Carole Lombard: Publicity Agent (September, 1938)

To make it in Hollywood one needs luck, talent and, of course, good publicity. Carole Lombard aimed for the latter when, in September 1938, she went to work in the Selznick International Pictures publicity department.

From her earliest days in the industry, Carole Lombard understood the value of positive press coverage. In September 1927, she was in a car accident that left her with permanent facial scars. Given Hollywood’s obsession with glamour and physical perfection, at the time Lombard believed that her scars “permanently defaced her beauty and completely shattered her screen ambitions” (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 19). She was then under contract with slapstick producer, Mack Sennett, and had only a few acting credits to her name; having been abruptly released from a Fox contract a few years prior, she feared that she would again suffer the same fate. However, Sennett proved to be sympathetic to Lombard’s plight. During her lengthy recovery period, he tried to keep her career on-track by including her in a plethora of Sennett-related promotional posters, news items, and interviews (see example below). He even came up with a new nickname for Lombard – “Carole of the Curves” – which was used in both his and Pathé’s (his distributor) publicity materials (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 19).

A magazine advertisement for The Girl From Everywhere (1927). Although Lombard only has a bit part, she is featured prominently (by name) in the top left corner.

From that early experience, Lombard became savvy about her publicity, and gained a reputation amongst gossip columnists and press agents as one of the most amiable Hollywood stars. Throughout her career and, in particular, after she went freelance in 1937 she “courted various studio publicists to keep her name constantly appearing in fan discourse and the press” (Carman 2015, pg. 113). It therefore came as no surprise that Lombard concocted this publicity department idea with her friend and Selznick IP publicity agent, Russell Birdwell.

Lombard in her SIP publicity office.
Lombard with Russell Birdwell

Working as a de-facto publicity agent brought Lombard a lot of press and public attention. Through her stardom, movie fans could get a glimpse at one of the most important areas of the studio system. The significance of studio publicity departments and the popular news media cannot be overstated, since they almost single-handedly disseminated information about the industry and its key players. Historian Anthony Slide writes that the relationship between these two industry factions was “incestuous” and “built upon trust and mutual necessity” (2010, pg. 7). The studios needed these news outlets to release stories and photos of their stars, while the news outlets required access to the studios’ rosters of talent in order to stay in business. Although there had been some discord between these two factions in the 1920s (Jeffers McDonald 2016, pg. 34), by the mid-1930s they were working together to publish curated stories that would help shape stars’ public personas. Fan magazines and other news outlets even went so far as to “submit stories for studio approval prior to publication” (Slide 2010, pg. 8).

In the case of Lombard, since she had become the unofficial queen of screwball comedy in the mid-1930s, validating her screen image meant portraying her as being equally kooky in her private life. For example, a 1937 article from Hollywood magazine claims that her performance in My Man Godfrey was “achieved by allowing her own personality to come through…she did, literally, betray her real character to the public” (pg. 34). Similarly, in “The Utterly Balmy Home Life of Carole Lombard” – an article that goes to great lengths to convince readers of Lombard’s symbiotic screwball personality – columnist Harry Lang describes Lombard and her home life as chaotic. After listing her ménage of pets (including dogs, cats, ducks, and doves), he reflects: “Does all this sound absolutely batty? Screwy? Insane? Balmy?—okay, then, make the most of it…when it comes to the business of getting the most downright, sheer fun out of this usually drab business of living, then I had all prizes unreservedly to Carole Lombard” (Lang 1937, pg. 24). While fun to read, these types of publicity stories also served a legitimate purpose: to enshrine her screwball persona as “authentic,” in order to legitimize her popular (and financially viable) screen image.

From Hollywood (January 1937).

Yet there are instances throughout Lombard’s career where she made it clear that she was quite unlike her popular screen image. In a rare self-reflexive interview with Picture Play columnist Ben Maddox, Lombard appears eager to create some distance between the on and off-screen versions of herself. She says: “I had to struggle for years to do comedy. But I don’t think I was at the top when I was merely an insipid ingénue, and I don’t agree that I’m so proficient in comedy as I can be in straight drama. It’s my goal, professionally. Otherwise I want a sane private life. That’s why I look at those so-called glamour yarns as more of a handicap than a help. Fun’s fun, in its place. I don’t always laugh, though” (Maddox 1937, pg. 17).

In early-1937, Lombard was nearing the end of her seven-year contract with Paramount, and was on the cusp of negotiating lucrative freelance deals with them, Warner Brothers, and Selznick International. Her insistence about not being a proficient comedian would’ve likely come as a shock to readers who, by that time, were familiar with her slapstick and screwball comedy performances. In reality, Lombard had grown tired of the screwball genre, and feared that she was becoming typecast. Instead, she wanted to challenge herself professionally and prove that she was equally adept at other types of film roles.

Lombard as Irene Bullock in My Man Godfrey (1936).

Therefore, there was an incentive behind Lombard’s publicity schtick: to create buzz for her upcoming Selznick International film, Made for Each Other. This was Lombard’s second film with producer David O. Selznick. In 1937 she signed three-picture deal with his studio, which saw her earning $150,000 per film and, after a 1938 renegotiation, a percentage of the distributors gross (Carman 2015, pg. 158). It was also her first dramatic venture after a string of screwball comedies including Love Before Breakfast, The Princess Comes Across, My Man Godfrey (all 1936), and Fools for Scandal (1938).

A lot was riding on Made for Each Other, and Lombard was eager for the public to accept her in this new type of role. Although the film wouldn’t be released for several more months (in February 1939), Russell Birdwell ensured that Lombard was photographed in the publicity department office alongside her co-star James Stewart. Happily, Lombard received critical praise for her performance in Made for Each Other, with Variety proclaiming that she and Stewart gave “two of Hollywood’s best performances of the year.” Unfortunately, that same review notes that Lombard’s “serious role…is likely to cause comment” from the public (February 1, 1939, pg. 13). Despite promising initial gains, Selznick International reported a total loss of $292,000.

James Stewart, Carole Lombard, and Janet Gaynor in the Selznick International Pictures publicity office.

While Hollywood has always enjoyed telling stories about itself, at the time, it was highly unusual for a star to actively participate in pulling back the industry curtain. After her work week was over, Lombard published an essay in The Hollywood Reporter chronicling her experiences. She detailed the work that goes into maintaining star images, explaining to readers: “Publicity is one of the most important – if not the most important topic – under discussion in Hollywood today. The motion picture capital has come to a long overdue realization that its publicity, foremost among its contacts with the rest of the world, has the power to make Hollywood the most beloved place on earth or the most hated. That, of course, goes for all the personalities in Hollywood” (1938, pg. 10).

Lombard claimed that she learned to think like a publicity agent, and shared the types of questions that drives much of the day-to-day decision making. She writes: “what features of a picture are to be sold heaviest? What angle will best convince the public the picture must be seen? How are the personalities in the cast to be handled? What is the best way to present them to the public, considering the type of roles they are playing? These are but a few of the basic questions you will hear around the office…” (1938, pg. 10).

It’s clear that this publicity department experience served an immediate material purpose, but it also influenced Lombard’s own perceptions about her stardom. This manifested itself most clearly in the details of her late-career freelance contracts. One of the perks of freelancing in the studio-era is that it gave actors greater agency over the conditions of their labor. When Lombard went freelance in 1937, she was finally able to be more selective about the types of roles she played. She could also gain control over her star image. Her three-picture contract with Selznick International included provisions that gave her the right to approve any publicity campaigns that used her name and likeness (Carman 2015, pg. 158). Such a provision makes sense in light of the ideas she shared in The Hollywood Reporter article: she was in the midst of reinventing herself as a dramatic actress, and was therefore eager to ensure that any publicity material would “fit” her new screen persona.

Carole Lombard and James Stewart in a publicity photo for Made for Each Other (1939).

Due to a variety of personal and professional reasons (too complicated to outline here), Lombard and Selznick broke the terms of her contract, and eventually settled in March 1940 for a $25,000 payment to the actress. Incidentally, her subsequent contract with RKO included another publicity-related provision: the right to employ the publicity agent of her choice. Ever the loyal friend and shrewd businesswoman, Lombard chose to be represented by none other than Russell Birdwell.

WORKS CITED

Author unknown. “Carole Lombard Betrays Herself.” Hollywood. January 1937, pg. 34 – 35, 66.

Carman, Emily. Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015.

“Film Reviews.” Variety, February 1, 1939, pg. 13.

Jeffers McDonald, Tamar. “Reviewing Reviewing the Fan Mags.” Film History Vol. 28, No. 4 (Winter 2016): 29 – 57.

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

Lang, Harry. “The Utterly Balmy Home Life of Carole Lombard.” Motion Picture. February 1937, pg. 24 – 25.

Lombard, Carole. “Every Actor Should Take At Least One Week’s Whirl At Publicity.” The Hollywood Reporter. October 24, 1938, pg. 10.

Maddox, Ben. “The Real Low-Down on Lombard.” Picture Play. January 1937, pg. 16-17, 88.

Slide, Anthony. Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine: A History of Star Makers, Fabricators, and Gossip Mongers. Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 2010.

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