By: Robert Moses
It seemed as if all of Hollywood was there that Sunday in June 1935. At the Ocean Park amusements on Venice Pier, wardrobe girls and grips rode the carousel and glanced over their shoulders at Dietrich in shorts on the wooden horse behind them. Stars and moguls took turns spinning in a barrel (Cesar Romero cracked his ankle), going head over heels on the whirligig, or posing for snapshots with their faces beaming from cut-out facades of bathing beauties and musclemen. Starlets and script girls alike competed to float through the tunnel of love wit ha fascinating newcomer to town, one Errol Flynn (it was said that the sensation Flynn caused led directly to his snaring the lead in Captain Blood). The entire throng gave throaty voice in a community sing as the dawn started to color the sky. The occasion? It was a “Carole Lombard party” and that alone guaranteed a spectacular good time.
A Californian from the age of six, Lombard landed her first role in Allan Dwan’s A Perfect Crime (1921). The tomboy part reportedly went to Lombard when Dwan observed her besting the neighborhood boys in a boxing match. The lithe athleticism that Lombard maintained as she grew into one of the screen’s great beauties made her a favorite of both men and women. Beginning with her days as one of Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties, her fellow starlets found her a companionable friend willing to go along with — or instigate — any prank. Men found Lombard open, honest and a woman who could relate to them on their own terms. George Raft, her co-star in Bolero and Rumba, and a notorious ladies’ man, considered her “the greatest girl that ever lived and we were the best of pals. Completely honest and outspoken, she was liked by everyone.”
Keeping the wolves (like Raft) at bay in a town where every ingenue is considered fair game was the secret motive behind Lombard’s legendary wisecracks that would make a stevedore blush. Lombard’s brother, Fred Peters, maintained that he and his brother Stuart taught her the repertoire after she received too many propositions. “She wouldn’t let us off the hook,” Peters is quoted as saying in Larry Swindell’s Screwball. “She’d hit on the idea of discouraging her would-be seducers by swearing at them, and the amazing thing was that she really didn’t know very many dirty words — anyways, she didn’t know what they meant … Some words women throw around today — well, Carole would simply never use them. But everything was different then, and a girl could get herself into trouble just by talking dirty. But she had the style to carry it off.”
The Lombard sense of style and fun found its fullest expression off the set in parties that are still part of Hollywood lore. The fan magazines all called her Hollywood’s leading hostess, and breathlessly reported the themes that sprung from her sprightly imagination. When a number of her movie star friends had widely reported illnesses, Lombard threw a hospital party, converting her living room into award, complete with hospital gowns for the guest and white iron beds with the guests’ charts hanging above them. She next threw a Roman banquet that required dinner companions to recline at low-slung tables, adorned in togas.
Hollywood was convinced Lombard had out-done herself when she staged a birthday party for writer Bob Riskin. After uncharacterically specifying formal dress, Lombard greeted guests in rolled-up dungarees, a straw hat, and a plaid shirt. The furnishings from her mansion had been replaced with bales of hay, and live chickens roamed through the house. Lombard was photographed milking a cow that had been corralled in the back. The “barnyard party” had Hollywood breathless, until the Ocean Park escapades, Lombard’s last extravaganza. As her career began to become more important,, Lombard attached greater value to it than entertaining. “You can’t have it both ways, ” she maintained at the time. “I went through the motions of making pictures for too long, spending most of my energy having a good time. Most people gripe about the elusiveness of stardom but do little to deserve it, and even less to hold onto it. When I saw I was really getting a fair chance, I decided to work for it.”
Not that devotion to her work on the set meant the end of good times. Lombard could be counted on for gags and jokes on every shoot. On the set of Nothing Sacred, Lombard got fed up with director William Wellman’s refusal to discuss her scenes before cameras rolled. She finally gave her way by having several technicians seize the director, wrap him in a straitjacket and tie him to his chair. Wellman and Lombard also became a familiar sight on the Selznick lot, tearing around the grounds in a rented fire truck. Their frantic pace found its way into one of the fastest-moving screwball comedies of all time.
Lombard had heard comments that her director on Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the meticulous Alfred Hitchcock, considered actors no better than cattle. So on the first day of shooting, a cattle pen appeared courtesy of Lombard, with three heifers each bearing a name tag corresponding to the stars, Lombard, Robert Montgomery and Gene Raymond.
It must be admitted that some of the parties, stunts, the between-takes gags were calculated to please the columnists and fan magazines that counted on Lombard for good copy. But Lombard knew that such goings-on would cement an image in the public mind of the kind of role in which they expected to see her: the queen of screwball comedy. She had attained that lofty perch as a result of My Man Godfrey, and it set the standard for the screwball era that followed. As debutante Irene Bullock, Lombard leads the cast on a merry spree, ushering “forgotten man” William Powell into serve as the family butler. Her character’s dim grasp of reality and frequent swoonings might easily have slipped into incredulity, bu Lombard’s luminous talent invests Irene Bullock with a softness that translates as winsome naïveté. She makes it easy to believe Powell would endure the hurricane of the Bullock family simply to be in her presence. Why? Because like the lady herself, Lombard’s character in My Man Godfrey is just plain fun.