Carole Lombard died eighty years ago today. She was returning to Los Angeles from a successful WWII defense bonds tour in Indiana, which was organized by the Hollywood Victory Committee in support of the U.S. war effort. She, along with 21 others including her mother, Elizabeth Peters, and MGM press agent, Otto Winkler, perished when their plane crashed into Mt. Potosi, just outside of Las Vegas. Lombard’s tragic death has been discussed at length by myself and others, and nothing I add here will adequately encapsulate the magnitude of that loss. On this solemn anniversary I choose to celebrate her vivacious spirit and the indelible mark she left on classical Hollywood cinema.
Among her many professional accomplishments, Carole Lombard can lay some claim to inspiring an entirely new form of screen humor. In 1934, audiences were introduced to two films – Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night and Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century – that would become the blueprints for a genre that would eventually be called screwball comedy. Lily Garland (her character in Twentieth Century) embodies many of the prototypical screwball heroine’s characteristics, and her feisty confidence is symbolic of the genre’s progressive (for their time) gender politics. Screwball heroines like Lily are independent spirits who flaunt their “unruliness” – or the defiance of conventionally feminine appearance or behavior – as if it were a badge of honor. Lily’s transgressive streak is a thread that weaves throughout Lombard’s entire screwball oeuvre, and book-ends Twentieth Century with her final screwball comedy, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Hitchcock, 1941). In fact, it was a Variety review about My Man Godfrey (La Cava, 1936) that first christened Lombard’s performance style as “screwy.” Given the genre’s etymology, it’s no wonder that the link between Lombard and screwball comedy is so tightly intertwined; her dizzy temperament is the essence of cinematic screwiness (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 72). That iconicity helped to establish Lombard’s reputation as the “Queen” of screwball comedy.
Lombard had been working as an actress for over a decade prior to being cast in Hawks’ film, but Twentieth Century set her career on an entirely new course. Until that point, her proficiency as a screen comedienne had only been tested in Mack Sennett’s slapstick comedy shorts, but in 1934 her comedic prowess was still relatively unproven. As one of Mack Sennett’s “Bathing Beauties,” Lombard was given some opportunity to hone her physical comedy skills in films like The Swim Princess (Alfred J. Goulding, 1928) and The Campus Vamp (Harry Edwards, 1928). Contrary to popular belief, Lombard’s silent comedies are far less physically demanding than one might expect, and her primary role in Sennett’s acting troupe was to be beautiful eye-candy. Her Sennett phase is often cited as a precursor to her screwball stardom, but if we consider that body of work in totality, there’s very little indication that Lombard was a so-called “natural” comedian. Her next studio, Paramount, must have thought so too because upon her signing a seven year contract in 1930, they molded her into a glamour girl. In the early-30s Carole Lombard was chic personified, and was even voted Hollywood’s best dressed star (a title that she eventually came to resent). Her star persona’s sophisticated aura was solidified by her marriage to William Powell (from 1931-1933), whose own debonaire image complemented her screen glamour. During their brief period of marital bliss, Lombard also starred in a few consecutive films including Ladies’ Man (Mendes, 1931), No More Orchids (Lang, 1932), and The Eagle and the Hawk (Walker, 1933) that reinforced her beautiful, esoteric image.
Twentieth Century recalibrated Lombard’s image and career, and it gave her the space to harness the untapped elements of her performative arsenal. It was the first film to showcase the range of her acting skills, and through much of the decade she honed her comedic timing to perfection, enshrining full-bodied physicality as her trademark. There’s an uninhibited, electric quality to Lombard’s brand of comedy that her voice and facial features alone cannot convey. She gesticulates with the force of her entire body, almost as a way to channel the undercurrent of nervous energy that radiates from within. This is no more evident than in a film like Nothing Sacred (Wellman, 1937), which is arguably the pinnacle of Lombard’s physical inhibition. Her roughhousing with co-star Fredric March can best be described frantic; she punches, kicks, screams, and even jumps into the Hudson River, pushing her stamina to the limit.
Lombard’s physical comedy carries historical significance, too. She was certainly not the first female physical comedy star to appear on screen, but her screwball performances refuted the contemporaneous belief that women were too delicate to perform physical comedy as well as their male peers. Female comedy discourse, particularly in the early 20th century, often centered on what’s known as the “pretty/funny” divide. Historically, women were considered either pretty or funny – not both. Henry Jenkins argues that in the 1920s and early-1930s, self-deprecating humor conveyed a comedienne’s “grotesque parody of traditional femininity” (1992, pg. 260); when women were funny, they were often stripped of their agency and sexual appeal. Comedic “unruliness” was depicted as a threatening disruption to the rigid, socially enforced gender binary. Lombard challenges the pretty/funny divide by being conventionally beautiful and attractive; in all of her screwball comedies, there is never a moment of compromise. In fact, even with string, wet hair à la Nothing Sacred or a black eye in Love Before Breakfast (Lang, 1936), Lombard remained irresistible.
Lombard has been cited as an inspiration for generations of female comics, and her performance style most closely resembles the likes of Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. Ball, a friend and mentee of Lombard’s, confessed that Carole once came to her in a dream to encourage her to pursue television (Ball 1997, pg. 168). Lombard cannot lay claim to any of I Love Lucy‘s groundbreaking comedy, but her influence is evident in Ball’s kooky and boisterous physicality. Lombard’s films are now almost a century old, but much like Ball, there’s a refreshing, modern quality to her screen antics. Lombard’s characters were vivacious, charismatic, and full of vitality, and the nervous energy that I described earlier is almost like a spark of electricity, cracking with the intensity of a lightning bolt.
At age thirty-three, Carole Lombard had many unfulfilled goals, the likes of which we, as fans, can only barely comprehend. She may have reached a level of power and fame that few will ever achieve, but Lombard continued to challenge herself professionally. 1937 marked a high point in her career: not only was she the highest paid actor in Hollywood (raking in a whopping $465,000), but it also marked the beginning of a lucrative freelance career. Freelancing gave her the freedom to sign short-term contracts with the studios and producers of her choosing including Warner Brothers, RKO, and Selznick International. At a time when Lombard was growing tired of screwball and feared typecasting, these freelance deals set her career on a new course in melodrama in such films as In Name Only (Cromwell, 1939) and They Knew What They Wanted (Kanin, 1940). What’s more, Lombard was the first Hollywood star to include profit participation deals in her studio contracts (in which she took a reduced salary in exchange for a percentage of her films’ box office grosses), paving the way for other actors to receive equitable compensation. Lombard, along with her freelancing contemporaries like Miriam Hopkins and Janet Gaynor, fundamentally improved the conditions of star labor in the studio system.
Given Lombard’s age at the time of her death, she was nearing what was considered a transitional period for classical Hollywood-era actresses. It’s futile to speculate how she would have dealt with aging and all of the barriers that her peers had to face decades later. Would she have continued acting? Or would she have shifted gears into another area in the industry, perhaps leaning into her natural affinity for business? Had her lifelong dream of motherhood come true, would she have retired from the screen to raise a family with her second husband, Clark Gable (as she was once quoted as saying)? No one knows for certain. Lombard had a wise, almost ironic perspective about aging. In 1938 (at age thirty) she observed:
I don’t know of anything in the world more beautiful, more fascinating than a woman ripe with years, rich and lush as velvet with experience, her humor as tangy and flavorous as sunripened fruit…I LOVE the idea of getting old…(Hall 1938, pg. 68).
The cruelty of fate did not allow her to reach old age. However, in her all-too-short thirty-three years Lombard left us with a diverse body of film and radio work. From slapstick to screwball comedy to melodrama, Lombard’s career touched every major Hollywood studio and nearly all genres. While she is best known for her screwball comedies, to only call her a screwball comedian would be to underplay the chameleon-like evolution of her career and star persona. As the years pass and Lombard’s life story becomes further enshrined in Hollywood’s history, I hope that we never lose sight of her trail-blazing independence and versatility.
Ball, Lucille. Love, Lucy. New York: Berkeley Boulevard, 1997.
Hall, Gladys. “Lombard – As She Sees Herself.” Motion Picture, November 1938. 34-35, 66-68.
Jenkins, Henry. What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. New York: Columbia University, 1992.
Kiriakou, Olympia. Becoming Carole Lombard: Stardom, Comedy, and Performance. New York: Bloomsbury, 2020.
Kiriakou, Olympia. “Notebook Primer: Screwball Comedy.” Mubi, January 6, 2022. Available at: https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/notebook-primer-screwball-comedy