apprentice work.

The Campus Vamp (1928), a silent short being screened for the Film Forum retrospective, was made when the 20-year old Lombard was a Mack Sennett bathing beauty, and she learned a lot from this training: she seems totally at home in his anarchic nuttiness. The earliest feature being shown is a tantalizing rarity, Miriam Hopkins’ debut, Fast and Loose (1930), which has dialogue by Preston Sturges. Between the fiery Hopkins, a scene-stealing Ilka Chase, a non-dithery Frank Morgan and Charles Starrett, the Guy Madison of the thirties, who plays most of his scenes in a bathing suit, Lombard gets lost in the shuffle, and that’s all to the good. She’s amateurish in Fast and Loose, as if she’s practiced her lines at home and is simply reciting them for us; she looks scared, sometimes, and this fear would turn up again in her next movies in the series, It Pays to Advertise (1931), which is stolen by Louise Brooks in the first reel, and Up Pops the Devil (1931), where Lombard has the lead, but just treads water, stiltedly.

Her first husband, William Powell, loosened Lombard up considerably in two films, Man of the World (1931), where she’s not quite as uptight, and Ladies’ Man (1931), which contains the first sign of Lombard’s special talent for extremes in a long, expertly played drunk scene. Alas, she’s forced and awkward in Sinners in the Sun (1932), which doesn’t contain much sun or sin, unfortunately, though it does have two electric scenes with Cary Grant, in only his second film role. She worked up a palpable chemistry with her future husband, Clark Gable, in No Man of Her Own (1932) a rather gloomy movie that still pulsates with the heat of their mutual attraction for one another, but Paramount still didn’t know what Lombard was good at. They used her as an all-purpose leading lady, which might begin to explain her presence in the hilariously awful White Woman (1933), a rubber plantation melodrama stolen wholesale by a campy/compelling Charles Laughton. As a nightclub singer forced to marry the perfidious Laughton, Lombard looks great, but she seems exasperated and tired throughout the film, as if she’s acting badly to protest the assignment. (Question: what’s become of her second teaming with Laughton, They Knew What They Wanted {1940}? This RKO production has been missing in action for a while.)

Even worse than White Woman is Bolero (1934), where Lombard has to try to act and even dance with the wooden George Raft. It’s a dull movie, but it does boast a defining moment for Lombard: she strips down to her slip again, and Raft dares her to dance something for him. Lombard’s face lights up, as if she’s thinking, “What the hell,” (or “What the fuck,” since she was addicted to longshoreman language). She stomps across the screen in her slip and stockings, while Raft and everyone in the audience thinks, “This woman must be one of the best lays in the world.” Lombard was starting to relax and take chances on screen, which was evident the same year in Hawks’ Twentieth Century, where her lusty, throw-your-whole-body-into-it kind of physical comedy was showcased for the first time in talkies. She was aided by the full-throttle histrionics of her co-star, John Barrymore, and Hawks’ patient coaxing behind the camera; he enabled her to be herself at last, the high-spirited, dishy, flaky girl everyone loved off the set who had rarely come through on screen since the days of her slapstick Mack Sennett shorts.

Even though Twentieth Century signaled that she had arrived as a comedienne, Lombard still had to slog through a few more inappropriate programmers, including an uneasy partnership with Gary Cooper and Shirley Temple called Now and Forever (1934), a nearly unwatchable try-out at MGM, The Gay Bride (1934), and even another “dance” vehicle with Raft, called Rumba (1935). The dominant mode for Lombard in these films is censoriousness: she’s something of a pill, dressing down her male lead and looking fiercely angry and restless in most of her scenes. But it only took a gentle modification of this impatient quality for her star persona to really take shape, as it did under Mitchell Leisen’s direction in Hands Across the Table (1935), the first real Carole Lombard movie, a melancholy/slaphappy romance where all her hard edges were finally smoothed away. There followed a string of classic comedies, some essential, like My Man Godfrey, and some diverting minor work, like The Princess Comes Across (1936).

It’s a shame that Lombard is such a diamond in the rough in her early films, but they are all worth seeing, mainly because of other players like Hopkins and Laughton and Grant (and it’s good to remember that these Paramount features don’t play on television). It took her a while to find her métier, but when she did, there was no stopping her. If you were to screen Up Pops the Devil, and then To Be or Not to Be, you might be forgiven in thinking that the early, unsure Lombard and the Lombard at the summit of her skill for a great director in a great, perilously bold movie were two different people. But her struggle to improve herself and find the right material is what makes Carole Lombard such a quintessentially American, do-it-yourself movie star. In the mid-twenties, Lombard had a movie contract canceled when she got herself into a bad car accident that left a vertical scar on her left cheek. This scar is still visible in a lot of her close-ups, and it’s the reminder for us that she’s living on borrowed time. That retroactive sense of danger informs the giddiness of her comedy, the abandon of her sexual openness and the “what the fuck” daring that lets her be a vision in white satin in To Be or Not to Be, swaying with overwhelmed carnality as she murmurs the ugliest imaginable words, “Heil Hitler…”

House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.