The evocative June 1937 Photoplay article, “How I Live by a Man’s Code” is no better starting point to dive into the gender politics surrounding Carole Lombard’s stardom. In this wide-ranging interview, Lombard opines about modern working women, and offers tips for the predominately female fan magazine readership on how to successfully navigate a home and work life balance (you can read the full article here). She proclaims defiantly that we are not living in a man’s world, and that “a woman has just as much right in this world as a man, and can get along in it just as well if she puts her mind to it” (Seymore 1937, pg. 12). This optimistic (albeit unrealistic) feminist mantra frames Lombard as the “perfect example of a modern Career Girl,” and lays the foundation for her advice such as “play fair [with men],” “take criticism,” and “pay your share (ibid).”
This article is undoubtedly the most “candid” exploration of Lombard’s feminist impulses, but it was not the only time the public got a taste of her broader political ideology. Lombard was fairly progressive (for her time), and a vocal supporter of FDR. She advocated for his so-called “Wealth Tax,” and proclaimed in 1938 that she was “happy” to pay most of her $465, 000 salary in taxes because “every cent anybody pays in taxes is spent to benefit him” (Othman 1938, pg. 6). Given that this was such an unusual position for a wealthy Hollywood star to take, Lombard’s statement garnered her substantial publicity. Not long after her death, New Yorker journalist Alva Johnston recalled that “probably no other news item ever did so much to increase the popularity of a star” (September 9, 1942 pg. 31). In terms of her feminism, throughout her career Lombard also voiced her opinions on gender equality in the workplace, and women’s participation in the political sphere (a scripted version of which can be heard in the radio show, The Circle, available here).
Essential to the political discourse surrounding Lombard’s star persona was her independent reputation and intuitive business sense. According to Emily Carman, Lombard’s career-minded star image emerged when she “attained greater professional autonomy.” (2008, pg. 598) through her freelance acting career. Less than a year before the Photoplay article was published, Lombard’s seven year contract with Paramount ended; instead of signing another long-term deal, she decided to sign short-term, one-to-three picture contracts with studios of her own choosing – specifically Paramount, Warner Brothers, Selznick International Pictures, RKO, and United Artists. Although in the mid-1930s freelancing was seen as a career risk, it was appealing for stars like Lombard, Janet Gaynor, and Miriam Hopkins (all freelancing trailblazers) because it gave actors a degree of financial and personal freedom from studio control.
Freelancing meant that Lombard could dictate the terms of her contracts and her labor. For example, in 1938 she renegotiated her 1937 contract with Selznick International and became the first star to sign a profit participation deal. Lombard and SIP agreed to a $100, 000 salary plus 20% of her films’ box office gross after the studio earned back $1.6 million (Carman 2016, pg. 158), as well as other perks such as star billing, an eight hour workday, story and co-star approval, and the right to employ the costume designer of her choice (Travis Banton). By all accounts, Lombard appeared to excel in this new phase of her career, so much so that her friend and They Knew What They Wanted (1940) director, Garson Kanin, later recalled that she was “the best producer in the business since Irving Thalberg…she makes her own deals and does as well as anyone could” (Swindell 1975, pg. 273). Practically, freelancing enabled Lombard to use her box office appeal to her advantage, and challenge the restrictive, patriarchal structure of the studio system. 1930s freelance contracts like the ones Lombard negotiated also set a precedent for other stars to push back on the studios’ stranglehold of their workers (most notably, Olivia de Havilland’s 1944 legal victory to end her Warner Brothers contract) (Carman 2016, pg. 3). On a more abstract level, freelancing gave weight to the independent, feminist undertones in the discourse surrounding her star persona; Lombard the “Career Girl” was not only living in a man’s world, she was thriving in it too.
Lombard’s business savvy was complemented by an equally headstrong screen image made famous in screwball comedy, and personified by such roles as Lily Garland (Twentieth Century, 1934) and Hazel Flagg (Nothing Sacred (1937). Screwball is itself an innately political genre, particularly as it re-conceptualized the contours of 1930s femininity. Screwball women, including many of Lombard’s characters, are characteristically unruly and combative, audacious and madcap. The sense of freedom and liberation that is woven into the fabric of screwball’s gender politics manifests itself most pointedly in the “battle of the sexes” trope, whereby the screwball couple fight (verbally and, occasionally, physically) as an metaphor for their 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 rebel against social or personal injustices, and to carve out their own identities in their topsy-turvy, morally restrictive societies. Given physical comedy’s long association with male comedy (Clayton 2007, pg. 146), Lombard’s screwball performances also helped to modernize the image of the female comic in Hollywood cinema by refuting the notion that women were too genteel for roughhousing. Implicitly too, physical comedy helped to solidify the alleged authenticity of Lombard’s independent star persona, giving it grounding in her atypical off-screen image.
When we consider how the star system worked in the studio era, we can begin to understand the greater financial and social imperative behind Lombard’s very public feminist ideology. Fan magazines, gossip columnists, and studio publicity departments all worked hand-in-hand to micro-manage the information that was released about Hollywood stars; in many cases, the public was fed stories that would reaffirm a star’s established persona. As we’ve just seen, in Lombard’s case in the mid-to-late 1930s, both on and off-screen she generally embodied all of the characteristics of a modern, independent career woman. There was a sense of symbiotic harmony in her star image, as if her film characters were merely natural extensions of her real personality. As such, we must view the “How I Live by a Man’s Code” article – and Lombard’s feminism at large – within that context. In 1937 Carole Lombard may have been in a position to be more forthcoming about her feminist ideology given her greater contractual freedom as a freelancer, but any gesture that she made towards social politics should still be viewed through the lens of her established star persona.
The Photoplay article makes strides in advocating for women’s place in the public sphere, but predictably, it is not a full-throated endorsement of progressive femininity. From the outset, Lombard’s abundant career advice is called into question by the injunction “be feminine.” Femininity is explicitly defined as something safe and reassuring; it is both consumable (eg. Lombard encouraging women to fuss over “choosing the right shade of lipstick”) and superficial (eg. encouraging women to get upset about a run in their stockings) (Seymore 1937, pg. 78). The potentially transgressive strains in Lombard’s message are made palatable because they are grounded in what is described as “all her feminine prerogatives” (ibid). This article exposes the contradiction inherent in Lombard’s feminism, namely that it stemmed out of the material reality of her career and the cultural constraints of the period in which she was living and working (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 184). Of course, that is not to discount Lombard’s feminism entirely; she was indeed outspoken in defining her politics. Nevertheless it is important not to be anachronistic; as a movie star, Lombard’s feminism was necessarily restricted to the available discourse at the time and therefore appears inconsistent. Therefore, while it is tempting to paint Lombard as a progressive feminist star, we must always keep in mind that in the 1930s, her feminism served to “authenticate” her established independent screwball persona.
Carman, Emily. “Independent Stardom: Female Film Stars and the Studio System in the 1930s.” In Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Film Journal, Vol. 37, No. 6 (2008): 583-615.
Carman, Emily. Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015.
Clayton, Alex. The Body in Hollywood Slapstick Comedy. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc. 2007.
Johnston, Alva. “Public Relations – IV.” New Yorker. September 9, 1942, pg. 31.
Kiriakou, Olympia. Becoming Carole Lombard: Stardom, Comedy, and Legacy. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.
Othman, Frederick C. “Carole Lombard ‘Glad to Pay’ $465,000 in Taxes.” San Jose News, August 26 1938, 6.
Seymore, Hart. “Carole Lombard tells: How I Live By a Man’s Code.” Photoplay, September 1937, 12-13; 78.
Swindell, Larry. Screwball: The Life of Carole Lombard. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1975.