By: Richard Schickel
Comediennes were the New Wave of the thirties. What was funny about them was that they always turned out to be more realistic than the men in their pictures. They had a sharper sense of right and wrong, were better students of tactics, and were masters of the mannish wisecrack. In a movie world where women had, prior to the depression, been either innocents or exotics, they were refreshingly down-to-earth.
In comedy, previously dominated by males — with women used only as foils or decoration — they actually set the style of the period. For want of a better term, they were known as screwballs and, of them all — Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert — the best was Carole Lombard.
Born in Indiana, she came to Los Angeles as a child and did her first movie work at age eleven. She waited all of four years before going to work full time in the movies. Junior high diploma in hand, she reported for work as a cowgirl in Buck Jones Westerns at seventy-five dollars a week, then graduated to Mack Sennett comedies. Joseph P. Kennedy, then heading Pathé, saw her and offered her more money to appear in films at his studio– if she would lose weight. She agreed, but made a splendid exit from his office, crying, “You’re not so skinny yourself.” He went into training, and Miss Lombard went into bigger and bigger pictures — Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey and, best of all, Nothing Sacred (1937), a Ben Hecht joke on newsmen and publicity stunts. Her screen personality was implacably logical — like that of the great comics and all womankind.
Off screen she was a blunt-spoken practical joker, given to such pranks as screwing flash bulbs into light sockets and lingering to wait for the explosion when an innocent turned the light on. She once rewrote a contract with her agent specifying that he pay her 10 per cent of her salary. She wooed Clark Gable wit ha model T on which she pasted hundreds of paper hearts and when they were married became a regular guy, placing his tastes — and career — ahead of her own. She was in all ways a delight, and her death in wartime plane accident was a genuine tragedy.