Hollywood’s not-so-glamorous girl (1929 – 1934)

Carole Lombard is undoubtedly most closely associated with screwball comedy, and her “Queen of Screwball Comedy” moniker continues to be a constitutive part of her posthumous legacy. Her enduring screwball iconicity is a testament to her comedic proficiency and her charismatic screen presence. However, reflecting on her career as a whole, by comparison to films in other genres, her screwball movies make up a surprisingly small portion of her filmography. Contrary to the conventional narrative about Lombard’s career trajectory, there is no teleological link between her silent and screwball comedy phases, nor was she ever destined for screwball fame.

Fans of Lombard will know that two years of her early career were spent working for Mack Sennett as one of his “Sennett Girls.” In both contemporaneous and current writing on Lombard’s career, her Sennett period is often contextualized as an alleged “natural” precursor to her screwball stardom in the mid-1930s. For example, a Life magazine profile on Lombard’s film, True Confession (Wesley Ruggles, 1937), notes that she “can lay some claim to having started the current craze for slapstick farce…during her late teens she trained for comedy by dodging custard pies for Mack Sennett” (December 13, 1937, pg. 70). Similarly, in another article from Life, journalist Noel Busch explains: “… she had acquired a magnificent sense of comedic timing which, when Sennett farce was sublimated into screwball comedy, became her greatest asset” (October 11, 1938, pg. 63).

These observations, along with dozens of others with similar sentiment, make the case that Lombard’s Sennett films benefitted her career in comedy, and that slapstick was a stepping stone to her later screwball success. Of course, these columnists ignore the fundamental differences between the slapstick and screwball sub-genres and, as I’ve argued in a previous essay, Lombard’s silent comedy performances aren’t particularly slapstick-heavy. As a Sennett Girl, her primary narrative function was to be decorative, and she was an infrequent participant in the physical comedy action.

From Life magazine (October 11, 1938).

After Lombard’s Sennett contract ended in 1929, she signed a short deal with Pathé, and while she landed roles in such films as The Racketeer, Big News, and High Voltage, her career was still in its infancy and her stardom was still not defined. In 1930, she signed a long-term contract with Paramount and remained with them until 1937. Even with the backing of one of Hollywood’s biggest studios, it took several years for Lombard to achieve her greatest screen success and screwball notoriety. In reality, Lombard did not become a full-fledged star until her role in Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934), which came about on account of a loan-out deal with Columbia Pictures (one of many throughout her career). Her early years with Paramount were what I call her “star building” phase, meaning that the studio tested out different film genres and screen images to see which would best resonate with the public. Between 1929 and 1934 (when she left Sennett and the year she made Twentieth Century, respectively) Lombard’s star persona was the antithesis of her high-energy screwball image, and she was known as one of Hollywood’s most fashion-conscious glamour girls.

Part of Lombard’s glamorous star persona stemmed from her relationship with her first husband, William Powell. Biographer Roger Bryant explains that by 1930, Paramount “moved Powell towards the sophisticate persona that would become familiar” (2006, pg. 65) in future years, typified most clearly by his role as the debonaire detective Nick Charles in MGM’s The Thin Man series. Off-screen, Powell was part of a social circle dubbed the Hollywood sophisticates, and frequently socialized with actors such as Ronald Colman and Richard Barthelmess. The three men were known as the “Three Musketeers,” and stories and photographs of their extravagant bachelor lifestyles, vacations, and nightlife were a staple in contemporaneous fan magazines (see below).

Ronald Colman, William Powell, and Richard Barthelmess on vacation at Catalina, c. 1926.

Powell and Lombard met and quickly fell in love on the set of Man of the World (Richard Wallace and Edward Goodman, 1931), and their romance took Hollywood by surprise: the popular press went into overdrive trying to explain why one of Hollywood’s most eligible bachelors would be interested in settling down with a woman 16 years his junior. The couple married on June 6, 1931, and were soon featured in several articles about how each star changed aspects of their personality in order to accommodate the other. For example, according to Screenland columnist Ruth Biery, Powell had become “less selfish” and had “forgotten himself” and his cavorting ways all in the name of love, while Lombard went from an innocent “little lady” to a mature wife (September 1931, pg. 55). Photographs of the couple in their home or out around town emphasized their compatibility and alleged innate urbane sophistication (see below). Together, Powell and Lombard embodied the chic modern Hollywood couple (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 58).

Although Powell had left Paramount for Warner Brothers around the time of his and Lombard’s marriage, Paramount still recognized that any similarities in their individual star personas would make them a popular star couple, and that public interest would carry-over to Lombard’s stardom. Post-nuptial, the studio set about to turn Lombard’s star persona into the female equivalent of Powell’s debonair screen image.

The first step in Paramount’s star makeover was a weight loss regimen that transformed the former “Carol of the Curves” into the “svelte Carole Lombard.” In an April 1933 issue of Photoplay, an unnamed columnists profiles how a “physical culturist” named Sylvia reduced Lombard from a “size sixteen to a twelve in four weeks” (pg. 50), complete with side-by-side before and after photos. The article explains Lombard’s diet and daily fitness routine, and concludes with tips and meal suggestions for Photoplay readers (who were largely women) to implement in their daily lives.

It’s an overstatement to call Lombard’s 1920s figure “big” and “husky” (as the article does), nor should her weight ever have been a barrier achieving stardom. And yet, the negative connotation associated with her “curvaceous” neophyte physique speaks to the unattainable beauty standards expected of Hollywood stars in the studio era. The Photoplay article makes the case that Lombard could only reach her full potential as a glamour girl if she was a certain size and shape. Strategically, Lombard’s makeover was “accomplished in full view of the public…and made part” (McLean 2005, pg. 33) of the discourse surrounding her star persona. This approach was designed to encourage the predominately female fan magazine readers to feel “invested…in the culture of Hollywood” (Orgeron 2009, pg. 16) and Lombard’s new sophisticated movie star image.

Lombard’s star makeover culminated in ample publicity and roles that showcased her “svelte” glamour including Anne Holt in No More Orchids (Walter Lang, 1932) and Alabam Lee in Lady by Choice (David Burton, 1934). Unfortunately, most of her Paramount performances aren’t particularly memorable, largely because they lack substance and indulge too heavily in superficial glamour. This is perhaps no more evident than in the World War One drama, The Eagle and the Hawk. Lombard plays the mysterious “Beautiful Lady,” a character name that signals the surface glamour of Lombard’s stardom. Her major scene takes place on in a park opposite Fredric March. As they sit together on a park bench at night, March’s character, Jerry, recounts the horrors of war. Lombard’s character listens sympathetically and practically silently; she is little more than an observer of Jerry’s psychological trauma. In close-up shots throughout this scene, the soft glow of the moon light illuminates the trim of her fur coat, which frames her face almost like an angel’s halo (see below). While Lombard certainly looks ravishing, her limited performance in this film (and others) suggest that Paramount did little to develop her star persona beyond the trappings of superficial glamour.

Carole Lombard and Fredric March in The Eagle and the Hawk (1933).

As I’ve previously argued, Lombard’s glamour girl persona came at a definite cost, as it prioritized her beauty over her acting capability (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 63). What’s more, there’s evidence that her persona was not resonating with audiences the way that Paramount had hoped it would. Fan magazine articles from as early as 1932 show that some in the industry were questioning the effectiveness of Lombard’s star persona. For example, Photoplay‘s editorial office pseudonym, Cal York, penned an article entitled “30 Girls in a Race for Stardom.” They describe Lombard as “the Constance Bennett type in appearance and ability, and yet screen exhibitors…are not wasting any time crying for Lombard pictures – yet” (April 1932, pg. 75).

Comparisons with Bennett and Miriam Hopkins are common in early fan magazine discourse about Lombard, largely due to their similar angular bone structure and platinum blonde hair. But of course, to make one’s mark in Hollywood, one needs to be distinguishable from their peers. Lombard’s resemblance and similar performative mannerisms as other Hollywood starlets was so striking that in 1930, Motion Picture magazine columnist Herbert Cruikshank called her the “three-in-one girl,” noting that she looked like Bennett, and sounded like Jeanne Eagels (November 1930, pg. 74). In order to advance her career, Lombard had to carve out a niche of her own, and yet according to biographer Larry Swindell, until the release of Twentieth Century she was one of the only Paramount “studio girl who was a leading lady without her own stardom” (1975, pg. 115). Lombard had certainly attained a level of fame and had clear acting potential, but had not been given the opportunity by the studio to distinguish herself from her peers in appearance or skill set.

From Photoplay (April 1932).
This photograph of Constance Bennett is often misidentified as being Carole Lombard, largely because of their similar jawlines, complexions, and hair styles.

Paramount largely gave up trying to market Lombard as a Hollywood glamour girl not long after Twentieth Century ended its theatrical run. By then, screwball comedy was gaining popularity across the country, and it became clear to the studio that Lombard’s zany comedic persona was not only unique but also commercially viable. Thanks to the back-to-back successes of Love Before Breakfast (Walter Lang, 1936), The Princess Comes Across (William K. Howard, 1936), My Man Godfrey (Gregory LaCava, 1936), and True Confession, Lombard became known as “The Queen of Screwball Comedy” and personified the genre’s breathless, modern energy. What’s more, by 1936 Lombard began her highly publicized relationship with Clark Gable, whose down-to-earth star persona was a natural fit with Lombard’s newfound screwball image. To reinforce Lombard’s screwball persona and to distance herself from her previous image, in 1937 Lombard even went on-record in an interview with Photoplay columnist Ben Maddox, stating that she “resented being tagged a ‘glamour girl.’ It’s such an absurd, extravagant label. It implies so much that I’m not” (January 1937, pg. 16). Lombard’s glamour girl persona fell flat precisely because of its extravagance; in that form she remained nothing but an image, with little substance or personality behind it. Although this persona did not resonate with audiences, this period in Lombard’s career enabled her to make considerable headway on her climb towards super stardom. Lombard’s early Paramount years were not marked by the fortune and career security of her later screwball fame, but it was a time of immeasurable growth for her star persona.

WORKS CITED

Biery, Ruth. “Why Carole Changed Her Mind.” Screenland, September 1931: 55-56.

Bryant, Roger. William Powell: The Life and Films. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc. 2006.

Cruikshank, Herbert. “Three-In-One Girl.” Motion Picture, November 1930, pg. 74.

“How Sylvia changed ‘Carol of the Curves’ to svelte Carole Lombard.” Photoplay, April 1933, pg. 50-51; 80-81.

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

Maddox, Ben. “The Real Down-Low on Lombard.” Photoplay, January 1937, pg. 16-17.

McLean, Adrienne. Being Rita Hayworth: Labor, Identity, and Hollywood Stardom. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005.

“Movie of the Week: True Confession.” Life. December 13, 1937, pg. 70-71.

Orgeron, Marsha. “‘You Are Invited to Participate’: Interactive Fandom in the Age of the Movie Magazine.” Journal of Film and Video Vol. 61, No. 3 (Fall 2009): 3-23.

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

York, Cal. “30 Girls in a Race for Stardom.” Photoplay, April 1932, pg. 74-75.

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