Although Carole Lombard’s main medium was film, she was no stranger to radio. By the mid-1930s, she was performing regularly on the era’s most popular radio programs such as the Lux Radio Theatre and the Screen Guild Theatre. In 1939, Lombard was one of several stars that appeared on the short-lived NBC series The Circle, which was touted as the “Hollywood version” of the famed Algonquin Round Table. In her private life, Lombard was an avid radio listener, and enjoyed the programs of her colleagues and friends like Jack Benny and Orson Welles. Happily, much of Lombard’s radio work still survives (you can listen to the available recordings here).
Having spent over a decade researching Carole Lombard, I previously thought that I had a complete listing of all of her radio work. However, through the recent acquisition of some memorabilia, I became aware of an entirely new-to-me radio appearance! Among my latest batch of possessions is a script for a Louella Parsons radio interview with Lombard and costume designer, Travis Banton. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any recordings of this show (if anybody finds one, please send it my way).
The script does not include any production information, but through context clues and some research, I’ve managed to come up with a bit of information. First, the date: this broadcast likely aired in the spring of 1934. The script references two Lombard films, Bolero and “You Belong to Me” (the working title of Now and Forever), which gave me an initial date range of February to August (their respective release dates). As you can see by the photo below, the orchestra plays “Bolero” as Lombard’s theme, which suggests that the film was already in theaters and this may have been one of Lombard’s required promotional appearances. My other reason for the spring time frame is simple: at the end of the interview Raymond Paige and his California Melodeers perform Easter-themed music.
Louella Parsons had long made a name for herself in print media, and by 1928 she began her foray into radio with the Sun-Kist radio show, a fifteen-minute program on CBS featuring interviews with Hollywood stars. In 1931, the show changed sponsors – from Sun-Kist to Charis Foundation Garment – but followed a similar format. By the spring of 1934, Parsons signed another contract with CBS called Hollywood Hotel, a variety style program sponsored by the Campbell Soup Company. Hollywood Hotel featured top stars performing in “twenty-minute vignettes” of popular films, which “served not only to popularize the radio show but also as excellent publicity for the films (Himes 1990, pg. 67). Parsons used her power and influence to pressure stars to appear on her show for free, leading the Screen Actors Guild to adopt a rule in 1941 that prohibited its members from performing on the radio without compensation (Barbas 2005, pg. 229). There’s no show title on my script, but since it follows a simple interview format with no dramatizations, I am confident that it is the Charis sponsored program.
The interview is set in Banton’s Paramount studio office where Parsons is eager to discuss Lombard’s personal and screen style. Unfortunately, the script is too delicate to scan (the pages are about as thin as tissue paper), but here are some notable excerpts:
On a practical level, this interview coincides with the film industry’s push to create marketing tie-ins with fashion manufacturers. Charles Eckert explains that by 1930, industrialist Bernard Waldman created the Modern Manufacturing Bureau (MMB) in New York as a “fashion middle-man,” bringing together low-cost manufacturers and the Hollywood studios. The MMB oversaw the industrial production of what we’d consider today as “fast fashion” – inexpensive, mass-produced versions of high-end designs (Eckert 1999, pg. 103). They also worked to identify and drive consumer demand for both the fashion and film industries. The studio heads banked on the idea that fans wanted tangible connections to their favorite stars: if fans could dress just like their favorite actors, they would become invested in Hollywood and its products. The stars were akin to fashion models, and played a critical role in ensuring audiences were loyal to the Hollywood brand – both psychologically and financially. Lombard was, of course, one of those stars.
When Lombard signed her contract with Paramount in 1930, she was not yet an established star. She had achieved some success with Mack Sennett’s acting troupe, but she was essentially a blank canvas with little name recognition and a nondescript public image. As the studios often did with their new talent, Paramount set about to make Lombard into a household name, and decided that she would be their latest Hollywood glamour girl. In the early-1930s, Lombard was known as a “clotheshorse” (Swindell 1975, pg. 113), someone whose on and off-screen images personified refined sophistication. As this radio script and other popular media of the time makes clear, Lombard was included on Hollywood’s “best dressed” lists, and was frequently featured in fan magazine spreads touting her fashion sense.
Unfortunately, Lombard’s glamorous persona came at the expense of her acting capabilities, and many of her early-30s Paramount films are rather forgettable (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 62). This is clearly evident in a film like The Eagle and the Hawk (1933): Lombard plays the ambiguous “Beautiful Lady,” and her only real purpose is, as her character’s name suggests, to look attractive.
Contemporaneous critics and fans took note of the shallowness of Lombard’s early-1930s glamorous persona. For example, in a 1932 Photoplay article entitled “30 Girls in a Race for Stardom,” columnist “Cal York” writes: “It is strange about Carole Lombard. She’s the Constance Bennett screen type in appearance and ability, and yet – here’s a little secret – exhibitors, who are the boys who buy pictures for the theaters, are not wasting any time crying for Lombard pictures – yet. Somehow she hasn’t piqued the public curiosity to date…” (York 1932, pg. 75). It’s clear from Lombard’s early Paramount films that the studio unwisely invested in an image that was largely superficial. Luckily for Lombard, she found her greatest success from loan-outs deals away from Paramount (Carman 2015, pg. 27), which gave her the opportunity to push herself creatively and develop a strong screen image that resonated with audiences. Paramount’s mismanagement was ultimately Lombard’s gain, and by the mid-1930s she had successfully shed her glamour girl reputation in favor of her more accessible screwball persona.
One bright spot from Lombard’s Paramount tenure was he working relationship with Travis Banton. While Lombard may not have been the fashion-conscious star that the studio made her out to be, in reality, she took a hands-on approach to her stardom and collaborated closely with Banton to craft designs that would enhance her appearance. Lombard and Banton got along so well that in her late-career, she included provision in her freelance contracts with Warner Brothers and Selznick International Pictures requiring that he be employed as her personal costume designer (Carman 2015, pg. 158). As I discussed in a previous essay, Lombard actively monitored her own publicity, and was keenly attentive to the way her off-screen image was perceived by the media and the public. It therefore makes sense that she would also take an interest in her costumes; in Banton, she found a dedicated and talented partner.
Paramount largely gave up their glamour girl efforts by 1936, once they realized Lombard’s screwball comedy persona was much more commercially and critically viable. In an effort to uphold her new star-character screwball symbiosis, fan magazines in the mid-to-late-1930s made a point to distance Lombard from her earlier glamour girl image. Lombard also worked to shed her glamour girl reputation: in a 1937 Picture Play interview, she revealed: “Personally I resent being tagged a ‘glamour girl.’ It’s such an absurd, extravagant label. It implies so much that I’m not” (Maddox 1937, pg. 16). Her candor in this interview underscores the aloofness of her early-30s glamorous persona, and how little it did to showcase her talents as an actor. In that light, the Parsons interview doesn’t necessarily change my perceptions of Lombard’s stardom – if anything, it reaffirms the artifice of her early-30s stardom. Nevertheless, it is still valuable from a research standpoint, if only because it is further proof of the evolution of Lombard’s image on the road to Hollywood superstardom.
Barbas, Samantha. The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.
Carman, Emily. Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015.
Eckert, Charles. “The Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window.” In Movies and Mass Culture, ed. John Belton, 95 – 118. London: The Altone Press, 1999.
Himes, Michele. Hollywood and Broadcasting: From Radio to Cable. Urbana: The University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Kiriakou, Olympia. Becoming Carole Lombard: Stardom, Comedy, and Legacy. New York: Bloomsbury, 2020.
Maddox, Ben. “The Real Low-Down on Lombard.” Picture Play, January 1937, 16.
Swindell, Larry. Screwball: The Life of Carole Lombard. New York: William Morrow & Company Inc., 1975.
York, Cal. “30 Girls in a Race for Stardom.” Photoplay, April 1932, 75.