Among critics and fans alike, Fools for Scandal (1938) is considered one of Carole Lombard’s worst films – and for good reason! Upon my first viewing of Lombard’s filmography, I ranked Fools for Scandal slightly above The Gay Bride (1934) – the film which Carole herself described in the mid-1930s as her least favorite (Harvey 1998, pg. 212). However, through subsequent viewings and some reflection, I think The Gay Bride holds up quite well as a light gangster comedy. Conversely, Fools for Scandal is clunky, unfunny, and downright tedious in spots. It’s no wonder that when Lombard debunked retirement rumors in 1940, she joked that if there had ever been that time she considered leaving the film industry, it would’ve been following the release of Fools for Scandal:
The story is fairly standard screwball fare. Lombard plays a movie star named Kay Winters, who is on a holiday in Paris in a disguise to preserve her anonymity. One day in Montmartre, she meets a poor marquis named Rene (Fernand Gravet), who offers to give her a tour of the “real” Paris – not one that you find in guidebooks, but the locals’ city. Not long after Kay reveals her true identity to Rene does she return to her home in London; undeterred, he follows her to her house on the night she’s throwing a costume party. Although Kay is allegedly in love with Rene, she considers him a nuisance. To complicate matters, Kay jokingly hires Rene to be her chef, which makes her boyfriend, Phillip (Ralph Bellamy), insanely jealous. Rene’s sudden presence in Kay’s life becomes the subject of gossip around London after her friend, Lady Malverton (Isabel Jeans), spreads a rumor that he was hired to be her “love chef.” Eventually, Kay admits that she’s in love with Rene, and the film concludes with the couple kissing on stage at the Paris Opera house in front of an audience.
Are you still with me?
Fools for Scandal was based on the play “Return Engagement” by Nancy Hamilton, James Shute, and Rosemary Casey, which itself was an adaptation of Richard Sheridan’s “The School for Scandal.” It was Lombard’s first and only film for Warner Brothers, and she agreed to the role as part of a one-picture freelance deal she signed with the studio in 1937, which gave her a salary of $150,000, the right to choose her own cameraman and costume designer (Ted Tetzlaff and Travis Banton, respectively), and star billing (Carman 2015, pg. 158). The one bright spot in this otherwise dismal film are Travis Banton’s lovely costumes, especially the elegant black floor-length dress Lombard wears in some of the promotional photos (see below). Happily, Banton’s designs are much more sophisticated than much of the film’s comedy.
The film was primarily designed to be a star vehicle for Lombard, but it also gave Warner Brothers an opportunity to introduce French actor, Fernand Gravet, to American audiences. This was the second film in Gravet’s two-picture deal with Warners (Life, March 1937, pg. 24) before he signed with Metro-Goldwyn Mayer in 1938. Unfortunately, neither Fools for Scandal nor Gravet’s U.S. film career were hits. Although he occasionally worked with other American filmmakers – most notably William Wyler in How to Steal a Million (1966) – Gravet never rose to leading man status in the United States.
One of the film’s major shortcomings is the missing chemistry between Lombard and Gravet. While I don’t think their respective performance styles were discordant, Gravet is not one of Lombard’s most convincing leading men. This is evident in the script itself. Fools for Scandal leans heavily into the “battle of the sexes” trope, but does so without giving us a plausible reconciliation scene, which helps viewers understand why these two characters are in love with each other in the first place. Screwball comedy scholar Tina Olsin Lent argues that the “battle of the sexes” trope helped filmmakers address shifting societal conceptions of marriage in the 1930s. As morality evolved so too did the purpose of marriage, and as Olsin Lent writes, “marriage became less a social and economic institution based upon spiritual love and more a sexual and emotional union based on sexual attraction” (1995, pg. 320).
The second, more practical reason for the “battle of the sexes” trope was that it gave filmmakers an opportunity to circumvent the Production Code. Film critic Andrew Sarris famously described the screwball genre as “sex comedies without the sex,” (1975, pg. 11), referring to the fact that explicit portrayals of “passion” were discouraged under the Code (see below). The tension between the romantic leads in screwball comedies (whether it be sexual or otherwise) is therefore considered by most scholars as a substitute for overt sexual expression.
To convey romantic and sexual compatibility without sex, screwball comedies often rely on “play.” Play can be literal – like characters playing a game, as is the case in My Man Godfrey (La Cava, 1936) and Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, 1938) – or metaphorical, represented through physical comedy and fast-paced banter. The most obvious example of the latter is the hotel scene in Nothing Sacred (William Wellman, 1937). For those who haven’t seen Nothing Sacred, it tells the story of a small town woman named Hazel Flagg (Lombard) who pretends to have terminal radium poisoning in order to get a free trip to New York courtesy of the newspaper, The Morning Star. In an effort to conceal Hazel’s fake illness and avoid humiliation in front of prestigious doctors, reporter Wally Cook (Fredric March) tells her that she must pretend to look sick. Minutes before the doctors’ arrival, Wally says, “We gotta raise your pulse to 160, quick! We gotta have you gasping, panting and covered with a cold sweat inside of five minutes.” To rile Hazel up, Wally encourages her to punch him – which Hazel eventually does, but not before Wally knocks her out. The sexual subtext in this scene is all too clear, and while Wellman abides by the Code’s letter, he flaunts its spirit – with gusto!
Fools for Scandal relies heavily on combative banter to express Kay and Rene’s sexual tension, but aside from one scene when they dine together in a Parisian cafe, the film does not satisfyingly convince us that she actually loves (or even likes) him! Instead, Kay repeatedly pleads with Rene to “get out” of her house or “leave me alone;” whether it be the morning after her costume party or when Rene serves her breakfast in bed, the entire romance seems unexplainably one-sided. Some might argue that Kay’s dismissiveness is her way of hiding her true feelings for him. Unfortunately, this is not brought to bear in Lombard’s performance: it’s disappointingly one-dimensional, and lacking the warmth and depth she imbues in her other screwball roles. Her performance suggests that Kay is perpetually aggravated, not lovesick.
Then towards the end of the film, as if by some miracle, Lombard drops Kay’s brusque attitude. In a romantic embrace with Rene, Kay professes in a soft, breathy voice: “my life was so nice and peaceful until you came along.” I remember seeing this scene for the first time and thinking “did I miss something?” Unlike Lombard’s more dynamic screwball comedies, Fools for Scandal lacks a definitive turning point in Kay and Rene’s relationship. As a result, by the film’s conclusion in the Paris Opera house, viewers are left wondering why we should care about Rene’s tornadic presence in Kay’s life, or what she finds attractive about him in the first place.
Overall, Fools for Scandal is a screwball comedy that doesn’t know how to be a screwball comedy. It contains all of the genre’s classic conventions – an adversarial couple, absurd situations, fast-paced banter, masquerading, and courtship – but fails to do anything interesting with them. The result is a hodge-podge of farcical situations that are severely lacking humor or sincerity. Consider, for a moment, the masquerade ball sequence: when Rene first arrives at Kay’s home in London, he’s greeted by a bunch of strangers wearing papier-mâché animal masks. We learn that Kay is hosting a costume party, and each character is wearing a mask that mirrors their personality – Kay is dressed as a furry bunny, Phillip is wearing a hound dog mask, and Lady Malverton is a squawking bird. Unlike the masquerade trope in screwball comedies like My Man Godfrey (1936), The Lady Eve (1941), or Some Like it Hot (1959) – where hidden identity is integral to a character’s arc – this masquerade sequence is simply superficially weird. Of course, screwball zaniness need not be explained by any sort of logic, but the scene is entirely out of step with the film’s tone and style.
Production on Fools for Scandal began in late-1937 and wrapped in January 1938. During this time, Warner Brothers tried to capitalize on Lombard’s star power to bolster public interest in the film, and published a series of pre-production and on-set photos in popular fan magazines of the day (see below). In 1937 Lombard was at the peak of her career, and after making just over $465,000, she was named the highest paid star in Hollywood (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 188). Warners wasn’t noted for their memorable screwball comedies like Paramount or RKO Pictures, but the studio hoped that at the very least, Lombard’s reputation and box office popularity would help make the film a success.
However, production documents reveal that Warners quickly realized that something was missing. Not long after filming began, the studio hired noted comedy writer, Irv Brecher, to work on additional dialogue. Brecher had made a name for himself in radio, working for performers like Al Jolson; 1937 marked his foray into screenwriting, and he later wrote the screenplays for Marx brothers comedies At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940). Despite Brecher’s added talent and a substantial marketing campaign, Fools for Scandal was a commercial and critical failure upon its April 1938 release. The film did well in some markets – particularly the Great Lakes region (Motion Picture Daily, May 1938, pg. 11) – but with a $1.3 million budget, Warners reported an overall loss.
As this Modern Screen film review makes clear, critics felt that the comedy was “confusing” and that Lombard’s performance failed to measure up to her previous screwball triumphs. By all accounts, Lombard was taken aback by the film’s dismal performance. Given the power and status she held in the industry at the time, Fools for Scandal was not the career-ending film that some speculate it could’ve been. That said, it did help shape the trajectory of Lombard’s late-career. Prior to the film’s release, she had been seriously contemplating a break from screwball comedy because she didn’t want to be typecast. She yearned to challenge herself professionally, and believed that tackling other genres would help demonstrate her versatility. Fools for Scandal‘s failure was the final push Lombard needed to take her career down a different path, and for the next few years, she earnestly tried to distance herself from the film and her screwball persona.
Carman, Emily. Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015.
Harvey, James. Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.
Kiriakou, Olympia. Becoming Carole Lombard: Stardom, Comedy, and Legacy. New York: Bloomsbury, 2020.
“Movie of the Week: The King and the Chorus Girl.” Life, March 29, 1937, pg. 24.
Olsin Lent, Tina. “Romantic Love and Friendship: The Redefinition of Gender Relations in Screwball Comedy.” In Classical Hollywood Comedy, eds. Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins. New York: Routledge, 1998, 314 – 331.
Sarris, Andrew. “The Sex Comedy Without Sex.” American Film, Vol. 3 No. 5 (1975):
“‘Scandal,’ Dorsey $18,600 Buffalo.” Motion Picture Daily, May 13, 1938, pg. 11.
2 thoughts on “Fools for Scandal (1938): a screwball comedy slip up”
[…] As I discussed in a previous post, to circumvent the Code, classical Hollywood era films conveyed sexual tension through abstraction, and filmmakers often relied on innuendo and double-entendres to work around the Code’s guidelines. In Nothing Sacred, physicality illuminates the contours of Hazel and Wally’s complicated relationship, and through physical expression comes a manifestation of their repressed sexual feelings. In that same post, I pointed to the film’s climax, in which Hazel and Wally are faced with the prospect of having her lie exposed. Wally’s boss, Oliver Stone, has invited renowned European doctors to New York to examine Hazel, and they are minutes away from her hotel room. The scene begins with Hazel lying in bed with a hangover, stewing in the guilt of her deceit. Wally arrives to inform her of the doctors’ impending visit, and tells her, “We gotta raise your pulse to 160, quick! We gotta have you gasping, panting and covered with a cold sweat inside of five minutes.” […]
[…] repressed sexual desires (for a more thorough exploration of the “battle of the sexes,” please read this). Lombard’s own proclivity for physical comedy translated into a way for her characters to […]