Carole Lombard once confessed that the gangster-screwball comedy hybrid, The Gay Bride (Jack Conway, 1934), was the worst film she ever made. In the decades since she made her comment, the film has acquired a negative reputation, unfairly dismissed by both biographers and fans as a forgettable entry in her early career filmography. While The Gay Bride is not a comedy par excellence on the level of Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934), My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936), or To Be or Not To Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942), it is by no means Lombard’s worst film, nor does it deserve such a marginal reputation. As it is my goal of this website to recalibrate the discourse around Carole Lombard’s star persona and films, it is only fair to give The Gay Bride a second look and consider why it is worthy of a more distinguished place in her comedy oeuvre.
The Gay Bride tells the story of Mary (Lombard), a gold-digging chorus girl who marries gangster “Shoots” Magiz (Nat Pendleton). The repeal of Prohibition causes Shoots’ illegal liquor business to go belly up, and not long after, he is killed by a rival gangster, Daniel Dingle (Sam Hardy). Ever an opportunist, Mary sets her sights on Dingle, but is wooed away by another gangster, Mickey “The Greek” Mikapopoulis (Leo Carrillo) after he promises to set her up with a trust fund. All the while, Shoots’ bodyguard, Jimmy the ‘Office Boy,’ remains a thorn in Mary’s side – he sees through her phony affectations and brands her a chiseler. As is customary in screwball comedy, Office Boy and Mary’s antagonism eventually turns into love – but since this is a Code-era film, the only way they can live happily ever after is if she divests the illegal money she acquired from The Greek, which she does by handing out handfuls of bills to strangers on the street.
The Gay Bride was adapted from a Charles Francis Coe short story called “Repeal” published in late-1933 in the Saturday Evening Post. Coe’s original tale had a gloomier tone and centered on the fatal consequences of love in a gangster’s lifestyle. “Repeal” was based on the real-life story of Chicago mob boss, James “Big Jim” Colismo, who was murdered outside of his restaurant in 1920. Multiple gunmen were suspected in Colismo’s murder including Al Capone, and the hit was allegedly arranged by his ex-wife, Victoria Moresco, because she was unhappy with the financial settlement from their divorce (Sawyers 1987). Metro-Goldwyn Mayer purchased the film rights in early 1934, and tasked the husband-and-wife writing duo, Sam and Bella Spewak, to lighten it up for the screen. The Spewaks changed Coe’s story from a grisly murder mystery to a comedy romp about a chorus girl’s seduction of rival gangsters. The studio also hired Jack Virgil to compose the music for the film’s only theatrical scene, in which Mary and chorines perform a rendition of John P. Long’s hit “Mississippi Honeymoon.”
MGM assigned the film to the Jack Conway, whose previous credits like Our Modern Maidens (1928) and Red Headed Woman (1932) made him the ideal director to embellish the light, comedic elements of the gangster milieu. Several MGM contract stars were under consideration for the gangster roles including Clark Gable and Lyle Talbot, but the studio eventually settled on Nat Pendleton and Chester Morris. After both Loretta Young and Jean Harlow turned down the role of Mary (Waterbury 1935, pg. 4), MGM secured Carole Lombard through a loan-out deal with her home studio, Paramount. The role of Mirabelle, Mary’s wisecracking girlfriend, was given to ZaSu Pitts, although the studio briefly considered both Isabel Jewell and Una Merkel. Under the working title “Repeal,” production lasted nearly four weeks from September 20th to October 23rd, 1934. The Gay Bride was released in time for the holiday season on December 14th to mixed critical reviews. Lionel Collier of Picturegoer magazine lamented that the film “relies much more on its acting than its plot” (1935, pg. 34), while Andre Sennwald of The New York Times claimed it inspired “loud and vigorous laughter at the expense of the professional assassins of the underworld” (1934, pg. X7).
Collier’s observation is not without merit; Conway’s direction proves his competence, but the film makes few, if any, bold aesthetic choices. In spite of its stylistic blandness, The Gay Bride does make an impression with its performances and comedic flourish. Sennwald’s comment alludes to the film’s obvious silliness, and perhaps that is part of the reason why the film has been discounted for decades. Although the film is set in the underworld, its gangsters are not of the Little Caesar (1931) or Scarface (1932) variety, nor does it offer any sort of social commentary typical of the gangster genre in the classical Hollywood period.
In the 1920s and early-30s, Hollywood was the target by conservative social and religious organizations who wanted the studios to “clean up the movies.” This charge was supported, in part, by the now-discredited Payne Fund Studies (1929-1932) which observed the effects of movies on children and adolescents. Thirteen separate studies concluded that the cinema did not simply hold up a mirror to society, but was an alleged insidious force that directly influenced the behavior and ideology of its audience. This pseudo-scientific investigation gave weight to calls for film censorship, and was one of the many contributing factors that led to the eventual uniform enforcement of the Production Code in July 1934. Given the overlapping industrial and social factors, the gangster genre became the ideal vehicle to offer pointed lessons about criminality, and the gangster’s irreverence toward the law was framed as a threat to the safety and stability of American life. In an effort to pacify their critics, in the early-30s the Hollywood studios reluctantly co-opted virtuous language to frame the gangster’s criminal behavior. For example, Scarface‘s heavy-handed intertitles (see below) were meant to simultaneously disavow the film’s criminality and mobilize audiences into civic action.
The Gay Bride adheres to the gangster genre’s moral consciousness via Mary’s redemption arc, but also by framing her pseudo-romantic interests as the gangsters’ “downfall.” It is important to remember that the Production Code was designed largely to preserve marriage and family, which were seen by its enforcers as the cornerstones of a thriving American society; the gangster’s craven, loose lifestyle was, by definition, incompatible with that ideal. It’s telling that the gangsters in The Gay Bride get their comeuppance via a gold digger; phony marriage and false love are the gangsters’ “punishments” that the Code deemed necessary. Mary’s true motivations are identified only by Office Boy, the one member of the mob who longs for a simple life outside of the underworld. His dream of marriage and legitimacy are his saving graces; Shoots, Dingle, and The Greek are too unrepentant to be afforded the same personal happiness.
The gangsters in The Gay Bride face punishment, but unlike Tony in Scarface or the eponymous Little Caesar, they pose little societal “threat” largely because of their hubris and incompetence. There’s an exaggerated slapstick element to their antics that make them less megalomaniacal and self-destructive, and more like cartoon parodies. Shoots is a gangster in name only: he is goofy, and lacks the intelligence and finesse that is typical of Hollywood’s gangster characterization. He is also unusually passive for a mob boss, and displays about as much bravado as Elmer Fudd. The film establishes his personality deficiency early on: in a transitional dissolve early on in the film, his guttural cheers at the theater are likened to a mooing domesticated bull. Likewise, Office Boy possesses more street smarts and intelligence than his boss, but he too fails to comport with the Hollywood gangster image because he is neither brooding nor violent. When rival gangsters attempt to hijack his car, he ties them up with a comedically loose rope and puts an acorn on their head to shoot at as a warning. There’s an absurd, almost farcical quality to The Gay Bride‘s depiction of the underworld – it is full of not-so-tough guys cosplaying as Hollywood gangsters.
The film’s playful tone is heightened by the hamminess that the actors bring to their roles, particularly evident in scenes between Lombard and Pendleton. A recurring theme in many of Lombard’s films is exaggeration and deception. Whether it be Lily Garland’s egotistical outbursts in Twentieth Century (1934), Hazel’s fake radium poisoning in Nothing Sacred (1937), or Helen’s habitual lying in True Confession (1937), Lombard’s characters often put on a facade to conceal their true intentions. This tendency results in a deliberately layered acting style from Lombard, blending both sincerity and artificiality into singular performances.
In the case of The Gay Bride, Lombard plays Mary’s scenes with Shoots in a decadent, over-the-top style: she gesticulates wildly, and hams up Mary’s hysteria to remind us that her romantic feelings for him are entirely insincere. This is no more evident than when Mary pressures Shoots to revise his will on their wedding night. Mere minutes after their nuptials, she asks him to join her in their bedroom. Thinking that they’re about to consummate their marriage, Shoots eagerly puts on his best robe, pajamas, and cologne. However, when he enters the bridal suite he discovers Mary sitting in bed – alongside her lawyer, Mr. McPherson, and his secretary:
Everything about Mary – from her whimpering, child-like cry of “what will happen to me,” to the ostentatiously poofy chiffon sleeves of her dress and matching oversized handkerchief that she holds dramatically to her face – are deliberate theatrical touches that heighten her insincerity. By this point Mary knows that despite Shoots’ gruff protestations, she has already has him hooked, but her exaggerated performance suggests that she simply can’t help herself. And because Shoots is a little bit dumb and drunk on love, he does not realize that he is being manipulated. This moment is Mary’s emphatic final touch on her admission that Shoots is her “ticket out of the chorus for good,” and she plays the scene as if her life depended on it.
Pendleton’s performance as Shoots is arguably the most entertaining part of The Gay Bride. He deftly juxtaposes Lombard’s cunning theatricality with his skillful mastery of the tough-but-dumb character type. Pendleton’s expressivity comes from his malleable facial features; his wide eyes and furrowed brows move as if his characters are stuck in an endless state of incredulity. The dim-wittedness that manifests from Pendleton’s face is perhaps one of the reasons why he is The Gay Bride‘s clear acting standout, despite the overall brevity of his role. In the 1930s, nobody played the amiable himbo quite like Pendleton, and his likability is evident in roles like Lieutenant Guild in The Thin Man (1932) and Spud in Manhattan Melodrama (1934). In this film, Shoots’ lovesick naïveté is the ideal counterpoint to Mary’s calculated deception.
Though The Gay Bride misses the mark in terms of stylistic panache, overall it is a fun twist on the gangster film, with competent performances and a slapstick storyline to boot. The film is in entirely in keeping with the tone and caliber of some of MGM’s B-comedies, and while it is by no means in the upper echelon of Carole Lombard’s filmography, it’s also entirely undeserving of its “worst film” reputation. If you’ve avoided The Gay Bride up until now because of that unfortunate designation, I encourage you to give it a try – you won’t be disappointed.
Collier, Lionel. “On the Screens Now.” Picturegoer, February 23, 1935, pg. 34-36.
Sawyers, June. “The Vice Lord Who Fell in Love With a Choir Singer.” The Chicago Tribune, July 26, 1987.
Sennwald, Andre. “THE SCREEN; Humorous Adventures of an Acquisitive Chorus Girl in “The Gay Bride,” Now at the Rialto.” The New York Times, December 19, 1934.
Waterbury, Ruth. “The Hidden Hollywood.” Movie Mirror, February 1935, pg. 4.