“A Loud Cheer for the Screwball Girl” (LIFE, October 17, 1938)

By: Noel F. Busch

A nation’s state of mind is reflected in its entertainment. According to the best available statistics, there are currently 500,000 patients in U.S. asylums of one sort or another and the number is growing by 3% a year. Movies have reflected the current trend towards national nuttiness by a wave of what Hollywood calls “screwball comedies.” Screwball comedies last year made more money than any other single type of picture except possibly the Western, which have always been somewhat screwy anyway.

Women are by in large crazier than men. Consequently, it is natural that the outstanding personage in screwball comedies should be a woman. The craze for screwball comedies was launched by Carole Lombard in 1934, with a picture called Twentieth Century. It gathered momentum when she appeared in My Man Godfrey two years later. Last winter, Carole Lombard was the star of both the season’s top screwball comedies: Nothing Sacred and True Confession. In making lunacy popular, the movies have naturally made it attractive. As top specialist in Hollywood’s top specialty, Carole Lombard’s claim to the title of world’s champion attractive screwball is not open to question. It is proven fact that she gets $150,000 per picture, which is top pay for any kind of star; that her total income last year was roughly $500,000; and that she now ranks in a class with Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, Jean Harlow, Shirley Temple, and Mickey Mouse.

Hollywood has always been overrun with actresses skilled at looking as though they were sad, happy, or wanted to go to bed. Lombard has perfected her own emotional gamut. It includes indecision, laziness, hypochondria, and delusions of guilt. She can run up and down it as smoothly as Grace Moore yodels scales. Garbo is the screen’s foremost symbol of glamour, Mae West of rudimentary sex appeal and Myrna Loy of amiability. Lombard represents a quality which is currently more precious to the U.S. than any of the three: utter undependability and registering undependability calls for fine shading and expert understanding of states of mind heretofore lacking in the world’s drama. Sarah Bernhardt’s forte was the obvious one of dying on the stage with fifteen minutes of groanings and moanings. Lombard’s is the more subtle one of appearing in front of a camera as though she were going to die from noting more than a serious hangover.

In addition to reflecting the tastes of their audiences, movies influence their behavior. The influence of Carole Lombard is, at best, debatable. When Clara Bow was in her hey-hey-hey-day, stenographers painted rings under their eyes and during the zenith of Mae West they were inclined to teeter in their walk. Until the rise of Lombard however the movies had never given them grounds for believing that the height of attractiveness lay in total irresponsibility. The Hays organization, which is supposed to censor the movies, is accustomed to restraining such open and above board moral lapses as murder, thievery and concupiscence. It is completely baffled by Miss Lombard who, in her pictures, not only fails to embody any of the cardinal virtues but gives the impression of not knowing what they are.

To act the part of a murderess or a seductress, an actress does not need to kill anyone or lead an immoral life. Similarly the world’s No. 1 attractive neurotic might well in her private life be as place as a Holstein cow at twilight. This point however cannot be proved by the character or career of Carole Lombard. Her personal behavior is certainly kaleidoscopic as that of the characters she impersonates and her career would supply first-rate material for either case history or screen play.

Salient quality of Carole Lombard is superfluity of nervous energy. She gets up too early, plays tennis too hard, wastes time and feeling on trifles and drinks Coca-Colas the way Samuel Johnson used to drink tea. She is a scribbler on telephone pads, inhibited nail-biter, toe-scuffer, pillow-grabber, head-and-elbow scratcher and chain cigarette smoker. When Carole Lombard talks, her conversation, often brilliant, is punctuated by screeches, laughs, growls, gesticulations and the expletives of a sailor’s parrot. Besides originating and being tops at Hollywood’s current on-screen fashion, she originated and is tops at its current off-screen diversion of giving screwy presents.

The reason that there is no cause for alarm in the fact that U.S. women are neurotic is of course that most neuroses, far from being a liability, are worked off in productive channels and cause their possessors to be not only more amusing but more efficient. Carole Lombard betrays her efficiency outside her professional activities by being the best woman skeet shot in Hollywood, having a romance with its No. 1 celebrity, Clark Gable, and being spiritually as well as monetarily solvent – unlike most of her community’s many other celebrities, who are neither.

Most people who become sensationally successful do so far from home. That this is particularly true of Hollywood is best evidenced by Frances Farmer, who had to go from the West Coast to Paris before a producer would give her a contract. Likewise an exception to most rules, Carole Lombard, is an exception to the rule that no Hollywood girls become Hollywood stars. She was born in Fort Wayne, Ind., but coming to California when she was 7, was reared and schooled in Los Angeles.

Carole Lombard’s real name is Jane Peters. Her parents were among Fort Wayne’s most substantial citizens. The ostensible reason for Mrs. Bessie Peters’ trip to California in 1916 was to see the San Francisco World’s Fair. When she decided to stay, leaving Mr. Peters in Fort Wayne, Mrs. Peters, Jane and the two Peters boys, Frederic, 14, and Stuart, 9, moved next door to a family named Kaufman. Mr. Kaufman had relatives in the movie business and among his friends were Benny Leonard, lightweight champion, and Allan Dwan, a famous director. Benny Leonard gave the two Peters boys boxing lessons which they passed on to their little sister. Visiting the Kaufmans one day, Allan Dwan saw Jane Peters sparring with her brother in the front yard. Impressed, he asked her mother if she could act in pictures. Mrs. Peters gave her permission and Jane made her movie debut in The Perfect Crime.

Her first experience of the attention received by actresses gave Jane, then 11, an impetus she needed. By the time she was 15, she was through school and ready to start her career. According to legend, Carole Lombard was a poor waif who worked up from a job as an extra. Actually, the Peters’ income was never much under $400 a month and she made her adult camera debut as a leading lady. Mrs. Peters heard that Fox was looking for an actress to play opposite Edmund Lowe in Marriage in Transit. The director asked Jane if she could cry. Jane asked for a violin record to be played on a gramophone. When the music began, she burst into tears and was hired.

The metamorphosis of Jane Peters into Carole Lombard is a clinical note by itself. Jane Peters’ father had crushed his leg in an elevator accident and remained an invalid. In Los Angeles, the Peters made friends wit ha Mr. and Mrs. Harry Lombard. Mr. Lombard had a game leg and Jane adopted him as a sort of stand-in for her father. Soon after starting her movie career, she decided that Lombard was a better name for an actress than Peters an asked Mr. Lombard if she could use it. He was delighted and said it made him feel as though she were his daughter.

Anyone who lived in Los Angeles would soon come into contact with a cult. Mrs. Peters became acquainted with a Mrs. Platt, an ardent numerologist, who donated the proceeds of her friends’ belief in her powers to the Government of Persia, there to be used in furthering the education of potential inmates of Persian harems at $18 a year apiece. Mrs. Platt convinced Mrs. Peters that the mystic vibrations of numbers profoundly affected all human affairs. Jane at this time had a curios habit of stumbling on things, falling down and accidentally bumping herself which a psychoanalyst might possibly have diagnosed as evidence of father worship. Mrs. Platt diagnosed it differently, explaining that with a name like Jane, Mrs. Peters’ daughter was lucky to be alive at all. By numerology, Jane is 1-1-5-5, adding up to 12, an inadvisable combination for anyone born, like Carole, on the 6th of October, who would naturally vibrate to the number 3. As a substitute, Mrs. Platt suggested Carole which is 3-1-9-6-3-5 and adds up to 27. With her new name things began to go better for Carole immediately and she stopped having childish mishaps. Still addicted to numerology, she now lives at 609 St. Cloud Road and keeps three servants. What really convinced Carole Lombard of the value of numbers, however, was less the improvements in her career that set in with her new name than a tragedy which nearly ruined it.

According to numerology, each letter in a person’s name influences nine years of its bearer’s life if he survives long enough. Already at her second letter, Carole could not reasonably expect her bad luck to end before she was 18. At 18, Carole Lombard was running about at a great rate, wining Charleston contests in the Cocoanut Grove in competition with Lucille LeSueur who later became Joan Crawford, and being squired by Los Angeles’ most eligible playboys. One afternoon, Carole went for a ride with Harry Cooper, son of a vice president of the Security First National Bank of Los Angeles. At a traffic intersection, the car in front slid backward down a hill hitting the front of Cooper’s Bugatti roadster. The impact shattered the windshield and a sliver of glass flew into Carole’s face, slitting it open from the corner of her nose to her cheekbone.

Stitched together by a surgeon who refrained from using any anesthetic lest Carole relax her face muscles, the cut left an angry red scar. For any attractive girl, this would have been a misfortune. For a promising movie actress it looked like a calamity. The day before the accident, she had been practically cast as leading lady to John Barrymore. For nine months afterwards, she saw no one and brooded about how to replace her wrecked career.

Instead of ruining her career, the automobile accident was actually what started it. A director friend one day suggested that she get a job at the Sennett studio where, since a quorum of the cast was always in bathing attire, facial defects made small difference. Carole Lombard took his advice and landed a job immediately,. The Sennett Studio used to be for aspiring young actresses, the exceedingly rough equivalent of a finishing school for debutantes. Among its notable graduates when Carole Lombard entered were Marie Prevost, Phyllis Haver, and Gloria Swanson. Had she gone on playing conventional heroines, Lombard’s career would almost certainly have peetered out with the beginning of talkies. At Sennett’s, however, she spent two years being hit in the face by pies, tripped, dunked, chased, and generally maltreated. By the time the scar on her face — now an almost imperceptible line — had healed sufficiently for her to go back to Paramount in straight parts she had acquired a magnificent sense of comedy timing which, when Sennett farce was sublimated into screwball comedy, became her greatest asset.

The best picture Carole Lombard made at Paramount — though even in this she was required to say things like “You choose your own way and I’ll choose mine” or “It can’t go on like this” — was No Man of Her Own, in which she played opposite Clark Gable. At this time she was still the wife of William Powell who she had married in 1931. Her current attachment to Clark Gable did not start until four years later, at a Valentine party given by the Countess di Frasso. Guests were bidden to come in something white; so Carole Lombard arrived wearing a white nightgown, in a white ambulance, from which she was carried into teh house on a white cot by three interns in white uniform. This was the sensation of the evening. Later, when Gable and Lombard knew each other better, she sent him the ambulance with a heart painted on it as a memento. Gable had the motor supercharged and drove in it for two years.

Apart from her domestic life, Carole Lombard has a small circle of friends and a wide circle of acquaintances. The acquaintances include every employe in any studio where she works. Priding themselves on democracy, Hollywood notables are socked by the necessity or admitting that Carole Lombard is far and away the most democratic person in town. Her entry on a set often occasions so many greetings from propmen, mechanics, assistant directors and electricians on the rafters far above the set that the uproar sounds like a reunion between Tarzan and his monkeys. Actually of course, it is impossible not to be democratic in a business which requires $5000-a-week celebrities to make funny faces in close proximity with $10-a-day laborers, and actresses who try to be dignified merely succeed in being absurd.

Celebrated as one of Hollywood’s top party-givers, Carole Lombard actually gives almost no parties at all. Her best friends are probably Alice Marble, the tennis player, Russell Birdwell, her Selznick International press agent, and Mrs. Madalynne Field Lang, wife of Twentieth Century-Fox director, Walter Lang. “Fieldsie” is Lombard’s traveling companion, secretary, confidante and business adviser. That Carole Lombard managed to keep $50,000 of the $465,000 she made last year was in part a tribute to Fieldsie’s skill in finance. Hollywood incomes can be best evaluated by regarding them as a form of scrip worth approximately ten cents on the dollar. A breakdown o the Lombard income shows that $285,000 went to the Federal Government, $54,000 to the State, $45,000 to Agent Myron Selznick, $10,000 to the Peters menage and another $10,000 to Fieldsie. Once Lombard’s battery mate in pie-pitching on the Sennett lot — where she was known as “Moonface” because she never made up past her cheekbones — Fieldsie invested most of the rest, half in Government bonds and half in annuities.

Carole Lombard’s statement last summer that she was glad to give the Government $285,000, though less an accurate expression of her Samaritan impulses about money than of Mr. Birdwell’s acquisitive ones about headlines, contained an element of truth. If, however, she had said she was glad to give Myron Selznick $45,000, it would have been absolutely honest. Unlike most movie stars, she discovered early in her career that the primary requisite for acting in the movies is not talent for mimicry but talent for fighting with a producer: “Tell me, what is all this barking for, around front offices?” The producer answered: “My dear young lady, I like you very much but I have only one job and that is to prevent people like you from getting anything you want.”

In the Hollywood jungle, agents are like actors’ allies in the perpetual war with producers. Son of one producer, brother of a second, Myron Selznick has just become a producer himself in order to prevent others from making money out of the stars who pay him $30,000 a week to manage their affairs. When she gets through with David Selznick’s Made for Each Other, in which she will try the screwy experiment of playing a heroine who is not screwy, Carole Lombard will go to work, on a profit-sharing basis, in his brother’s brand new company.

As Mr. Selznick’s battle with producers has caused him to become one, Carole Lombard’s dislike of them has caused her to become a sort of amateur agent. Outside of three scholarships for girls at USC, she has a few pet charities but makes a point of furthering the careers of young actresses who she things have more talent acting than fighting. Best example of Lombard’s acumen as an amateur agent is Margaret Tallichet. Brought out from Dallas by a talent scout who had lost his job by the time she got out there, Tallichet was working at Paramount as a stenographer when Lombard spied her and made David Selznick give her a contract.

On the Selznick lot, where she rides about, squealing happily on a small motor scooter, Carole Lombard’s dressing-room bungalow is next to the one that contains the offices of the Selznick publicity department. She and Mr. Birdwell spend so much of their time visiting each other that hers has a sign outside which says: “This is not the publicity department.” Possibly the ablest and certainly the best-known publicist in Hollywood, Birdwell is an extraordinary personage who has never allowed the old superstition that press agents must remain anonymous to curb his genius for making front-page news. In Lombard, who is quite free from the pose affected by most stars that publicity is all such a bore, he has found an ideal foil.

The marathon conference between Birdwell and Lombard is a cross between a meeting of conspirators in a Moscow cellar and a vaudeville act. It is impossible to divide up credit for such schemes to put Miss Lombard on the front page as having her take over Birdwell’s duties for a day. Birdwell walks about making gestures while Miss Lombard sits on a sofa, humping it when particularly pleased by some prospective assault on U.S. mass credulity. In and out whisk Loretta, the maid, who has to wash the golden blonde Lombard mop every morning so it will always photograph the same shade, and Jimmy, the commissary waiter, who brings Carole a chicken sandwich and a Coca-Cola for her lunch. It turns out that Jimmy has a turkey which he won in a raffle but no place to cook it.

“Raffle it again,” says Lombard. “Great idea,” says Birdwell, “We’ll make Selznick buy two tickets. Two dollars apiece.”

“Make it a fake raffle,” says Lombard. “I like phoney raffles. If it’s a phoney raffle, I’ll buy two tickets myself.”