During a recent Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934) rewatch, I inexplicably zeroed in on Carole Lombard’s reoccurring performative tick. Having spent over a decade watching and writing about Lombard’s films, I have analyzed various aspects of her performances and their wider cinematic and cultural contexts. This particular movement was something that I had mentioned once in passing in a previous analysis (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 82), but for whatever reason, this viewing made me pause and think about it in a new way.
In the film’s opening scene we find Lily (prior to her star transformation, then known as Mildred Plotka) in rehearsal at Oscar’s theater for his Antebellum melodrama. She is informed that her performance is too forceful; she casts her eyes downward to the floor and fidgets with the material of her hip-length blouse in embarrassment. In a second take, she nervously wrings her wrists as she waits for her cue (see figure 1). Later on in the film when the action has transplanted to the 20th Century Limited, Lily is in her compartment with her boyfriend, George (Ralph Forbes), and Oscar’s theatrical assistants, Oliver Webb (Walter Connolly) and Owen O’Malley (Roscoe Karns). Lily gets indignant when Oliver and Owen tell her that her move to Hollywood has caused Oscar’s career to go to ruin. She crosses her arms, and rubs her upper forearms in an anxious motion (see figure 2). A few minutes later in the same scene, Lily vigorously massages her temples when Oliver confesses that Oscar might be on the verge of suicide (see figure 3). Three different moments, all fleeting but equally charged with emotional resonance.
Within the context of Twentieth Century, it’s tempting to read these gestures as nervousness or inexperience. After all, even though Lombard had been acting for nearly a decade by 1934, the stakes were higher for this particular film. Decades later, Howard Hawks recalled the story of how he sensed Lombard was holding back in the early days of production, which he believed stemmed from her feeling intimidated about working with a legendary actor like John Barrymore. Allegedly, Hawks took Lombard aside and asked her what she would do if a man spoke to her the way Oscar talks to Lily. She replied, “I’d kick him in the balls” (Gehring 2003, pg. 120).
Perhaps nerves were a factor, but it cannot fully account for similar hand gestures in different films across her nearly 20 year career. Even in the posthumously released To Be or Not To Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942), Lombard fidgets with her wrists in her first scene. But the Lombard of 1942 was not the same as 1934, and the self-confident, mature aura that she brought to her final performance confirms that this hand gesture is not so easily explained.
As I thought more about these gestures, I considered Lombard’s hands in other films, and what that almost compulsive movement says about her performance style. Her hands distilled the electric, almost frenzied energy that she brought in all of her performances, which is also one of the marked characteristics of her equally buoyant star persona. While I am the first to recognize that Lombard’s talents far exceeded the screwball genre, perhaps in the end, that’s why she became synonymous with that particular comedic style in the first place. The punchy verbal banter and roughhouse physical comedy that are the hallmark characteristics of screwball (especially Lombard’s films) were outlets for her to channel her excessive vitality and zeal.
In a recent e-mail, someone brilliantly described Lombard to me as “the embodiment of champagne,” and I only wish I could have come up with such a perfect description. That apt sentiment gets to the heart of Lombard’s effervescent screen presence. Her hands are a tell-tale cue of that energy just brimming under the surface, ready to bubble over with her infectious, blithe spirit.
Gehring, Wes D. Carole Lombard: The Hoosier Tornado. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2003.
Kiriakou, Olympia. Becoming Carole Lombard: Stardom, Comedy, and Legacy. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.