“Serious Side of a Screwball” (Screenland, January 1939)

By: Elizabeth Wilson

I don’t suppose the dopey-looking dame with her hair coiffed to the skies in the booth next to mine at the Brown Derby ever realized how near death she was that night. There I was tearing joyously into tenderloin de luxe, completely at peace with the world and Connie Bennett, when she had to up and open her trap. “That Carole Lombard,” she said to the mousey guy with her, “always playing gags on people. Gags, gags, gags, all the time gags! Can’t she get publicity any other way?”

Fairly choking with rage and a french fry I gave her a look that’s been known to crush traffic cops with hair on their chest. But nothing would crush that one, outside of a steam roller. “So she sends Clark Gable a jaloppy,” she continued shrilly, completely ignoring my menacing map. “So she sends him a ham with his picture on it! So she sends him a ballet skirt! So what? I’m good and sick and tired and fed up with reading about Lombard’s gags. Pass me the salt.” The mousey guy passed the salt and said, “She’s got good legs.”

Well, by the time I had counted ten – I promise Mr. Hays that I wouldn’t murder anyone in his Hollywood until I had counted ten, and as I count on my fingers I count slowly – I had cooled off considerably, and remorse, deep, gnawing, depressing remorse had set in. After all, some of those gags weren’t Carole’s. I made ’em up. And I’m not going to be noble about taking the blame, either – the other ladies and gentlemen of the press tossed in a few dandies too. Especially the one about the ambulance, and did that one stink! You see, we write while our editors burn sort of thought it was swell copy to make the screwball girl even screwier than she really is. And Carole was always such a grand sport about it.

Believe me, I was pretty depressed about the whole thing. And then a few nights later I found myself at a dinner party, up to my ears in Flato and the Right People, where a glamorous one who was wilting around the edges like lettuce that has been out too long remarked that the gag that Carole had played on agent Myron Selznick wasn’t funny at all and that she was bored stiff with the Lombard gags. (Of course the fact that Carole has been snatching off more space in the magazines than she might have had something to do with her boredom. I don’t have to tell you about human nature).

Now for all I know the slightly faded glamour girl and the silly bit of fluff at the Derby are the only two people in the world who have complained of Carole’s gags. But just in case there are other dopes taking cracks I think that now is the time for me to jump in with little chirrups of joy and talk truthfully, for a change, about Lombard. She loves a good laugh, don’t we all, but I tell you she is more gagged against than gagging. She isn’t all shrieks and squeals and expletives. And she isn’t simply brittle, brilliant, and beautiful. She has a serious side that will knock the props right from under you. But you have to be a close friend to even get a gander at Carole’s serious side. I am. And I know.

I first met Carole some five years ago, right after she had divorced William Powell in Reno. I met her in a steak joint – I seem to be always eating steak – the night of the preview of Twentieth Century and she said she wished I’d let her know what I thought about the picture. I was new in Hollywood in those days and I didn’t know that every star says that to every fan writer – it’s sort of the conventional thing to say, like “Goodbye now.” Hick that I was I was pleased and flattered that Miss Lombard should want my humble opinion of her picture, and by golly I gave it to her, in an eight page letter. (Little did we reck then, ah me, ah my, small fry, that Twentieth Century would start the cycle of wacky comedies featuring swift kicks that would soon establish Carole as the Screwball Girl of the World.) Well, being a polite star there was nothing poor Carole would do about an eight page letter but thank me for it, which she did. And somehow or other a friendship got started.

It ripened beautifully a year later when we found ourselves on the wrong train out of Chicago, and waked up in fields of cotton instead of blocks of skyscrapers. This was not a Lombard gag. It was a mistake. In Chicago where the Chief dumped us we had decided that it was silly to pay the Twentieth Century dollars extra fare to take us to New York when another train would get us there just as well for much less. There’s no stupid chi-chi about that Carole. Miss Lombard is probably the only movie star who ever arrived in New York on a milk train!

When you are cooped up for five days and nights with a movie star you get to know her pretty well. How she ticks, and what she thinks, if she thinks. And believe me, Carole thinks. She is one of the most serious girls I’ve ever met. People who knew Carole as Jane Peters when she was a child and later in her early teens tell me that she was a quiet, shy little girl whose stockings were always wrinkling. She worshipped her mother and was definitely a “Mama’s girl” – and still is, for that matter. Fortunately she got pushed around considerably by her two older brothers, Frederic Jr. and Stuart, who taught her how to box, and to play baseball and volleyball. She had a great amount of energy and usually managed to beat them at their own games (just as she does Mr. Gable now), but around adults she remained strictly the demure type. At the age of fifteen, fresh from Virgil Junior High School, she broke into films at Fox as Edmund Lowe’s leading lady in Marriage in Transit simply because she could work up a good flood of tears at the drop of a hat. “I just have to think sad things,” said Carole, to the director, ” and I cry.” She did. She also played in Hearts and Spurs with Buck Jones (on a camera-wise horse that had been in so many pictures that the moment he was out of focus he would stop dead, with the result that Carole was always gliding over his head onto her own), and in several other Westerns with Tom Mix. By no means a Glamour Girl, Carole just the same was fairly well established in pictures with ambitious hopes for a brilliant future – when suddenly her world collapsed about her. Her face was torn open in an automobile accident. There seemed little doubt but that she would be scarred for life.

It happened on a Sunday afternoon in 1925, when Carole was seventeen. She went riding in a Frenchmade car with Harry Cooper, a banker’s son. They were driving along Doheny Drive in Beverly Hills, when Cooper brought his car to a stop. At that moment, the car hit a bump, the catch on the movable seat broke, and Carole slid face forward into the windshield. Ordinary glass would not have broken so easily, but this windshield was already cracked. In shattering, it made a bone-deep scar in Carole’s face, from her upper lip to the middle of her left cheek.

The common belief is that Carole’s beauty was saved by long and expensive plastic surgery operations, but that is entirely untrue. Some unknown surgeon in a community hospital in Hollywood, who took fourteen stitches in Carole’s face, was the real hero. He administered no anesthetic, because he did not want the facial muscles relaxed. After the operation he taped down Carole’s eyelids for four hours, and warned her against moving her face for the next ten days. The only trace now of that accident is a slight scar that can be detected on the closest inspection. At the time of the operation, however, an angry red line remained on her face for over a year, during which period Carole became. more and more despondent over her future on the screen. The scar gave her a dreadful inferiority complex and she hid herself away from her friends, from Hollywood, from all contact with that gay glamorous life that has been hers for only a moment before it had been snatched away. Through a year full of long days and lonely nights she had plenty of time to think things out.

It was that accident, I am sure, with its accompanying loneliness and despair, that turned Carole into the screwball whom the public knows today. Her pride was hurt so deeply then that she had a horror of being hurt again – so she fights people off with laughter, with hilarious squeals and shrieks. Gags are a sort of defense mechanism with Carole. She wants you to think of her as a gay gal without a care in the world. Also, during that lonely year she learned a lot about human nature. People like to laugh. If you come into a room and shout, “Hey, everybody, relax, I’ve got the funniest story to tell you,” people will crowd around you and adore you as if you were the nicest thing that has happened since Christmas. If you say, “Come over to my house tonight and let’s have a serious talk,” you can be quite sure that your guests will suddenly find a previous engagement. But if you say, “Come over tonight, and let’s have some laughs,” you can be sure of a party. “If I am ever given another chance, I won’t be a sourpuss,” thought Carole, “I’ll be a dizzy dame. People want to laugh, okay, I can make them laugh. And as long as they laugh they can never get close to me.”

As everyone knows by now, an assistant director and friend named Lonnie Dorsey suggested a remedy for the brooding Carole. “Get her over to Mack Sennett’s,” he told Mrs. Peters. “She’ll forget her disfigurement in that mad bunch and she’ll hit her stride again. The fast pace will snap her out of it.” Figures, not face, counted at Sennett’s. After two years of slapstick comedy, which proved invaluable experience to her when she later became a madcap screwball girl, Carole’s good spirits were restored, the red line had entirely disappeared, and Carole had started her merry pranks that simply had Hollywood in stitches. “Carole’s a card,” people said. And couldn’t wait to see what she’d think up next.

In order to know that serious side of Carole today you must see her when she isn’t in action. When she’s at home. When she has finished a long hard day at the studio with plenty of boisterous repartee with press and publicity and has screamed a noisy goodnight to every prop and grip (Carole is accepted as the most democratic star in Hollywood) she drives herself home in a far from glamorous car, and simply falls into bed. But her abundant energy doesn’t leave her even then and for hours every night she reads newspapers, books, plays, and scripts. Carole is the best read person you’re likely to meet in these parts. When she reads a newspaper, she doesn’t turn right to the movie gossip columns to see if her name is in there, but reads it from page to page with special attention to the editorial page. When she admires an editorial or a syndicated column she sends a wire to the editor or columnist which says, “Enjoyed your editorial last night tremendously.” Of course the editors and columnists think it’s only another Lombard gag – but they just ought to see how really serious Carole is about it.

She reads every book and play published, and all the original scripts that are given to her by her friends and acquaintances. Naturally, you say, she is looking for a part for herself. And naturally, she is. But if she finds the book, the play, and the script unsuited for her she doesn’t toss it aside with a “There’s nothing for me there.” No indeed, Miss Lombard gets on the phone and starts calling up other stars. “Oh, Janet,” she will say to Miss Gaynor, “I have a script here that Buster Collier wrote with a grand part in it for you. I wish you’d read it.” And, “Bill, dear,” to her ex-husband, William Powell, “I have just finished reading Rebecca. Please read it, you’ll enjoy it. And see if you don’t think it would make a marvelous picture for you.” When she read Margarite Roberts’ Farewell Performance, she called several studios urging them to buy it. Miss Lombard was not the movie star who made the famous remark, “I have a book.” Miss Lombard has hundreds of books. With the pages cut.

For a movie star she has a remarkable knowledge of world conditions and national problems. She practically slugged another glamour girl, whose mind is bound by Hollywood on one side and Brentwood on the other, when with great hauteur the star managed to leave off playing bridge long enough to remark to a room of stuffed shirts, “I don’t see what all the unrest is about. Aren’t people happy anymore? I’m very happy.” Carole’s knowledge isn’t so much technical as it is instinctive. She has a great understanding of people, real people, and there is something awfully warm about her that stretches out to them. She has what the French call “la tendresse.” As a friend of hers said the other day, “She is a greater woman than an actress – and she is a swell actress.”

The Lombard charities are not publicized. She wishes it that way. And they will not be enumerated here. But I just can’t help but mention in passing that Carole was the only one who risked her life last spring during the floods to go personally to the people in the flooded areas and help them not only with checks and gifts, but physically. “Isn’t it terrible, ” said the Hollywood cinema great, huddled comfortably around their radios. But it was Carole, out there sloshing around in mud and water up to her hips, who knew exactly how terrible it was. When she came home she cried like a baby. It was no gag.

No matter what Carole does she does it seriously. It isn’t just for laughs. When she wanted to become a good tennis player several years ago, she decided to “un-learn” what she knew (and she played a very fair game at that) and started from rockbottom with coach Eleanor Tennant. When she took up skeet-shooting, she concentrated upon it until now she is recognized as the best skeet-shooter in Hollywood. When she goes hunting with Clark Gable and Andy Devine she is no drawback to the men – in fact she is better at the sport than they are. She can bag more ducks than Clark any time. But when it comes. to finishing he gets even with her. The Lombard stomach is subject to mal de mer at its worst. Since the little incident that happened on the last fishing trip with Clark and the Buster Colliers, Carole has sworn off the sea forever. She had been flat on her back under canvas all day, simply praying that Clark and “Stevie” and Buster would be dragged into the ocean by those horrid smelly yellowtails and she could go home to her nice clean bed. But during the late afternoon she felt a bit stronger and thought she might sit up and try to manage a sandwich and a coca cola. As she sat there munching her sandwich rather undecidedly a seagull swooped down on the deck right in front of her. “Here birdie,” said Carole, “come get this sandwich.” The seagull swayed uncertainly across the deck, gave Carole a particular wan look, and proceeded to throw up a fish dinner right at her feet. For months Carole has turned deathly pale at the very mention of the word fish. That wasn’t a gag either.

Rather typical of Carole’s serious side is the interview she gave out not long ago to Frederick C. Othman of the United Press. He asked her what she thought of the huge income tax peeled of her $465,000 salary for 1937, and he expected her to go into a fine frenzy like the rest of the Hollywood stars do at the mention of income tax. But not Carole. “I think it’s great,” was her prompt reply. “I’m glad and proud to pay the government any amount it sees fit for me to pay. This is the greatest country on earth, worth any price. I like its schools, its free parks for children, its opportunity, all made possible by the taxes we pay. The taxes I pay come back to me in all the wonderful things that make this country the finest in the world. It is the kind of a country that made it possible for me to earn such a salary. Yes, I’m glad to pay my taxes.” (By the time Carole had paid her taxes, federal, state, agent, etc., she has about $30,000 left from her $465,000 annual income. She gets $150,000 a picture and $5000 a broadcast. $30,000 is still a lot of money to us, but it isn’t very much for a movie star who has to pay ten times as much for things as we pay).

Amid all the griping and wailing about income taxes in Hollywood the Lombard point of view, “I’m glad to pay,” was rather refreshing. And I do hope you saw the two column cartoons in the New York World Telegram showing a rotund captain of industry with the Lombard interview in his hands. He is shouting to his butler, “Henceforth, Jeeves, when attending the cinema you will hiss at this Lombard person long and loudly.” Jeeves will have a very good opportunity soon when Made for Each Other, Carole’s latest in which she co-stars with Jimmy Stewart, plays the neighborhood theaters. But I bet Jeeves won’t.