What happens when Hollywood ex-wife and ex-husband meet again as movie lovers? Our hilarious story of the Lombard-Powell film reunion tells
By: Elizabeth Wilson
To paraphrase Rudy Vallee’s theme song, your surprise was my surprise when I read in the papers, as you did, that Carole Lombard and William Powell were making a picture together at Universal. That’s the story of thing that fan writers pray for. Almost as good as a divorce, an elopement, or a baby. Don’t ask me why. Because I don’t know. But Hollywood is always extremely curious about two people who have been married and who have since divorced. What they do and say when they meet each other is out of the utmost importance.
Occasionally, I admit the theatre has established itself so firmly in the hearts of Mr. and Mrs. Ex that they have risen to the occasion and put on a darned good show. Occasionally, but not often, Mrs. Ex will make a nifty crack that will be extremely disparaging to Mr. Ex. They were like that in the old days, when Gloria Swanson and Connie Bennett used to feud over the Marquis; but that, like gold and glamour, belongs to the past. But Hollywood hopes — and watches.
So when I read that Carole Lombard and William Powell were making a picture together, why, I nearly fell in my coffee — no sugar and no cream, due to the diet. Honey, I was that amazed. “Here are two people” said I to myself, “who at one time, and not so long ago, were very much in love with each other; then they divorced; and now they are in love again — for the cinema. How does it feel to be made love to by your ex-husband?”
So you know it wasn’t out to laugh when I drove out to the Universal studios that afternoon — ah, no, and it wasn’t to exchange quips with several slightly cracked friends — ah, but no. I drove to Universal that afternoon to drool at the mouth. Not a pretty sight, to be sure, but sort of symbolical of my profession. And therefore sacred to me, my bread and butter as it were, and I’ll thank you not to laugh.
Well, I may say that I have been in some pretty crazy places in my life, including Congress, a nut house, and dinner at Patsy Kelly’s; and some of my best friends have been crackpots and lunatics (it’s all a matter of glands, don’t you think, or do you?), but never have I run into anything so insane, really so stark, starring mad, as the set of My Man Godfrey.
But I might have known – what with Gregory La Cava directing; and with Carole Lombard and William Powell starring, those two goofy people; and with Alice Brady, Frank Pangborn, and Eugene Pallette in the cast — a nice, neat, little rational idea would have no more chance of surviving than I have of wining the Irish Sweepstakes — (come on, Irish Sweepstakes and make me out a liar, I dare you).
I edged on the set just as the red light went on and the bell clanged, which is Hollywood’s way of announcing that Cinema History is in the Making, and as is the custom I stopped dead still in my tracks — but for all the racket that was going on I might just as well have continued my progress to the set and fallen over a cable into a trash can besides, for such bedlam I have never heard, and over and above it all was Li’l Missy Lombard’s voice shrieking away, “It’s the Forgotten Man, I’ve found the Forgotten Man, the Forgotten Man…” The Forgotten Man, I discovered later when the bell had clanged again to announce that Cinema History was now in the Unmaking, was none other than Mr. Debonair William Powell, formerly Philo Vance, formerly The Thin Man, formerly The Great Ziegfeld — and now the Forgotten Man, with a two weeks’ growth of beard. It just all goes to show how fickle fame is, I always say.
The set was a reproduction of the Empire Room of the Waldorf Astoria, (oh, I’ve traveled a bit), and it seems that the Park Avenue Crowd were giving a Scavenger Hunt and in their merry, irresponsible way had gathered in a horse, a monkey, a dummy, a goat, a pushcart, a tandem bicycle, all manner of odds and ends and pots and pans, a truckload of scallions, and William Powell. Carole Lombard, playing Irene Bullock, the dumbest debutante in New York City, found the Forgotten Man in a city dump by the East River, and is she proud — her mother, played by Alice Brady, only found a goat.
“Now, my dear, sweet, gay young people,” said director La Cava rising languidly from his directorial chair, “if you haven’t anything better to do this afternoon you would gladden an old man’s heart by keeping your places so we can have another take. Carole, the goat’s eating your dress.”
“Go away goat — shoo, shoo, goat!” shouted Carole, grabbing her beautiful, but exquisite Travis Banton evening gown right out of the goat’s mouth. “Are you a Nanny or a Billy? Don’t tell me, I really am not interested. I hate goats. Now don’t take it personal. I just don’t like goats in general. There, there, chew on Mr. Pangborn,”
“Mercy,” said Mr. Pangborn to the goat,” have your best friends told you?”
“And where is Miss Brady?” remarked Mr. La Cava casually. “Do you think Miss Brady would mind doing the scene again? Will someone be so kind as to find Miss Brady? Carole, the goat’s munching you again.”
Gregory La Cava, in case you didn’t know, is president of the Irresponsible of Hollywood. He was elected president by the other irresponsibles after his most famous train ride. It seems that he and W.C. Fields bought tickets for San Francisco, but imagine their surprise the following night to find themselves passing through Albuquerque on their way to Kansas City. It was also La Cava who but completely won over la belle Colbert after one of their temperamental clashes on the She Married Her Boss set. Returning from lunch Claudette found printed on her stage dressing-room door in large letters “THE FRETTING FROG — HER PUDDLE.”
Well, it seems that Alice Brady doesn’t like to do anything very long at a time except play Monopoly (called Monotony by Carole), and every second she can slip away from the cameras she is behind a prop some place buying up the Pennsylvania Railroad. Bill Powell plays with her sometimes, and sometimes Carole, but Carole doesn’t get much of a kick out of buying property (she is one of the few Hollywood stars who doesn’t own a foot of land), and Bill always remembers that huge hunk of good earth and house he owns in Beverly Hills and the taxes coming due and that makes him feel sick, so Alice has discovered that the game is far more satisfactory when played with a few technicians and hair-dressers.
“Oh, all right, all right,” said Alice to the assistant director. “Tell Mr. La Cava I will be there directly. It’s most inconsiderate of him wanting me now. I’m in Jail. See, in Jail. Now run away, young man, run away. I’ll come just as soon as I get out of Jail.”
“Miss Brady’s in Jail,” the assistant director announced matter-of-factly to the assembled cast. “She can’t come.”
“Well, I do think Alice might let us know when she’s going to Jail,” complained Carole. “I could have gone up to my new house this afternoon and watched the men eat. I have the hungriest set of workmen you’ve ever seen. No matter what hour of the day or night I drop in to see how things are progressing those little ,en are eating — and on my time. But they always have such divine cake, chocolate with a lot of whipped cream goo, that it’s a pleasure to drop in on them. They promised me crepes suzettes on Thursday. Do you think Alice will go to Jail on Thursday? Look at that goat, look at that goat! What do you suppose is my fatal fascination for goats! Mr Powell, help, help!”
But Mr. Powell wasn’t listening. He had taken up with Josephine (the monkey), and was cuddling her in his arms. Josephine takes her pictures very seriously and was getting in the mood for her next scene. “Which is the monkey?” inquired Mr. Powell, holding Josephine cheek to cheek.
“The one who isn’t house-broken,” remarked Mr. Pangborn. “We’ll excuse you, William.”
Shrieks of exultation came from behind a little something that was left over from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. “I’m out of Jail,” shrieked Miss Brady.” “Isn’t it marvelous? I threw doubles. Now if I could only get the Erie Railroad I will own all the railroads. I have never won by owning all the railroads, but I do think it’s a good idea, don’t you, or do you? I suppose I should do something about Wall Street. Should I, or shouldn’t I? No, no don’t tell me, I want to figure it out for myself. Oh, the picture — oh, yes, the picture! Mr. La Cava wants me to make another take. Don’t go, I’ll be right back. Keep Josephine away from me, I can’t abide monkeys.”
And so Mr. La Cava finally gathered his charming little group of thespians together — for the play must go on.
Well, you can take my word for it, My Man Godfrey is going to be a knock-down drag out laugh riot that will have you reeling from the theatre in a complete hysterical collapse. It’s a screwy story to begin with, and directed by Mad Gregory, and with those gay cut-ups, Lombard, Powell, Brady and Pangborn giving of their insanity it just can’t miss being the funniest picture of the year. I’m laughing already.
But, I repeat, it wasn’t to laugh that I drove out to the Universal studios that afternoon. It was to drool. For was I not to see Carole Lombard and William Powell, who had been in love in real life not so long ago, making love in the cinema studios? To recall in the light of this reunion how Carole Lombard arrived at the Paramount Hollywood studios in the Fall of 1930 after making Fast and Loose for Paramount in New York, and as a prize for her good performance in that picture she was allowed to be the great William Powell’s second leading lady in Ladies’ Man — Kay Francis rating the top spot. Carole was taken over to the Powell dressing room on Star Row and introduced to Mr. Powell, and to keep the records clear it might be noted that when the Powell contract was up at Paramount and Bill moved to Warner Brothers that Carole took over his dressing room and has lived in it ever since, refusing to budge, even though the new dressing rooms are supposed to be more chic.
Well, anyway, Carole and Bill fell hopelessly and romantically and quite crazily as is to be expected in love during the production of Ladies’ Man. And Carole quite frankly admitted to everyone: “I love him. But I wouldn’t marry him for anything in the world.” Obviously, Miss Lombard married him. It took eight months for him to coax her. They married in June 1931. They were divorced in August 1933. They ceased being married in time to become excellent friends.
Well, I assure you that when I reached the My Man Godfrey set I found neither the time nor the place for drooling. I have it on good authority that when Miss Lombard and Mr. Powell met on the first day of production Carole said, “Hello, Bill,” and Bill said,” Hello, Carole,” and what do you make of that? Then Bill said, “How is Brownie?” (Brownie, a dachshund with a sweet disposition and bad breath, was a birthday present to Carole from Bill shortly before the divorce, and has become one of the most famous dogs in Hollywood).
“Oh, Brownie has become a father,” said Carole, “his little daughter, la Contessa, is one of the sweetest puppies you’ve ever seen. I’ll bring her to the studio one day. And you must meet the Duchess — she’s a cat. We’re going in for royalty these days — it’s the English influence. Brownie has become a celebrity chaser of the worst sort; he’ll probably start social climbing next. Ever since Pushface the Killer made his debut with me in Love Before Breakfast Brownie has been so busy basking in Pushy’s glamour that he doesn’t even tear up my slippers now. Just a pushover for a movie star.”
Dogs, it seems, not love, was the subject of conversation between Carole and Bill that day. Now wouldn’t I get a break like that? Yes, I just built myself up for an awful let-down. There’ll be no undertones of romance, no shadows of a lost love, hot dog. Carole and Bill are just two perfectly grand people, who like each other in a palsy walsy sort of way, and who are more concerned right now in making a first rate comedy that will have you in stitches than they are in anything else.
Well, little brain, I may say you did your best to stir up something there. In fact I must say, “Little brain, you’ve had a busy day.”