More Than the “Queen of Screwball Comedy:” Carole Lombard’s Lesser Known Films

A few weeks ago a friend suggested that I share my list of favorite Carole Lombard films. Over the past 15 years I’ve made no secret about my preferences for such titles as Hands Across The Table (Mitchell Leisen, 1935) and Nothing Sacred (William Wellman, 1937) over others like Fools for Scandal (Mervyn LeRoy, 1938). As is often the case with stars closely identified with a particular genre, many of Lombard’s “best of” lists are screwball comedy heavy. They’re a great starting point for those unfamiliar with Lombard’s acting style, but they also offer an incomplete portrait of her diverse twenty-year career. Films like My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936) and To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942) are rightly celebrated for their technical finesse, razor-sharp dialogue, and enduring cultural significance, but there’s also more to Lombard’s stardom and career than just screwball comedy. So, instead of rehashing a basic list of screwball greats, what follows are my suggestions (in no particular order) of some of Lombard’s lesser known films that reflect her dynamic talent and versatility.

Smith’s Pony (Alfred J. Goulding, 1927)

No Carole Lombard film list is complete without at least a few of her Mack Sennett silent comedies. Lombard made 18 comedy shorts with the legendary slapstick producer between 1927 and 1929, appearing in both supporting and lead roles. I was initially hesitant to include Smith’s Pony because until recently, it was only available to view in an archival setting. However, I’ve managed to track down a fairly decent copy (see link below). Smith’s Pony was the first film that neophyte Lombard made upon signing her contract with Sennett, and remains one of the standouts of her silent period. Smith’s Pony was part of the “Smith Family” series that Sennett began producing in 1925, which he conceived to reflect “the average American family…who just naturally manage to get themselves into one predicament after another.” He had previously attempted a family series in 1920, but the Smith iteration was his first with recurring actors: Raymond McKee and Ruth Hiatt play Jimmy and Mabel Smith, respectively, while Mary Ann Jackson (later of Our Gang fame) was cast as their daughter, Bubbles, and Sennett’s dog, Teddy III, plays Captain. The Smith series was a major success, and over the course of the next four years Sennett produced nearly two dozen films. In this installment, the Smiths go on vacation to San Francisco. Along their journey they eat at a Chinese restaurant and attend a local horse show where Bubbles becomes enamored with a shetland pony. She pleads with Jimmy to buy it for her and he eventually relents, but he does not want to tell Mabel about their family’s newest addition until they return home. Unfortunately, she overhears Jimmy bargaining with the horse’s owner, Lillian (played by Lombard), and mistakenly believes that they are running away together. Lillian was one in a long line of modern “vamp” characters that Lombard played in her early career, trading on her youthful beauty and irresistible sex appeal. It’s been said that Lombard’s so-called “natural” affinity for screwball grew out of her formative years with Sennett, but because she was hired to be one of his “bathing beauties,” she is far less physical than one might expect. Smith’s Pony is typical of the coquettish roles that make up the bulk of her silent oeuvre.

The SMITH’S PONY file is too large for WordPress, but I have uploaded it to my Google Drive. You can download it for free here.

The Swim Princess (Alfred J. Goulding, 1928)

Smith’s Pony may be representative of Sennett-era Lombard, but The Swim Princess is arguably the best of the bunch. By the time The Swim Princess went into production in January 1928, Lombard’s star status in Sennett’s troupe was on the rise. In late-1927, Lombard’s career was put on pause following a devastating car accident that left her with permanent facial scars. While she recuperated at home, Sennett gave her ample publicity to keep her name in the press, and promised her meaty roles upon her return to work. The Swim Princess was one of the first films she made following her accident, and she has a “star reveal” moment fit for a Hollywood A-lister. Framed lovingly in a medium close up, Lombard first appears with her back to the camera. As she turns around, she flashes a triumphant grin (with her hair and cloche hat strategically placed to cover her scars) as if to say “I’m back!” The Swim Princess was the fourth installment in Sennett’s “Girl Comedies” series, which was an updated version of his aforementioned bathing beauties ensemble. It follows the hijinks of a collegiate swim team and, in keeping with the gratuitous spirit of his bathing girls, is ripe with full-body shots of young female athletes in tight fitted swim suits. Lombard plays the rebellious star athlete, Trudy, who pays more attention to boys than her sport. She gets arrested for reckless driving on the way to her swim meet, which puts her team’s future at risk. Unlike many of Lombard’s Sennett shorts, The Swim Princess is the rare opportunity to see her performs what I consider to be some of the most demanding stunt of her career: in a feat of endurance and sheer fortitude, she balances between the doorway of a moving train and a car! The only surviving copies are housed in the UCLA and Cinémathèque française archives, so unfortunately your chances of seeing this film are low. But take my word for it: The Swim Princess is silly fun that is typical of Keystone’s irreverent style.

From left to right: Jim Hallett, Daphne Pollard, Barney Hellum, and Lombard.

It Pays to Advertise (Frank Tuttle, 1931)

Lombard’s “best known” pre-Code films are undoubtedly No Man of Her Own (Wesley Ruggles, 1932) and Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934), but It Pays to Advertise is a cute comedy worthy of a distinguished place in her early career filmography. The film gave her a chance to distance herself from her early-30s glamour girl persona, which exploited her conventional beauty and feminine allure at the expense of performative substance. In It Pays to Advertise, Lombard got the chance to be more than just a pretty face. It was the first of two films that she made in 1931 with Norman Foster (the second being Up Pops the Devil), and their chemistry is an undeniable highlight. As you can probably guess from the title, the film chronicles the allure of modern advertising. Rodney (Foster) wants to prove that you can sell anything with just the right marketing. He decides to promote a made-up product called “13 Soap” with the slogan “unlucky for dirt;” it is an overnight success. The only problem? There is no such soap! The film’s presentation of mass marketing ignited a debate in 1931 about the state of product placement in Hollywood cinema. Not long after the film’s release, P.S. Harrison of the eponymous trade paper, Harrison’s Reports, published a scathing article in which he predicted excessive product placement would one day “dwindle [studio] profits” and ultimately “kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.” He, along with producer and Universal co-founder, Carl Laemmle, issued a dire warning to the Hollywood studios: “make more films like It Pays to Advertise, and you’ll run the risk of squandering public good will.” By modern standards the film’s depiction of marketing is rather quaint, but the conversation that it inspired is eerily prescient given the unwieldy conglomeration our current media landscape.

From left to right: Eugene Pallette, Carole, Norman Foster, and Skeets Gallagher.

I Take This Woman (Marion Gehring, 1931)

I won’t beat around the bush; there’s only one reason why I’ve included I Take This Woman on my list: Lombard’s chemistry with her co-star, Gary Cooper. Sure, I could wax poetic about the class conflict love story, or tell you that it was stage producer Marion Gehring’s Hollywood debut, but let’s be honest – this film is striking simply because of Lombard and Cooper’s smoldering screen presence. He plays a cowboy and she a wealthy New York socialite; they get married after a whirlwind romance, and must learn to overcome their incompatible backgrounds to navigate life together. Lombard and Cooper had an affair during production that ended on a sour note, although their personal grievances did not prohibit them from making a second film together, the saccharine Shirley Temple vehicle, Now and Forever (Henry Hathaway, 1934). Lombard was not one to speak ill of her paramours, but she made a rare disparaging remark about Cooper: “In conversation, by the time he opens his mouth it’s tomorrow.” However fleeting or tumultuous their private affair may have been, it thoroughly intensified their chemistry; in spite of the run-of-the-mill narrative and blasé stylistic choices, I Take This Woman is a testament to the allure of Hollywood stardom. Sometimes hot people are enough to make a film worth watching!

Virtue (Edward Buzzell, 1932)

One of Lombard’s biggest professional regrets was that she turned down two roles opposite James Cagney. She was originally cast in both Taxi! (Roy Del Ruth, 1931) and Hard to Handle (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933) but was unhappy with her parts; in the case of the latter film, she was even suspended without pay at Paramount for refusing to co-operate with a loan-out deal with Warner Brothers. Lombard never ended up working with Cagney, but she did make a romantic drama with his best friend, Pat O’Brien. Virtue is a sharp, inspiring entry in Lombard’s early-30s filmography, and its grimy ambiance is an example of pre-Code cinema at its best. Fast-talking cabbies, slick gangsters, and prostitutes rub shoulders in seedy hotels, dive bars, and on street corners; every day is a marathon to the next, but the film avoids heavy-handed judgment of its characters or their actions. Lombard’s plays a streetwalker named Mae, who is arguably the most fleshed out role of her early career (yes, even more than Lily Garland in Twentieth Century). Mae tries to go straight she marries a taxi driver, Jimmy (O’Brien), but continues to be punished for her past sins. She befriends another reformed prostitute, Gert (Shirley Grey), and is soon implicated in a blackmail-murder plot. Mae gets dragged back into the underworld that she desperately fought to leave behind, and the fate of her freedom and marriage are thrown into jeopardy. Lombard thrived as a sassy pre-Code dame, blending world-weary cynicism with just the right amount of disarming honesty and sex appeal. Buzzell makes great use of mirrors (both literally and metaphorically) to symbolize character deception and to advance the narrative. Close-ups on Lombard’s round, expressive eyes – her greatest feature – remind us that underneath Mae’s thorny shell, she is hopelessly devoted to Jimmy. But make no mistake; she is nobody’s fool. With a superb supporting cast of pre-Code stalwarts like Mayo Methot and Jack La Rue, Virtue is an arresting foray into the hypocrisy of moral redemption.

Lombard and Pat O’Brien in a publicity photo for Virtue (1932).

Brief Moment (David Burton, 1933)

A final pre-Code highlight is the melodrama Brief Moment, which was the first of Lombard’s two pairings with Gene Raymond. She plays Abby Fane, a nightclub singer who marries a lazy playboy, Rodney, living off his father’s millions. Abby encourages Rodney to get a job, but after only a few weeks he falls back into his old habits. Abby is in line with the “gold-digger with a heart” character type of Lombard’s early career: she is the dramatic version of Lillian, and like Smith’s Pony, this film leans into Lombard’s sophisticated and conventionally beautiful image to make her characterization believable. When Lombard landed her Paramount contract in 1930, she was a relatively blank slate. The studio was eager to duplicate the success they had with stars like Kay Francis and Marlene Dietrich, so they transformed Lombard into their next glamour girl. In the early-30s Lombard’s star persona was dripping with refinement, and complemented by her real-life romance with William Powell (to whom she was married from 1931 to 1933). Powell’s urbanity added a worldly quality to Lombard’s stardom, and together, they personified the chic glamour of the Hollywood set. Lombard’s sophisticated persona is not on equal footing with her more famous screwball screen image, but when she was given the space to develop her characters, she is able to imbue warmth into otherwise hard archetypal roles. Lombard compensates Abby’s brooding with a fragile undertone that softens her around the edges. Abby is stern with Rodney in an effort to make him change his ways, but Lombard plays her with her characteristic disarming affection that, at times, makes her seem almost maternal.

Lombard and Gene Raymond in a publicity photo for Brief Moment (1933).

The Gay Bride (Jack Conway, 1934)

Carole Lombard once called The Gay Bride the “worst” film she ever made. I disagree: that honor goes to the abysmal screwball comedy, Fools for Scandal. The Gay Bride may not be in the league of some of Lombard’s greatest comedies, but as I outlined in my review, it’s a farcical twist on the gangster story with solid performances from Lombard, Chester Morris, and Nat Pendleton. It was the only film that Lombard made at Metro-Goldwyn Mayer; by the end of her 20 year Hollywood career, she worked at every major studio in town. In keeping with MGM’s penchant for opulence, one notable highlights is a musical number featuring Lombard in angelic close-up shots. But Lombard’s character, Mary, is no saint: she is a ruthless gold-digger on the hunt for her next prey. She works her way through a mob until she meets her match in Jimmy the “Office Boy,” who sees through her phony affectations. What The Gay Bride lacks in bold, artistic choices it makes up in its comedic flourish, represented particularly well in Pendleton’s oafish performance as the himbo gangster, “Shoots” Magiz. Some fans may have written off The Gay Bride entirely because of Lombard’s negative opinion, but it is worthy of a much higher ranking in her comedy oeuvre.

From left to right: Jack Conway, Lombard, and Chester Morris.

Swing High, Swing Low (Mitchell Leisen, 1937)

In my estimation, Swing High, Swing Low has garnered an unfairly negative reputation because of the dismal quality of the available prints. At some point in the years since its release, a subpar copy was made from an incomplete 35mm print and footage from director Mitchell Leisen’s personal 16mm copy; most versions in circulation today are from that botch job. Print issues aside, I content that Swing High, Swing Low is a marvel and, as I wrote in my lengthier review, features one of Lombard’s strongest performances of her career. At times, Lombard’s early performances could be a bit histrionic and wooden, but in this film she handles the comedy-melodrama hybrid with a confident, understated maturity that signals her significant growth as an actor. Swing High, Swing Low was the third of four film she made with Fred MacMurray, and the second with director Mitchell Leisen. In many ways, the film parallels their earlier collaboration, Hands Across the Table, in both its aesthetic drama and sympathetic framing of ill-fated romance. I have confirmed that Paramount does not have the original negative in their archive, but it’s a mystery as to whether it is buried deep within the Fox collection in the Disney vault. A proper restoration of Swing High, Swing Low is sorely needed, and in my opinion, a little TLC will do wonders rehabilitating the film’s status.

Lombard and MacMurray in a publicity photo for Swing High, Swing Low (1937).

They Knew What They Wanted (Garson Kanin, 1940)

Admittedly, I have my issues with They Knew What They Wanted. Principally, Charles Laughton’s hammy performance as Italian vintner, Tony Patucci, is out of sync with the film’s downtrodden tone. But even with its faults, the film is an example par excellence of Lombard’s ease with heavy, melodramatic material. After a string of successful screwball comedies including the aforementioned My Man Godfrey and Nothing Sacred, Lombard was getting tired with the genre and feared that her comedic iconicity would lead to her becoming typecast. Her seven-year Paramount contract expired in 1937, and she embarked on a freelance career. After completing a one-picture deal with Warner Brothers for Fools for Scandal, Lombard abandoned screwball altogether and turned to melodrama. They Knew What They Wanted was the final film in what I have dubbed her “dramatic phase,” and while my favorite film from the era is In Name Only (Jack Conway, 1939), Lombard’s performance as waitress-turned-mail order bride, Amy Peters, is confident, introspective, and tragic. Amy is tired of life, and out of desperation, accepts Tony’s hand in marriage despite never meeting in person. Tony is afraid of rejection, so he sends Amy a photo of his farm hand, Joe; when she arrives at his vineyard, she is understandably upset but agrees to marry him anyway. Keen to win over Amy’s affections, Tony falls off his roof on the eve of his wedding in a display of bravado, and is bedridden during the first few months of their marriage. Amy is lonely and aching for companionship, so she turns to Joe for comfort – and ends up pregnant. Lombard plays Amy with tenderness and biting suspicion; like some of Lombard’s pre-Code characters, Amy adopts a hard shell for self-protection, and only lets down her guard in moments of weakness. Some fans have criticized RKO’s casting of William Gargan as an “unbelievable” love interest opposite Lombard. I wholeheartedly disagree: he makes Joe slick enough to seduce Amy when she is at her most vulnerable. Gargan’s grounded acting style is a much-needed contrast to Laughton’s theatrics, and his brusque and weathered image add an earthy quality to the film.

From left to right: Harry Carey, Frank Fay, Charles Laughton, and Lombard.

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