“For ten years,” says Carole Lombard, in this frank interview “I’ve been the only person in Hollywood who believed in me – except Pushface Lombard, who is a Pekinese.”
By: George Madden
She began to threaten with that hilarious comedy of two years ago, Twentieth Century. When The Princess Comes Across came across, the suspicion was planted. But when Carole Lombard practically wrapped up the swellest, screwiest, craziest, most insane comedy of the year and all but stole My Man Godfrey from her former man, Powell, I was just one of many they picked up in the aisles!
Maybe you had such a good time looking at “Godfrey” it might have slipped your mind that you were watching one of the most deft and devastating comedy performances you’ll be seeing in many a long shot.
Suddenly, right in front of everybody’s eyes, one of the great glamor queens of Hollywood turned into one of the best technicians of this, our fourth largest industry, and gave the past master at the fine art of timing, etc. — Willie-the-Powell — such a run for his money he’s probably still dog-trotting around the circuit.
Surprised? You could have knock-knocked Hollywood over.
That is, everyone was surprised but Carole Lombard!
“For ten years, said Carole, “I’ve been the only person in Hollywood who believed in me, except, perhaps Pushface Lombard — who is a pekinese.”
The lady in the bright pajamas splashed with colorful floral designs wiggled her sockless sandals with pardonable pride as we sat in her dressing room contemplating the California sun (as advertised), the Paramount flower s blooming outside her door, and, more important, the terrific strides a former Charleston dancer has made in a ten-year career.
There’s nothing I’d rather do on an early fall afternoon than contemplate Carole’s career through her own fearless eyes — unless it would be merely to sit and contemplate Carole. You’ve got something when you look at Carole, from any angle. She’s the smoothest. She’s the newest. She’s the latest. Even before she was any of these things, the late Florenz Ziegfeld, who knew more about beautiful woman and their appeal than any other man of his generation, once said of her, “I’d give anything to have enough money to put Carole Lombard in a Ziegfeld chorus!”
And that wasn’t because Carole could sing or dance so well! Nor did her want her to take Eddie Cantor’s place. And before Ziegfeld got around to her, Hollywood was filled with males who never let a hay wagon go by without wishing for Carole.
After many years pleasantly spent in dissecting the Lombard for home consumption, I’ve come to the conclusion that this overwhelming appeal of hers wasn’t purely physical, either (or are you going to be squeamish and call sex appeal by some other spade?). She had all she needed of that, plus humor and a gift for being utterly herself no matter how many times they took up her option, that all added up to make her the real feminine menace of Hollywood.
But just between the entire circulation of us, I’d never considered Carole any great shakes as an actress.
A private wow, yes! An artiste, no!
I suppose I was prejudiced. You seldom expect that fiddle-sawing kid next door one day to grow up and be invited to conduct a symphony concert. And back in the old Cocoanut Grove days, Carole was just about as close to a Hollywood locals as you’d care to see.
At sixteen Carole looked twenty-seven. Even on the hottest summer day she wore black satin fitted over her slender chassis like a bathing suitm, and her expression was in keeping with her costume. There was always a tragic look on her beautiful pan, probably brought on by the tight strands of pearls about her throat nearly choking her to death., It was no odd sight to glimpse Carole in her seam-splitting black satin riding a Wilshire bus loaded down with dancing trophies. No, she wasn’t taking them home. She was returning them to the Grove management for cash consideration. It was a beautiful racket. She usually won them back the next night!
Even when she was graduated from Sennett’s into a Paramount contract with a dressing room on star-row and a town car, I always had the feeling Carole was putting something over on customers. She told me she was taken out of three pictures because she didn’t know what to do with her hands. “I was always hanging onto something. If there wasn’t a handy chair, or a railing, I’d drape both hands over one hip and wait for the director to have hysterics.”
As long as she continued to get by on her face and figure, it didn’t seem that the Lombard cared about anything else.
But all that time Hollywood was wrong. All that in Carole, the wow-to-be, was going through agonies because she was just plain “inadequate,” and she knew it.
“All the time I was making seventeen flops in a row, I was scared to death they were going to call my bluff before I had a chance to really learn something about this business. There is no one else on the screen who has had more consistently bad pictures than I.”
“I doubt if anyone will ever know what I went through those first five years. I managed to survive the first two without knowing a thing about acting. I merely stood there in front of the camera and did what the director told me, and tried to keep my mind blanks so I wouldn’t interfere with his thought transmission. Something seemed to give forth on the screen, but I never knew how it happened. It was all an accident.”
“Next, I developed mannerisms! I learned that lifting my head and tilting it back like a pouty peacock, or lifting one eyebrow, or wearing a certain type of gown was Lombardeque. I was so pleased with these developments I ran them through every performance. Characterization and madame were as far apart as the poles at this stage of the game. Shop girl or society dame, I played them both alike. Of course, it was all wrong, but I was developing something I badly needed, confidence in my little bag of tricks.”
“After mannerisms came realism with a bang! If I was supposed to cry, I howled. If I threw something I heaved it! Put me in a fight scene with an actor, and I tore them to pieces. Poor Eddie Lowe! They told me to tear into Eddie one day, and I practically tore him to shreds! To this day, Eddie can’t see me without ducking. For a while, I overdid realism too, but at last it was a step in the right direction away from posing.”
“And then Paramount loaned me to Columbia to make Twentieth Century with John Barrymore!” Carole ran her fingers through her hair, tossing her head a little as she does when she’s really enthusiastic. “Don’t let anyone ever tell you that John Barrymore isn’t the greatest actor of his day. Perhaps he isn’t now the greatest star he once was. But star or not, he knows more about acting than most of us will ever learn. He taught me more in the six short weeks it took to make the picture than I had learned in five years previous. It would take a book to cover all the things he did to help. But perhaps the greatest was the subtle way he built my self-confidence and flattered me into believing I was good. In place of wandering away after he had completed his own scenes, he’d stay on the set and watch me go through my paces. The picture was a comedy, you remember, and I’ll never forget how swell I’d feel to hear that booming laughter of his. It was the most subtle flattery in the world. I worked like a dog to earn those laughs of John Barrymore’s.”
“All at once it seemed to come to me what this acting business was all about. It wasn’t a bag of tricks in the routine of a glamour girl. It wasn’t your last portrait, sitting in a daring gown, or what the fan writers wrote of you. It was digging down deep into your understanding of the human being you were attempting to create, and living and thinking and being that character every moment the camera was turning. I have been a movie star for some time. But it took me ten years to learn that simple truth about acting.”
Carole grinned. “In a way, I’m glad I made it the hard way. This overnight movie success must be terribly confusing to kids like Robert Taylor and Fred MacMurray, who never saw a movie studio until two years ago. There are so many angles to this stardom racket. There are so many angles other than the salary checks and the swimming pols that the public never knows about.”
“Belief in yourself, and even the hardest work, aren’t enough! You’ve got to know the tricks of this trade, besides. You’ve got to know the difference between a Class ‘B’ pictures that takes fifteen days to shoot and a Class ‘A’ that takes from two months to six. Through painful experience you’ve got to lean that though you may be starring in six pictures a years it doesn’t necessarily mean that your career is on the upgrade. Take Fred (she referred to MacMurray). He is a pretty confused boy right now. He’s starred in one picture and featured in another. He has just about come to the conclusion that the only thing he can count on is his salary check. ‘I don’t get any more for being the star and taking the rap,’ he told me one evening while were were waiting for a broadcast. ‘I might just as well remain a featured player and let somebody else carry the burden of responsibility.’ In a way he’s right, and in a way he’s wrong. You can’t afford to allow your career to remain static in this business. Once you’ve gained an objective, you’ve got to advance from there! The trouble is, we actors know less about what is happening to our careers than anyone else.”
The other day one of our fist, foremost and finest feminine stars said to me, ‘Carole, darling, your last comedies have been successes, but why don’t you do an important picture, something in costume?’ Well, I just looked at her, and all the time. I was looking I was thinking about the financial returns on her latest picture, a costume picture what as a costume picture. Maybe there had been a lot of prestige and actress-vanity in playing her historical character, but the result was one of the most important box-office flops of the season.”
“After all the years I’ve been in pictures, I hope by this time I know what I am fitted to do, if I haven’t learned anything else. I know for one thing that Lombard is a modern personality. I belong to my own age and generationI know for one thing that Lombard is a modern personality. In hoop skirts, what have I got? I don’t mean I expect to do hectic comedies all the time. That would be a mistake. People would get sick of it. But there are plenty of good modern dramas to be done, and I’d just as soon be the gal to do them!”
“I’m not vain about my career anymore. But I want to be able to be proud of it. I’d much rather make a good picture than a so-called important one. Harold Lloyd has had one of the longest careers in films making good pictures. Even when he branched out, calling his own shots on stories and producing his own films, he never dashed off into costume pictures just to prove what an important star he was.”
“After all, how important are actors? We. dress the stage, I grant you. But we’re awfully lucky, too. We get ninety per cent of the glory when the credit should be divided among so many. You think ‘Godfrey’ was a good picture? Then credit seventy-five per cent of it to Gregory La Cava who directed it, wrote all the dialogue and literally gave birth to it. To be , La Cava is the great directorial genius of Hollywood. I’m not saying there aren’t other great ones. But when you see a La Cava production, you’re seeing a one man creation.”
“He used to arrive at the studio eery morning at six o’clock and write the dialogue we used that day. There he would be toiling away in his office while Powell, Alice Brady, Gene Pallette and I waited on the set for our ‘laugh lines.’ When you are working with a man like that you can’t help wanting to give the best performance of your life just to show him how much you appreciate what he’s doing for your career. I know everybody in the cast had the same feeling.”
No wonder it turned out to be the comedy sensation of the year. And feeling the way she did, no wonder Carole’s ex-husband and co-star, Willie Powell, pulled her off the set one day and whispered her shell ear, “Well, I can hardly believe it’s you!”
That goes for Bill, and Hollywood, and everybody else but Carole — and maybe Pushface.
Right now Carole is on the crest of the wave. She’s been given a new deal contract by Paramount that allows for a hand in her own stories, direction and production. That has proved dynamite for other stars. But in Carole’s case, just remember she’s been ten years learning her way about the movie business.
Personally, I haven’t heard of any heartaches in her private life, either. If I had to stand up in a crowd and point the finger at the star I believe had had the most fun out of stardom, Carole would be the target. There’s the grand new home of hers in Brentwood, there’s that European vacation in the offling, and, oh yes, there’s also Clark Gable.
What more could even a wow want from life?