Remembering Carole Lombard (2024)

Remembering Carole Lombard (1)


Carole Lombard died eighty years ago today. She was returning to Los Angeles from a successful WWII defense bonds tour in Indiana, which was organized by the Hollywood Victory Committee in support of the U.S. war effort. She, along with 21 others including her mother, Elizabeth Peters, and MGM press agent, Otto Winkler, perished when their plane crashed into Mt. Potosi, on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Lombard’s tragic death has been discussed at length by myself and others, and nothing I can add here will adequately encapsulate the magnitude of that loss. Instead, on this solemn anniversary, I choose to celebrate her vivacious character and the indelible mark she left on classical Hollywood cinema.

Among Lombard’s many professional accomplishments, she can lay some claim to inspiring an entirely new form of film comedy. In 1934, audiences were introduced to two films – Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night and Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century – that would become the blueprints for a genre that would come to be known as screwball comedy. Lily Garland (her character in Twentieth Century) embodies many of the classical screwball heroine’s traits, and her feisty confidence is symbolic of the genre’s progressive gender politics (at least for their time). Characters like Lily are independent and assertive, women who flaunt their “unruliness” – or the defiance of conventionally feminine appearance and behavior – as if it were a badge of honor. Lily’s transgressive streak is a thread that weaves throughout Lombard’s screwball oeuvre, and book-ends Twentieth Century with her final screwball comedy, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Hitchco*ck, 1941). In fact, Lombard herself inspired the genre’s name after a Variety review described her My Man Godfrey (La Cava, 1936) performance style as “screwy.” Given the etymology, it’s no wonder that the link between Lombard and screwball comedy is so tightly intertwined; her screen temperament is the essence of cinematic daffiness (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 72). That iconicity helped to establish Carole Lombard’s reputation as the “Queen” of screwball comedy.

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Lombard had been working in Hollywood for over a decade prior to being cast in Hawks’ film, but Twentieth Century set her career on an entirely new course. Until that point, her proficiency as a comedian had only been tested in Mack Sennett’s slapstick shorts, but in 1934 she was still relatively unproven in the genre. As one of Sennett’s “Bathing Beauties,” Lombard was given some opportunities to hone her physical comedy skills in films like The Swim Princess (Alfred J. Goulding, 1928) and The Campus Vamp (Harry Edwards, 1928). But contrary to popular belief, Lombard’s silent comedies are far less physical than one might expect, and her primary role in his acting troupe was to be beautiful eye-candy. Lombard’s Sennett phase is often cited as a precursor to her screwball stardom, but if we consider that body of work in totality, there’s very little indication that she was a “natural” comedian. Her next studio, Paramount, must have thought so too because upon signing her to a seven year contract in 1930, they molded her into their latest glamour girl. In the early-30s Carole Lombard was chic personified, and was even voted Hollywood’s best dressed star – a title that she eventually came to resent. Her sophisticated aura was solidified further after her marriage to William Powell (1931-1933), whose own debonaire image complemented her screen glamour. During their short period of marital bliss, Lombard also starred in a few films including Ladies’ Man (Mendes, 1931), No More Orchids (Lang, 1932), and The Eagle and the Hawk (Walker, 1933) that reinforced her beautiful, aloof persona.

Twentieth Century recalibrated Lombard’s stardom, and it gave her the space to harness the untapped elements of her performative arsenal. It was the first film to showcase the range of her comedy skills, and through much of the decade she honed her timing to perfection, enshrining full-bodied physicality as her trademark. When you watch Lombard in action you begin to notice the uninhibited, electric energy that she brings to her roles, something that her voice and facial features alone cannot convey. She gesticulates with the weight of her entire body, almost as a way to channel the undercurrent of anxious energy that radiates from within her. This is no more evident than in a film like Nothing Sacred (Wellman, 1937), which is arguably the pinnacle of Lombard’s physical inhibition. Her roughhousing with co-star Fredric March can best be described as frantic; she punches, kicks, screams, and even jumps into the Hudson River, pushing her body to the limit.

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Lombard’s physical comedy carries historical significance, too. She was certainly not the first female comedy star to appear on screen, but her screwball performances refuted the contemporaneous belief that women were too delicate to perform physical comedy as well as their male peers. Female comedy discourse, particularly in the early 20th century, often centered on what’s known as the “pretty/funny” divide. Historically, women were considered either pretty or funny – not both. Henry Jenkins argues that in the 1920s and early-1930s, self-deprecating humor conveyed a comedienne’s “grotesque parody of traditional femininity” (1992, pg. 260); when women were funny, they were often stripped of their agency and sexual appeal. Comedic “unruliness” was framed as a threatening disruption to the rigid, socially enforced gender binary. Lombard challenges the pretty/funny divide by being conventionally beautiful with quick-witted comedic timing; there is never a moment of compromise, and she was also willing to look less than glamorous if the role called for it. Even with string, wet hair à la Nothing Sacred or a black eye in Love Before Breakfast (Lang, 1936), she remained irresistible.

Lombard has been cited as an inspiration for generations of female comics, and her performance style most closely resembles the likes of Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. Ball, a friend and mentee of Lombard’s, once confessed that Carole once came to her in a dream to encourage her to pursue television (Ball 1997, pg. 168). Lombard’s influence is clear when you watch Ball’s kooky antics and boisterous physicality on I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show. Lombard’s films are now almost a century old, but much like Ball, there’s an unmistakable modern quality to her screen persona. Lombard’s characters were vivacious and charismatic, and the anxiousness that I described earlier is almost like a spark of electricity, crackling with the intensity of a lightning bolt.

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At age thirty-three, Carole Lombard had many unfulfilled goals, the likes of which we can barely comprehend. She reached a level of fame and success that few in her profession will ever achieve, but she continued to challenge herself professionally. 1937 marked a high point in her career: she was the highest paid actor in Hollywood (raking in a whopping $465,000), and one of the first actors to embark on a freelance career. Freelancing gave Lombard the freedom to sign short-term contracts with the studios and producers of her choosing including Warner Brothers, RKO, and Selznick International. At a time when Lombard was growing tired of screwball and feared typecasting, these freelance deals allowed her to transition away from comedy into other avenues. She dipped her toes in melodrama with such films as Made for Each Other (Cromwell, 1939), In Name Only (Cromwell, 1939), They Knew What They Wanted (Kanin, 1940), and Vigil in the Night (Stevens, 1940), and challenged herself to become a more versatile actress. Lombard’s freelance career also tested her business acumen: she was the first Hollywood star to include profit participation deals in her studio contracts (in which she took a reduced salary in exchange for a percentage of her films’ box office grosses), paving the way for other actors to receive equitable compensation. Lombard, along with her contemporaries like Miriam Hopkins and Janet Gaynor, fundamentally improved the conditions of star labor in the studio system because of their groundbreaking freelance deals.

At the time of Lombard’s death she was nearing what is considered a transitional period for classical Hollywood-era actresses. It’s futile to speculate how she would have dealt with aging and all of the barriers that her peers had to face as they grew older. Would she have continued acting? Or would she have shifted gears into another area of the industry, perhaps leaning into her natural affinity for business? If her lifelong dream of motherhood had come true, would she have retired from the screen to raise a family with her second husband, Clark Gable? No one knows for sure. Lombard had a wise, almost ironic perspective about aging. She once said:

I don’t know of anything in the world more beautiful, more fascinating than a woman ripe with years, rich and lush as velvet with experience, her humor as tangy and flavorous as sunripened fruit…I LOVE the idea of getting old…(Hall 1938, pg. 68).

The cruelty of fate did not allow Lombard to reach her ripe years. However, she made quite an impression in her all-too-short life, and left us with a diverse body of film and radio work that keeps her alive. From slapstick to screwball comedy to melodrama, Lombard’s career touched every major Hollywood studio and nearly all genres. While she is best known for her screwball comedies, to only call her a screwball actress would be a disservice to the chameleon-like evolution of her career and star persona. In a 1938 interview with columnist Gladys Hall, Lombard was asked about her future and she said: “I love everything I do and give everything I’ve got to whatever I’m doing. But I do not go about clutching my career to an otherwise naked bosom….I’d go on living, and still love it…life is too abundant. There are too many things to want to do, to have, to get, to love, to find out about…(Hall 1938, 68). Lombard packed a lot of living into her thirty-three years. As time passes and her story becomes further enshrined in Hollywood’s history, I hope that we never lose sight of her trail-blazing independence, bright spirit, and limitless curiosity.

WORKS CITED

Ball, Lucille. Love, Lucy. New York: Berkeley Boulevard, 1997.

Hall, Gladys. “Lombard – As She Sees Herself.” Motion Picture, November 1938. 34-35, 66-68.

Jenkins, Henry. What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. New York: Columbia University, 1992.

Kiriakou, Olympia. Becoming Carole Lombard: Stardom, Comedy, and Performance. New York: Bloomsbury, 2020.

Kiriakou, Olympia. “Notebook Primer: Screwball Comedy.” Mubi, January 6, 2022. Available at: https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/notebook-primer-screwball-comedy

Remembering Carole Lombard (2024)
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