“What’s the Matter with Lombard?” (Modern Screen, September 1939)

Is it true that her marriage to Clark Gable is responsible for Carole’s recent unprecedented behavior?

By: Gladys Hall

Perhaps, you may say, Lombard has been shy of people, of the Press, because she has not wanted to discuss her recent marriage with Gable. But that is no good, for Carole has gone out socially, and has given interviews since the beginning of her romance with Gable.

In my effort to diagnose the case of Carole I’ve talked to her best friends. I’ve talked to Fieldsie, now Mrs. Walter Lang. And Fieldsie, as every Lombard fan knows, is Carole’s most intimate friend. Carole and Fieldsie were Sennett girls together, sharing the same custard pie, driving to and from the studio in Fieldsie’s car so that they could pool the expense of gasoline. Later, they shared a house together, and Fieldsie acted as Carole’s business manager. And so, from Fieldsie and one or two other old pals, I garnered the material I needed to answer the question, “What is the matter with Lombard?” Out of it all, came these pertinent facts—and they are facts:

In the first place, Carole, so her friends believe, is being badly advised of late concerning her relations with Press and Public. They say that he is being counseled to be difficult, aloof, hard-to-get; advice which neither fits nor becomes the good fellow who is Lombard. But if she hearkens to this counsel, one might say, isn’t she of the same stripe herself? The truth of the matter is, she doesn’t hear it. Not properly. Not so she makes sense of it.

Carole doesn’t rightly pay heed to what is said to her. Not unless she is backed up against a wall and told about appointments in good trenchant words of one syllable. She doesn’t heed because she hears so much all the time, so many demands=-requests buzz around her until there is confusion in her head. Fieldsie told me that, after being away from Carole and the studio for some months, she went back one day and wondered how she had ever kept her reason in the melee which is Lombard’s life.

She said, “It’s a wonder people didn’t hate both of us, Carole and me. You get so lost in that world of too much to do.” Phones ringing incessantly. Agents calling. Conferences. Telegrams. Fittings. Noise. So that, when someone says to Carole, “Will you come to my baby shower next Tuesday?” or “Will you give me an interview next Friday?” her natural and impulse generosity of spirit says, “Yes, sure.” Her necessarily limited number of hours and powers of attention fail to make note of the promises and they are lost in the mad shuffle of stardom’s demands. And we find ourselves asking, “What’s the matter with Lombard?”

Fieldsie told me that when she was with Carole constantly, she would cut through the mesh of people, tell Carole that she had made such and such appointments for today and that they must be kept. And when Carole would say, dazedly, “Tomorrow, I’ll do them tomorrow,” Fieldsie would say, firmly, “No, not tomorrow, today.” And Carole, her attention thus riveted, would answer good-naturedly, “Okay, let’s go.” Now Fieldsie is no longer with Carole. Now Carole’s advisers do not pin her down to her promises but feed her natural nonchalance by telling her to “forget ‘em.” This is one of the answers.

For another thing, Lombard is the busiest little woman in all Hollywood. She always has seven times more places to go and things to do than there are hours on the clock. It’s simple mathematics, then, to figure that some of the places she doesn’t go, some of the things she doesn’t do. Carole will, Fieldsie told me, forget and neglect the doing of things which may be of some advantage to her. She never neglects doing those things which are of advantage only to others.

This, by the way, is a matter Lombard never discusses. She has the quaint and lovable idea that if you do good you negate it by talking about it. For it is a fact that Carole does a great deal of good. Not by the simple, customary star-formula of writing out checks. She takes bowls of soup, made in her own kitchen, to the poor, to tuberculars, to places and persons that endanger her own health. She always finds time to comfort those whose lives are not lived among the stars.

Then, Carole takes her work very seriously. This is something few of us, even here in Hollywood, have ever fully realized. For Lombard seemingly touches life with light, laughter-tipped fingers. But this antic attitude, I know now, is only seeming. For Fieldsie told me that when Carole is playing a character on the screen, she is that character all the time, at home as well as on the sets. When Carole was playing the squirrelly dame in “My Man Godfrey” and the others, Fieldsie nearly went nuts. Because Carole was being squirrelly all over the place, laughing her lunatic laughter as she poured the breakfast coffee, knocking over the furniture. You couldn’t get a word of sense out of her.

And then, when she again went dramatic in “Made For Each Other,” playing the part of a life-saddened woman, she would come home from the studio every night and sit down and cry. She would cry for hours. She couldn’t talk to anyone without choking up. Having a child in the picture, she would go all quivery at sight of a child in the streets. So that, when Carole is in production, she is either too wild to know what is going on or too depressed to care.

Carole’s whole life, it should be remembered, is predicated upon the twin sources of laughter and tears. As a small child, with her father so desperately ill, in such constant pain that he could only live at all with the help of drugs, she knew the dark shadows of hovering death.

And there is the gallant tale of that automobile accident in 1925—that Sunday afternoon when the young Carole went driving with the son of a prominent Hollywood banker. They were driving through Beverly Hills. The car struck a bump. The catch of the removable seat unhinged, and Carole was catapulted, face forward, into the windshield. The windshield shattered and the beauty which was Carole’s became a long, blood-masked gash from her upper lip to the middle of her left cheek.

No anesthetic could be administered when that mangled face was sewn together. The surgeon did not want the facial muscles to relax while he sewed up the wounds. Only a slight scar now remains of what was once wrecked beauty. But certainly, there must be an inner scar, not so slight, the result of those nine months when Carole moped about the house, sick at heart, believing that she must go through all her youth, all her life, unsightly in the eyes of men, her career ended before it had fairly begun. Surely something pretty strong was forged out of that frightful ordeal.

It was from that holocaust that she went to Mack Sennett. “Get her over to Sennett’s,” a friend advised her mother. “They care more for figures than for faces over there, anyway, and she’ll forget herself in the middle of that mad bunch. She’ll find her stride again.” She did. She hit the stride of laughter, of doing the Charleston at the Hotel Ambassador on merry-making evenings, of cutting capers, playing jokes. There’s nothing the matter with a girl who can take disaster with a custard-pie caper, is there now?

Then, too, Lombard is a fuss-budget. It takes time to be fussy. When she travels, for instance, Fieldsie says that “she is so neat about everything that it’s just like being at home.” When on a train, for instance, she always spreads dainty, crepe de chine blanket covers over the Pullman berths, “so the place will look homey and attractive,” she says. That’s all right. That’s fastidious and charming.

But that isn’t all. Oh, by no means. For Carole also has every article of wearing apparel packed (she does her own packing) in the most painfully systematic fashion. At any hour of the day or night she can “lay hands,” to anything she may happen to want. If a traveling companion has a migraine, a tummy ache, a fit, Doc Lombard is right there with the proper remedy. On a recent trip by plane, two of the passengers got air-sick. Before the hostess could get to them, Lombard was there with the proper first aid. There is the gypsy in Lombard, too, of course. But it’s a nice, capable gypsy who keeps her earrings, bandanna and stiletto in apple-pie order.

She’s the same about everything. When she plays tennis, she not only wears the proper tennis dress and shoes, but she also has the right-weight coat handy to fling over her shoulders when the game is done. She always has an extra pair of shoes along so that, of her feet hurt, she can change.

When she goes duck-shooting with Clark and the Andy Devines—this duck-shooting quartet is now so familiar to the ducks that they call them by their first names before they die—Carole is equipped.

Not in “what-the-well-dressed-duck-shooter-will-wear” type of thing, but in old cords and a shapeless sweater. For Carole doesn’t ride, shoot ducks and hunt quail in order to be in Gable’s shadow—when Gable can’t go, Carole goes alone. She has her own shot, and plenty of it. She has her bags for her own ducks. She is equipped with all the first aid remedies which might be required in case of any casualty.

When she goes hunting with Gable, Carole is no delicate doll lopping on Gable’s broad shoulder. Not if he knows it, or she, either. She draws a bead on her own bird—and what a shot she is! She even wades hip-high into the marshes to retrieve her own birds. Gable has made it plain to her that he will not act as retriever for her birds, not he. And Lombard, you can be sure, would not have it otherwise.

When she and Gable shoot at the same bird there is a rough and tumble brawl as to whose bird it is, whose shot brought it down. And Gable admits that he doesn’t always get the best of the scrimmage. And then, when the day’s shooting is done, it’s Lombard who is on hand with steaming coffee, drinks, hot food, whatever the hunters require. Carole is the one who comes prepared with extra blankets, cords and shirts for those not so far-sighted as she.

Lombard, her friends tell me, has a splendid sense of balance about everything. Furiously energetic, she always rises at seven. No breakfast trays in bed for Mrs. Gable. But she also goes to bed early nights. Neither she nor Gable care for night life and so don’t have any to speak of. Their tastes, their likes and dislikes are so genuinely mutual that it’s like something made to order, the mating of these two.

She doesn’t diet, not Lombard. She doesn’t have to ‘cause she “eats right,” her friends will tell you. For instance, if she has a heavy dinner one night, she will eat a light breakfast the next morning. If she goes to bed on a light dinner, she will have bacon, eggs, toast, all the fixin’s the next morning. This balance prevails in everything she does. If she hasn’t played tennis for some time, she is careful to play only one or two sets when she begins again. She doesn’t overdo anything. Under her seeming levity and lightness there is a substratum of common sense as hard and dependable as the Rock of Gibraltar.

She is, further, a punctilious housekeeper. The Gables live well but, when eight pounds of butter are used one week as against seven pounds the week before, she finds out why. She can spot dust a mile away. She does her own ordering and planning of meals and, when possible, her own marketing. Often, she will call her friends and say, “Darling, I found the most divine new butcher in the Valley. His lamb is two cents a pound cheaper than I’ve found it anywhere else. Better meat, too. Try him.”  She is, herself, a superb cook. I’m sure that she didn’t reach Gable’s heart via his tummy, but she could have.

She is economical in almost every way. She buys fewer clothes than any other star in Hollywood. And she isn’t the least but stuffy about them. If she buys something she especially likes, she tells her friends where she got it and says, “Go and see if it looks well on you and have it copied.” This, in a town where one lady-star swoons if another lady-star enters a room wearing a duplicate model of her gown!

No, there is nothing remotely snobbish about Lombard. She certainly hasn’t that excuse for being as evasive as she has been of late. She is, Fieldsie told me, wonderful with her servants. She has had the same cook, Jessie, for years. And Jessie is one of the family. When Carole comes in from the studio and says, “It’s been a tough day, Jessie,” Jessie doesn’t just talk. She listens for the running of the bath water, she serves dinner quietly. When Carole says, “It’s been a good day, Jess, everything swell.” Jessie does talk, relates all the little household happenings of the day. Carole never gives orders. She always says, “Jessie, what do you think about duck and wild rice for dinner tonight, huh, tell me?” Well, they say that you can tell a lady by the way she handles her servants.

Carole still drives herself around in her old car, because she likes to drive herself. She could have a couple of town cars if she wanted them, but she figures that, apart from the initial purchase price, town cars cost money to run, to fuel, to re-tire. When they are out of cigarettes, Clark and Carole will hop in the car, drive down to the corner drug store and buy a package of smokes. Neither of them wants any part of the show-offiness of stardom. Both of them care for the outdoors, old clothes, horses, guns, tinkering with cars and having fun.

So now you have it. Now you know what’s the matter with Lombard. What can you do about a gal like this? Lord love her, you’ve got me!