Carole Lombard

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domino harvey
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Carole Lombard

#1 Post by domino harvey » Tue Aug 21, 2018 12:25 am

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CAROLE LOMBARD
A COMPLETE ANNOTATED SOUND FILMOGRAPHY


The following is a film-by-film guide for all forty-two sound features made by Carole Lombard between 1929 and her death in 1942, with home viewing availability provided alongside writeups and some general commentary on the evolution of her screen image. All films were watched or rewatched expressly for this guide in chronological order.


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High Voltage (Howard Higgin 1929)

A bounty hunter is taking in a tough-talking female outlaw via coach when a snowstorm strands the pair and other passengers in an abandoned building where tensions flare as they wait for the storm to pass… hmm… Yes, it sounds familiar, but I’m not sure we can chalk this up to Tarantino ever having seen it, as I suspect plenty of bad plays and stories have the same set up. This one isn’t half bad, even though as an early talkie everyone talks slow and over-enunciates, and the ludicrous ending shows that despite their reputation, Pre Code films didn’t need the Hays Office to end their films with unconvincing moral fortitude. What’s most interesting here is that Lombard’s performance more closely resembles the tone and vocal spirit of her later career as opposed to the bland perfs she’ll go on to do for several years on-screen once she signs to Paramount in 1930, indicating that Paramount acting-coached the Carole Lombard out of Carole Lombard once they signed her. (R1 Public Domain)


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Big News (Gregory La Cava 1929)
Newspaperman Robert Armstrong is sure a local speakeasy owner is running a dope ring, gets fired, gets rehired, gets framed for murder, solves murder, the end. Utterly standard issue newspaper drama from start to finish. Lombard (still billed as “Carol,” as she will be until her Paramount years) is given the first of what will be many thankless female lead roles as Armstrong’s wife that calls upon her to do literally nothing but show up, nag a little, and then exit. Director La Cava shows as little promise here as Lombard, though both will go on to great success in the next decade, including together with My Man Godfrey. (R1 Public Domain)


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the Racketeer (Howard Higgin 1929)
Robert Armstrong and Lombard team up again and sparks continue to not fly in this tale of a hoodlum who takes a shine to a down on her luck dame, going so far as to cover for her cheating at cards at a charity Monte Carlo Night, in what is charitably the best scene of the film. Future gossip columnist Hedda Hopper has a minor part as one of the socialites at the fundraiser— somehow I don’t think she rode into her column on the reputation of this horse. (R1 Public Domain)


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the Arizona Kid (Alfred Santell 1930)
Filmed by Lombard for Fox between her Pathe and Paramount contracts, this is a sequel to In Old Arizona, the inexplicable Oscar nominee for Best Picture from the previous year’s ceremonies and even more inexplicable winner of Best Actor for Warner Baxter, who returns to the role of the Cisco Kid here. Or, so the internet believes, at least. But having actually tracked down a copy of this rare film, I can tell you that Baxter actually plays the titular Arizona Kid. What differentiates the two characters? Well, a lot. For instance, the Cisco Kid is called the Cisco Kid, and the Arizona Kid is called the Arizona Kid. And that concludes our extensive three-week course. Here Baxter is tempted by the feminine wiles of Lombard as the sister of a no-good baddie. I kinda liked In Old Arizona even if its Oscar bonafides are sketchy, but it is the Apartment next to this programmer. (No commercial release)


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Safety in Numbers (Victor Schertzinger 1930)
Buddy Rogers is sent to New York City by his rich uncle so that he may learn the ways of the world before he inherits millions on his 21st birthday. To adult him up, the uncle hires three loose women to prepare the kid for his new life, reasoning that hiring three women will provide the titular protection against one of them falling for him. No such luck. This is truly awful in the way so many early talkies are, unfunny and underwritten, with little to no visual instincts. Lombard as one of the trio is given no more to do than any of the other cast members, though special demerits are awarded to Louise Beavers, who plays her first scenes as the ladies’ maid in imitation of Stepin Fetchit. Confusingly, this vocal inflection is not present for the rest of the movie. Thank God for small miracles. There are songs here, but I couldn’t have hummed them even while they were being performed, much less after. (No commercial release)


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Fast and Loose (Fred C. Newmeyer 1930)
Miriam Hopkins is the rich heiress wildcat who takes a shine to no nonsense mechanic Charles Starrett in this rather dreadful romantic comedy that nicely disputes any claims on Pre Code films being more empowering for women. Starrett repeatedly insults Hopkins and all women, which of course makes him oh so charming compared to the dandies she’s used to dealing with. Vom. Hopkins’ brother is also courting a Good One in Carole Lombard’s limp fish chorus girl, who is so upstanding and pure that no one could ever dislike her. IE she’s boring and I dislike her. Frank Morgan takes over infantilism duties from Starrett in the finale when he treats his daughter Hopkins like a spoiled toddler. Great. Hopkins is fun in anything, but that’s by definition no defense of this. Preston Sturges is credited with writing the dialog, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the actors merely incorrectly relayed good lines. (No commercial release)


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It Pays to Advertise (Frank Tuttle 1931)
Lombard’s third movie in a row about a spoiled rich kid getting the heave-ho from his paterfamilias, this one is slightly better at least than those that preceded it. Lombard is still saddled with a wet sack nothing role as the duplicitous personal secretary of soap magnate Eugene Pallette. Pallette’s n’er-do-well son sets off on his own to make a competing soap, and learns the value of advertising in the sole bright spot of the film. In a sequence that acts as an inadvertent time capsule, Skeets Gallagher impresses upon the boy the need for advertising by identifying by name at least two dozen products and their ad slogans, nearly all of which have come and gone (some due to fashion changes, like Arrow shirt collars, others to changing social needs, as in the send-away course for curation of wallflower status). It’s a moment that could very well have inspired Jimmy James’ memorable pro-advertising tirade six and a half decades later. The rest of the film is unfortunately a different kind of time capsule. While punchier and better-made than the last couple movies, this is still a slapdash assembly of half-realized ideas. Of some additional note: Louise Brooks, already in career freefall, has a nothing cameo at the beginning as an absconding chorus girl. (No commercial release)


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Man of the World (Richard Wallace 1931)
William Powell blackmails rich Americans in Paris but falls in love with the daughter of one of his marks. Lombard and Powell exhibit little in the way of on-screen charisma, but I guess enough was cooking behind the scenes for them to get wed. This is such a bland and inoffensive bit of nothing that fails to wring much comedy or drama from the decent premise. The downbeat ending is perhaps the only thing of some minor interest here. (R1 Universal, Carole Lombard: the Glamour Collection)


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Ladies’ Man (Lothar Mendes 1931)
William Powell plays yet another charmant gadabout seducing rich women. For the first time, Lombard, as the daughter of one of his targets who also wants him, exhibits more than a hint at liveliness on-screen. Too much, I think. A drunk scene is hard to do well, and Lombard is saddled with a doozy that she has no chance of pulling off at this stage in her career. What Lombard and later Kay Francis see in Powell’s character is a complete mystery, as he’s not even an interesting lothario. Francis’ character plays at being the one gal who won’t give in to his attack, but then turns on a dime for no reason and wants to marry him? Whatever. (No commercial release)


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Up Pops the Devil (A Edward Sutherland 1931)
This project has been a real learning experience. Like, going into it, I knew no Carole Lombard film could possibly be worse than True Confession. But then Up Pops the Devil goes, “Hey, I exist. And I am one of the most annoying movies ever made. Here, let me grate on you.” Chorus girl Lombard has such faith in her husband’s untapped potential as a writer that she induces him to quit his job and let her support them both full time. What follows is standard issue Mr Mom garbage where the man can’t do housework for shit and feels emasculated. Whiny, hateful, spiteful, obnoxious, sexist, and fully lacking in wit for an alleged brilliant wordsmith… I am struggling to think of a character I have ever liked less than Lombard’s husband Norman Foster. I mentioned above re: Fast and Loose that Pre Codes have a false reputation for being progressive with regards to gender roles. CC that to this movie times a billion. If there’s even been a more infuriatingly regressive, barefoot and pregnant bolstering bullshit movie than this, let me know so I can make sure I never see it. (No commercial release, and with any luck I will be the last person who ever sees this movie before it disappears from existence all together)


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I Take This Woman (Marion Gering 1931)
Yet another idle rich brat movie, only this time Lombard finally gets to play the baddie who needs reformin’. Lombard is sent away to a ranch to stay out of trouble and decides to pretend to fall for Gary Cooper’s cowhand, only to actually fall for and marry the big lug. This leads to the only amusing moment of the film, in which the justice of the peace looks up from filling out his marriage certificate at the two lovebirds mushily praising each other and says to himself, “White, I guess.” But though the set-up is rife for the kind of antics screwball comedies would soon be exploiting, this is a drama and a dreadful one. Lombard is cooped up in a shack, denied every pleasure in sacrifice for Cooper’s ranching aspirations, and when she finally flees and it looks like we might at least be getting a reversal of outsider/insider a la Theodora Goes Wild, the film pulls its punches and lets him gain moral high-ground he hasn’t earned. (No commercial release)

There are brief hints at liveliness in Lombard’s performances in some of these early films, but she is still tethered to deadweight roles and perfs that gives little indication of Lombard’s gifts as a comedienne. Is it the fault of Paramount for repeatedly casting her in these turgid dogs, or was she frankly just not a very good actress and not a particularly charming or interesting on-screen presence at this point of her career? Both, I reckon.


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No One Man (Lloyd Corrigan 1932)
Lombard’s first top-billed film, this dull trifle concerns a flighty rich woman who goes to the justice of the peace to get married to one man but ends up marrying another who comes to change her mind. Her new husband continues to romance the same society dame he was smooching on already and complications, I don’t know, do they ensue? More like trickle by, I reckon. Appearing at the top of the listed cast for this movie was probably like winning a dead cat in the lottery. (No commercial release)


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Sinners in the Sun (Alexander Hall 1932)
Well, quite a title considering I don’t recall any sun or sinning in this film about two lovers, Lombard and Chester Morris, who break up because Lombard wants a ritzy life that Morris’ mechanic can’t give her. Through the usual twists of fate both end up attached to rich folks and learn that all the money in the world can’t buy true love. Vom, again. I get why this kind of narrative was popular at the time as a reinforcement of poverty, but it doesn’t make it any less trite. The finale to this is almost as nonsensical as the title, as Lombard recognizes Morris when his dog bursts into her sweatshop. At no point in the film did we ever see or hear about this dog. Furthermore, why would Morris have brought his dog into an upper level floor of an office building when he was there to convince a businessman to buy a truck? Of minor note is Cary Grant in an early appearance in the small role of a rake who hits on Lombard after her rich dude dumps her. It’s telling that Universal put out a DVD box set of 18 Cary Grant movies released between 1932 and 1936 and they still didn’t bother to include this one! (No commercial release)


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Virtue (Edward Buzzell 1932)
Lombard is a former prostitute who marries cabdriver Pat O’Brien without telling him about her past. A series of dumb plot points is then enacted by the two as they cycle through a variety of idiot plot mainstays that would be quickly solved by two people talking to each other. This made its way into a DVD release in TCM’s collection of Columbia Pre Code films due to the subject matter, but outside of a nasty scene in which a heavy slashes the leg of his girlfriend with a penknife it is less concerned with getting the audience clutching their pearls than inviting them to sit witness to dumb melodramatic narrative crutches that weren’t fresh in 1932 and haven’t gotten any less ripe since. (R1 Sony MOD DVD-R [initially pressed], Columbia Pictures Pre-Code Collection)


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No More Orchids (Walter Lang 1932)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Spoiled rich brat wants to settle down with their just folks partner, but faces oppressive forces from other wealthy folks. So, I’ve already seen this movie like a dozen times already just in viewings for this writeup alone, and I can’t be bothered to be too invested one way or the other at this point. I reckon there are only two reasons to talk about this movie. One is that, for the first act at least, this is the first time on-screen that Lombard actually presents the unflappable daffy dame persona that will mark her best comic works. Unfortunately the script does not give her a single funny thing to do or say and devolves into dour melodrama in its last two acts, but after almost a dozen movies where Lombard is indistinguishable from any other blonde contract player, it’s nice to finally see the hint of things yet to come. The second is a spoiler for the movie, not that I imagine anyone is going to watch it, but still:
SpoilerShow
Putting aside that Walter Connolly killing himself instead of being arrested is nonsensical and selfishness presented as selflessness (reminding me of my comments on Stella Dallas), boy does it also have the unintended effect of leaving an extra sour taste given that Connolly decides to crash his plane into a mountain, an end eventually shared by Lombard in real life a decade later. Yikes!
(R1 Sony MOD DVD-R [initially pressed], Carole Lombard in the 30s)


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No Man of Her Own (Wesley Ruggles 1932)
Clark Gable and Lombard appear in their own film together, made several years before they started their relationship. Sparks don’t exactly fly, but it’s a decent enough example of disposable Hollywood fluff. Cardsharp Gable falls for Lombard’s small town gal and marries her without telling her what he does. She figures it out, he goes straight, everyone is happy. Watching these in chronological order means I’m now grasping at straws by praising mediocrity as some great achievement, but I must dutifully report that I was thankful for this film not being awful all the same. Still, I had forgotten every second of this from the first time I saw it, and I imagine I’ll be well on my way to forgetting it a second time by the time I post this writeup. I doubt there will ever be a third viewing, but then again, I doubt I thought there’d be a second… (R1 Universal)


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From Hell to Heaven (Erie C Kenton 1933)
An assortment of characters congregate in a hotel in advance of a horse race, each one depending on a different horse to come through for various compelling reasons. So this is basically Grand Hotel if Grand Hotel were less than an hour long, had two minor stars instead of a cast full of them, and sucked. Lombard is top-billed but is on-screen maybe three minutes in a real gross storyline as a woman who agrees to sleep with her bookie if her horse doesn’t come through. Jack Oakie is the only other name here and he has some mildly amusing musical numbers that are intentionally awful. This film throws so much at the wall that unexpectedly one of the characters given the most memorable storylines is the standard issue black comic relief figure who comes up with an amusing plan to literally hedge his bets. Films like this where we’re introduced to characters who all want different things can work because it plays with audience investment. But the ones I can think of that pull it off— Three Secrets, A Letter to Three Wives— are A Pictures with talent behind and in-front of the screen. This is just Paramount filming a sketch of an idea to utilize a bunch of contract actors during some downtime. (No commercial release)


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Supernatural (Victor Halperin 1933)
Lombard is contacted by a phony medium after the death of her brother, but little does the spiritualist know that his mark has been taken over by the ghost of a serial killing woman whom he once aided in her crimes. If that description alone doesn’t tell you this is a hoot, then surely the film opening with quotes about the living dead from Confucius, Mohammad, and the Bible, followed by a prison warden sincerely uttering the line, “Now doctor, just because you’re supposed to have psychic powers—“ will convince you? This is stylish silliness, and that could also be how to describe the sight of Randolph Scott going everywhere in this movie in a tux. I didn’t care much for Halperin’s much-lauded White Zombie, but this was a lot of fun. (R1 Universal MOD DVD-R)


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the Eagle and the Hawk (Stuart Walker and Mitchell Leisen 1933)
Cocky flyboy Fredric March quickly realizes the horrors of WWI when his observers keep dying. Hothead observer Cary Grant thinks March is too soft, but he too soon learns the facts of war. March makes a good faith effort to elevate this thin collection of war cliches, but it’s of no consequence. Lombard’s inclusion in the movie is a real joke: this is not a narrative that allows for romance or a significant female role, so the producers have March go on leave late in the film. While at a party, Lombard’s unnamed character (billed only as “the Beautiful Lady” in the credits) hits on March for no reason and sits in a park drinking champagne with him for the sole purpose of looking at him with wet eyes while he talks about how war is hell. Like Lombard in From Hell to Heaven, this is what two days’ work looks like. (R1 Universal, Cary Grant: the Vault Collection)


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Brief Moment (David Burton 1933)
Rich playboy settles down with a nice chorus girl who wants him to stop his boozy bad boy antics and complications ensue. No, you didn’t accidentally scroll back up, it’s the same goddamn plot yet again. What more can I possibly say about the nth variation on this story other than confirming that it exists, it was mercifully short, and that it is now yet another mediocre film I’ve seen twice thanks to this project? (R1 Sony MOD DVD-R [initially pressed], Carole Lombard in the 30s)


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White Woman (Stuart Walker 1933)
Outcast torch singer Lombard is ostracized by the “good” citizens of a jungle plantation for daring to perform in native clubs as the titular figure, and for driving her husband to allegedly kill himself over her behavior. Yes, a movie called White Woman is attempting to say something about discrimination while still making sure Lombard is clear in her disgust at “having” to perform in a place that serves indigenous peoples. But luckily the film gets that nonsense out of its system in the first reel and what’s left is terrific: a notorious “King of the River,” Charles Laughton (sporting the single greatest mustache in film history), marries Lombard and takes her back to his vast kingdom. There she falls in love with one of the many fugitive criminals hiding out in the green hell. Laughton’s approach to this insult is the same as everything: bemused geniality ending with a reminder that anyone who fucks with him is dead. And he follows through, even to the point of treating the audience late in the film to the unforgettable image of him chasing a pet chimpanzee with a pistol! Laughton is just wonderful here, and even though the film is structured in a way that leans heavily on just more or less remaking the Island of Doctor Moreau, I think this film is far, far superior. The last act brings in Charles Bickford as the only man imaginable who can intimidate Laughton, and the two have great scenes of back and forth lobbing threats and insults in such strange good spirits that it’s almost as much a love story for them as for Lombard and the dopey criminal she falls for. The last five minutes of this film are perfect in their fashion, building tension and letting Laughton have a giddily bizarre final speech delivered with visual wit and imagination. A film this good will never be widely seen due to its title and politics, but it should be. (R1 Universal MOD DVD-R)

And so, with two more years passed, let’s check in again on Lombard’s career. Even when she’s in the rare good movie (Supernatural, White Woman), the success of the film lies outside of what little she brings to it. According to James Robert Parish, Paramount saw her as little more than a “walking clotheshorse,” and the thankless roles she was constantly saddled with confirm it. Was her increased screen presence in these last two years due to audiences responding to this kind of empty chic prettiness, like a proto-Grace Kelly, or was it more that her high profile marriage to William Powell led to audiences just now knowing who she was and going to see what was familiar on the poster outside?


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Bolero (Wesley Ruggles 1934)
Hoofer George Raft dances with women, dies. When you think dancing powerhouses, you probably don’t picture Raft. And for good reason. Though like fellow onscreen tough guy James Cagney he actually had a background in dance, Raft lacks the charm Cagney naturally exudes doing anything. Raft in fact lacks anything anyone could find appealing in any star. While I don’t necessarily buy Raft as a dancer, I do buy him as this dancer behind the scenes, an asshole who climbs the dance world by discarding female partners until falling for Lombard. Lombard’s role in the film seems to consist of proving to the audience that she wasn’t wearing a bra and filming some competent close shots of her dancing while the stunt double handled the hard parts. For the millionth time in her career, Lombard is essentially saddled with hanging around and looking pretty while being annoyingly noble (which is especially toothless when the film sets her up as a gold digger). Minor bonus points awarded to the mustache of Lombard’s suitor, Ray(mond) Milland, which is somehow only the second most-ridiculous mustache in a Carole Lombard film. (No commercial release)


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We’re Not Dressing (Norman Taurog 1934)
Oh my God. Richie needs poorie to correct their spoiled wanton ways and settle down. AGAIN. Lombard enlists sailor Bing Crosby to babysit her pet bear aboard her yacht. When the boat sinks, Crosby and Lombard end up on a desert island along with, amazingly enough, all of Lombard’s associates, including Ray(mond) Milland as a predatory suitor and Gracie and Allen as Gracie and Allen. The movie is dumb but cute for most of the running time, with surprisingly decent songs and some enjoyable embarrassment visible from everyone involved. However, the last act takes a right turn into hell with one of the most ill-advised “gags” I’ve ever seen in a Hollywood film: Crosby discovers Lombard prolonged their time roughing it on the island and in a fury he takes her against her will, ties her against a post, and tells her he’s going to have his way with her. This is the “funny” exchange that occurs while he’s dragging her writhing body up to the post:
Lombard: I suppose a fate worse than death awaits me
Crosby: How do you know it’s worse than death, you never been dead have you?
Ah, actual rape jokes, definitely something a lightweight musical comedy with a rollerskating bear in it needs. (R1 Universal, Carole Lombard: the Glamour Collection)


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Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks 1934)
Theatrical hams John Barrymore and Carole Lombard backbite and fight and show that all the world’s a stage for those with the myopia to not see beyond their own l’amour fou. It doesn’t take having seen Lombard’s entire filmography to appreciate her performance in this film, but let me tell you, after watching her entire output in chronological order, to see what she does here after 23 bodies of evidence arguing on the whole that she is, frankly, a bad actress with limited screen presence, is astonishing. The film plays with audience expectations of Lombard’s abilities in its structure, with Lombard’s lost little babe perf in the first fifteen minutes more or less indistinguishable from her previous straight work onscreen. But just as Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe molds Lombard’s character into Lily Garland, Hawks molds Lombard into Carole Lombard, redefining her screen presence and abilities. It’s astonishing, and testament to Hawks’ own Svengali abilities to take a naif performer and wring a great performance out of them. I already loved this film going into this Quixotic viewing project, but I have new appreciation for just how skillful a film it is, and especially for how Lombard’s flamboyant all-in approach is literally nowhere to be found in her prior work. I’d love to say audiences came in droves to see Lombard’s new tricks, but like Hawks’ later screwball masterpiece Bringing Up Baby, the film bombed, and most audiences would only gradually realize the change in Lombard’s abilities by seeing the residual effect in later works. (R1 Sony)


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Now and Forever (Henry Hathaway 1934)
Conman Gary Cooper nixes selling his estranged daughter Shirley Temple after meeting and falling for her. But he’s not much of a father figure on his own. Cooper’s wife Lombard helps some, but it takes… shooting a man to death and taking a bullet himself to see how best to provide for Temple. Oh-kay… I don’t find Temple charming, and like the popularity of Deena Durbin, her career as a star is inexplicable to me. I’ve enjoyed other Temple movies (though not this one), but certainly I would rather eat glass than participate in a complete viewing of Temple’s works. Lombard here is her usual dead weight in the same kind of Paramount-dictated nothing roles she was always getting. Cooper however is as lively as I’ve ever seen him, and whatever small charms are present in the film are thanks to him, not the moppet. (R1 Universal the Shirley Temple Little Darling Pack)


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Lady by Choice (David Burton 1934)
Well, Lombard is given the opportunity to present herself with spunk again in the wake of Twentieth Century, but it’s at the service of an unfunny comedy about a fan dancer who decides to “adopt” an old woman to be her mother as a publicity stunt. That’s a promising premise, but it never has a chance thanks to May Robson’s grating perf. I enjoyed her in Lady For a Day, but she’s just annoying here (and then later, once she sobers up, boring). The film devolves into melodrama as so many of these films do, and the finale finds Walter Connolly’s judge offering Lombard the option of either marrying her boyfriend or going to jail for a year, which is somehow still not in the top ten of dumb things I’ve seen in a screwball comedy. (R1 Sony MOD DVD-R [initially pressed], Carole Lombard in the 30s)


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the Gay Bride (Jack Conway 1934)
Lombard plays musical chairs with spouses, going from gangster husband to gangster husband as each beau winds up getting killed in assorted gangstery ways. This is a decent bad taste premise, but the film is populated by some extremely annoying actors, especially Chester Morris as Lombard’s ultimate mate (though like being a drummer for Spinal Tap, you’d think he’d say no), and it is not funny for a single second. MGM went through the trouble of borrowing Lombard from Paramount, but who knows why anyone would exert that kind of extra effort to get this movie made. (R1 Warner Archives MOD DVD-R)


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Rumba (Marion Gering 1935)
A hoofer “discovers” the Rumba and brings it to the white masses to great acclaim and death threats. George Raft and Lombard back together again after the popular success of Bolero, which can be added to the list of reasons not to look at ticket sales as a metric of quality. This effort is at least a little more stylish, with a couple brief but amusing montages and an imaginative preamble to the big finale number that features a sequence involving singing and dancing black slaves chained together that is so galling in its lack of taste that I was suitably impressed at how offensive it would be in any era. Lombard is still given absolutely nothing to do by Paramount, even when Columbia and MGM have by this point already shown a willingness to cast her in punchy comic roles in the wake of Twentieth Century. Raft as ever looks like a rat and is as unpleasant as one onscreen. (No commercial release)


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Hands Across the Table (Mitchell Leisen 1935)
Paramount finally gets a clue and lets Lombard cut loose… as second-banana to Fred MacMurray’s insufferable cute act. It was seeing MacMurray in tripe like this and True Confession and Too Many Husbands during my screwball binge a few years back that turned me against him in a way that will never be undone, and of course now I am stuck with watching and rewatching four of his films thanks to this brilliant idea of mine. Beyond the plot of how MacMurray and Lombard both want to marry into wealth but end up falling for each other is a bizarrely ill-conceived b-story involving Ralph Bellamy as a crippled client of Lombard’s manicurist who is deeply in love with Lombard, in part because she doesn’t treat him with kid gloves due to his handicap. Imagine a romantic comedy with these two characters— what a fresh take that would be for a film from this era to not treat Bellamy with kid gloves either and let him be a romantic lead! But instead we get this stale tosh built around MacMurray being as annoying as possible and selling it as totes adorbs. That the coup de grace is delivered in Bellamy’s bedroom while he’s only allowed to sit there and take seeing these two run off to get married is just jaw-dropping, and perhaps in a better version of this movie I would be inclined to think the film has something to say about its ostensible protagonists. But it doesn’t, it thinks this is fine. (R1 Universal, Carole Lombard: the Glamour Collection)


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Love Before Breakfast (Walter Lang 1936)
Universal borrows Lombard for a true screwball vehicle and she brings along Ted Tetzlaff, who in large part is responsible for Lombard’s “look” in this era, from Paramount to film her, so it doesn’t look too much different than her Paramount vehicles. And like those, this one is a mess. Unlike those, it is a fascinating mess, though. I’ve heard it joked before that some behaviors in romantic comedies would be criminal in real life, but this is the first one I’ve seen where you legit wouldn’t have to change a thing about the script other than the on-screen tone to make it a horror movie about an abusive man who pursues, wears down, and then emotionally abuses his victim. It is a spectacularly tasteless and mortifying film, one hinging on the idea that no matter what the disinterested Lombard does, Preston Foster’s rich pursuer will find her and use his influence and wealth to do what he wants. It’s grim, as is the film’s most notable extended gag involving Foster punching Lombard in the face, giving her a black eye. The studio actually based their key art around this image, and it’s one of the most striking movie posters of the period:

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But the scene is not funny. The following year’s Nothing Sacred will also feature a gag involving the male lead punching Lombard, and it is funny there because the joke is Lombard and Fredric March both get their licks in and neither necessarily wants to do it. Here the joke is that it’s funny Lombard got hit and Foster is glad he did it. That said, Love Before Breakfast is so wrongheaded in such an interesting way that at some point I had to admit I was… enjoying it? I don’t know, I can’t justify it on any level, but I think shock somehow carried over to a perverse legitimate interest. Maybe this movie manipulated me too. (R1 Universal, Carole Lombard: the Glamour Collection)


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the Princess Comes Across (William K Howard 1936)
Lombard’s Swedish princess boards a ship bound for New York and her new movie career. Along the way she gets swept up in a murder mystery and a romance with Fred MacMurray’s concertinaist, a word I’ve certainly never typed, said, or thought before. I had a big chuckle at Lombard’s Garbo impression here— not because it’s particularly funny (it is amusing, but it’s also the same joke sounded over and over for the whole movie), but because not only is Paramount still hesitant to let Lombard be a freewheeling ball of energy, but now they even make her slow down to Garbo-speed! The murder mystery here is better than expected, and the film is handsomely made enough to distract you from realizing this comedy isn’t particularly funny. (R1 Universal, Carole Lombard: the Glamour Collection)


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My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava 1936)
Lombard scored her only Oscar nomination for her most inspired performance as the daffily infantilized rich girl who hires “forgotten man” William Powell to be her family’s butler. This is a Universal picture but as I’ve already noted, due to Lombard taking cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff with her on her studio loan-outs, many of her non-Paramount pictures from this period nevertheless have a unified look and provide a cohesive filmic image. However, it’s never hard to spot the difference between a Paramount job and one for another studio due to what Lombard is allowed to do. And here she is given the opportunity after thirty or so performances in other movies to form a new approach different from anything she’s done yet but also in spirit with her best work thus far. It’s a funny perf not because she’s playing a childish brat— anyone would could do that, and many actors make a career on it— but because of her approach to such a character and what easy notes she doesn’t hit. It’s inspired how she uses her physicality to sell the role: the way she walks around with gangly body language like a preteen who hasn’t figured out how to grow into her new body, how she leads with her chin like a child so she is looking upwards, how she floats from place to place with the unaware etherial grace that we all lose as we get older. It’s a great performance on its own, but seeing it in chronological order with Lombard’s other work makes it clear just how good she is in comparison to the kinds of things Lombard was usually tasked with doing by Paramount. (R1/A Criterion / Public Domain)


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Swing High, Swing Low (Mitchell Leisen 1937)
Trumpeter Fred MacMurray and Lombard fall in love in Panama and work in clubs til MacMurray finds and loses success to alcoholism. I knew I was in trouble when one of the first gags in this movie was Lombard leaving a beauty shop client in curlers for too long, which causes the woman’s hair to dry up into dreadlocks that when coupled with her mud mask made her look like a blackface performer out of vaudeville. Hilarious? Admittedly I am not impartial, but MacMurray’s character is such a self-furthering piece of shit in the last act that I could not possibly care about him finding redemption, and felt nothing but pity for poor Lombard having to stick by her man due to the necessities of the hackneyed narrative. A relative lowpoint from this period for Lombard, but one soon to be topped by her next matchup with MacMurray… (R1 Public Domain)


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Nothing Sacred (William A Wellman 1937)
Lombard goes to work for Selznick in her only color film, a screwball staple due in part to its public domain status. But while this may not be as consistently funny as it could be, it is at heart one of the most deeply cynical films Hollywood ever turned out, a story in which every character is complicit in printing the legend for their own gain and the movie lets them all get away with it! The film mocks everyone at all stages, from how everyone falls over themselves to feel sorry for an emblem of bad luck in Lombard’s allegedly dying Hazel Flagg to the perpetrators, both intentional and ignorant, of the myth-making and to those profiting from the tragedy during and after. It’s a self-feeding circle and some moments are so dark, as when the fake sultan sneaks into Lombard’s room with an empty flower box to collect a bouquet for his wife from all the well-wishers and discovers Lombard’s suicide note, that the laughs feel bigger for their audacity. On revisiting this time, I also enjoyed how the first act goes out of its way to undermine the usual studio era Hollywood practice of romanticizing small town life by painting Lombard’s Vermont burg as an impossibly stifling and overbearing bore. No wonder this bombed on first release, it literally attacks every single member of its (would-be) audience! (R1/A Kino / Public Domain)


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True Confession (Wesley Ruggles 1937)
Lombard’s stay at home wife wants to get a job since husband Frank MacMurray’s lawyer gig isn’t netting much business given his refusal to defend guilty clients. Lombard inadvertently accepts an offer to be a rich man’s kept woman, refuses the man’s advances, and later finds herself charged with the man’s murder. The “joke” of the film is that Lombard habitually lies about everything, so when she realizes she has a better chance of getting off and making her husband successful, she falsely admits to the murder as an act of self defense. I think there is no character trait more annoying than sanctimony, and unfortunately that is MacMurray’s sole attribute in this film as he hammers over and over on an anvil of grating superiority to his wife for the length of the picture. I would much rather have seen a version of this movie where Lombard kills her husband just before the picture started, reducing MacMurray’s role to perhaps a picture in the newspaper, tops. John Barrymore turns up late in the film in a weird role as an eccentric criminologist with a habit of playing with balloons in social settings, but like Lombard he gives a game performance with weak material. To the studio’s credit, Paramount uncharacteristically let Lombard loose on this, and she’s game fun, but to their demerit it’s at the service of one of the stupidest movie plots in the history of the medium. (R1 Universal, Carole Lombard: the Glamour Collection)

The star system worked for Lombard in that enabled her to have successful career and she toplined plenty of movies for Paramount. But the studio hobbled her reach by placing her in an endless string of bad movies, or good movies in which her performances was immaterial to the film’s success. The enduring image we have of Lombard as a gifted and screwy comic actress is one formed by only a few pieces of evidence (Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey, Nothing Sacred, and perhaps a couple others depending on who you ask), and there’s a reason these endure as her most popular films: they’re well-written and directed, actually funny, and Lombard is allowed to tap into internal reserves to deliver in ways she almost never is called upon to do elsewhere. Imagine a world in which she was signed to Universal, Columbia, or MGM (the Gay Bride may have been awful, but it at least seemed to understand how to use Lombard) instead of just loaned out. We might be left with a dozen more pieces of evidence in favor of her greatness rather than merely a handful of select works.


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Fools For Scandal (Mervyn LeRoy 1938)
I knew going in that this film allegedly was so bad that it caused Lombard to not make another comedy for three years, but I was still skeptical. I’ve already sat through some truly lousy movies, many of which should have caused Lombard to do some soul searching about her screen image. A screwball comedy concerning Lombard’s movie star meeting an out of work chef and hiring him to be her cook in a move that somehow causes a scandal could, I guess, hypothetically be funny. But we don’t have to deal in hypotheticals and watching his movie is like slowly realizing you are being poisoned to death and being forced to keep taking swigs from the canter. We’re in trouble from the beginning when Lombard shows up as a brunette (which thankfully is later revealed to be a disguise) and the film doesn’t even have fun with such a radical alteration of Lombard’s screen persona— outside of this, Lombard only appeared onscreen as a blonde. Imagine how a movie could use such a radical change to its advantage. Now instead, just forget about it, whatever, because this film does.

But Lombard and/or her hair is not even remotely the problem here. It’s that she shares top billing with Fernand Gravet. And if you’re like me, your reaction to that is: Who the fuck is Fernand Gravet and why does he share top billing with Carole Lombard? Well, Gravet (né Gravey) was Warners’ then-recent unsuccessful French acquisition and based on his work here, I hope they at least got a tax write-off out of his contract. Screwball comedies frequently have cruel characters and unsympathetic protagonists, but Gravet’s chef is by far the most loathsome, unlikable, and straight-up annoying character I’ve ever seen in one of these movies. There is a long “comic” set piece near the end of this film involving Gravet serving several courses to Lombard and her would-be fiance Ralph Bellamy that is jaw-dropping in its misjudgment of audience sympathies. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like it, it is so wrong in assuming the stacked rudeness and frustrations would endear an audience to the inflictor and not align us with the victim. Bellamy made a great career out of playing Baxters but here he’s just shit on and mocked for no good reason. How did anyone making this at any point in production not stop and realize what they were doing? I admittedly wondered who Gravet was when the film opened, but I certainly went out of my way to look his work up after… so I never have to see anything else he’s in ever again. No wonder Warners cut him loose after this. To add to the general indignity, this was Lombard’s first and last film for Warner Brothers and her last to be shot by Ted Tetzlaff, again loaned out as a courtesy to Lombard. Not a high note for anyone involved to go out on. (No commercial release)


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Made For Each Other (John Cromwell 1939)
Lombard is back with Selznick and knee-deep in schmaltz in this melodrama about plucky lawyer James Stewart and his sudden marriage to Lombard, which starts the new family down a path of gradual declining fortunes as a baby enters the picture and eventually gets sick. Oppressed lovers is a standby of all dramatic branches, but the aggressive and endless indignities Lombard and Stewart suffer exist on a plane of pure contrivance. The movie is an endless series of shrill, stress-inducing situations that exist solely for the couple to be happy at the end even though nothing has changed. This is callous audience manipulation that comes from a dark but honest place: the filmmakers know many people with hard lives go to the movies for escapism and entertainment, and that reinforcing an ultimate joy that comes from struggle is cathartic for viewers undergoing their own problems. But the film is soooooo unsubtle in layering on the stressors that it’s just insulting to anyone who paid to see it with their money and their time. It’s one thing to recognize that an audience is struggling, it’s another to add to their problems. (R1 MGM / Public Domain)


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In Name Only (John Cromwell 1939)
Cromwell directs Lombard in yet another melodrama, this time for RKO, and while it’s no less manipulative than Made For Each Other, here the material works by discarding the annoyances of the previous film and ratcheting up the external oppression. These two back to back films in Lombard’s oeuvre make an unexpectedly ideal Goofus and Gallant example of how to make an overblown studio-era melodrama. Cary Grant is a wealthy dude who takes up with Lombard, only she doesn’t know he’s married to Kay Francis. But it’s a sham marriage and he wants a divorce, only the Most Evil Woman To Ever Live won’t give him one. Francis’ character is so ridiculously wicked in this film that she constantly threatens to derail the whole movie. But then in the last half the film just decides that the next best thing to modulating her approach down is to instead push everything else up into histrionics to meet her. This movie gets ridiculous, and by the time we get a doctor sternly telling Lombard that modern medicine can’t help a dying patient but lying to them can, I was in love. (R1 Warner Archives MOD DVD-R)


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Vigil in the Night (George Stevens 1940)
The cult built around Douglas Sirk and his alleged “undermining” of melodrama in his studio system output is insulting for several reasons. It reveals audience superiority over melodrama— “I am enjoying this, but the director was above it so I can also look down on it too.” It also assumes that other directors of melodramas were not perfectly aware of the extremes of their films. Sirk was hardly the only one making melodramas that pushed things to excess, but the little cadre of film buffs who hold him up as an exemplar often have little exposure to other contemporary works and thus lack perspective. I can say all of this with definitive confidence because Vigil in the Night is the most incredible, jaw-dropping, unrelenting studio era melodrama I have ever seen. It hits every single note of the genre with the loudest peals imaginable, one after another, and without a hint of irony. Any claims on Sirk being some wag undermining his material by ramping it up are obliterated by Stevens doing more than Sirk ever did and meaning it. This movie is sincere and it is incredible. I would go so far as to say Vigil in the Night is the greatest melodrama ever made, even though I have not seen every melodrama ever made, as I am confident that no other film could ever encompass so fully and completely every imaginable aspect of the movement like this film does. It is a masterpiece of cinema and easily the biggest discovery of this undertaking.

Lombard and sister Anne Shirley are working in a childrens ward at a British hospital. Through the carelessness of one of the sisters, a child dies, and thus begins a long series of dramatic crises as Lombard starts work at a new clinic, befriends a doctor, deals with secrets and accidents and outbreaks, oh my. Watching this movie is like going to see your favorite band in concert and they just play every song you want to hear, one after another. There’s familiarity and then there’s this, which is on its own plane of existence.

Stevens artfully relays all of the beats with finesse and smart instincts: a lesser film wouldn’t be bothered to elevate this material, but Stevens knows the only way to make it work is to treat it reverentially as though it were art, and in the end it is after all. Lombard disappears into her role and it may seem too blank a performance to merit much thought, but in comparison to other Lombard “serious” takes, it is revelatory. Lombard strips away all of her actorly/star crutches and delivers something almost Bressonian in its simplicity and unadorned goodness. I had to remind myself several times this wasn’t the story of Bernadette or some other saint. I think Lombard rates very low as a dramatic actress, but this shows perhaps she just wasn’t given the right opportunities. (R1 Warner Archives MOD DVD-R)


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They Knew What They Wanted (Garson Kanin 1940)
Wealthy Italian winegrower Charles Laughton, sporting the third-most ridiculous mustache in a Carole Lombard movie, spots Lombard waitressing and falls in love. The two exchange letter and she comes out to marry him. Only she’d never seen him before and the picture he sent her was of his foreman, William Gargan, in an inexplicably Oscar-nominated performance as a poor man's Arthur Kennedy. Thankfully the mistaken identity farce doesn’t last long, but Lombard gives in to Gargan’s advances while Laughton is holed up recouping from injuries and you can guess the rest. This is a bad movie for a lot of reasons, but I was struck with how poorly shot it was. Never has Ted Tetzlaff’s absence been more strongly felt than here, with Lombard’s “dowdy” role presented with an unappealing slovenly eye. She and everyone else are stranded in a hackeneyed story that was adapted from a play that somehow won the Pulitzer Prize. In many ways it resembles the deadeyed and humorless “adult” Hollywood films of the late fifties when the studios tried to compete with television, but this kind of miserable entertainment, painted with big broad brushstrokes and with limited imagination, is unappealing in any era. (No commercial release)


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Mr & Mrs Smith (Alfred Hitchcock 1941)
Robert Montgomery discovers he and Lombard aren’t actually married due to a clerical error. Rather than remarrying, he tries to bed her without telling her, not knowing she was also informed. This is an unbelievably creaky set-up, and apart from Montgomery’s amusing jaunt out to a fancy nightclub with Jack Carson and some brassy dames, there’s little in the way of laughs here. However, as someone who made a collegiate career out of presenting on this movie at academic conferences and has probably seen it more times than anyone should, I know pretty well what I value about it, even though I’ll be the first to admit it’s not one of Hitchcock’s best— and now that I’ve seen all of Lombard’s work, not one of her best either! I think the film has some fascinating relationship dynamics that are interesting within the context of Hitchcock’s other romantic pairings, namely in that the power dynamics here and in To Catch a Thief are radically different than those found in any other Hitchcock film, and perhaps this difference contributes to why both films are popularly considered lesser works. As far as its place in Lombard’s oeuvre, well, it’s nice to see her back in a fully comic role, but Montgomery gets all the best bits. (R1 Warners)


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To Be or Not To Be (Ernst Lubitsch 1942)
Jack Benny and Lombard are married Polish thesps who get caught up in the Polish Underground during WWII, using their training to undermine an English spy. Not the most obvious set-up for a comedy, but as always with Lubitsch, expect the unexpected. As good as the top billed Lombard is in her last film, she once again is overshadowed by the male lead, who has a better part and more to do. Lombard’s best scenes are those with Robert Stack as the naive airman who doesn’t understand the difference between press and reality, and her overall performance is a modulation between the austere presence she started cultivating with RKO and her better comic sensibilities. And given that Lombard was herself fiercely patriotic and died in service to her country, I can think of no greater final film for her to go out on, even if it was inadvertently so. A fitting end to a career cut short, even with forty-two sound films left behind. (R1/A Criterion)

It’s hard to know where Lombard’s career would have gone next. Her late career “serious” phase was brought about in part due to her dismay at learning Selznick never even considered her for Scarlett O’Hara despite courting Clark Gable for Rhett, but apart from Vigil in the Night, I don’t think these used her well either. But as I’ve already said, now having seen all of Lombard’s films, that is the main takeaway: Lombard proved she could be gifted, often did her best in bad projects, but fundamentally was fortunate enough to both appear in a handful of enduring comedies and give her best performances in them. A closer look reveals more about the studio system and how it saw and used stars than it does Lombard.

This whole exercise was also a fascinating look at the rapid expansion of sound techniques on film using non-canonical works. I joked in my write-up for Up Pops the Devil that I hoped I was the last person to ever watch it, but it legitimately occurred to me during the early stages of my viewings that some of these films have deteriorated so far and offer so little in the way of anything that would merit a boutique label or the studio itself restoring and releasing them that they very likely will be gone forever soon enough, even in a digital world. And as much as I hated something like Safety in Numbers, there’s something depressing about the idea that a well-distributed work of commercial art, even bad art, could be all but gone less than ninety years later. I literally only sought out some of these all but gone movies and sat through them because of a star who was in well over thirty better films, many of which are more easily available. Not that anyone should exert effort and time on corralling and watching some of these movies, but I may very well be the last person to watch the Arizona Kid or No One Man, and I wish I wasn’t, regardless.

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Aunt Peg
Joined: Fri Dec 21, 2012 5:30 am

Re: Carole Lombard

#2 Post by Aunt Peg » Tue Aug 21, 2018 4:07 am

There is a Spanish DVD of They Knew What They Wanted, no doubt a bootleg and of VHS quality picture.

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knives
Joined: Sat Sep 06, 2008 6:49 pm

Re: Carole Lombard

#3 Post by knives » Tue Aug 21, 2018 8:23 am

Thanks for the writeups. The idea of art dying has been in my mind lately a lot as well thanks to some reading projects. It's sad, but interesting how that has transfered over to film. I think that has become one major flaw of auteurism in the way it is used. Hitchcock at his worst will never be lost, but Cromwell's excellent Algiers despite big stars, oscar moms, and a beloved story is left to us currently only as an obscure public domain mess. How long till it disappears as well?

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