Carole Lombard & the “Sennett Girl Comedies” (1927 – 1929)

Carole Lombard is best known as a screwball comedienne, but fans of hers know that she also had a substantial career in silent comedy. Her comedy journey began in mid-1927 when, after being abruptly dropped by the Fox Film Corporation, she signed a two-year, $300 per week contract with slapstick pioneer, Mack Sennett. Under his tutelage, Lombard made 18 short films in both supporting and lead roles, and co-starred alongside some of the Keystone Film Company’s most prolific actors like Daphne Pollard, Andy Clyde, and Irving Bacon. While the majority of Lombard’s early silent films are lost, happily, her Sennett shorts survive: most are housed in archives, but at the time of this posting, some are also available online (including Run, Girl, Run, The Campus Vamp, The Campus Carmen, and Matchmaking Mamma). If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of watching these shorts, I highly recommend that you do: they’re essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand the trajectory of Lombard’s career and, crucially, her relationship with comedy. That said, having seen all of Lombard’s Sennett shorts, I would argue that she is far less physical than one would expect. With the exception of a handful of Sennett shorts such as The Campus Vamp and The Swim Princess, Lombard’s performances are far more static and decorative than physical. This, by in large, is due to the fact that for much of this period Lombard was a “Sennett Girl,” an updated, late-1920s version of his famous Bathing Beauties troupe. In these films, Lombard’s primary role was to serve as a spectacular counterpoint to the rough-and-tumble physical comedy.

While the precise date of Lombard’s Sennett contract signing is unclear, contemporaneous trade papers suggest that she was working with him as early as the summer of 1927 (see below). After filming only 3 shorts and a few months into her tenure with Sennett’s company, tragedy struck: on September 19th, 1927 Lombard and her date, Harry Cooper, were driving down Santa Monica Boulevard when all of a sudden, Cooper crashed into another car (Garrett Clipper 1927, pg. 3). The crash was so severe that Cooper’s car windshield shattered, and shards of glass cut Lombard’s face. She underwent extensive reconstructive surgery which left her with permanent facial scars (which could be seen in her films for the rest of her life). At the time, Lombard feared that history would repeat itself and that like Fox, Sennett would terminate her contract. To her credit, she had reason to be concerned: her career was still in its infancy, and in an industry that obsesses over unattainable beauty standards, being an ingenue with noticeable facial scarring might have been an impediment to her future success (Los Angeles Times 1927, A9).

From the June 24, 1927 issue of The Film Daily: the first known mention of Carole’s working relationship with Sennett.

The reason I bring up Lombard’s accident is because there has previously been some confusion about when exactly it occurred, and how the recovery time away from the screen affected her Sennett career. A prominent 1970s biography proposed that the accident occurred in 1926 and was the reason behind Lombard’s Fox contract termination (Swindell 1975, pg. 52). This, of course, is not true: court documents from a lawsuit against Cooper identifies Lombard as a “Sennett girl” who has “shattered screen ambitions” (Garrett Clipper 1927, pg. 3). As I previously stated, the accident occurred not long after Lombard began working for Sennett (and, incidentally, the same day that her first short, Smith’s Pony, made its theatrical debut). While Lombard feared that her career was over, it was likely a blessing that she was under contract with a filmmaker like Sennett, whose long-shot heavy, fast-paced comedy style shifted the camera’s focus away from Lombard’s face and onto her figure (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 19).

Sennett was allegedly sympathetic to Lombard’s situation, and helped to boost her star profile by giving her ample publicity. One such strategy was a new nickname – Carol of the Curves – which “simultaneously drew audiences’ attention away from her facial scars and worked harmoniously with the physicality and female sensuality” that were the focal point of her films (Kiriakou 2020 pg. 53). Lombard carried this nickname with her through 1929 when she worked at Pathé, and it was also occasionally referenced in early-30s fan magazine articles about her star transformation (see below).

The original caption of a 1929 photo by William E. Thomas mentions Carole’s nickname.
From the April 1933 issue of Photoplay.

One of Lombard’s earliest Sennett shorts was The Girl From Everywhere (Edward F. Cline, 1927). Filmed from June to August 1927 and released on December 11, it is the first installment in the “Sennett Girl Comedies” series. In both form and content, the shorts in the “Sennett Girl Comedies” series were modernized versions of the producer’s hit “Bathing Beauties” films. Sennett deliberately structured them to “show off his newest batch of bathing girls” like Carmelita Geraghty, Anita Barnes, and Lombard (Walker 2010, pg. 174). The Bathing Beauties were first introduced in 1915, and were a jumping off point in the careers of several Hollywood stars like Gloria Swanson, Marie Prevost, and June Haver. Their immediate popularity and mass cultural appeal reflected what historian Rob King call their “modern femininity,” and they became emblematic of both female sexual liberation and middle-class leisure (2009, pg. 211). Unlike the violent physical comedy found in the Keystone Kops shorts or the straight slapstick comedies, the Bathing Beauties functioned as pure visual spectacle. Through the deliberate use of framing and editing techniques like slow motion, long shots, and full-body pans, the Beauties films emphasis on the young women’s attractiveness and sex appeal over any type of physical prowess.

Unlike the earlier incarnation, the “Sennett Girl Comedies” had substantial budgets due, in part, to the producer’s newly formed Motion Picture Capital Corporation, which helped him secure outside investors (Walker 2010, pg. 174). With an estimated cost of anywhere between $25,000 and $32,000 per film and Technicolor sequences, the “Sennett Girl Comedies” were the latest spectacular offering from the ever-popular comedy studio. In a similar fashion to the Bathing Beauties shorts, the “Sennett Girls” had a primarily ornamental purpose. This is clear in several of Lombard’s shorts: from a POV shot of her through binoculars in Smith’s Pony (1927), to the opening shot of Carole and several other Sennett Girls waving directly to the camera in Matchmaking Mamma (1929) (see below), Lombard’s performance and figure are enticement for the male gaze.

Lombard (center) and other Sennett Girls in the opening shot of Matchmaking Mamma (1929).

This is also the case in The Girl from Everywhere. The story takes place on a film set, where director Wilfred ‘Bill’ Ashcraft (Mack Swain) presides over an unruly cast and crew. The film’s star, Daphne Pollard, plays Minnie Stitch, a megalomaniac actress who holds up Ashcraft’s shoot. Her antics are so distracting that at one point, Ashcraft remarks “No wonder there’s a food shortage in Europe. If she acts like she eats, I’m made!” The rest of the short film centers on the chaos that ensues after a lion from a neighboring set wanders into Ashcraft’s studio. Although Lombard is not listed in the film’s credits, she plays an extra named Vera Veranda (aka ‘Miss Anybody’), a title that perfectly describes her small and rather one-dimensional role. She is dressed in a black, form-fitting vest, black shorts and a black feathery hat — an outfit that can be seen on the film’s promotional posters. Cline photographs Lombard in long shot, giving audiences ample view of her bare legs and curvaceous body. For much of the short she is seated alongside other extras and the film crew, and has no narrative purpose other than to look beautiful. Shots of Lombard and the other Sennett Girls serve as a visual counterpoint to the chaotic slapstick action.

Lombard may have had a relatively inconsequential role in the film, but she was given star billing in the film’s publicity campaign. In one advertisement she’s identified by name – Carolle Lombard (the preferred spelling at the time) – and is separate from the other Sennett Girls (below left). In another, Lombard is given second billing to Pollard (below right). The caricature featured at the center of the advertisement is clearly modeled after Lombard, since she wears a similar costume and is posed almost identically to her in the film. These ads disprove Larry Swindell’s claims that during her Sennett tenure, the public did not know Lombard by name and only identified her as “the pretty one” (1975, pg. 60). Moreover, they confirm that Sennett helped put Lombard’s career back on track following her accident. After all, in any other scenario it is unlikely that a bit part would warrant such a billing, nor a high-profile star treatment.

The first time I watched this film was in 2015 on a trip to UCLA’s archives. As a modern viewer accustomed to Lombard’s energetic and vibrant screwball persona, this performance was quite different from what I was expecting. My initial assumptions about Lombard’s silent comedies was also colored by 1930s fan magazine observations, many of whom describe this period of her career using active, visceral language. For example, in late-1938 Life magazine journalist Noel Busch wrote that Lombard “spent two years [with Sennett] being hit in the face by pies, tripped, dunked, chased, and generally maltreated…” (pg. 63). Busch, like other journalists of the period, also draw connections between her silent and screwball comedies, as if the former was training for the latter. Another Life profile from the late-30s made the case that Lombard “can lay some claim to have started the current craze for slapstick farce…Miss Lombard has been doing the same sort of comedy, on and off screen, for the better part of her 29 years” (1937 pg. 70). Yet after working through her body of Sennett films, I came to the conclusion that this type of description was not altogether accurate.

Contrary to popular belief, Lombard is not consistently physical in all of her silent comedies, and her performances bear little resemblance to those in her screwball films. As I’ve previously noted, in some films like Matchmaking Mamma, there is no significant physical component to her performance, while in others like Run, Girl, Run, she displays athleticism rather than frenzied slapstick behavior (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 48). One constant throughout these films is the spectacular nature of Lombard’s screen image. Whether to draw attention to her sensuality or athleticism, Lombard’s body is routinely made the focal point of her performances. While this is the case with her screwball films, I would argue that Lombard’s slapstick performances are more demure and inhibited precisely because of the constraints put upon her by the “Sennett Girls” designation. Lombard the Sennett Girl was not necessarily a slapstick comedian, but an actor who happened to appear in slapstick comedies. In that way, we need not think of Lombard’s Sennett films as a precursor to her later screwball performances, but rather a distinct period unto itself. Only when we treat these parts of her filmography separately can we begin to understand the evolution of her comedic performance style, and the wider historical context of her career.

WORKS CITED:

“Actress demands damages for cut.” Los Angeles Times, October 13 1927, A9.

Busch, Noel F. “A Loud Cheer for the Screwball Girl.” Life, October 17, 1938.

“Former Fort Wayne star asks $35,000 damages.” Garrett Clipper, October 31 1927, pg. 3.

King, Rob. The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.

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

“Movie of the Week: True Confession.” Life, December 13, 1937, 70.

Swindell, Larry. Screwball: The Life of Carole Lombard. New York: William Morrow Inc., 1975.

Walker, Brent E. Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A History and Filmography of His Studio and His Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies, with Biographies of Players and Personnel. Jefferson: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2010.

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