Hello again, it’s been a while! My apologies for the long hiatus from my website, but work and writing deadlines simply got in the way. Now that I’m getting back into the swing of things, I thought I’d explore one of Carole Lombard’s pre-Code films, No Man of Her Own (Wesley Ruggles, 1932). Famously, this film is the only screen pairing of Lombard and her second husband, Clark Gable. Given its unique status, in the years since its release it has taken on a life of its own for Lombard and Gable fans. So, rather than a review, I thought I’d focus on No Man of Her Own‘s legacy, and how the film’s imagery has helped to sustain interest in the them as a star couple from the 1930s to today.
For those who haven’t seen the film, a brief summary: Lombard plays Connie, a librarian who dreams of excitement away from her small town. When a handsome stranger named Babe Stewart (Gable) visits the library, Connie sees him as the escape she’s been longing for. Unbeknownst to her, Babe is a gambler hiding out from the police. On a flip of a coin, Babe and Connie decide to get married and he brings her back to New York. Babe tries to hide his gambling habits from Connie by pretending to be a businessman, and even spends his days at an office so that she won’t get suspicious. Eventually, Babe’s shady past catches up with him and he is sentenced to prison. Babe wants to shield Connie from the truth, so he tells her that he’s going on a long business trip to South America. Shortly after he leaves, Connie finds out the truth about Babe and that she’s pregnant. Realizing that she loves Babe in spite of his lies, Connie continues to feign ignorance. The film concludes with Babe’s return home, with a handful of “souvenirs” from his alleged trip abroad.
On its own merits, No Man of Her Own is a charming pre-Code romantic drama, ripe with alluring sensual scenes and equally cringe-worthy dialogue. Setting aside Lombard and Gable’s off-screen relationship, their screen chemistry is clear and, in my opinion, one of the most memorable aspects of this film. My favorite scene that illustrates their characters’ dynamics takes place the first morning that Babe is meant to go to work. After a long night playing poker with his cronies, Babe is in no mood to wake up early. In a medium-close up of Babe’s bed, we see him wrapped up in his blankets trying to sleep (see below). Connie sits down on the edge of his bed, nudges him lovingly, and coos “Babe…Babe…it’s time to get up.” Realizing she’s being ignored, Connie stands up and disappears from the frame, but comes back a moment later with a wet towel that she places on Babe’s head. It does the trick: Babe grumbles and begrudgingly gets out of bed.
This is not a scene that carries much weight in the film overall, but one that amply conveys Connie and Babe’s playful affections. Much of the film’s narrative hinges on the contrast between Babe’s deceit and Connie’s naïveté, but at no point does it imply that their love is insincere. With several highly charged passionate exchanges – complemented by Travis Banton’s costumes, romantic low key lighting, and the actors’ effortless screen chemistry – No Man of Her Own is one of the more delightful films in Lombard’s pre-Code filmography.
While I generally enjoy No Man of Her Own, I also firmly believe that its lasting reputation in the pre-Code pantheon has been kept alive by Lombard and Gable’s off-screen relationship. In the years since its release, its status in the Lombard and Gable fandoms has become akin to that of fan fiction, and it’s a film that fans can use to project their fantasies about the couple’s real romance. Despite wishful thinking from some fans and gossip columnists, at the time of filming Lombard and Gable were not a couple and, in fact, were married to other people: Clark to his second wife, Rhea Langham Gable, and Carole to William Powell. Lombard and Gable did not begin dating until January 1936 after reconnecting at the annual Mayfair Ball (the “white party” referenced in the snippet below).
This Silver Screen article is ripe with inaccuracies, yet in 1936 this false narrative took hold and has remained a constitutive part of the discourse about their relationship ever since. While researching for my book, I discovered that Paramount was eager to capitalize on public interest in Hollywood’s newest star couple, and sent a letter to the Production Code Administration (PCA) to have No Man of Her Own certified for a 1936 re-release. In correspondence with the PCA, Paramount executive John Hammell wrote that the motivation for his request was “the importance of the cast (Gable and Lombard)” (Production Code Administration records, 1936). At the time of the re-release, Lombard was still under contract to Paramount. The studio’s decision to rush the film out in this early stage of her romance with Gable reveals that they identified the potential bankability in their star couple image.
Even with this scheduled re-release and the couple’s overwhelmingly positive public acceptance, the studios and gossip press still had to address the “Rhea problem.” Some columnists took a cynical perspective, including Motion Picture magazine columnist Ford Black, who wrote that Gable would never divorce Rhea because “Hollywood fears, above all else, the wrath of millions of moviegoers whose moral sensibilities are assumed to be as fragile as a gold leaf…” (1939, pg. 30). Historian Michael Hammond explains the reason for Black’s opinion: box office success equated public approval, and in spite of the precarious morality of their public affair, Lombard and Gable were extremely popular stars individually and as a couple (2015, pg. 55). In short, why risk spoiling established success with a divorce?
Other columnists took a different approach: to distract from Gable’s marital status, during the couple’s courtship period contemporaneous media frequently emphasized his and Lombard’s compatibility. For example, Photoplay columnist Edward Doherty observed that the two stars “had a lot in common…both enjoy informality. They like to be themselves. They welcome anything simple and natural which will give them fun” (Doherty 1938, pg. 18). The couple had a “practical, salt-of-the earth quality that lacked pretense” (Lane 2016, pg. 401) and unlike Rhea and Gable’s first wife, Josephine Dillon – who were older and described as “thoroughly serious women” – Lombard was “imaginative, modernistic, unconventional, and oh, so young!” (Lewis 1936, pg. 46). Despite being the “other woman” technically, Lombard was celebrated as Gable’s equal in interests, ideology, and age.
As the above snippet reveals, is impossible to extricate the insidious ageism from the fan magazine discourse about Rhea Gable, particularly in comparisons with Lombard. In articles that highlight Carole’s vivacious personality and youthful energy, it’s not hard to interpret such descriptions as implicit condemnations of Rhea. By the late-1930s Rhea was the target of of considerable public backlash for refusing to grant Gable a divorce (see photos below). Ironically it was Rhea, not Carole who was considered the “other woman,” and someone who “interfered with her husband’s life and depressed him mentally” (Dixon Mann 1938, pg. 24). Unlike Rhea, Lombard was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars with her own devoted fan base, and both she and Gable “received acceptance in the film community and mainstream media” (Abrams 2008, pg. 74). Hollywood’s willingness to ignore their own self-imposed moral standards may have been hypocritical, but was a clear sign of Lombard and Gable’s combined star power and overwhelming public approval (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 143). With the film industry and the public on Carole’s side, Rhea eventually filed for divorce and Lombard and Gable married on March 29, 1939.
With that context in mind, one can understand why No Man of Her Own was – and still is – so important in the Lombard-Gable romance mythology. For the rest of Lombard’s life, and even posthumously, it’s difficult to find a discussion of her relationship with Gable without mention of No Man of Her Own. The film’s narrative bears no resemblance to reality, yet over the years it has taken on a quasi-documentary status, functioning almost like “evidence” of the couple’s off-screen dynamics. The clearest example of this is the 1976 biopic, Gable and Lombard, which makes heavy use of No Man of Her Own, and even recreates one of the film’s iconic promotional photos for its title sequence. Gable and Lombard opens with the original photo on the left, and as the title credits roll Lombard’s and Gable’s faces morph into those of James Brolin and Jill Clayburgh. This imagery is also used in the film’s trailer, and is paired with the tagline “They don’t love like that any more.”
I’ve made my distain for this biopic quite clear: it severely bends historical facts and chronology, and although I adore Jill Clayburgh’s work, this film’s characterization of Lombard is maddening. Of course, I don’t watch biopics for historical accuracy, and as a Lombard scholar, I’m not the film’s target audience. All of that aside, equally troubling is the fact that Gable and Lombard leans heavily into the idea that the couple’s screen chemistry in No Man of Her Own is interchangeable with their private lives. Such conflation continues to appear to this day: fan-made tributes to the Gables available on YouTube and social media often feature clips or stills from No Man of Her Own. Similarly, fan discourse about the film often touch upon Lombard and Gable’s off-screen romantic status. Like Gable and Lombard, fan media helps to cement No Man of Her Own‘s legacy as an extension of their real-life relationship. With the foundation set in the mid-1930s, it’s no wonder why some contemporary fans would continue to perpetuate this appealing but inaccurate mythology.
In reality, Lombard and Gable were fairly private people who set boundaries with the press (for example, not allowing photographers inside their Encino home). As much as I’m immersed in everything Carole Lombard, neither I nor any other researcher can claim to know the details of her private life. It would be distracting to her star legacy to speculate on the similarities or differences between No Man of Her Own and her marriage to Gable. And besides, does it matter? Far too much time and energy is spent dissecting the private lives of classical Hollywood stars, which does little to help contemporary fans understand their bodies of work, or the studio system’s role in manufacturing star identities. In the case of Lombard, the overly romanticized discourse about No Man of Her Own has had a consequential effect on her star persona, as well as her and Gable’s iconicity as a star couple. As I’ve previously argued, a lot of unnecessary cultural value is put into Lombard’s relationship with Gable (Kiriakou 2020 pg. 154), viewed through the distorted lens of No Man of Her Own and carefully curated publicity discourse. I believe this has come at the expense of her own independent star identity. It is my goal through this website, my book, and elsewhere to correct that narrative, so that we can think about Lombard’s stardom on her own terms, but also the gendered, ideological, and moral implications Lombard and Gable’s star couple image.
Abrams, Brett L. Hollywood Bohemians: Transgressive Sexuality and the Selling of the Movie Dreamland. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. Inc., 2008.
Black, Ford. “Will Clark Gable Ever Marry Carole Lombard?” Motion Picture, February 1939: 30-31.
Dixon Mann, Margaret. “Happiness Ahead for Clark and Carole.” Picture Play, August 1938: 23-24.
Doherty, Edward. “Can the Gable-Lombard Love Story Have a Happy Ending?” Photoplay, May 1938: 18-19.
Hammond, Michael. “‘Good Fellowship’: Carole Lombard and Clark Gable.” In First Comes Love: Power Couples, Celebrity Kinship, and Cultural Politics, eds. Shelley Cobb and Neil McEwen. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015, 53 – 72.
Lane, Christina. “A Modern Marriage for the Masses: Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, and the Cultural Front.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Vol. 33, No. 1 (2016): 401 – 436.
Letter from John Hammell to Joseph L. Breen, September 21, 1936. Production Code Administration records. Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Lewis, Frederick. “Is Carole Lombard in Love at Last?” Liberty, November 14, 1936: 46-47.
Kiriakou, Olympia. Becoming Carole Lombard: Stardom, Comedy, and Legacy. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.