“The Secret of Lombard’s Success” (Modern Screen, October 1940)

It’s that uncanny sixth sense that’s put this merry madcap on top

If another person mentions another word about Carole Lombard, the Perfect Wife, we shall caress him on the head with an unsheathed meat-chopper. If another soul drolls another drool about Carole Lombard, the Practical Joker, we shall let nature take its course and then give ourselves up to the law without a struggle.

Feeling thus, we hereby nominate ourselves for the Pulitzer Prize and confine our platform to this campaign pledge: that we are going to let every patriot and peon know, once and forever, that Miss Lombard is what is she is today — not because of her antics off-screen, but solely because she is a corking good actress.

In dissecting the anatomy of a successful actress, we intend to avoid any lofty references to protoplasm and nerve centers and giddy glands, and confine ourselves to those tangible ingredients that make Carole Lombard tick — and click.

To find out about Carole Lombard, we saw everyone except Miss Lombard. And finally, when we saw her, on an RKO set, though she was very fetching in come-hither sheer pajamas, we ran in the opposite direction. It is our theory that the person who knows least about what makes her a fine actress is Carole Lombard. She can’t ever explain why she snorted and gestured so tellingly in that fifth take. She hasn’t the least idea why, on a a particular scene, she lowered her shadow-laden lids and spoke in husky tones. Miss Lombard, we have been told, has never pored over any tomes by Popofsky or Ramowich or Zukowski on “The Art of Acting.”

Carole Lombard acts by instinct. That’s why she can’t explain how she does it; and that’s why her co-workers can explain it.

“She acts entirely with her heart,” explained her current Svengali, director Garson Kanin. “She has a faultless instinct, a mystical feel, for right and wrong. She doesn’t know how or why she does things, but she does them unerringly. I have worked with many people and seen many greats in action. Irene Dunne and Bette Davis both act with their heads. Charles Laughton, one big exposed nerve, acts with his stomach. That is, when he does a scene wrong, he gets a pang in his stomach. But with Carole Lombard, it’s intuition. She feels a scene and plays it. She’s remarkably good.”

Garson Kanin, we felt, could afford to speak with authority. A slender, slight, hawk-faced youngster from Broadway, an overnight directorial sensation at RKO with Bachelor Mother and My Favorite Wife, Kanin is now Simon Legreeing the late Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted into shape.

The feminine lead in this romantic opus of a dowdy dame from Frisco and a fat Italian grape-grower is our Miss Carole Lombard. For weeks now, Kanin has, from the Olympian confines of his canvas-backed directorial chair, been lashing Lombard into what whispers claim will be her greatest effort. And during these weeks, Kanin has seen Carole under every circumstance, every emotion, every possible dramatic situation.

“The most important thing I’ve learned about her,” quote the Kanin, “is that she can completely get out of herself. Before I worked with her I wondered if she had that ability. You see, Hollywood has more personalities than actors. Most men and women who walk on the screen are themselves and nothing more. Even great thespians like Bette Davis and Ronald Colman, with their limitless ability, get into a certain type of role and play it over and over. In the same way, Lombard developed a special kind of appeal, and whenever she appeared, screwball or serious, she was Lombard.”

“But take my word for it, in this picture she’s different, altogether different. She does not just repeat her reel or real personality. She is the character in the story, the waitress who falls in love by correspondence. The first scene we shot, her voice pitched differently, her very movements changed.”

“All of this makes me feel that Carole Lombard has more talent than has ever been tapped. I want to make this prediction — that while other stars become dated and obsolete by additional calories or wrinkles, Carole Lombard will go on acting as long as she wants to. She’s got that much on the ball.”

“Here are the things,” he said, ” that make her great: She has the capacity for absorbing externals. By that I mean she can sponge up direction. The outstanding thing about her is her vitality. Most of the glamour ladies, at about six in the evening, droop like dish-rags and you just wouldn’t dream of putting them in an important scene at that hour. But Carole is as bright at six in the evening as at nine that selfsame morning.”

“Furthermore, she possesses the almost psychic ability of being able to anticipate advice and directions. She knows when I’m going to criticize or compliment her. Even as I start to speak a sentence, she’ll finish it. This may be exasperating to some people, but it saves me loads of explaining.”

“Also, the little lady can take failures with grace. Everyone in the theatre must sooner or later grapple with minor Waterloos. Even Helen Hayes and Katharine Cornell had their tumbles. But most failures tear sensitive actresses apart. Irene Dunne had a run of bad luck before I met her and, when she came on the set of My Favorite Wife she didn’t have a lick of confidence. But Carole is built differently. If a picture of hers lays and egg, she takes it in stride, never even winces, just breezes forward. This ability keeps her from being handicapped by worries and fears.”

“The one thing,” concluded Kanin,” that has helped keep her on top of the heap since her Mack Sennett bathing beauty days is simply this — she’s not complex and she’s always happy. Her philosophy of life must be perfect. Today, she is really happily married to Gable. Apparently, they never squabble or fight and must have an idyllic time. As a consequence, Carole comes to work every morning with her mind clear, with no home problems troubling her. She comes in lilting and gay, tells a story about Gable chasing a chicken all over the backyard and laughs herself dizzy. Her mind is free to attack her work. Almost every other actress I’ve ever known has had a million problems to interfere with her career and take her mind off the picture. Women like Ginger Rogers and Irene Dunne are much more complex.”

“In brief, Carole Lombard’s off-screen life is so wholesome that she can drive all her energies into her on-screen life. Besides –“

At that moment the door of his trailer was yanked open. Two arms reached in, encircling a startled Mr. Kanin and dragged him out onto the set. The arms belonged to Carole Lombard.

“Let’s get going!” she whooped.

Garson Kanin grinned at us helplessly. “You see what I mean?” he sighed.

So, with Kanin back in the combat zone, we decided to march off on a lone pilgrimage in quest of others who know Lombard. We took a slight detour and found ourselves in a bathroom at Paramount. In the bathroom was a tub, in the tub was Ray Milland, and over Mr. Milland hulked director Mitchell Leisen. It was a scene from Paramount’s Arise My Love.

We were mumbling to ourselves about Carole Lombard, and Mitch Leisen, 49-year-old son of a brewery boss, having overheard us, left Mr. Milland in his bathtub and confessed that he had known Carole for almost twenty years.

“She was a hard worker even in the old days,” he said. “She was the only Mack Sennett bathing beauty who ever went in bathing!”

“The greatest thing about Carole is her camera flexibility,” he revealed. “By that I mean her genius for changing her mood on a moment’s notice. I’ve directed her in very dramatic scenes, when her face drooped and her eyes were watery. Suddenly, I would decide to do a comedy shot, and in a second, Carole’s eyes would be bright with laughter!”

“Another thing about her is her marvelous intensity. She works so hard, believes so in her roles that she lives them. I recall one scene where she was supposed to be pathetic and sad. The fellow playing opposite her was supposed to be cruel and harsh. As the scene progressed, the hero lost his cruelty and fell into Carole’s tempo. ‘What the hell,’ I said to him. ‘What’s wrong?’ he sighed, ‘I can’t help it, Mitch. She makes me so damn sorry for her!'”

Leisen spoke of Carole’s perfect timing. “She never fumbles a punch line.” He spoke of her co-operativeness. “She’ll squawk and battle over a script she doesn’t like, but once it’s decided upon, she’ll slave over it.”

“She doesn’t only learn her own part. She learns everyone’s so that she knows the story and feels it. She doesn’t memorize words and dialogue, but tries to get the thoughts behind them. That’s why she can’t go wrong. It’s this understanding that gives her performances an underlying current of plausibility. She told me that My Man Godfrey with Bill Powell was her toughest picture, because she had to be nutty, slap-happy, goofy, and her lines lacked continuity, were unrelated and without thought. They were hard to grasp. Incidentally, to get into her screwball character she sat beside her director’s secretary, who was just the type, for weeks studying her!”

“Carole’s an asset to any film because she does so much for the cast. She’ll take new people into a corner and help them. You hear a lot about her rowdiness and swearing, but she only acts up with a purpose. When everyone is tense, she breaks it up with gags, and on such occasions she’ll whisper to me, ‘Okay Mitch, we got ’em laughing, now let’s go.'”

“She helped make Fred MacMurray what he is. He was stiff and scared in Hands Across the Table. She kept kidding him., and with Madalynne Field, her best pal, she once sat on Fred and plucked his eyebrows until nothing could upset him anymore!”

“Another thing I mustn’t forget. When she’s in a picture, she never says, ‘I think I should cry in this scene,’ but rather, ‘I think the girl should cry in this scene.’ She always refers to her role in third person, which shows projection. One day in Swing High, Swing Low Fred MacMurray came up to me and said, ‘Mitch, this guy just wouldn’t talk that way.’ That was the day I knew he’d become an actor. Because, at last, he was referring to his role in the third person.”

“Carole hasn’t given her greatest performance yet. That’ll be when she and Clark have their first child. She told me that would be her most important role. And I believe her. Take it from me, the gal’s really an actress!”

For the sake of science and honesty in our clinical study of a top-notch female thespian, we decided to confront one more director. Thus, the next phase of our research landed us smack in the middle of the swank Sunset Plaza apartments, in the living room of George Stevens. It was alert Mr. Stevens who guided Carole in her recent picture Vigil in the Night. We asked Stevens what he thought about Lombard.

“It’s difficult to discuss Carole Lombard. She’s so good that there’s the danger of speaking only in superlatives, and having it sound like a lot of goo. The thing that strikes me about Carole’s talent is her imagination, her creativeness. In a comedy scene, she embellishes the script and creates amusing business of her own, which most actresses are unable or too lazy to do.”

“In fact, she is most effective in comedy. She’s probably the most expert laugh-provoker in this country today. Carole has not been quite as strong in drama, but only because her vehicles have been weaker. In drama, her career is only beginning, and there, one day, in a play like ‘The Little Foxes’ she will achieve real recognition.”

“There are, in the movies, two types of actresses. The calculative type and the ‘I-feel-it-as-I-hope-you-see-it’ type. Carole is both types, which is unique. She is equipped technically and emotionally.”

“She is blessed, further, with a perfect degree of detachment. She can do a gripping scene, stop it, and a second later discuss what she’ll eat for dinner. This sometimes upsets her co-players, who think she can’t be very interested in the role. But they just don’t understand her.”

“Most marvelous thing about Carole is the way she can throw herself entirely into a scene. I’ll never forget one bit in Vigil in the Night. In the script her sister had just died and Carole came into her room and wearily hung up her coat. It was a very tense scene. We shot it once and no soap. The third time, Carole shuffled in, put up her coat, wavered and toppled over! I thought it was a gag — but she almost killed herself falling into the near-by sink, and I then learned she fainted. Sure, fainted from trying so hard, being so emotional, imagining she had a sister who had just died.”

“Do I have to tell you more about Lombard, after that?”

Inspired by Stevens’ enthusiasm, we decided to scurry back to RKO and huddle with Harry Stradling, the famous cameraman. This would give us a lens-eye view of Lombard, the Actress.

Harry Stradling, with twenty tears of experience under his shutter, said, “Carole Lombard is the cameraman’s delight. That’s because she knows lighting, angles, and the camera as well as I do. Before a scene, she’ll always be on the right mark, with her face and body so placed that the kliegs bathe her properly. She doesn’t need any pushing around, and time is never wasted on her picture.”

“For example, when I photographed Wendy Hiller in Pygmalion I had to sweat. It was her first picture. She didn’t know a thing. She wasn’t camera-wise and had to be guided in every move. Marlene Dietrich is just the opposite. She’s like Carole. Shrewd. Clever. She’ll ask you to shade her arms so that they won’t appear too far. That kind of stuff.”

Stradling emphasized the importance of lighting. He said it could hide or accentuate defects.

“Take Madeleine Carroll. She had too much weight in her last picture. I made her face thinner and her body, too, when it wasn’t in motion. But when she moved around, neither camera nor light could aid her. Carole’s weakness is her jaw. It photographs quite square and makes her cheeks too full. But she’s smart, that girl, and sees that she gets the best angles.”

“Then there’s that scar on her left cheek. She got it in a 1925 auto accident, when she went through the windshield. I was worried that the scar would detract from her performances in close-ups. The object was to get the lights to hit her face so that they would fill in the scar and blend it with her cheek. But Carole knew even more. She said to me, ‘Put a diffusing glass on your lens and I’ll look okay.’ I obeyed her, and wait’ll you see how beautiful she turns out.”

“Every day, at lunchtime, she goes into a projection room and watches the latest rushes. She then tells us if a scene was filmed too light or too dark. Uncanny, her knowledge of everything, of every part of the business. That knowledge, I feel, is her strength.”

While the cameraman talked, other members of the proletariat gathered around. They listened and, when the gabfest was over, each put in his word of wisdom about Lombard, the Actress.

Fred Hendrickson, her still photographer, drawled, “She hits good poses for portraits instinctively. Many actresses have a dead pan, but her face is always alive. She clowns a good deal, but will work endlessly. She stands up best in fashion stills and never kills a photo for petty reasons, but only if it is artistically poor.”

George Gabe, husky prop man who has been with RKO for seven years, remarked, “She even knows all about my job. If I’m not ready with various properties, she’ll stall so that I won’t get bawled out. And when there are expensive props or rare ones, which would cause me trouble to replace, she is careful not to break them. She is considerate. That helps make her a big actress and a great woman.”

Ruby Rosenberg, dark haired assistant director whom Lombard calls “Nellie,” put in her bit. “Sure she’s tops, but I know Carole’s Achilles Heel. That’s Gable. She can do anything before a camera, until Clark walks in to watch her. ‘I’m not worth a dime when the old man’s watching me,’ she says. She has him wait outside until a scene is over, then races out to meet him. She’s democratic, too. Breaks a studio rule to give the entire crew coffee every morning. Doesn’t have a dressing room. Only a chair and mirror. Won’t have doubles or stunters, but will literally go through storm and fire for realism. That’s a picture of The Madame, as Gable calls her.”

And that, fellow patriots, makes just about every precinct heard from and gives us a pretty thorough word Xray of Carole Lombard at work.

However, as much as her directors and co-workers have studied, discussed, understood her, we feel none gives us as clear a picture of Lombard, the Actress, as that little story we heard about her the other day. It may not be a true story. And then again, it may be. But anyway —

Once, years ago, Carole Lombard was acting in a stage play. Before the matinée performance, she had foolishly consumed enormous quantities of herring and dill pickles. Then, before a crowded house, in her big scene in the middle of the second act, the herring began warring with the dill pickles. Carole became nauseated, halted in her most dramatic speech and calmly strode off the stage. In a few seconds, feeling better, she returned and took up her big scene where she’d left it.

At the end of the play, a renowned critic cornered Carole, congratulated her, told her that, by dramatically leaving the stage in the middle of her big scene, she had accomplished a new and most effective piece of acting.

“And I know,” the critic added, “that it required thought.”

“Mister,” replied Carole,” what you don’t know is that it required speed!”