Gable and Lombard (1976) and the mythology of Hollywood’s “golden couple”

The trailer tagline for the Carole Lombard and Clark Gable biopic, Gable and Lombard (Sidney Furie, 1976) reads: “they don’t make love like this anymore.”

Frankly, they never did.

I’m prefacing this review by saying that I don’t watch classical Hollywood biopics for their historical accuracy. I understand that the function of biopics are, as George Custen notes, to sell “accessible versions of history” (1992, pg. 34). Entertainment trumps fact, and besides, it’s almost impossible to distill a person’s life down to two hours. As one might expect, Gable and Lombard takes liberties with historical facts and chronology, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t nitpick the film for errors. But that’s not what this review is about. Putting aside any inaccuracies, Gable and Lombard is simply mediocre. The plot, which centers around the personal and professional ramifications of the couple’s adulterous romance, is plodding and cringe-worthy. If I could summarize the film, I’d describe it as akin to poorly written fan-fiction, but without any likable characters or a satisfying payoff.

While the plot is paper-thin, the film has some bright spots. Gable and Lombard thoroughly explores the intersection of studio-era morality and Hollywood stardom, specifically through the lens of Gable’s contentious divorce from his second wife, Rhea. Gable and Carole Lombard’s romance began in January 1936 at the Mayfair Ball. At the time, Gable was still married to Rhea, although they had separated the year earlier after he had impregnated his Call of the Wild star, Loretta Young. Since 1935 Clark and Rhea had been living separate lives, although neither had filed for divorce: Rhea enjoyed the cachet of being “Mrs. Clark Gable,” while Clark – who was notoriously frugal – was reluctant to provide his estranged wife with the sizable alimony that she demanded.

For that reason, Gable and Lombard is accurate in one sense: Rhea was reluctant to divorce Clark. However, the film does not offer a very generous interpretation of her character. Gable and Lombard‘s version of Rhea (Joanne Linville) is calculating and predatory, while Clark is made out to be the generous but ultimately helpless victim. In a scene that takes place on the patio of Clark and Rhea’s Beverly Hills mansion, the camera pans along with the couple’s servant, as he walks from their white colonial style mansion to their enclosed patio. It cuts to a medium shot of the couple sitting under a canopy with their respective lawyers discussing the terms of their divorce. The cool, blueish colors of the patio interior mirror the tense atmosphere inside. We pick up the conversation with a frustrated Clark, who says “give her whatever she wants, everything. To the penny, the whole thing.” With an air of smugness, Rhea lifts up her napkin, waves it in her hand and says smugly, “No. I prefer to remain Mrs. Clark Gable.” If Clark Gable was the “King of Hollywood,” Gable and Lombard makes it clear that Rhea considered herself the de-facto “Queen.” Sitting in her palace overlooking her kingdom, she will not give up her crown easily.

“I prefer to remain Mrs. Clark Gable.”

Because of Gable’s marital status, writing about the Gable and Lombard affair in the 1930s became a tricky balancing act for the gossip columnists and studio publicity agents. Without completely undermining the conservative ideology of the Hollywood studios, the initial approach that the popular press took was to label Gable and Lombard’s romance a “friendship” (Fletcher 1936, pg. 5). Additionally, as I’ve noted in a previous blog post, fan magazines often focused on Gable 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.

This tactic ultimately benefitted Lombard and hurt Rhea who, in fact, was seen by the public as the “other woman.” The final push towards divorce was the infamous Photoplay article “Hollywood’s Unmarried Husbands and Wives,” which cited Gable and Lombard, along with several other “unmarried” Hollywood couples who “behaved like they were married” (Baskette 1939, pg. 22). To avoid any possible scandal, MGM (Gable’s home studio) effectively gave Clark two options: go through with the divorce and marry Carole, or end their relationship completely. Of course, he chose divorce. In their settlement, Rhea secured a roughly $300,000 advance from Clark’s Gone With the Wind contract, and their divorce was granted on March 8, 1939. Gable and Lombard were married a few weeks later on March 29, 1929 in Kingman, Arizona.

From Photoplay (January 1939).

In addition to the portrayal of Clark and Rhea’s divorce, there are other enjoyable aspects to Gable and Lombard. Michel Legrand’s rich score complements the screen drama and captures the energetic aura of 1930s Hollywood. Similarly, Edith Head’s costumes are lush, and indulge in the glitz and glamour that audiences have come to associate with the studio era. In the 1930s, Head personally designed some of Lombard’s costumes including those worn in Supernatural (1933). She also worked under Paramount’s lead designer and Lombard’s close friend, Travis Banton, to create what she later described as the sleek and polished “Lombard look” (1959, pg. 62). Head’s first-hand knowledge of Lombard’s fashion taste adds a verisimilitude to Clayburgh’s appearance, and helps recreate the late-star’s signature modern, tailored style (see examples below).

However, that’s about as far as I’ll go with my compliments. One of the most glaring issues is how the film offers shallow caricatures of both stars. James Brolin’s Gable is a bumbling stick-in-the-mud, while Jill Clayburgh’s Lombard is disingenuous and unhinged. The film paints a superficial picture of both stars that is based closely on their screen images rather than their public personas. In fact, at times I felt like I was watching parodies of Irene Bullock or Rhett Butler, rather than earnest portrayals of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.

Lombard’s introduction gives us insight into just how absurd the film’s characterization is: she arrives at a posh Hollywood party in an ambulance and is carried in on a stretcher. As the ambulance drivers lower her stretcher on the ground, Lombard pops out from under a white sheet and shouts, “Surprise you bastards!” Lombard did, allegedly, arrive to a party in this fashion (Gehring 2003, pg. 131). But without proper historical context – the “Nervous Breakdown Party” was given by Jock Whitney on February 7th, 1936 in honor of screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart’s wife having just been released from a psychiatric hospital (Townsend 1936, pg. 13) – Lombard’s bizarre entrance makes absolutely no sense, other than to confirm her “authentic” screwball proclivities (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 4).

The most egregious Lombard scene comes much later in the film. At this point in the story, the morality of Gable and Lombard’s affair has been challenged by their respective studios and conservative social groups. At the behest of MGM (Gable’s home studio), he has been invited to speak at a women’s event in an effort to salvage his and Lombard’s reputations. The scene begins with a long shot of a dark sound stage with a big American flag in the background. On the stage at the back of the room, an MGM press agents introduces Clark as “a man of unquestionable dignity, unwavering morality, a God fearing man whose character has been an inspiration” to millions of fans. The camera cuts to a medium shot of Lombard, who is standing at the back of the room to listen to Clark give his speech. Clark is out of focus, and in the foreground Carole stands under a lightbulb reading along with his prepared remarks. As Clark speaks, the camera cuts to a close up of Carole’s face: she’s aghast. Tears well in her eyes as she realizes everything Clark is saying is a lie meant to placate the judgmental audience. Overcome by anger, Carole rushes out of the room.

A few seconds later, in a low-angle shot of Clark, we hear the faint noise of a woman’s voice. The voice grows louder, and the camera cuts to a long shot of the room. From the edge of a frame, a woman walks briskly down the aisle, flanked by the crowd of conservative women. She is dressed in a tight-fitting red dress, with a red feather boa and matching hat. She shouts, “there’s my horny hunk of horse meat. Where ya been angel ass, you know you’re late for your 10 o’clock screw. Mama can’t wait all day she’s got customers!” Suddenly, the woman turns around and to no one’s surprise, it’s Carole! The audience gasps, and faint whispers of incredulity echo through the sound stage. Carole tells everyone off, and quickly leaves the event.

The intended effect of this scene is comedic: not only are we meant to laugh at the audience’s moral condemnation of Gable and Lombard’s relationship, but also at Lombard’s exaggerated impression of female sexuality. I certainly laughed, but not for the reasons that the filmmakers intended. This was my third viewing of Gable and Lombard, but it was the first time that I realized that Carole’s brash antics are a play on the Gone With the Wind scene where Scarlett shows up to Ashley’s birthday party wearing her famous red dress. I discovered that this is a common tactic in Gable and Lombard: not only are the characters variations of the stars’ film roles, but even certain scenarios were taken directly from their films! While lacking in originality, this strategy helps solidify Clark Gable and Carole Lombard iconicity. Audiences in 1976 may not have been familiar with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard as stars, but by conflating their star personas with their films and 1930s Hollywood more broadly, they transcend their historical time period and become pop culture figures.

During the studio era, publicity departments worked hand-in-hand with fan magazines to “produce and sustain marketable star personas” (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 9) in order to “sell” Hollywood stars. One way of achieving this was to draw symbiotic connections between a star’s reel and reel identities. As was the case with Lombard, that meant that during the height of her screwball popularity, countless stories were written to validate her “screwy” off-screen personality. For example, a January 1937 Hollywood article explains how in My Man Godfrey (1936), Lombard’s performance appeared authentic because she “did, literally, betray her real character to the public” (pg. 34). Later on in the same article, two anonymous “friends” are described as “chuckling at the similarity between the mad harum-scarum Irene and the equally mad harum-scarum Lombard.” This article erases Lombard’s performative skills in favor of naturalness, and makes the case that Irene Bullock is simply Lombard “being herself.” In that way, Lombard’s screwball persona becomes a definable and easily marketable commodity for both the studio and publicity outlet apparatus. We still see effects of this today: despite having a varied filmography and success in other genres, Lombard’s zany off-screen disposition and so-called “natural” screwiness are the most identifiable markers of her star persona, and have contributed to her enduring iconicity as a comedienne.

In my opinion, Gable and Lombard simply repeats this symbiotic strategy. But biopics work differently than fan magazine articles: characters require more dimension and fleshed-out personalities, and this film simply wallows in the superficial. The New York Times film critic Vincent Canby said it best when he wrote that Brolin and Clayburgh are “stand-ins” for the real people (1976, pg. 6). The versions of Gable and Lombard that are presented in the film are hollow, and neither character possesses the depth or humanity necessary to make them sympathetic figures.

From Hollywood (January 1937).

The casting is another enjoyable aspect of the film. Universal’s first choice to play Clark Gable was Burt Reynolds, but he turned down the script, believing that he couldn’t adequately capture the late star’s screen presence. The role was also offered to both Steve McQueen and Warren Beatty, before being given to James Brolin. Happily, the hair and makeup department did a fantastic job with Brolin’s appearance, accurately re-creating Gable’s protruding ears and jet black, cowlicked hair. Director Sidney Furie was allegedly more concerned with getting Gable’s casting right because “Lombard is…not so identifiable to younger moviegoers these days” (Farber 1975, pg. 15).

Ali McGraw was Universal’s first choice to play Lombard, but she too turned down the role. After considering both Valerie Perrine and Sally Kellerman, he landed on the then-relatively unknown actress, Jill Clayburgh. Out of the four named options, Clayburgh was by far the best choice. While Perrine and Kellerman vaguely resemble Lombard, I can’t envision either in the role. Similarly, McGraw’s understated acting style and cool persona are incongruous with Lombard’s personality and screen presence. That said, through no fault of her own, Clayburgh does not portray a convincing Lombard. The script is so trite, and Lombard’s character is so exaggerated, that Clayburgh can’t help but portray her with a glib brashness that makes her almost unwatchable. It’s a shame that the script was so weak, because both actors have the talent and charisma to measure up to Gable and Lombard’s iconicity. I’d like to think that with different material, they would have done the stars justice.

From the set: James Brolin and Jill Clayburgh with Sidney Furie.

My biggest issue with Gable and Lombard is the effect that it’s had on the stars’ legacies. In short, Lombard’s relationship with Gable is one of the most defining factors of her posthumous star image, but it has come at the expense of a thorough understanding of her stardom and career. While the film certainly hasn’t done irreparable harm to their images in the way that Mommie Dearest has to Joan Crawford’s, it nonetheless perpetuates a mythology that bears little resemblance to reality. Because Gable and Lombard draws so heavily from fan magazine and publicity department fluff pieces, the versions of Lombard and Gable are just as fictitious as any of their screen roles. Both stars were more than their marriage, and while their relationship was a constitutive part of late-1930s Hollywood discourse, too much cultural value is put into maintaining this romantic narrative (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 154).

Unless you’re a Clark Gable and Carole Lombard completionist, save yourself the 2 hours and 11 minutes and go watch something else. If you’re not yet familiar with Carole Lombard’s films, Gable and Lombard is not the place to start: it is neither entertaining, nor does it offer an accurate portrayal of her stardom. But if you do decide to give Gable and Lombard a go, set your expectations low – and don’t say I didn’t warn you!

WORKS CITED:

Baskette, Kirtley. “Hollywood’s Unmarried Husbands and Wives.” Photoplay, January 1939, pg. 22-23.

Canby, Vincent. “‘Gable and Lombard’ Revives Cliches,” The New York Times, February 12 1976, 6.

Custen, George. Bio/pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Doherty, Edward. “Can the Gable-Lombard Love Story Have a Happy Ending?” Photoplay, May 1938: 18-19.

Farber, Stephen. “Film Notes: How Do You Find a New Clark Gable?” The New York Times, February 15, 1975, pg. 15.

Fletcher, Adele Whiteley. “A Heart to Heart Letter to Carole Lombard and Clark Gable.” Screen Guide, November 1936, pg. 5.

Gehring, Wes D. Carole Lombard: The Hoosier Tornado. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 2003.

Head, Edith and Jane Kesner Ardmore. The Dress Doctor. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1959.

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

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.

Lewis, Frederick. “Is Carole Lombard in Love at Last?” Liberty, November 14, 1936: 46-47.

Townsend, Leo. “Good News,” Modern Screen, March 1936, pg. 13.

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