Blond, beautiful, and often nutty as a fruitcake, Carole Lombard in her all too brief career was utterly distinctive and hard to pin down. She’s a glamorpuss who can play a small-town librarian (just barely) or a manicurist; a diva who can hammer away at a typewriter as a romance novelist; a tomboy who shimmers in low-cut Irene gowns. It’s partly because of these seeming contradictions that she found her home in screwball comedies, particularly those that simply gave up and surrendered to her head-spinning momentum, her rapid-fire swerves into the histrionic absurd.
We movie lovers often play the what-if game. Take any favorite film and wonder what if X had played the lead instead of Y. Such an occasion arose in the Q and A following a screening of His Girl Friday in Sag Harbor a couple of years ago. I mentioned that Hawks had initially wanted Jean Arthur for the Hildy part, whereupon members of the audience raised their own ideas about hypothetical Hildys, one being Carole Lombard. Oh, no, I quickly said. It had to be Rosalind Russell. No one else has the combination of smarts, ambition, swagger, and nerdiness, along with looks that are extremely attractive without being drop-dead dazzling.
Each star of “Hollywood’s golden era” had a distinct and recognizable persona from film to film, and we fell in love with them accordingly. Among the starriest of the stars—Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Barbara Stanwyck, and Lombard (or later ones like Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Doris Day), there was a subtle exaggeration as if they were playing off our ideas of them, while remaining within the confines of a certain personality. Each one contained the four elements—fire, ice, earth, air—but in different proportions. At best, the stars mesh seamlessly with their roles, the casting seems preordained, but at other times there’s a subtle (or not so subtle) disconnect. Often but not always the attributes were allied with genre, with comedy or melodrama.
Lombard may have been believable as a romance novelist in True Confession (if she could sit at the typewriter long enough!), spinning steamy plots in her head. But a newspaper reporter? Far too spacy, and as a liar and fantasizer, she might be beyond even the pale of the fake-news cynics of His Girl Friday. Not to mention the distraction of her electric beauty. Jean Arthur on the other hand would be quite plausible as a reporter, but she doesn’t have the breezy stride of Russell, or her commanding height (accentuated by her fabulously stylish but no-nonsense Adela Rogers St. Johns suit), necessary for her face-off with Cary Grant.
Carole Lombard wasn’t a suits type. A clothes horse but not a mannequin, she was a study in paradox. She looked best in (first Travis Banton’s then) Irene’s slithery boudoirish satin gowns and negligees . . . and shorts, the swan undermined and complemented by the jock, the cutup making mincemeat of the dreamgirl, the siren embracing clunky character names like Hazel Flagg and Ann Krausheimer. You feel she never tries to protect herself, insist on showing her best profile. In evening clothes and with key lighting, she’s a knockout, but she’s just as mesmerizing in shorts and boots, flycasting in a fishless pond.
Though she could hold her own in tearjerker territory, Lombard practically invented screwball comedy, or at least shaped its contours. She arrived at the majors from the try-anything Mack Sennett studio, what she called “the most delightful madhouse imaginable.” A natural athlete, she’d been spotted playing baseball by Allan Dwan. She’d actually had her first part at age twelve, but didn’t really sign on until 1925 with Fox Films. She was fielded in the usual smorgasbord of comedies and westerns, but in one of those setbacks with a silver lining, a car accident left a scar on her face, thus thwarting (actually only delaying) her career as a Hollywood dazzler. Mack Sennett didn’t give a damn about facial scars, but he did care about curvaceous bathing beauties who could also indulge in the wildest tomfoolery. By Lombard’s own account, Sennett’s boot camp was the greatest preparation she could have had, a liberating free-for-all that prepared her for the divine silliness of her screwball heroines.
Already something of a contradiction—a well-bred young lady whose background was belied by notoriously blunt talk and salty language—she was a perfect fit for the Sennett MO, which “exposed the sham of pretension, it exploded the petty hypocrisies of people in high places, it flung pies at false dignity,” as she later put it. Her shameless pursuit of William Powell in My Man Godfrey has its roots in Sennett comedies, where she often played a boy-crazy girl.
She was also a perfect fit for the thirties, when verbal acrobatics and fast-talking heroines had displaced the sultry divas of the twenties, that decade of postwar libertinism, contraband booze, flappers, and suffragettes, when movies were as racy as they would ever be, or at least until the sixties when censorship faded. The Depression and the Hays Office ushered in a new conservatism—marriage was sacrosanct, women’s true vocation was wife and mother. The advent of sound had lured some of the wittiest of East Coast writers to Hollywood. Men like Ben Hecht, Robert Riskin, Morrie Ryskind, with wise-guy newspaper or Broadway experience, would circumvent the new prohibitions with delicious innuendo and some of the wittiest dialogue ever to grace the screen. The sexually explicit became sensually implicit, and as avatar mouthpieces for this often rapid-fire dialogue, actors with Voices and razor-sharp timing were in the ascendance.
Lombard was getting her footing in pre-Code movies and is quite believable as a prostitute (no euphemisms used) in Virtue, a proletarian never-trust-a-dame melodrama with Pat O’Brien as her taxi-driver husband. Misunderstandings and a false imprisonment ensue until the movie concludes not with the usual kiss and fadeout of romantic comedy but with a perfect Lombard ending: the exonerated fallen woman pumping gas at a filling station recently acquired by the couple.
The comedy that propelled not only Lombard but Hollywood itself out of the Sturm und Drang of melodrama and into the inspired silliness of the screwball comedy was Howard Hawks’s Twentieth Century. That grand showcase in which two hams—Lombard’s lingerie model turned actress and John Barrymore’s Svengali director—go at each other with relentless comic savagery was remarkable for, among other things, the sheer nonstop physicality of Lombard herself. The scissor kicks she levels at the egomaniacal Barrymore in a train compartment were the opening volley of no-holds-barred intramural warfare. Lombard serves notice: from here on in, the screwball heroine would give as good as she got.
With its fellow groundbreaker in 1934, It Happened One Night, a new kind of couple was born: one built on the erotics of antagonism. In the screwball playbook, they never love each other as much as when they are hurling insults in a firestorm of hate—before murder can be committed, a separation becomes necessary, an estrangement (or actual divorce) that only goes to prove how deeply and irretrievably they belong together. Hence the “comedy of remarriage.” The Depression was not exactly ignored: it often formed the background, as in My Man Godfrey, but the distress of moviegoers could best be served not by showing homeless people in breadlines but by providing escapist diversion in the form of impossibly elegant and witty stars clowning with a sprezzatura that defied constraints.
From this point until her tragic death in an air crash in 1942, Carole Lombard was the queen of screwball, the most beautiful and glamorous but also the wildest and most raucous. During this period she also made weepies, most notably In Name Only and Made for Each Other. The first is a love triangle featuring Kay Francis as the mercenary villainess, Grant as her miserable (but rich) husband, and Lombard as a widowed mother who works as a commercial artist. The second is a four-hankie tale of poverty, humiliation, and peril with Jimmy Stewart as a young lawyer beaten down by bullying partners and culminating in an eleventh-hour medical rescue of their fatally ill child. It’s not a question of being miscast—she brings the same crazy intensity to her sob sister roles—The Shunned Other Woman, or She Who Fears for the Life of the Man/Child She Loves—as she does to her zanier heroines in Hands Across the Table, True Confession, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, To Be or Not to Be. The difference in the latter is the comic pitch given to the hysteria, the sheer incongruity of this impossibly glamorous diva ranting and posturing and shrieking like a banshee. Even when she’s a working-class drudge or downright impoverished, as in Hands Across the Table or True Confession, respectively, there’s a buoyant indestructibility that not only won’t accept defeat but doesn’t even acknowledge its possibility!
When in Nothing Sacred Hazel Flagg, that glorious fraud from Hicktown, Vermont, wins the heart of all New York for her valiant battle with radium poisoning, and is about to be exposed, she writes a fond farewell to the whole city, then leaps in the Hudson River for a staged suicide attempt. Stunt accomplished, she’s sitting in sodden splendor on the dock, that smitten sappy smile on her face, hoping for sweet nothings from new love Fredric March. When March wants to discuss funeral details, she snaps, “Don’t talk shop.” Nothing wrong with the hoax, it’s just become too much work.
In the screwball couple it’s not a question of the usual complementary dynamic of Venus-vs-Mars, hot-cool, or stiff-loose, but of both being crazy, only one is a little crazier than the other. In Hands Across the Table, her gold-digging manicurist is outdone in mischief-making by Fred MacMurray’s (also gold-digging) hopscotching playboy, whereas in True Confession, it is she who runs circles around MacMurray, now her husband. He’s a virtuous sobersides lawyer whose meager income she hopes to supplement by writing romance novels and generally fantasizing (lying) her way out of trouble. Things even out in the long run: if Russell has a hard time keeping up with Cary Grant’s stop-at-nothing editor in His Girl Friday, Grant, in Bringing Up Baby, gets his comeuppance at the hands of Katharine Hepburn’s manic big-game hunter in the wilds of Connecticut.
For the most part, screwball is an elitist world—women don’t work and even the men (if they have jobs at all) seem to keep their own hours. More than that, it’s elitist in that the charmed couple is cooler, funnier, more beautiful than all the slobs and stooges, the stuffed shirts, and losers who surround them and whose ostensible dullness makes them glitter. They require a battalion of supporting players, mothers in law, frustrated suitors, bosses, parents, siblings, snobs, overweening and/or overweight father figures (Coburn, Connolly, Palette), stooges like the inimitable Ralph Bellamy, who had a minor career in pining sweetly and hopelessly for women just too up-tempo for his stolid swain. Mr. & Mrs. Smith features Gene Raymond in the goody-goody part, a chaste teetotaler ridiculed by Robert Montgomery as a “hillbilly ambulance chaser.” Honesty and reliability are for suckers.
This parody of straight society forms a crucial contrast: against its strictures the couple can carve out their own sanctuary, their circle of chaos. But this hierarchical world also contains touches of cruelty, sometimes making us uncomfortable. Still, it’s that refusal of sentimentality, to take life seriously, that gives the films their enduring freshness, their staying power.
The risks the genre takes are part of its edge. Probably the most controversial will always be Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, which dares to make a joke about concentration camps and sends up the Nazis with outrageous one-liners. All the world’s a stage in this still-breathtaking film comedy, which walks a tightrope between comedy and tragedy, and willfully courts “bad taste” to make telling points about the complexity of human beings who, even in wartime (perhaps especially in wartime), will never divide easily into heroes and villains. (Lubitsch admired, and goes even further than, Chaplin’s impersonation of Hitler in The Great Dictator.)
The mystique of the couple was after all built into the hierarchy of the studio system, and different combinations created interestingly different chemistry. Couples in real life might or might not strike sparks on the screen. Lombard and Powell, who married in 1931, made two films together before My Man Godfrey and were in fact mutually attracted “opposites,” much like that embattled couple. Not so with Clark Gable, the star who would become her second husband and life love. The one film they made together, No Man of Her Own, in which he’s an inveterate gambler and she the desperate-to-leave librarian gave no hint of a future passion (on or off the screen) and sadly had no follow-up.
She and MacMurray, who made four films together, click comfortably (that is to say, with sweet acrimony) as a romantic duo. Mitchell Leisen’s direction of Hands Across the Table is especially warm and lyrical. A more upscale element enters with Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Hitchcock’s only entry in the genre, and, with a clever script by Norman Krasna, far more charming than I remembered. From its silken sensuous beginning, Lombard and Montgomery play beautifully off each other. The film opens with husband and wife in separate (and well appointed) rooms, having endured three days of self-imposed separation, following an argument. Such a sentence is the consequence of a lie, which suggests a certain ritual frequency. (Montgomery is unshaven from three days in isolation, his law practice apparently in no immediate need of him.) Requiring the truth, she asks him a fatal question: if you had it to do over, would you marry me? As only the truth will liberate him from lockdown, he hesitates and replies no. His wish is granted when it turns out that through a legal technicality they were never really married. In the outrageous pursuit and retreat that follow the two are so in sync you wish she and Montgomery had made more films together. It may not be as personal as Hitchcock’s thrillers, but it has its own kind of thrill, and reminds you that Hitchcock was a master of filming love-hate couples at the apex of their erotic appeal.
And then there’s Maria Tura, the Polish actress married to Jack Benny’s Joseph, lead actor of the Polish theater troupe that is metaphorically invading the Nazis as they invade Poland. The casting of Benny is sheer genius, a thespian so self-involved that he barely notices the bedroom farce under his nose, only resents his rival for walking out on his soliloquy. Lombard has never been more beautiful—or funnier. The film’s release was an accident of timing. It was made just before the U.S. joined the war—a war Lombard would have joined had women been admitted to the military. Instead she went on a mission to sell war bonds, with fatal results. One can only dream of the films she and Lubitsch, so well paired in gameness and gallantry, might have made together. The horror of her death has only this one redeeming feature: if she had to make a permanent exit, the phony-real actress in her would have, must have, chosen Lubitsch’s comic masterwork as her farewell.
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