In Defense of THE GAY BRIDE (1934)

Carole Lombard once confessed that the gangster-screwball comedy hybrid, The Gay Bride (Jack Conway, 1934), was the worst film she ever made. In the decades since her comment, the film has acquired a negative reputation, unfairly dismissed by both biographers and fans as a forgettable entry in her early career. While The Gay Bride is not a comedy par excellence on the level of Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934), My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936), or To Be or Not To Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942), it is by no means Lombard’s worst film, nor does it deserve such a marginal reputation. As it is my goal of this website to recalibrate the discourse around Carole Lombard’s star persona and films, it is only fair to give The Gay Bride a second look and consider why it is worthy of a more distinguished place in her comedy oeuvre.

The Gay Bride tells the story of Mary (Lombard), a gold-digging chorus girl who marries gangster “Shoots” Magiz (Nat Pendelton) in an effort to move up in the world. The repeal of Prohibition causes Shoots’ illegal liquor business to go belly up, and not long after, he is killed by a rival gangster, Daniel Dingle (Sam Hardy). Ever an opportunist, Mary sets her sights on Dingle, but is wooed away by another gangster, Mickey “The Greek” Mikapopoulis (Leo Carrillo) after he promises to set her up with a trust fund. All the while, Shoots’ bodyguard, Jimmy the ‘Office Boy,’ remains a thorn in Mary’s side – he brands her a chiseler, constantly reminding her that he sees through her phony affectations. As is customary in screwball comedy, Office Boy and Mary’s antagonism eventually turns into love – but as this is a Code-era film, the only way they can live happily ever after is if she divests the illegal money she acquired from The Greek, which she does by handing out handfuls of bills to strangers on the street.

The Gay Bride was adapted from a Charles Francis Coe short story called “Repeal” published in late-1933 in the Saturday Evening Post. Coe’s original tale had a more gloomy tone and centered on the fatal consequences of romantic love on a gangster’s lifestyle. “Repeal” was based on the real-life story of Chicago mob boss, James “Big Jim” Colismo, who was murdered outside of his restaurant in 1920. Multiple gunmen were suspected in Colismo’s murder including Al Capone, and the hit was allegedly arranged by his ex-wife, Victoria Moresco, because she was unhappy with the financial settlement from their divorce (Sawyers 1987). Metro-Goldwyn Mayer purchased the film rights in early 1934, and tasked the husband-and-wife writing duo, Sam and Bella Spewak, to lighten it up for the screen. The Spewaks changed Coe’s story from a grisly murder mystery to a comedic romp about a chorus girl’s seduction of rival gangsters. The studio also hired Jack Virgil to compose the music for the film’s only theatrical scene, in which Mary and chorines perform a rendition of John P. Long’s hit 1922 song “Mississippi Honeymoon.”

Mary (Carole Lombard) in the “Mississippi Honeymoon” musical number.

MGM assigned the film to the Jack Conway, whose previous directorial credits like Our Modern Maidens (1928) and Red Headed Woman (1932) made him the ideal director to embellish the light, comedic elements of the gangster milieu. Several MGM contract stars were under consideration for the gangster roles including Clark Gable and Lyle Talbot, but the studio eventually settled on Nat Pendelton and Chester Morris. After both Loretta Young and Jean Harlow turned down the role of Mary (Waterbury 1935, pg. 4), MGM secured Carole Lombard through a loan-out deal with her home studio, Paramount. The role of Mirabelle, Mary’s wisecracking girlfriend, was given to ZaSu Pitts, although the studio briefly considered both Isabel Jewell and Una Merkel. Under the working title “Repeal,” production lasted nearly four weeks from September 20th to October 23rd, 1934. The Gay Bride was released in time for the holiday season on December 14th to largely mixed critical reviews. Lionel Collier of Picturegoer magazine lamented that the film “relies much more on its acting than its plot” (1935, pg. 34), while Andre Sennwald of The New York Times claimed it inspired “loud and vigorous laughter at the expense of the professional assassins of the underworld” (1934, pg. X7).

Collier’s observation is not without merit; Conway’s direction proves his competence, but the film makes few, if any, bold aesthetic choices. In spite of its stylistic blandness, The Gay Bride does make an impression with its performances and comedic flourish. Sennwald’s comment alludes to the film’s obvious silliness, and perhaps that is part of the reason why the film has been discounted for decades. Although the film is set in the underworld, its gangsters are not of the Little Caesar (1931) or Scarface (1932) variety, nor does it offer any sort of social commentary typical of the gangster genre in the classical Hollywood period.

In the 1920s and early-30s, Hollywood was the target by conservative social and religious organizations who wanted the studios to “clean up the movies.” This charge was supported, in part, by the now-discredited Payne Fund Studies (1929-1932) which observed the effects of movies on children and adolescents. Thirteen separate studies concluded that the cinema did not simply hold up a mirror to society, but was an alleged insidious force that directly influenced the behavior and ideology of its audience. This pseudo-scientific investigation gave weight to calls for film censorship, and was one of the many contributing factors that led to the eventual unilateral enforcement of the Production Code in 1934. Given the overlapping industrial and social factors, the gangster genre became the ideal vehicle to offer pointed lessons about criminality, and the gangster’s irreverence toward the law was framed as a threat to the safety and stability of American life. In an effort to pacify their critics, in the early-30s the Hollywood studios reluctantly co-opted virtuous language to frame the gangster’s criminal behavior. For example, Scarface‘s heavy-handed intertitles (see below) were meant to simultaneously disavow the film’s criminality and mobilize audiences into civic action.

The Gay Bride adheres to the gangster genre’s moral consciousness via Mary’s redemption arc, but also by framing her pseudo-romantic interests as the gangsters’ “downfall.” It is important to remember that the Production Code was designed largely to preserve marriage and family, which were seen by its enforcers as the cornerstones of a thriving American society; the gangster’s craven, loose lifestyle is, by definition, incompatible with that ideal. It’s therefore telling that the gangsters in The Gay Bride get their comeuppance via a gold digger; phony marriage and false love are the gangsters’ “punishments” that the Code deemed necessary. Mary’s true motivations are identified only by Office Boy, the one member of the mob who longs for a simple life outside of the underworld. His dream of marriage and owning a garage are likely his saving grace; Shoots, Dingle, and The Greek are too unrepentant to be afforded the same personal happiness.

The gangsters in The Gay Bride face punishment, but unlike Tony in Scarface or the eponymous Little Caesar, they pose little societal “threat” largely because of their hubris and incompetence. There’s an exaggerated slapstick element to their antics that make them less megalomaniacal and self-destructive, and more like cartoons parodies. Shoots is a gangster in name only: he is goofy, and lacks the intelligence and finesse that is typical of Hollywood’s gangster characterization. He is also unusually passive for a mob boss, and displays about as much bravado as Elmer Fudd. The film establishes his personality deficiency early on: in a transitional dissolve early on in the film, his guttural cheers at the theater are likened to a mooing domesticated bull. Likewise, Office Boy possesses more street smarts and intelligence than his boss, but he too fails to comport with the Hollywood gangster image because he is neither brooding nor violent. When rival gangsters attempt to hijack his car, he ties them up with a comedically loose rope and puts an acorn on their head to shoot at as a warning. There’s an absurd, almost farcical quality to The Gay Bride‘s depiction of the underworld – it is full of not-so-tough guys cosplaying as Hollywood gangsters.

The film’s playful tone is heightened by the hamminess that the actors bring to their roles, particularly evident in scenes between Lombard and Pendelton. A recurring theme in many of Lombard’s films is exaggeration and deception. Whether it be Lily Garland’s egotistical outbursts in Twentieth Century (1934), Hazel’s fake radium poisoning in Nothing Sacred (1937), or Helen’s habitual lying in True Confession (1937), Lombard’s characters often put on a facade to conceal their true intentions. This tendency results in a deliberately layered acting style from Lombard, blending both sincerity and artificiality into singular performances.

In the case of The Gay Bride, Lombard plays Mary’s scenes with Shoots in a deliciously over-the-top style: she gesticulates wildly, and amplifies Mary’s hysteria to remind us that her romantic feelings for him are entirely insincere. This is no more evident than when Mary pressures Shoots to revise his will on their wedding night. Mere minutes after their nuptials, she asks him to join her in their bedroom. Thinking that they’re about to consummate their marriage, Shoots eagerly puts on his best robe, pajamas, and cologne. However, when he enters the bridal suite he discovers Mary sitting in bed – alongside her lawyer, Mr. McPherson, and his secretary:

Everything about Mary – from her whimpering, child-like cry of “what will happen to me,” to the ostentatiously poofy chiffon sleeves of her dress and matching oversized handkerchief that she holds dramatically to her face – are deliberate theatrical touches that heighten her insincerity. By this point Mary knows that despite Shoots’ gruff protestations, she has already has him hooked, but her exaggerated performance here proves that she can’t help herself. And because Shoots is a little bit dumb and drunk on love, he does not realize that he is being manipulated. This moment is Mary’s emphatic final touch on her admission that Shoots is her “ticket out of the chorus for good,” and she plays the scene as if her life depended on it.

Pendelton’s performance as Shoots is arguably the most entertaining part of The Gay Bride. He deftly juxtaposes Lombard’s cunning theatricality with his skillful mastery of the tough-but-dumb character type. Pendelton’s expressivity comes from his malleable facial features; his wide eyes and furrowed brows move as if his characters are stuck in an endless state of incredulity. The dim-wittedness that manifests from Pendelton’s face is perhaps one of the reasons why he is The Gay Bride‘s clear acting standout, despite the overall brevity of his role. In the 1930s, nobody played the amiable himbo quite like Pendelton, and his likability is evident in roles like Lieutenant Guild in The Thin Man (1932) and Spud in Manhattan Melodrama (1934). In this film, Shoots’ lovesick naïveté is the ideal counterpoint to Mary’s calculated deception.

L to R: Nat Pendelton, Carole Lombard, and Chester Morris.

Though The Gay Bride misses the mark in terms of stylistic panache, overall it is a fun twist on the gangster film, with competent performances and a slapstick storyline to boot. The film is in entirely in keeping with the tone and caliber of some of MGM’s B-comedies, and while it is by no means in the upper echelon of Carole Lombard’s filmography, it’s also entirely undeserving of its “worst film” reputation. If you’ve avoided The Gay Bride up until now because of that unfortunate designation, I encourage you to give it a try – you won’t be disappointed.

WORKS CITED

Collier, Lionel. “On the Screens Now.” Picturegoer, February 23, 1935, pg. 34-36.

Sawyers, June. “The Vice Lord Who Fell in Love With a Choir Singer.” The Chicago Tribune, July 26, 1987.

Sennwald, Andre. “THE SCREEN; Humorous Adventures of an Acquisitive Chorus Girl in “The Gay Bride,” Now at the Rialto.” The New York Times, December 19, 1934.

Waterbury, Ruth. “The Hidden Hollywood.” Movie Mirror, February 1935, pg. 4.

A star & her agent: Carole Lombard and Myron Selznick

Carole Lombard in the Selznick International Pictures press office, c. 1938.

In Carole Lombard’s orbit of industry colleagues, her longtime agent, Myron Selznick, remains a surprisingly overlooked figure. The pair had a complex and often contentious professional relationship that culminated in a lawsuit over the legality of his firing in 1940. While Selznick often flies under the radar in the narrative about Lombard’s career, he was instrumental in her ascent to the peak of studio-era stardom: he negotiated salary increases at her home studio, Paramount and, later, her non-exclusive freelance contracts with studios such as Warner Brothers and Selznick International Pictures (SIP) (run by his younger brother, David). Notably, Lombard was hands-on in crafting all aspects of her stardom, but to understand the business behind her career, we needn’t look any further than Myron Selznick.

In the 1930s, Selznick was one of the top talent agents in Hollywood. In 1928 he established Joyce-Selznick Ltd. with his partner, Frank Coleman Joyce, and by the mid-30s they were earning nearly $15 million a year and boasted an impressive roster of clients including Kay Francis, Myrna Loy, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, and Charles Laughton. Upon his hiring in 1933, Selznick proved to be an immediate asset to Lombard’s career growth: he renegotiated her Paramount contract to raise her salary from $750 to $3000 per week in 1934. When that contract expired in late-1936, together they decided that her most strategic next step would be for Lombard to forego another long-term studio contract and go freelance. In the late-30s, freelancing was still a relatively new phenomenon among studio employees and was largely restricted to those at the top of the industry. For the actors that had the opportunity to freelance, the benefits were obvious: unlike long-term studio contracts, freelancing gave them greater creative control over their careers and more lucrative salary options. Freelancing meant that Lombard could pick and choose the films that she appeared in which, at the time, was a particularly appealing prospect. After a series of successful screwball comedies like Love Before Breakfast (Walter Lang, 1936), My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936), and True Confession (Wesley Ruggles, 1937), she was eager to distance herself from her comedic persona in an effort to avoid being typecast. Lombard believed that freelancing would elevate her status within the industry, and Selznick helped get her there. Over the next 3 years, they negotiated a series of envious freelance deals, some of which included then-novel profit participation provisions, which meant that she earned a reduced base salary in exchange for a percentage of a film’s box office gross. For example, in her 1939 two-picture agreement with RKO Lombard received a $100,000 salary plus 50% of a film’s distribution gross once it recouped 1.7x its production cost (Carman 2016, pg. 75). Lombard was the first studio era star to have such financial provisions in her contracts, and it later became an industry standard amongst her peers. Freelancing and profit participation made Lombard the highest paid actor in Hollywood, earning an impressive $460,000 in 1937 alone.

Myron Selznick sketch by Al Hirschfeld.

In addition to freelancing’s obvious monetary incentives, this type of labor contract also gave stars like Lombard access to highly coveted “perks.” Lombard was a self-described publicity maven, so her 1937 contract with SIP included a provision whereby the studio publicity department head, Russell Birdwell, would personally oversee her publicity for Nothing Sacred (William Wellman, 1937). Selznick also secured Lombard the publicity rights for her image, allowing her to dictate the terms under which her name and likeness could be used to promote films. Like other freelancers of the period, her contracts included other appealing clauses like a mandated eight-hour workday, costume designer and cinematographer of choice (Travis Banton and Ted Tetzlaff, respectively), star billing, and co-star status – only when her acting partner was of the same star caliber.

Russell Birdwell and Carole Lombard, c. 1938. Photographed by Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Lombard and Selznick’s business relationship extended beyond star management. In 1938, along with Lombard’s ex-husband, William Powell, and director Ernst Lubitsch, they attempted to form their own production company called Ernst Lubitsch Productions, Inc. Their first venture was to be The Shop Around the Corner, adapted from the 1937 Miklós László play, Parfumerie, with Lombard and Powell as leads and Lubitsch directing. According to a 1938 news article in the French trade paper, La Cinématographie Française, the actors agreed to forego their salaries in exchange for a percentage of the film’s distribution totals. Unfortunately, both the film project and production company fizzled out, largely due to what Emily Carman describes as Selznick’s inability to secure funding (2016 pg. 75). Nevertheless, this venture confirms that Lombard respected Selznick’s multi-faceted expertise. With his business sense and industry connections, she believed she could expand her own power and influence in Hollywood.

From La Cinématographie Française (September 9, 1938).

Over time, Lombard and Selznick’s relationship soured. In addition to fears about being typecast, Lombard longed to prove that she was a versatile actress. Between 1939 and 1940, she entered what I call her “dramatic period,” during which time she made four consecutive melodramas: Made for Each Other (John Cromwell, 1939), In Name Only (John Cromwell, 1939), Vigil in the Night (George Stevens, 1940), and They Knew What they Wanted (Garson Kanin, 1940). None did well at the box office, although on the whole, they received mixed critical reviews. Unfortunately, Lombard was the target of criticism that largely centered on the incongruity between her established screwball persona and her new dramatic image. In her review of Vigil in the Night, Eileen Creelman from the New York Sun lamented that Lombard “was so delightful in comedy that it seems a pity to coop her up in drama” (1940, pg. 13). Similarly, contemporaneous fan reviews suggest that audiences were unreceptive to Lombard’s dramatic shift, preferring her instead in familiar screwball roles. A letter from fan Dorothy Brooks Holcombe published in the December 1939 issue of Photoplay gives us a taste of that public sentiment. Writing about In Name Only, Holcombe suggests that Lombard had an “insufficient grasp of her role as the other woman,” and that although she “held her own in many a picture…she was a poor second to Kay Francis” (1939, pg. 5). Like Creelman, Holcombe’s issue largely stems from her perception of the kind of star Lombard should be; comedy, not drama, was her undisputed forte. In spite of her best efforts, Lombard became deterred from pursuing further dramatic roles and abandoned her new acting ambitions entirely. She returned to comedy for what would be her last few film roles: first, Mr. & Mrs. Smith (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941) and, finally, the posthumously released wartime satire, To Be or Not To Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942). And prior to her death in January 1942, she was preparing for her role in yet another comedy, They All Kissed The Bride.

The poor box office performances and lukewarm reviews of the aforementioned dramatic films stemmed from the public’s rejection of Lombard’s new screen persona. It is clear that there was a disconnect between the types of roles Lombard wanted to play and those which audiences expected from her. However, Lombard attributed her failures to Myron Selznick, believing that he was not doing enough to guide her at what she perceived was a critical juncture. Selznick’s personal turmoil adds a further layer to this complicated relationship: by the late-30s, he was struggling with alcoholism, and Lombard, along with several of his clients, feared that his excessive drinking was negatively impacting their careers. Selznick’s alcoholism compounded Lombard’s career disappointment, and he unfairly became a scapegoat for her lackluster dramatic endeavors. Eventually Lombard reached her breaking point, and in mid-1940, she sued his agency for an early release from her contract.

In early 1941, the case went to an arbitration board comprised of 3 members. Lombard’s lawyers requested that Selznick’s 10% cut on deals made in 1939 and 1940 be rescinded, and argued that his “lifestyle” was interfering with his ability to sufficiently manage her career. The board officially filed their decision in February, determining that Lombard was well within her legal right to terminate Selznick’s services. However, they noted that she owed him $27, 500 in back commissions to be paid over the subsequent five years. Furthermore, they ruled that Selznick’s agency had raised her star cache in Hollywood, and that his “lifestyle” had no bearing on her acting career or public image. In no uncertain terms, the board stated that Selznick’s private affairs were not a valid reason for dismissal. Trade papers of the day painted the board’s decision as a win for Lombard (see below), but it is clear by the language in the case file that her accusation about Selznick’s drinking was viewed unsympathetically.

From Film Daily (January 27, 1940).

Carole Lombard and Myron Selznick’s relationship may have ended on a bitter note, but for several years they worked harmoniously. Both star and agent understood the rules of the game, and together they devised the best strategies to develop Lombard’s star power in the studio system. Although Lombard is rightfully be celebrated for her independence and so-called “natural” business savvy, Selznick’s industry knowledge, connections, and influence elevated her stardom to unprecedented levels. In that respect, Myron Selznick was arguably Lombard’s most influential professional collaborator.

WORKS CITED

“Boos and Bouquets.” Photoplay, December 1939, pg. 5.

Carman, Emily. Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016.

Carole Lombard legal file. David O. Selznick Collection. Available at the Harry Ransom Center, the University of Texas at Austin.

Creelman, Eileen. “Review of Vigil in the Night.” March 5, 1940, pg. 13.

“Myron Selznick et Ernst Lubitsch viennent de fonder à Hollywood un organisme de production en coopération.” La Cinématographie Française, September 9, 1938, pg. 25.

“SAG says Carole Lombard won in agent dispute.” Film Daily, January 27, 1940, pg. 2.

“‘Tomboy’ Carole Lombard Earned $2,000,000.” Los Angeles Times, January 18, 1942.

Carole Lombard remembered


Carole Lombard died eighty years ago today. She was returning to Los Angeles from a successful defense bond tour in Indiana, which was organized by the Hollywood Victory Committee in support of the U.S. war effort during WWII. She, along with 21 others including her mother, Elizabeth Peters, and MGM press agent, Otto Winkler, perished when their plane crashed into Mt. Potosi, just outside of Las Vegas. Lombard’s tragic demise has been discussed at length by myself and others, and nothing I add here can adequately encapsulate the magnitude of that loss. Rather than fixate on the untimely circumstances and mythology surrounding her death, on such a solemn anniversary it is important to celebrate her vivacious spirit and the indelible mark she left on classical Hollywood cinema.

Among her many professional accomplishments, Carole Lombard can lay some claim to inspiring an entirely new form of screen comedy. In 1934, audiences were introduced to two films – Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night and Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century – that would become the blueprints for a genre called screwball comedy. Lily Garland (her character in Twentieth Century) embodies many of the characteristics of the prototypical screwball heroine, and her unapologetic confidence and feistiness are symbolic of the genre’s progressive (for their time) gender politics. Screwball heroines like Lily possess an independent spirit, and celebrate their “unruliness” – or the defiance of conventionally feminine appearance or behavior – as a “badge of honor” (Kiriakou 2022). Lily’s proclivity for comedic transgression is a thread that weaves throughout Lombard’s entire screwball oeuvre, and book-ends Twentieth Century with her final screwball comedy, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Hitchcock, 1941). In fact, it was a Variety review describing Lombard’s performance in My Man Godfrey (La Cava, 1936) that gave birth to the genre’s name. Given its etymology, it’s no wonder that the link between Lombard and screwball comedy is so tightly intertwined; her dizzy performance style is one of the main originators of cinematic screwiness (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 72). It was that iconicity that helped establish her reputation as the “Queen” of screwball comedy.

Carole Lombard and John Barrymore in Twentieth Century (Hawks, 1934).

Lombard had been working as an actress for over a decade prior to being cast in Hawks’ film, but Twentieth Century set her career on an entirely new course. Up until that point, her proficiency as a screen comedienne had only been tested in Mack Sennett’s slapstick comedy shorts, but in 1934 her comedic prowess was still relatively unproven. As one of Mack Sennett’s “Bathing Beauties,” Lombard was given some opportunity to hone her physical comedy skills, as is the case with films like The Swim Princess (Alfred J. Goulding, 1928) and The Campus Vamp (Harry Edwards, 1928). However, contrary to popular belief, Lombard’s silent comedies are far less physically demanding than one might expect, and her primary function in Sennett’s acting troupe was to be beautiful eye-candy. Her Sennett phase is often cited as a precursor to her screwball stardom, but if we consider that body of work in totality, there’s very little indication that Lombard of the late-1920s was a “natural” comedian. Her next home studio, Paramount, must have thought so too because upon her signing a seven year contract in 1930, they molded her into a glamour girl. In the early-30s Lombard was chic personified, and was even voted Hollywood’s best dressed star (a title that she later came to resent). The sophisticated aura of her star persona was solidified by her marriage to William Powell (married from 1931-1933), whose debonaire image complimented her screen glamour. During this brief period, Lombard also starred in consecutive films including Ladies’ Man (Mendes, 1931), No More Orchids (Lang, 1932), and The Eagle and the Hawk (Walker, 1933) that highlighted her beautiful, esoteric persona.

Twentieth Century set Lombard’s career on a different course, and it enabled her to harness a yet-untapped side of her performative arsenal. It was the first film to fully showcase her acting range, and through much of the decade she honed her comedic timing to perfection, enshrining full-bodied physicality as her trademark. There’s an uninhibited, electric quality to Lombard’s brand of comedy that her voice and facial features alone cannot convey. She gesticulates with the force of her entire body, almost as a way to channel the undercurrent of nervous energy that radiates from within. This is no more evident than in a film like Nothing Sacred (Wellman, 1937), which is arguably the pinnacle of Lombard’s physicality. Her roughhousing with co-star Fredric March can best be described frantic; she punches, kicks, screams, and even jumps into the Hudson River, pushing her stamina to the limit.

Lombard and Fredric March in Nothing Sacred (Wellman, 1937).

Lombard’s physical comedy carries historical significance, too. She was certainly not the first female physical comedy star to appear on screen, but her screwball performances uniquely refuted the then-popular (and misogynistic) notion that women were too delicate to perform physical comedy to the same degree of proficiency as their male counterparts. Female comedy discourse, particularly in the early 20th century, often centered on what’s called the “pretty/funny” divide. Historically, women were considered either pretty or funny – but not both. Henry Jenkins argues that in the 1920s and early-1930s, self-deprecating humor conveyed a comedienne’s “grotesque parody of traditional femininity” (1992, pg. 260); when women were funny, they were often stripped of their sexual appeal and agency. Thus, comedic “unruliness” was seen as a threatening disruption of the rigid, socially enforced gender binary. Lombard challenges the pretty/funny divide by being conventionally beautiful and attractive; in all of her screwball comedies, there is never a moment of compromise. In fact, even with string, wet hair à la Nothing Sacred or a black eye in Love Before Breakfast (Lang, 1936), Lombard remained the pretty and funny comedian.

Lombard has been cited as an inspiration for generations of female comics, and her performance style most closely resembles the likes of Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. Ball, a friend and mentee of Lombard’s, confessed that Carole once came to her in a dream and encouraged her to pursue television, still then in its infancy (Ball 1997, pg. 168). While Lombard cannot lay claim to any of I Love Lucy‘s groundbreaking comedy, her influence is evident in Ball’s kooky and boisterous physicality. Lombard’s films are now all over 80 years old, but much like Ball, there’s a modern quality to her comedic antics. Lombard’s characters were vivacious, charismatic, and full of vitality, and the nervous energy that I described above is almost like a spark of electricity, cracking with the intensity of a lightning bolt.

Lucille Ball paid tribute to her friend and mentor in an episode of The Lucy Show.

At age thirty-three, Carole Lombard had many unfulfilled goals, the likes of which we, as fans, can only barely grasp. While she may have reached a level of power and fame few will ever achieve, Lombard continued to push herself professionally. 1937 marked a high point in her career: not only was she the highest paid actor in Hollywood (raking in an impressive $450,000), but it also marked the beginning of a freelance career. Freelancing enabled her to sign short-term contracts with the studios and producers of her choosing including Warner Brothers, RKO, and Selznick International, and these deals set her career (temporarily) on a new course in melodrama. What’s more, Lombard’s profit participation deals with these studios (in which she took a reduced salary in exchange for a percentage of her films’ box office grosses) paved the way for other studio-era actors to advocate for more lucrative compensation. Lombard, along with her freelancing contemporaries like Miriam Hopkins and Janet Gaynor, fundamentally improved the conditions of star labor in the studio system.

Given Lombard’s age at the time of her death, she was nearing what was considered a transitional period for actresses in the classical Hollywood era. It’s futile to speculate how she would have dealt with aging and all of the barriers that her peers had to face. Would she have continued acting? Or would she have shifted gears into another area in the industry, perhaps leaning into her natural affinity for business? Had her lifelong dream of motherhood come true, would she have retired from the screen to raise a family with her second husband, Clark Gable (like she was once quoted as saying)? No one knows for certain. Lombard had a wise, almost ironic perspective about aging. In 1938 (at age thirty) she said:

I don’t know of anything in the world more beautiful, more fascinating than a woman ripe with years, rich and lush as velvet with experience, her humor as tangy and flavorous as sunripened fruit…I LOVE the idea of getting old…(Hall 1938, pg. 68).

The cruelty of fate did not allow her to reach that stage in her life. However, in her all-too-short thirty-three years Lombard left us with a diverse body of film and radio work that spans over twenty years. From slapstick to screwball comedy to melodrama, Lombard’s career touched nearly every major Hollywood studio and genre. While she is best known for her screwball comedies, to only call her a screwball comedian would be to underplay the chameleon-like evolution of her career and star persona. As the years pass and Lombard’s life story become further enshrined in classical Hollywood history, I hope that we never lose sight of her trail-blazing independence and versatility.

WORKS CITED

Ball, Lucille. Love, Lucy. New York: Berkeley Boulevard, 1997.

Hall, Gladys. “Lombard – As She Sees Herself.” Motion Picture, November 1938. 34-35, 66-68.

Jenkins, Henry. What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. New York: Columbia University, 1992.

Kiriakou, Olympia. Becoming Carole Lombard: Stardom, Comedy, and Performance. New York: Bloomsbury, 2020.

Kiriakou, Olympia. “Notebook Primer: Screwball Comedy.” Mubi, January 6, 2022. Available at: https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/notebook-primer-screwball-comedy

On Gestures and Performance…

During a recent Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934) rewatch, I inexplicably zeroed in on Carole Lombard’s reoccurring performative tick. Having spent over a decade watching and writing about Lombard’s films, I have analyzed various aspects of her performances and their wider cinematic and cultural contexts. This particular movement was something that I had mentioned once in passing in a previous analysis (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 82), but for whatever reason, this viewing made me pause and think about it in a new way.

In the film’s opening scene we find Lily (prior to her star transformation, then known as Mildred Plotka) in rehearsal at Oscar’s theater for his Antebellum melodrama. She is informed that her performance is too forceful; she casts her eyes downward to the floor and fidgets with the material of her hip-length blouse in embarrassment. In a second take, she nervously wrings her wrists as she waits for her cue (see figure 1). Later on in the film when the action has transplanted to the 20th Century Limited, Lily is in her compartment with her boyfriend, George (Ralph Forbes), and Oscar’s theatrical assistants, Oliver Webb (Walter Connolly) and Owen O’Malley (Roscoe Karns). Lily gets indignant when Oliver and Owen tell her that her move to Hollywood has caused Oscar’s career to go to ruin. She crosses her arms, and rubs her upper forearms in an anxious motion (see figure 2). A few minutes later in the same scene, Lily vigorously massages her temples when Oliver confesses that Oscar might be on the verge of suicide (see figure 3). Three different moments, all fleeting but equally charged with emotional resonance.

Figure 1.

Figure 2.

Figure 3.

Within the context of Twentieth Century, it’s tempting to read these gestures as nervousness or inexperience. After all, even though Lombard had been acting for nearly a decade by 1934, the stakes were higher for this particular film. Decades later, Howard Hawks recalled the story of how he sensed Lombard was holding back in the early days of production, which he believed stemmed from her feeling intimidated about working with a legendary actor like John Barrymore. Allegedly, Hawks took Lombard aside and asked her what she would do if a man spoke to her the way Oscar talks to Lily. She replied, “I’d kick him in the balls” (Gehring 2003, pg. 120).

Perhaps nerves were a factor, but it cannot fully account for similar hand gestures in different films across her nearly 20 year career. Even in the posthumously released To Be or Not To Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942), Lombard fidgets with her wrists in her first scene. But the Lombard of 1942 was not the same as 1934, and the self-confident, mature aura that she brought to her final performance confirms that this hand gesture is not so easily explained.

As I thought more about these gestures, I considered Lombard’s hands in other films, and what that almost compulsive movement says about her performance style. Her hands distilled the electric, almost frenzied energy that she brought in all of her performances, which is also one of the marked characteristics of her equally buoyant star persona. While I am the first to recognize that Lombard’s talents far exceeded the screwball genre, perhaps in the end, that’s why she became synonymous with that particular comedic style in the first place. The punchy verbal banter and roughhouse physical comedy that are the hallmark characteristics of screwball (especially Lombard’s films) were outlets for her to channel her excessive vitality and zeal.

In a recent e-mail, someone brilliantly described Lombard to me as “the embodiment of champagne,” and I only wish I could have come up with such a perfect description. That apt sentiment gets to the heart of Lombard’s effervescent screen presence. Her hands are a tell-tale cue of that energy just brimming under the surface, ready to bubble over with her infectious, blithe spirit.

WORKS CITED

Gehring, Wes D. Carole Lombard: The Hoosier Tornado. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2003.

Kiriakou, Olympia. Becoming Carole Lombard: Stardom, Comedy, and Legacy. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.

“How I Live by a Man’s Code,” stardom, & feminism

The evocative June 1937 Photoplay article, “How I Live by a Man’s Code” is no better starting point to dive into the gender politics surrounding Carole Lombard’s stardom. In this wide-ranging interview, Lombard opines about modern working women, and offers tips for the predominately female fan magazine readership on how to successfully navigate a home and work life balance (you can read the full article here). She proclaims defiantly that we are not living in a man’s world, and that “a woman has just as much right in this world as a man, and can get along in it just as well if she puts her mind to it” (Seymore 1937, pg. 12). This optimistic (albeit unrealistic) feminist mantra frames Lombard as the “perfect example of a modern Career Girl,” and lays the foundation for her advice such as “play fair [with men],” “take criticism,” and “pay your share (ibid).”

From Photoplay (September 1937).

This article is undoubtedly the most “candid” exploration of Lombard’s feminist impulses, but it was not the only time the public got a taste of her broader political ideology. Lombard was fairly progressive (for her time), and a vocal supporter of FDR. She advocated for his so-called “Wealth Tax,” and proclaimed in 1938 that she was “happy” to pay most of her $465, 000 salary in taxes because “every cent anybody pays in taxes is spent to benefit him” (Othman 1938, pg. 6). Given that this was such an unusual position for a wealthy Hollywood star to take, Lombard’s statement garnered her substantial publicity. Not long after her death, New Yorker journalist Alva Johnston recalled that “probably no other news item ever did so much to increase the popularity of a star” (September 9, 1942 pg. 31). In terms of her feminism, throughout her career Lombard also voiced her opinions on gender equality in the workplace, and women’s participation in the political sphere (a scripted version of which can be heard in the radio show, The Circle, available here).

Essential to the political discourse surrounding Lombard’s star persona was her independent reputation and intuitive business sense. According to Emily Carman, Lombard’s career-minded star image emerged when she “attained greater professional autonomy.” (2008, pg. 598) through her freelance acting career. Less than a year before the Photoplay article was published, Lombard’s seven year contract with Paramount ended; instead of signing another long-term deal, she decided to sign short-term, one-to-three picture contracts with studios of her own choosing – specifically Paramount, Warner Brothers, Selznick International Pictures, RKO, and United Artists. Although in the mid-1930s freelancing was seen as a career risk, it was appealing for stars like Lombard, Janet Gaynor, and Miriam Hopkins (all freelancing trailblazers) because it gave actors a degree of financial and personal freedom from studio control.

Freelancing meant that Lombard could dictate the terms of her contracts and her labor. For example, in 1938 she renegotiated her 1937 contract with Selznick International and became the first star to sign a profit participation deal. Lombard and SIP agreed to a $100, 000 salary plus 20% of her films’ box office gross after the studio earned back $1.6 million (Carman 2016, pg. 158), as well as other perks such as star billing, an eight hour workday, story and co-star approval, and the right to employ the costume designer of her choice (Travis Banton). By all accounts, Lombard appeared to excel in this new phase of her career, so much so that her friend and They Knew What They Wanted (1940) director, Garson Kanin, later recalled that she was “the best producer in the business since Irving Thalberg…she makes her own deals and does as well as anyone could” (Swindell 1975, pg. 273). Practically, freelancing enabled Lombard to use her box office appeal to her advantage, and challenge the restrictive, patriarchal structure of the studio system. 1930s freelance contracts like the ones Lombard negotiated also set a precedent for other stars to push back on the studios’ stranglehold of their workers (most notably, Olivia de Havilland’s 1944 legal victory to end her Warner Brothers contract) (Carman 2016, pg. 3). On a more abstract level, freelancing gave weight to the independent, feminist undertones in the discourse surrounding her star persona; Lombard the “Career Girl” was not only living in a man’s world, she was thriving in it too.

Lombard signing a contract on the set of In Name Only (1939).

Lombard’s business savvy was complemented by an equally headstrong screen image made famous in screwball comedy, and personified by such roles as Lily Garland (Twentieth Century, 1934) and Hazel Flagg (Nothing Sacred (1937). Screwball is itself an innately political genre, particularly as it re-conceptualized the contours of 1930s femininity. Screwball women, including many of Lombard’s characters, are characteristically unruly and combative, audacious and madcap. The sense of freedom and liberation that is woven into the fabric of screwball’s gender politics manifests itself most pointedly in the “battle of the sexes” trope, whereby the screwball couple fight (verbally and, occasionally, physically) as an metaphor for their repressed sexual desires (for a more thorough exploration of the “battle of the sexes,” please read this). Lombard’s own proclivity for physical comedy translated into a way for her characters to rebel against social or personal injustices, and to carve out their own identities in their topsy-turvy, morally restrictive societies. Given physical comedy’s long association with male comedy (Clayton 2007, pg. 146), Lombard’s screwball performances also helped to modernize the image of the female comic in Hollywood cinema by refuting the notion that women were too genteel for roughhousing. Implicitly too, physical comedy helped to solidify the alleged authenticity of Lombard’s independent star persona, giving it grounding in her atypical off-screen image.

When we consider how the star system worked in the studio era, we can begin to understand the greater financial and social imperative behind Lombard’s very public feminist ideology. Fan magazines, gossip columnists, and studio publicity departments all worked hand-in-hand to micro-manage the information that was released about Hollywood stars; in many cases, the public was fed stories that would reaffirm a star’s established persona. As we’ve just seen, in Lombard’s case in the mid-to-late 1930s, both on and off-screen she generally embodied all of the characteristics of a modern, independent career woman. There was a sense of symbiotic harmony in her star image, as if her film characters were merely natural extensions of her real personality. As such, we must view the “How I Live by a Man’s Code” article – and Lombard’s feminism at large – within that context. In 1937 Carole Lombard may have been in a position to be more forthcoming about her feminist ideology given her greater contractual freedom as a freelancer, but any gesture that she made towards social politics should still be viewed through the lens of her established star persona.

The Photoplay article makes strides in advocating for women’s place in the public sphere, but predictably, it is not a full-throated endorsement of progressive femininity. From the outset, Lombard’s abundant career advice is called into question by the injunction “be feminine.” Femininity is explicitly defined as something safe and reassuring; it is both consumable (eg. Lombard encouraging women to fuss over “choosing the right shade of lipstick”) and superficial (eg. encouraging women to get upset about a run in their stockings) (Seymore 1937, pg. 78). The potentially transgressive strains in Lombard’s message are made palatable because they are grounded in what is described as “all her feminine prerogatives” (ibid). This article exposes the contradiction inherent in Lombard’s feminism, namely that it stemmed out of the material reality of her career and the cultural constraints of the period in which she was living and working (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 184). Of course, that is not to discount Lombard’s feminism entirely; she was indeed outspoken in defining her politics. Nevertheless it is important not to be anachronistic; as a movie star, Lombard’s feminism was necessarily restricted to the available discourse at the time and therefore appears inconsistent. Therefore, while it is tempting to paint Lombard as a progressive feminist star, we must always keep in mind that in the 1930s, her feminism served to “authenticate” her established independent screwball persona.

WORKS CITED

Carman, Emily. “Independent Stardom: Female Film Stars and the Studio System in the 1930s.” In Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Film Journal, Vol. 37, No. 6 (2008): 583-615.

Carman, Emily. Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015.

Clayton, Alex. The Body in Hollywood Slapstick Comedy. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc. 2007.

Johnston, Alva. “Public Relations – IV.” New Yorker. September 9, 1942, pg. 31.

Kiriakou, Olympia. Becoming Carole Lombard: Stardom, Comedy, and Legacy. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.

Othman, Frederick C. “Carole Lombard ‘Glad to Pay’ $465,000 in Taxes.” San Jose News, August 26 1938, 6.

Seymore, Hart. “Carole Lombard tells: How I Live By a Man’s Code.” Photoplay, September 1937, 12-13; 78.

Swindell, Larry. Screwball: The Life of Carole Lombard. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1975.

Hollywood’s not-so-glamorous girl (1929 – 1934)

Carole Lombard is undoubtedly most closely associated with screwball comedy, and her “Queen of Screwball Comedy” moniker continues to be a constitutive part of her posthumous legacy. Her enduring screwball iconicity is a testament to her comedic proficiency and her charismatic screen presence. However, reflecting on her career as a whole, by comparison to films in other genres, her screwball movies make up a surprisingly small portion of her filmography. Contrary to the conventional narrative about Lombard’s career trajectory, there is no teleological link between her silent and screwball comedy phases, nor was she ever destined for screwball fame.

Fans of Lombard will know that two years of her early career were spent working for Mack Sennett as one of his “Sennett Girls.” In both contemporaneous and current writing on Lombard’s career, her Sennett period is often contextualized as an alleged “natural” precursor to her screwball stardom in the mid-1930s. For example, a Life magazine profile on Lombard’s film, True Confession (Wesley Ruggles, 1937), notes that she “can lay some claim to having started the current craze for slapstick farce…during her late teens she trained for comedy by dodging custard pies for Mack Sennett” (December 13, 1937, pg. 70). Similarly, in another article from Life, journalist Noel Busch explains: “… she had acquired a magnificent sense of comedic timing which, when Sennett farce was sublimated into screwball comedy, became her greatest asset” (October 11, 1938, pg. 63).

These observations, along with dozens of others with similar sentiment, make the case that Lombard’s Sennett films benefitted her career in comedy, and that slapstick was a stepping stone to her later screwball success. Of course, these columnists ignore the fundamental differences between the slapstick and screwball sub-genres and, as I’ve argued in a previous essay, Lombard’s silent comedy performances aren’t particularly slapstick-heavy. As a Sennett Girl, her primary narrative function was to be decorative, and she was an infrequent participant in the physical comedy action.

From Life magazine (October 11, 1938).

After Lombard’s Sennett contract ended in 1929, she signed a short deal with Pathé, and while she landed roles in such films as The Racketeer, Big News, and High Voltage, her career was still in its infancy and her stardom was still not defined. In 1930, she signed a long-term contract with Paramount and remained with them until 1937. Even with the backing of one of Hollywood’s biggest studios, it took several years for Lombard to achieve her greatest screen success and screwball notoriety. In reality, Lombard did not become a full-fledged star until her role in Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934), which came about on account of a loan-out deal with Columbia Pictures (one of many throughout her career). Her early years with Paramount were what I call her “star building” phase, meaning that the studio tested out different film genres and screen images to see which would best resonate with the public. Between 1929 and 1934 (when she left Sennett and the year she made Twentieth Century, respectively) Lombard’s star persona was the antithesis of her high-energy screwball image, and she was known as one of Hollywood’s most fashion-conscious glamour girls.

Part of Lombard’s glamorous star persona stemmed from her relationship with her first husband, William Powell. Biographer Roger Bryant explains that by 1930, Paramount “moved Powell towards the sophisticate persona that would become familiar” (2006, pg. 65) in future years, typified most clearly by his role as the debonaire detective Nick Charles in MGM’s The Thin Man series. Off-screen, Powell was part of a social circle dubbed the Hollywood sophisticates, and frequently socialized with actors such as Ronald Colman and Richard Barthelmess. The three men were known as the “Three Musketeers,” and stories and photographs of their extravagant bachelor lifestyles, vacations, and nightlife were a staple in contemporaneous fan magazines (see below).

Ronald Colman, William Powell, and Richard Barthelmess on vacation at Catalina, c. 1926.

Powell and Lombard met and quickly fell in love on the set of Man of the World (Richard Wallace and Edward Goodman, 1931), and their romance took Hollywood by surprise: the popular press went into overdrive trying to explain why one of Hollywood’s most eligible bachelors would be interested in settling down with a woman 16 years his junior. The couple married on June 6, 1931, and were soon featured in several articles about how each star changed aspects of their personality in order to accommodate the other. For example, according to Screenland columnist Ruth Biery, Powell had become “less selfish” and had “forgotten himself” and his cavorting ways all in the name of love, while Lombard went from an innocent “little lady” to a mature wife (September 1931, pg. 55). Photographs of the couple in their home or out around town emphasized their compatibility and alleged innate urbane sophistication (see below). Together, Powell and Lombard embodied the chic modern Hollywood couple (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 58).

Although Powell had left Paramount for Warner Brothers around the time of his and Lombard’s marriage, Paramount still recognized that any similarities in their individual star personas would make them a popular star couple, and that public interest would carry-over to Lombard’s stardom. Post-nuptial, the studio set about to turn Lombard’s star persona into the female equivalent of Powell’s debonair screen image.

The first step in Paramount’s star makeover was a weight loss regimen that transformed the former “Carol of the Curves” into the “svelte Carole Lombard.” In an April 1933 issue of Photoplay, an unnamed columnists profiles how a “physical culturist” named Sylvia reduced Lombard from a “size sixteen to a twelve in four weeks” (pg. 50), complete with side-by-side before and after photos. The article explains Lombard’s diet and daily fitness routine, and concludes with tips and meal suggestions for Photoplay readers (who were largely women) to implement in their daily lives.

It’s an overstatement to call Lombard’s 1920s figure “big” and “husky” (as the article does), nor should her weight ever have been a barrier achieving stardom. And yet, the negative connotation associated with her “curvaceous” neophyte physique speaks to the unattainable beauty standards expected of Hollywood stars in the studio era. The Photoplay article makes the case that Lombard could only reach her full potential as a glamour girl if she was a certain size and shape. Strategically, Lombard’s makeover was “accomplished in full view of the public…and made part” (McLean 2005, pg. 33) of the discourse surrounding her star persona. This approach was designed to encourage the predominately female fan magazine readers to feel “invested…in the culture of Hollywood” (Orgeron 2009, pg. 16) and Lombard’s new sophisticated movie star image.

Lombard’s star makeover culminated in ample publicity and roles that showcased her “svelte” glamour including Anne Holt in No More Orchids (Walter Lang, 1932) and Alabam Lee in Lady by Choice (David Burton, 1934). Unfortunately, most of her Paramount performances aren’t particularly memorable, largely because they lack substance and indulge too heavily in superficial glamour. This is perhaps no more evident than in the World War One drama, The Eagle and the Hawk. Lombard plays the mysterious “Beautiful Lady,” a character name that signals the surface glamour of Lombard’s stardom. Her major scene takes place on in a park opposite Fredric March. As they sit together on a park bench at night, March’s character, Jerry, recounts the horrors of war. Lombard’s character listens sympathetically and practically silently; she is little more than an observer of Jerry’s psychological trauma. In close-up shots throughout this scene, the soft glow of the moon light illuminates the trim of her fur coat, which frames her face almost like an angel’s halo (see below). While Lombard certainly looks ravishing, her limited performance in this film (and others) suggest that Paramount did little to develop her star persona beyond the trappings of superficial glamour.

Carole Lombard and Fredric March in The Eagle and the Hawk (1933).

As I’ve previously argued, Lombard’s glamour girl persona came at a definite cost, as it prioritized her beauty over her acting capability (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 63). What’s more, there’s evidence that her persona was not resonating with audiences the way that Paramount had hoped it would. Fan magazine articles from as early as 1932 show that some in the industry were questioning the effectiveness of Lombard’s star persona. For example, Photoplay‘s editorial office pseudonym, Cal York, penned an article entitled “30 Girls in a Race for Stardom.” They describe Lombard as “the Constance Bennett type in appearance and ability, and yet screen exhibitors…are not wasting any time crying for Lombard pictures – yet” (April 1932, pg. 75).

Comparisons with Bennett and Miriam Hopkins are common in early fan magazine discourse about Lombard, largely due to their similar angular bone structure and platinum blonde hair. But of course, to make one’s mark in Hollywood, one needs to be distinguishable from their peers. Lombard’s resemblance and similar performative mannerisms as other Hollywood starlets was so striking that in 1930, Motion Picture magazine columnist Herbert Cruikshank called her the “three-in-one girl,” noting that she looked like Bennett, and sounded like Jeanne Eagels (November 1930, pg. 74). In order to advance her career, Lombard had to carve out a niche of her own, and yet according to biographer Larry Swindell, until the release of Twentieth Century she was one of the only Paramount “studio girl who was a leading lady without her own stardom” (1975, pg. 115). Lombard had certainly attained a level of fame and had clear acting potential, but had not been given the opportunity by the studio to distinguish herself from her peers in appearance or skill set.

From Photoplay (April 1932).
This photograph of Constance Bennett is often misidentified as being Carole Lombard, largely because of their similar jawlines, complexions, and hair styles.

Paramount largely gave up trying to market Lombard as a Hollywood glamour girl not long after Twentieth Century ended its theatrical run. By then, screwball comedy was gaining popularity across the country, and it became clear to the studio that Lombard’s zany comedic persona was not only unique but also commercially viable. Thanks to the back-to-back successes of Love Before Breakfast (Walter Lang, 1936), The Princess Comes Across (William K. Howard, 1936), My Man Godfrey (Gregory LaCava, 1936), and True Confession, Lombard became known as “The Queen of Screwball Comedy” and personified the genre’s breathless, modern energy. What’s more, by 1936 Lombard began her highly publicized relationship with Clark Gable, whose down-to-earth star persona was a natural fit with Lombard’s newfound screwball image. To reinforce Lombard’s screwball persona and to distance herself from her previous image, in 1937 Lombard even went on-record in an interview with Photoplay columnist Ben Maddox, stating that she “resented being tagged a ‘glamour girl.’ It’s such an absurd, extravagant label. It implies so much that I’m not” (January 1937, pg. 16). Lombard’s glamour girl persona fell flat precisely because of its extravagance; in that form she remained nothing but an image, with little substance or personality behind it. Although this persona did not resonate with audiences, this period in Lombard’s career enabled her to make considerable headway on her climb towards super stardom. Lombard’s early Paramount years were not marked by the fortune and career security of her later screwball fame, but it was a time of immeasurable growth for her star persona.

WORKS CITED

Biery, Ruth. “Why Carole Changed Her Mind.” Screenland, September 1931: 55-56.

Bryant, Roger. William Powell: The Life and Films. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc. 2006.

Cruikshank, Herbert. “Three-In-One Girl.” Motion Picture, November 1930, pg. 74.

“How Sylvia changed ‘Carol of the Curves’ to svelte Carole Lombard.” Photoplay, April 1933, pg. 50-51; 80-81.

Kiriakou, Olympia. Becoming Carole Lombard: Stardom, Comedy, and Legacy. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.

Maddox, Ben. “The Real Down-Low on Lombard.” Photoplay, January 1937, pg. 16-17.

McLean, Adrienne. Being Rita Hayworth: Labor, Identity, and Hollywood Stardom. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005.

“Movie of the Week: True Confession.” Life. December 13, 1937, pg. 70-71.

Orgeron, Marsha. “‘You Are Invited to Participate’: Interactive Fandom in the Age of the Movie Magazine.” Journal of Film and Video Vol. 61, No. 3 (Fall 2009): 3-23.

Swindell, Larry. Screwball: the Life of Carole Lombard. New York: William Morrow & Co. Inc., 1975.

York, Cal. “30 Girls in a Race for Stardom.” Photoplay, April 1932, pg. 74-75.

Gable and Lombard (1976) and the mythology of Hollywood’s “golden couple”

The trailer tagline for the Carole Lombard and Clark Gable biopic, Gable and Lombard (Sidney Furie, 1976) reads: “they don’t make love like this anymore.”

Frankly, they never did.

I’m prefacing this review by saying that I don’t watch classical Hollywood biopics for their historical accuracy. I understand that the function of biopics are, as George Custen notes, to sell “accessible versions of history” (1992, pg. 34). Entertainment trumps fact, and besides, it’s almost impossible to distill a person’s life down to two hours. As one might expect, Gable and Lombard takes liberties with historical facts and chronology, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t nitpick the film for errors. But that’s not what this review is about. Putting aside any inaccuracies, Gable and Lombard is simply mediocre. The plot, which centers around the personal and professional ramifications of the couple’s adulterous romance, is plodding and cringe-worthy. If I could summarize the film, I’d describe it as akin to poorly written fan-fiction, but without any likable characters or a satisfying payoff.

While the plot is paper-thin, the film has some bright spots. Gable and Lombard thoroughly explores the intersection of studio-era morality and Hollywood stardom, specifically through the lens of Gable’s contentious divorce from his second wife, Rhea. Gable and Carole Lombard’s romance began in January 1936 at the Mayfair Ball. At the time, Gable was still married to Rhea, although they had separated the year earlier after he had impregnated his Call of the Wild star, Loretta Young. Since 1935 Clark and Rhea had been living separate lives, although neither had filed for divorce: Rhea enjoyed the cachet of being “Mrs. Clark Gable,” while Clark – who was notoriously frugal – was reluctant to provide his estranged wife with the sizable alimony that she demanded.

For that reason, Gable and Lombard is accurate in one sense: Rhea was reluctant to divorce Clark. However, the film does not offer a very generous interpretation of her character. Gable and Lombard‘s version of Rhea (Joanne Linville) is calculating and predatory, while Clark is made out to be the generous but ultimately helpless victim. In a scene that takes place on the patio of Clark and Rhea’s Beverly Hills mansion, the camera pans along with the couple’s servant, as he walks from their white colonial style mansion to their enclosed patio. It cuts to a medium shot of the couple sitting under a canopy with their respective lawyers discussing the terms of their divorce. The cool, blueish colors of the patio interior mirror the tense atmosphere inside. We pick up the conversation with a frustrated Clark, who says “give her whatever she wants, everything. To the penny, the whole thing.” With an air of smugness, Rhea lifts up her napkin, waves it in her hand and says smugly, “No. I prefer to remain Mrs. Clark Gable.” If Clark Gable was the “King of Hollywood,” Gable and Lombard makes it clear that Rhea considered herself the de-facto “Queen.” Sitting in her palace overlooking her kingdom, she will not give up her crown easily.

“I prefer to remain Mrs. Clark Gable.”

Because of Gable’s marital status, writing about the Gable and Lombard affair in the 1930s became a tricky balancing act for the gossip columnists and studio publicity agents. Without completely undermining the conservative ideology of the Hollywood studios, the initial approach that the popular press took was to label Gable and Lombard’s romance a “friendship” (Fletcher 1936, pg. 5). Additionally, as I’ve noted in a previous blog post, fan magazines often focused on Gable and Lombard’s compatibility. For example, Photoplay columnist Edward Doherty observed that the two stars “had a lot in common…both enjoy informality. They like to be themselves. They welcome anything simple and natural which will give them fun” (Doherty 1938, pg. 18). The couple had a “practical, salt-of-the earth quality that lacked pretense” (Lane 2016, pg. 401) and unlike Rhea and Gable’s first wife, Josephine Dillon – who were older and described as “thoroughly serious women” – Lombard was “imaginative, modernistic, unconventional, and oh, so young!” (Lewis 1936, pg. 46). Despite being the “other woman” technically, Lombard was celebrated as Gable’s equal in interests, ideology, and age.

This tactic ultimately benefitted Lombard and hurt Rhea who, in fact, was seen by the public as the “other woman.” The final push towards divorce was the infamous Photoplay article “Hollywood’s Unmarried Husbands and Wives,” which cited Gable and Lombard, along with several other “unmarried” Hollywood couples who “behaved like they were married” (Baskette 1939, pg. 22). To avoid any possible scandal, MGM (Gable’s home studio) effectively gave Clark two options: go through with the divorce and marry Carole, or end their relationship completely. Of course, he chose divorce. In their settlement, Rhea secured a roughly $300,000 advance from Clark’s Gone With the Wind contract, and their divorce was granted on March 8, 1939. Gable and Lombard were married a few weeks later on March 29, 1929 in Kingman, Arizona.

From Photoplay (January 1939).

In addition to the portrayal of Clark and Rhea’s divorce, there are other enjoyable aspects to Gable and Lombard. Michel Legrand’s rich score complements the screen drama and captures the energetic aura of 1930s Hollywood. Similarly, Edith Head’s costumes are lush, and indulge in the glitz and glamour that audiences have come to associate with the studio era. In the 1930s, Head personally designed some of Lombard’s costumes including those worn in Supernatural (1933). She also worked under Paramount’s lead designer and Lombard’s close friend, Travis Banton, to create what she later described as the sleek and polished “Lombard look” (1959, pg. 62). Head’s first-hand knowledge of Lombard’s fashion taste adds a verisimilitude to Clayburgh’s appearance, and helps recreate the late-star’s signature modern, tailored style (see examples below).

However, that’s about as far as I’ll go with my compliments. One of the most glaring issues is how the film offers shallow caricatures of both stars. James Brolin’s Gable is a bumbling stick-in-the-mud, while Jill Clayburgh’s Lombard is disingenuous and unhinged. The film paints a superficial picture of both stars that is based closely on their screen images rather than their public personas. In fact, at times I felt like I was watching parodies of Irene Bullock or Rhett Butler, rather than earnest portrayals of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.

Lombard’s introduction gives us insight into just how absurd the film’s characterization is: she arrives at a posh Hollywood party in an ambulance and is carried in on a stretcher. As the ambulance drivers lower her stretcher on the ground, Lombard pops out from under a white sheet and shouts, “Surprise you bastards!” Lombard did, allegedly, arrive to a party in this fashion (Gehring 2003, pg. 131). But without proper historical context – the “Nervous Breakdown Party” was given by Jock Whitney on February 7th, 1936 in honor of screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart’s wife having just been released from a psychiatric hospital (Townsend 1936, pg. 13) – Lombard’s bizarre entrance makes absolutely no sense, other than to confirm her “authentic” screwball proclivities (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 4).

The most egregious Lombard scene comes much later in the film. At this point in the story, the morality of Gable and Lombard’s affair has been challenged by their respective studios and conservative social groups. At the behest of MGM (Gable’s home studio), he has been invited to speak at a women’s event in an effort to salvage his and Lombard’s reputations. The scene begins with a long shot of a dark sound stage with a big American flag in the background. On the stage at the back of the room, an MGM press agents introduces Clark as “a man of unquestionable dignity, unwavering morality, a God fearing man whose character has been an inspiration” to millions of fans. The camera cuts to a medium shot of Lombard, who is standing at the back of the room to listen to Clark give his speech. Clark is out of focus, and in the foreground Carole stands under a lightbulb reading along with his prepared remarks. As Clark speaks, the camera cuts to a close up of Carole’s face: she’s aghast. Tears well in her eyes as she realizes everything Clark is saying is a lie meant to placate the judgmental audience. Overcome by anger, Carole rushes out of the room.

A few seconds later, in a low-angle shot of Clark, we hear the faint noise of a woman’s voice. The voice grows louder, and the camera cuts to a long shot of the room. From the edge of a frame, a woman walks briskly down the aisle, flanked by the crowd of conservative women. She is dressed in a tight-fitting red dress, with a red feather boa and matching hat. She shouts, “there’s my horny hunk of horse meat. Where ya been angel ass, you know you’re late for your 10 o’clock screw. Mama can’t wait all day she’s got customers!” Suddenly, the woman turns around and to no one’s surprise, it’s Carole! The audience gasps, and faint whispers of incredulity echo through the sound stage. Carole tells everyone off, and quickly leaves the event.

The intended effect of this scene is comedic: not only are we meant to laugh at the audience’s moral condemnation of Gable and Lombard’s relationship, but also at Lombard’s exaggerated impression of female sexuality. I certainly laughed, but not for the reasons that the filmmakers intended. This was my third viewing of Gable and Lombard, but it was the first time that I realized that Carole’s brash antics are a play on the Gone With the Wind scene where Scarlett shows up to Ashley’s birthday party wearing her famous red dress. I discovered that this is a common tactic in Gable and Lombard: not only are the characters variations of the stars’ film roles, but even certain scenarios were taken directly from their films! While lacking in originality, this strategy helps solidify Clark Gable and Carole Lombard iconicity. Audiences in 1976 may not have been familiar with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard as stars, but by conflating their star personas with their films and 1930s Hollywood more broadly, they transcend their historical time period and become pop culture figures.

During the studio era, publicity departments worked hand-in-hand with fan magazines to “produce and sustain marketable star personas” (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 9) in order to “sell” Hollywood stars. One way of achieving this was to draw symbiotic connections between a star’s reel and reel identities. As was the case with Lombard, that meant that during the height of her screwball popularity, countless stories were written to validate her “screwy” off-screen personality. For example, a January 1937 Hollywood article explains how in My Man Godfrey (1936), Lombard’s performance appeared authentic because she “did, literally, betray her real character to the public” (pg. 34). Later on in the same article, two anonymous “friends” are described as “chuckling at the similarity between the mad harum-scarum Irene and the equally mad harum-scarum Lombard.” This article erases Lombard’s performative skills in favor of naturalness, and makes the case that Irene Bullock is simply Lombard “being herself.” In that way, Lombard’s screwball persona becomes a definable and easily marketable commodity for both the studio and publicity outlet apparatus. We still see effects of this today: despite having a varied filmography and success in other genres, Lombard’s zany off-screen disposition and so-called “natural” screwiness are the most identifiable markers of her star persona, and have contributed to her enduring iconicity as a comedienne.

In my opinion, Gable and Lombard simply repeats this symbiotic strategy. But biopics work differently than fan magazine articles: characters require more dimension and fleshed-out personalities, and this film simply wallows in the superficial. The New York Times film critic Vincent Canby said it best when he wrote that Brolin and Clayburgh are “stand-ins” for the real people (1976, pg. 6). The versions of Gable and Lombard that are presented in the film are hollow, and neither character possesses the depth or humanity necessary to make them sympathetic figures.

From Hollywood (January 1937).

The casting is another enjoyable aspect of the film. Universal’s first choice to play Clark Gable was Burt Reynolds, but he turned down the script, believing that he couldn’t adequately capture the late star’s screen presence. The role was also offered to both Steve McQueen and Warren Beatty, before being given to James Brolin. Happily, the hair and makeup department did a fantastic job with Brolin’s appearance, accurately re-creating Gable’s protruding ears and jet black, cowlicked hair. Director Sidney Furie was allegedly more concerned with getting Gable’s casting right because “Lombard is…not so identifiable to younger moviegoers these days” (Farber 1975, pg. 15).

Ali McGraw was Universal’s first choice to play Lombard, but she too turned down the role. After considering both Valerie Perrine and Sally Kellerman, he landed on the then-relatively unknown actress, Jill Clayburgh. Out of the four named options, Clayburgh was by far the best choice. While Perrine and Kellerman vaguely resemble Lombard, I can’t envision either in the role. Similarly, McGraw’s understated acting style and cool persona are incongruous with Lombard’s personality and screen presence. That said, through no fault of her own, Clayburgh does not portray a convincing Lombard. The script is so trite, and Lombard’s character is so exaggerated, that Clayburgh can’t help but portray her with a glib brashness that makes her almost unwatchable. It’s a shame that the script was so weak, because both actors have the talent and charisma to measure up to Gable and Lombard’s iconicity. I’d like to think that with different material, they would have done the stars justice.

From the set: James Brolin and Jill Clayburgh with Sidney Furie.

My biggest issue with Gable and Lombard is the effect that it’s had on the stars’ legacies. In short, Lombard’s relationship with Gable is one of the most defining factors of her posthumous star image, but it has come at the expense of a thorough understanding of her stardom and career. While the film certainly hasn’t done irreparable harm to their images in the way that Mommie Dearest has to Joan Crawford’s, it nonetheless perpetuates a mythology that bears little resemblance to reality. Because Gable and Lombard draws so heavily from fan magazine and publicity department fluff pieces, the versions of Lombard and Gable are just as fictitious as any of their screen roles. Both stars were more than their marriage, and while their relationship was a constitutive part of late-1930s Hollywood discourse, too much cultural value is put into maintaining this romantic narrative (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 154).

Unless you’re a Clark Gable and Carole Lombard completionist, save yourself the 2 hours and 11 minutes and go watch something else. If you’re not yet familiar with Carole Lombard’s films, Gable and Lombard is not the place to start: it is neither entertaining, nor does it offer an accurate portrayal of her stardom. But if you do decide to give Gable and Lombard a go, set your expectations low – and don’t say I didn’t warn you!

WORKS CITED:

Baskette, Kirtley. “Hollywood’s Unmarried Husbands and Wives.” Photoplay, January 1939, pg. 22-23.

Canby, Vincent. “‘Gable and Lombard’ Revives Cliches,” The New York Times, February 12 1976, 6.

Custen, George. Bio/pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Doherty, Edward. “Can the Gable-Lombard Love Story Have a Happy Ending?” Photoplay, May 1938: 18-19.

Farber, Stephen. “Film Notes: How Do You Find a New Clark Gable?” The New York Times, February 15, 1975, pg. 15.

Fletcher, Adele Whiteley. “A Heart to Heart Letter to Carole Lombard and Clark Gable.” Screen Guide, November 1936, pg. 5.

Gehring, Wes D. Carole Lombard: The Hoosier Tornado. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 2003.

Head, Edith and Jane Kesner Ardmore. The Dress Doctor. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1959.

Kiriakou, Olympia. Becoming Carole Lombard: Stardom, Comedy, and Legacy. New York: Bloomsbury, 2020.

Lane, Christina. “A Modern Marriage for the Masses: Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, and the Cultural Front.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Vol. 33, No. 1 (2016): 401 – 436.

Lewis, Frederick. “Is Carole Lombard in Love at Last?” Liberty, November 14, 1936: 46-47.

Townsend, Leo. “Good News,” Modern Screen, March 1936, pg. 13.

Carole Lombard & the “Sennett Girl Comedies” (1927 – 1929)

Carole Lombard is best known as a screwball comedienne, but fans of hers know that she also had a substantial career in silent comedy. Her comedy journey began in mid-1927 when, after being abruptly dropped by the Fox Film Corporation, she signed a two-year, $300 per week contract with slapstick pioneer, Mack Sennett. Under his tutelage, Lombard made 18 short films in both supporting and lead roles, and co-starred alongside some of the Keystone Film Company’s most prolific actors like Daphne Pollard, Andy Clyde, and Irving Bacon. While the majority of Lombard’s early silent films are lost, happily, her Sennett shorts survive: most are housed in archives, but at the time of this posting, some are also available online (including Run, Girl, Run, The Campus Vamp, The Campus Carmen, and Matchmaking Mamma). If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of watching these shorts, I highly recommend that you do: they’re essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand the trajectory of Lombard’s career and, crucially, her relationship with comedy. That said, having seen all of Lombard’s Sennett shorts, I would argue that she is far less physical than one would expect. With the exception of a handful of Sennett shorts such as The Campus Vamp and The Swim Princess, Lombard’s performances are far more static and decorative than physical. This, by in large, is due to the fact that for much of this period Lombard was a “Sennett Girl,” an updated, late-1920s version of his famous Bathing Beauties troupe. In these films, Lombard’s primary role was to serve as a spectacular counterpoint to the rough-and-tumble physical comedy.

While the precise date of Lombard’s Sennett contract signing is unclear, contemporaneous trade papers suggest that she was working with him as early as the summer of 1927 (see below). After filming only 3 shorts and a few months into her tenure with Sennett’s company, tragedy struck: on September 19th, 1927 Lombard and her date, Harry Cooper, were driving down Santa Monica Boulevard when all of a sudden, Cooper crashed into another car (Garrett Clipper 1927, pg. 3). The crash was so severe that Cooper’s car windshield shattered, and shards of glass cut Lombard’s face. She underwent extensive reconstructive surgery which left her with permanent facial scars (which could be seen in her films for the rest of her life). At the time, Lombard feared that history would repeat itself and that like Fox, Sennett would terminate her contract. To her credit, she had reason to be concerned: her career was still in its infancy, and in an industry that obsesses over unattainable beauty standards, being an ingenue with noticeable facial scarring might have been an impediment to her future success (Los Angeles Times 1927, A9).

From the June 24, 1927 issue of The Film Daily: the first known mention of Carole’s working relationship with Sennett.

The reason I bring up Lombard’s accident is because there has previously been some confusion about when exactly it occurred, and how the recovery time away from the screen affected her Sennett career. A prominent 1970s biography proposed that the accident occurred in 1926 and was the reason behind Lombard’s Fox contract termination (Swindell 1975, pg. 52). This, of course, is not true: court documents from a lawsuit against Cooper identifies Lombard as a “Sennett girl” who has “shattered screen ambitions” (Garrett Clipper 1927, pg. 3). As I previously stated, the accident occurred not long after Lombard began working for Sennett (and, incidentally, the same day that her first short, Smith’s Pony, made its theatrical debut). While Lombard feared that her career was over, it was likely a blessing that she was under contract with a filmmaker like Sennett, whose long-shot heavy, fast-paced comedy style shifted the camera’s focus away from Lombard’s face and onto her figure (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 19).

Sennett was allegedly sympathetic to Lombard’s situation, and helped to boost her star profile by giving her ample publicity. One such strategy was a new nickname – Carol of the Curves – which “simultaneously drew audiences’ attention away from her facial scars and worked harmoniously with the physicality and female sensuality” that were the focal point of her films (Kiriakou 2020 pg. 53). Lombard carried this nickname with her through 1929 when she worked at Pathé, and it was also occasionally referenced in early-30s fan magazine articles about her star transformation (see below).

The original caption of a 1929 photo by William E. Thomas mentions Carole’s nickname.
From the April 1933 issue of Photoplay.

One of Lombard’s earliest Sennett shorts was The Girl From Everywhere (Edward F. Cline, 1927). Filmed from June to August 1927 and released on December 11, it is the first installment in the “Sennett Girl Comedies” series. In both form and content, the shorts in the “Sennett Girl Comedies” series were modernized versions of the producer’s hit “Bathing Beauties” films. Sennett deliberately structured them to “show off his newest batch of bathing girls” like Carmelita Geraghty, Anita Barnes, and Lombard (Walker 2010, pg. 174). The Bathing Beauties were first introduced in 1915, and were a jumping off point in the careers of several Hollywood stars like Gloria Swanson, Marie Prevost, and June Haver. Their immediate popularity and mass cultural appeal reflected what historian Rob King call their “modern femininity,” and they became emblematic of both female sexual liberation and middle-class leisure (2009, pg. 211). Unlike the violent physical comedy found in the Keystone Kops shorts or the straight slapstick comedies, the Bathing Beauties functioned as pure visual spectacle. Through the deliberate use of framing and editing techniques like slow motion, long shots, and full-body pans, the Beauties films emphasis on the young women’s attractiveness and sex appeal over any type of physical prowess.

Unlike the earlier incarnation, the “Sennett Girl Comedies” had substantial budgets due, in part, to the producer’s newly formed Motion Picture Capital Corporation, which helped him secure outside investors (Walker 2010, pg. 174). With an estimated cost of anywhere between $25,000 and $32,000 per film and Technicolor sequences, the “Sennett Girl Comedies” were the latest spectacular offering from the ever-popular comedy studio. In a similar fashion to the Bathing Beauties shorts, the “Sennett Girls” had a primarily ornamental purpose. This is clear in several of Lombard’s shorts: from a POV shot of her through binoculars in Smith’s Pony (1927), to the opening shot of Carole and several other Sennett Girls waving directly to the camera in Matchmaking Mamma (1929) (see below), Lombard’s performance and figure are enticement for the male gaze.

Lombard (center) and other Sennett Girls in the opening shot of Matchmaking Mamma (1929).

This is also the case in The Girl from Everywhere. The story takes place on a film set, where director Wilfred ‘Bill’ Ashcraft (Mack Swain) presides over an unruly cast and crew. The film’s star, Daphne Pollard, plays Minnie Stitch, a megalomaniac actress who holds up Ashcraft’s shoot. Her antics are so distracting that at one point, Ashcraft remarks “No wonder there’s a food shortage in Europe. If she acts like she eats, I’m made!” The rest of the short film centers on the chaos that ensues after a lion from a neighboring set wanders into Ashcraft’s studio. Although Lombard is not listed in the film’s credits, she plays an extra named Vera Veranda (aka ‘Miss Anybody’), a title that perfectly describes her small and rather one-dimensional role. She is dressed in a black, form-fitting vest, black shorts and a black feathery hat — an outfit that can be seen on the film’s promotional posters. Cline photographs Lombard in long shot, giving audiences ample view of her bare legs and curvaceous body. For much of the short she is seated alongside other extras and the film crew, and has no narrative purpose other than to look beautiful. Shots of Lombard and the other Sennett Girls serve as a visual counterpoint to the chaotic slapstick action.

Lombard may have had a relatively inconsequential role in the film, but she was given star billing in the film’s publicity campaign. In one advertisement she’s identified by name – Carolle Lombard (the preferred spelling at the time) – and is separate from the other Sennett Girls (below left). In another, Lombard is given second billing to Pollard (below right). The caricature featured at the center of the advertisement is clearly modeled after Lombard, since she wears a similar costume and is posed almost identically to her in the film. These ads disprove Larry Swindell’s claims that during her Sennett tenure, the public did not know Lombard by name and only identified her as “the pretty one” (1975, pg. 60). Moreover, they confirm that Sennett helped put Lombard’s career back on track following her accident. After all, in any other scenario it is unlikely that a bit part would warrant such a billing, nor a high-profile star treatment.

The first time I watched this film was in 2015 on a trip to UCLA’s archives. As a modern viewer accustomed to Lombard’s energetic and vibrant screwball persona, this performance was quite different from what I was expecting. My initial assumptions about Lombard’s silent comedies was also colored by 1930s fan magazine observations, many of whom describe this period of her career using active, visceral language. For example, in late-1938 Life magazine journalist Noel Busch wrote that Lombard “spent two years [with Sennett] being hit in the face by pies, tripped, dunked, chased, and generally maltreated…” (pg. 63). Busch, like other journalists of the period, also draw connections between her silent and screwball comedies, as if the former was training for the latter. Another Life profile from the late-30s made the case that Lombard “can lay some claim to have started the current craze for slapstick farce…Miss Lombard has been doing the same sort of comedy, on and off screen, for the better part of her 29 years” (1937 pg. 70). Yet after working through her body of Sennett films, I came to the conclusion that this type of description was not altogether accurate.

Contrary to popular belief, Lombard is not consistently physical in all of her silent comedies, and her performances bear little resemblance to those in her screwball films. As I’ve previously noted, in some films like Matchmaking Mamma, there is no significant physical component to her performance, while in others like Run, Girl, Run, she displays athleticism rather than frenzied slapstick behavior (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 48). One constant throughout these films is the spectacular nature of Lombard’s screen image. Whether to draw attention to her sensuality or athleticism, Lombard’s body is routinely made the focal point of her performances. While this is the case with her screwball films, I would argue that Lombard’s slapstick performances are more demure and inhibited precisely because of the constraints put upon her by the “Sennett Girls” designation. Lombard the Sennett Girl was not necessarily a slapstick comedian, but an actor who happened to appear in slapstick comedies. In that way, we need not think of Lombard’s Sennett films as a precursor to her later screwball performances, but rather a distinct period unto itself. Only when we treat these parts of her filmography separately can we begin to understand the evolution of her comedic performance style, and the wider historical context of her career.

WORKS CITED:

“Actress demands damages for cut.” Los Angeles Times, October 13 1927, A9.

Busch, Noel F. “A Loud Cheer for the Screwball Girl.” Life, October 17, 1938.

“Former Fort Wayne star asks $35,000 damages.” Garrett Clipper, October 31 1927, pg. 3.

King, Rob. The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.

Kiriakou, Olympia. Becoming Carole Lombard: Stardom, Comedy, and Legacy. New York: Bloomsbury, 2020.

“Movie of the Week: True Confession.” Life, December 13, 1937, 70.

Swindell, Larry. Screwball: The Life of Carole Lombard. New York: William Morrow Inc., 1975.

Walker, Brent E. Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A History and Filmography of His Studio and His Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies, with Biographies of Players and Personnel. Jefferson: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2010.

Nothing Sacred (1937), gender, and physical comedy

Nothing Sacred is arguably one of the most provocative of the 1930s screwball comedies, largely due to the way it foregrounds physical comedy. I describe the film as a screwball-slapstick hybrid, since it combines both the physicality of the silent era and the zany, fast-paced banter typical of classical Hollywood comedies (click here for a plot summary). The significance of physical comedy in Nothing Sacred is informed by both the material reality of the Production Code, and the history of Carole Lombard’s comedic star persona. Nothing Sacred‘s production history bring into focus the limits of physical comedy in Code-era Hollywood, and since its release, the film has continued to engender a critical debate about the intersection of gender, comedy, and Hollywood stardom.

The history of Hollywood censorship is far too complex to outline here, but it is important to remember that the Production Code was industry self-regulation. In 1915 the Supreme Court ruled that motion pictures were not granted free speech protection under the U.S. Constitution on the basis that they had the “capacity for evil”(Jowett 2000, pg. 16). This ruling was devastating for the U.S. film industry, and gave state and local censor boards across the country the legal authority to censor films as they saw fit. After years of public pressure and scandals, the Code was formally created in 1930 by the MPPDA chairman William Hays, the studios heads, and two high-profile religious figures, Martin Quigley and Daniel A. Lord, in order to appease social and religious conservatives, many of whom believed Hollywood was a hotbed of immorality. Both the Code – and the 1927 “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” list that preceded it – aimed to ease the pressure that the industry was facing, and make the state and municipal censorship processes less contentious for the studios. Of course, the process wasn’t always smooth, and filmmakers often clashed with overzealous censors. But by regulating film form and content during the production phase, the Production Code Administration (PCA) was attempting to limit outside influence on Hollywood products by anticipating how state and local censors might object to a film once it was distributed.

Viewing the PCA and its key players as bogeymen is simplistic, and ignores the fraught socio-political climate of the studio era. Understanding the history of the Code and why it was created in the first place helps inform our understanding of the specific provisions, and the language in the PCA’s correspondence with filmmakers. For example, under the Code’s “sex” provisions, scenes depicting explicit sexual passion were prohibited. Sex could not be represented graphically, and only abstractly if it was “essential to the plot” of a film. Even then, sex had to be portrayed in such a way as to “not stimulate the lower or base elements.”

As I discussed in a previous post, to circumvent the Code, classical Hollywood era films conveyed sexual tension through abstraction, and filmmakers often relied on innuendo and double-entendres to work around the Code’s guidelines. In Nothing Sacred, physicality illuminates the contours of Hazel and Wally’s complicated relationship, and through physical expression comes a manifestation of their repressed sexual feelings. In that same post, I pointed to the film’s climax, in which Hazel and Wally are faced with the prospect of having her lie exposed. Wally’s boss, Oliver Stone, has invited renowned European doctors to New York to examine Hazel, and they are minutes away from her hotel room. The scene begins with Hazel lying in bed with a hangover, stewing in the guilt of her deceit. Wally arrives to inform her of the doctors’ impending visit, and tells her, “We gotta raise your pulse to 160, quick! We gotta have you gasping, panting and covered with a cold sweat inside of five minutes.”

He pulls her limp body out of bed, kicks her butt, and encourages her to punch him. As she does, Hazel’s adrenaline rises, and she screams “I just hate you! Let me hit you just once!” The physical barrage is too much for Hazel and she slinks to the floor. Wally holds her by her robe collar, pulls her to her feet, and tells her that he’s going to knock her out. Hazel relies deliriously, “what do you mean come to?…what are you going to do?” In a long shot, we see Wally take a step backwards from Hazel and punch her chin. Immediately after contact, the film cuts to a close-up of Hazel’s face as she mumbles something inaudible. It cuts again to the same long shot, and we see Hazel standing motionless, as if her body doesn’t know how to react to the blow it has just received. Wally pokes her chest delicately, and Hazel falls backwards onto the hotel bed, knocked out cold. The play-fighting is an obvious allusion to sex, and although the scene adheres to the Code technically, the sexual subtext is undeniable. Put another way, this scene is not sexy, but it is all about sex.

Wally and Hazel’s roughhousing was the cause of some consternation for the PCA, particularly because of the intertwined violent and sexual undertones. Take, for example, this excerpt from a June 8, 1937 letter from PCA head, Joseph Breen, to producer, David O. Selznick:

As the note for page 107 makes clear, the PCA was concerned that the play-fighting might be misconstrued by some censor boards as legitimate violence against Hazel, and that Wally (and, by extension, Fredric March) would be seen as an unsympathetic lead. Similar comments about the play-fight can found throughout the film’s PCA file, which suggests that David O. Selznick, director William Wellman, and screenwriter Ben Hecht were hesitant to alter the scene. In one of the final letters from Joseph Breen to Selznick prior to the film’s PCA certification, Breen explains that he would reluctantly approve the film because of the shot of Wally kicking Hazel’s butt. He goes on to explain that he is granting the film a PCA seal only because “deleting the shot” would cause “great difficulty” (see below). In short, the scene wouldn’t make sense structurally without the shot, and re-shooting it entirely would be too costly.

As I mentioned earlier, the PCA censorship process was often tense, but their mandate was to eliminate problematic content from Hollywood films before they were distributed nationally (and internationally). In that light, we can view Breen’s cautious certification as a warning to Selznick that he was taking a risk with the scene as-is, and that his film might be altered beyond the PCA’s control. Despite the PCA’s warning and the potential for controversy, Selznick and Wellman obviously saw the bankability of Wally and Hazel’s play-fight, and made it the focal point of the film’s publicity campaign for its November 1937 release. The poster art mimics a boxing match notice, with and “see the big fight!” in bold capital letters. Likewise, the Nothing Sacred press book (which was distributed to exhibitors across the country) suggested several wacky promotional tie-ins that centered around that single play-fight scene, including encouraging theaters to set up a punching bag with Lombard’s and March’s pictures on them, and a cartoon advertisement that compares the fight to a Jack Dempsey-Jess Willard boxing match.

Dated October 21, 1937.

A promotional suggestion for theater owners from the Nothing Sacred press book.

A Nothing Sacred film poster.

A promotional advertisement for theater owners from the Nothing Sacred press book.

In a similar vein as the violence, the page 109 note acknowledges the sexual innuendo of Wally and Hazel “rolling over and over on the floor,” and how “political censor boards” might remove the shots completely. The latter was process not uncommon, and because films went through independent evaluations in individual states and cities, it was not uncommon that an audience in New York might see a slightly different version of a film than people in Detroit. In the case of Nothing Sacred, the objectionable content noted on page 109 was likely removed from the script during production (since no such scene appears in the film). Luckily too, the play-fighting was also a non-issue, and Nothing Sacred was approved unilaterally by various state and municipal censor boards without any eliminations.

That said, Selznick did receive some pushback about the film’s physical comedy. Nothing Sacred‘s PCA file contains a disgruntled viewer letter from a person named John Stiller, who complains that the roughhouse comedy is “brutality, not humor” (below left). This letter harkens back to the PCA’s memo cited earlier, as they practically anticipated type of feedback Selznick would receive from some conservative viewers. Still, such feedback did not dissuade Selznick, and in a December 9, 1937 memo to PCA head, Joseph Breen, he dismisses Stiller’s critique as an anomaly (below right).

Despite the publicity build-up, stellar performances from lead and supporting actors, and Technicolor appeal, Nothing Sacred was commercial flop, and Selznick International reported a loss of nearly $350,000 (Carman 2016, pg. 184). However, the film was a critical darling, with one Photoplay review calling it “among the ranking laugh-films of all time” (February 1938, pg. 55). That said, the New York Times film critic (and perpetual curmudgeon) Bosley Crowther published a review declaring that Nothing Sacred brought about the “demise of fragile femininity” in Hollywood cinema. He wrote that prior to the film’s release, “…the very thought of a gentlewoman being struck by a gentleman was beyond comprehension of the most ungenerate script writers…” (Crowther 1938, X5).

A viewer letter complaining about the film’s violence.

David O. Selznick’s response to the negative fan letter.

Crowther makes the case that Lombard’s performance would inspire an industry-wide trend of female physicality, even from “the most carefully restrained damsel, Jeanette MacDonald.” His review, while tongue-in-cheek, ignores the long history of female physical comedy in the late-20s and early-30s from the likes of Polly Moran, Winnie Lightner, Anita Garvin and Marian Byron, and the proliferation of images of strong, independent women on stages and film screens “opened up a space for transgression…and exposed the mask of femininity” (Brunovska Karnick 1999, pg. 77). Crowther’s critique points to the widely-held cultural assumptions about the incongruity between physical prowess and conventional femininity. The “pretty/funny” juxtaposition that continues to plague contemporaneous discourse about female comedians has larger implications beyond Nothing Sacred, and informs how we as a culture negotiate gender and performance in “relation to ideal versions of femininity” (Mizejewski 2014, pg. 5).

However, the presumption that “women are fragile” and thus can’t perform comedy on par with men is not only historically inaccurate, but it also implies that “unruliness” – or a defiance of conventional notions of feminine behavior and appearance – is inherently problematic. What Nothing Sacred‘s fight scene does – briefly and, albiet, unintentionally – is strip away Carole Lombard’s “sex appeal” (literally, with her shapeless full-length robe and mussed hair) and allows her to transgress the expectations put upon female physical comedians. As I’ve previously argued, “physical comedy offers a negotiation, not a negation, of femininity” (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 114) and her rough-and-tumble performance aptly refutes the idea of the “fragile female body” that Crowther identifies in his review.

Carole Lombard’s star persona and history with slapstick comedy adds a final layer to our understanding of the physical comedy elements in Nothing Sacred. As the unofficial “queen of screwball comedy,” Lombard’s boisterous, independent star image embodied the characteristics that were emblematic of the 1930s screwball woman, and her early career in Mack Sennett’s slapstick comedies was often cited by contemporaneous writers as rationale for her so-called “natural” physical comedy skills. Life magazine journalist Noel Busch once wrote that Lombard’s tenure with Sennett was educational, and provided her with the “magnificent sense of comedic timing” that she demonstrates in such films as Nothing Sacred (1938, pg 63). But such a perspective ignores the fundamental differences between slapstick and screwball comedies, as well as the extended period of time between her post-slapstick and pre-screwball eras in which she was considered one of Hollywood’s top glamour girls.

Carole Lombard and Daphne Pollard in a still from the Mack Sennett slapstick comedy Run, Girl, Run (1928).

Of course, the conflation of reel and real identities is not uncommon in star discourse, and helps to “sell” a star’s public image and films. In Lombard’s case, the “screwy” persona that appears on screen was thought to be an extension of her real-life persona. Take, for example, the evocative article “The Utterly Balmy Home Life of Carole Lombard.” Columnist Harry Lang paints a detailed portrait of Lombard as a kooky, energetic, and eccentric woman who answers her phone with different accents, throws wild house parties, and keeps a menage of unusual pets. Summing up his experience at Lombard’s house, he writes:

Does all this sound absolutely batty? Screwy? Insane? Balmy?—okay, then, make the most of it. I simply can’t help it. I’m going to tell you about Carole Lombard’s home life, and that’s all there is to it. You can take it or leave it. All I’ve got to say is this—when it comes to the business of getting the most downright, sheer fun out of this usually drab business of living, then I had all prizes unreservedly to Carole Lombard.

Carole Lombard on the Selznick International Pictures lot, c. 1938.

Similarly, columnist Gladys Hall once described that Lombard allegedly arrived at her studio bungalow by “executing a few spirals and curves and a leap upon her scooter-bike…” (Hall 1938, pg. 35). Such characterizations propose that Lombard’s screwball comedy persona was “authentic,” and that characters like Hazel Flagg, Irene Bullock, or Lily Garland were simply variations of her “real” self. In tone, they also verify the sentiment in Crowther’s review: Lombard’s boisterous off-screen personality represented an altogether unorthodox version of modern femininity. The alleged verisimilitude between her star and screen images also grounds her physical comedy – a recurring performative trait in virtually all of her screwball films – in her off-screen persona. In terms of the gender politics of Nothing Sacred, these journalistic descriptions of Lombard’s kinetic energy validate Hazel’s “unruly” behavior.

Despite the fact that Carole Lombard made more non-screwball films than screwball comedies and had a constantly evolving public image, “her screwball identity was, and still is, the primary means by which scholars and historians assess her star persona” (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 73). While I don’t doubt that she had a larger-than-life personality, she was also not her screen characters. Therefore, while it is easy to view Lombard’s performance history through the lens of screwball comedy, she was also more multidimensional than “the queen of screwball comedy.” Nevertheless, this title, and all of the weight that comes with it, helps us understand how comedy and stardom in the studio era were shaped by the prevailing ideological, moral, and cultural positions about gender.

WORKS CITED

Busch, Noel. “A Loud Cheer for the Screwball Girl.” Life, October 13, 1938: 48-50, 63.

Carman, Emily. Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016.

Crowther, Bosley. “Females of the Species.” New York Times, January 16, 1938, X5.

Hall, Gladys. “Lombard — As She Sees Herself.” Motion Picture, November 1938, 38.

Jowett, Garth S. “‘A Capacity for Evil’: The 1915 Supreme Court Mutual Decision.” In Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Studio Era. Ed. Matthew Bernstein, 16 – 40. London: The Athlone Press, 2000.

Karnick, Kristine Brunovska. “Community of Unruly Women: Female Comedy Teams in the Early Sound Era.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1 (1999): 77-95.

Kiriakou, Olympia. Becoming Carole Lombard: Stardom, Comedy, and Legacy. New York: Bloomsbury, 2020.

Mizejewski, Linda. Pretty/Funny: Woman Comedians and Body Politics. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014.

“The Shadow Stage.” Photoplay, February 1938: 54-55.

No Man of Her Own (1932) and the Carole Lombard – Clark Gable legacy

Hello again, it’s been a while! My apologies for the long hiatus from my website, but work and writing deadlines simply got in the way. Now that I’m getting back into the swing of things, I thought I’d explore one of Carole Lombard’s pre-Code films, No Man of Her Own (Wesley Ruggles, 1932). Famously, this film is the only screen pairing of Lombard and her second husband, Clark Gable. Given its unique status, in the years since its release it has taken on a life of its own for Lombard and Gable fans. So, rather than a review, I thought I’d focus on No Man of Her Own‘s legacy, and how the film’s imagery has helped to sustain interest in the them as a star couple from the 1930s to today.

For those who haven’t seen the film, a brief summary: Lombard plays Connie, a librarian who dreams of excitement away from her small town. When a handsome stranger named Babe Stewart (Gable) visits the library, Connie sees him as the escape she’s been longing for. Unbeknownst to her, Babe is a gambler hiding out from the police. On a flip of a coin, Babe and Connie decide to get married and he brings her back to New York. Babe tries to hide his gambling habits from Connie by pretending to be a businessman, and even spends his days at an office so that she won’t get suspicious. Eventually, Babe’s shady past catches up with him and he is sentenced to prison. Babe wants to shield Connie from the truth, so he tells her that he’s going on a long business trip to South America. Shortly after he leaves, Connie finds out the truth about Babe and that she’s pregnant. Realizing that she loves Babe in spite of his lies, Connie continues to feign ignorance. The film concludes with Babe’s return home, with a handful of “souvenirs” from his alleged trip abroad.

On its own merits, No Man of Her Own is a charming pre-Code romantic drama, ripe with alluring sensual scenes and equally cringe-worthy dialogue. Setting aside Lombard and Gable’s off-screen relationship, their screen chemistry is clear and, in my opinion, one of the most memorable aspects of this film. My favorite scene that illustrates their characters’ dynamics takes place the first morning that Babe is meant to go to work. After a long night playing poker with his cronies, Babe is in no mood to wake up early. In a medium-close up of Babe’s bed, we see him wrapped up in his blankets trying to sleep (see below). Connie sits down on the edge of his bed, nudges him lovingly, and coos “Babe…Babe…it’s time to get up.” Realizing she’s being ignored, Connie stands up and disappears from the frame, but comes back a moment later with a wet towel that she places on Babe’s head. It does the trick: Babe grumbles and begrudgingly gets out of bed.

This is not a scene that carries much weight in the film overall, but one that amply conveys Connie and Babe’s playful affections. Much of the film’s narrative hinges on the contrast between Babe’s deceit and Connie’s naïveté, but at no point does it imply that their love is insincere. With several highly charged passionate exchanges – complemented by Travis Banton’s costumes, romantic low key lighting, and the actors’ effortless screen chemistry – No Man of Her Own is one of the more delightful films in Lombard’s pre-Code filmography.

While I generally enjoy No Man of Her Own, I also firmly believe that its lasting reputation in the pre-Code pantheon has been kept alive by Lombard and Gable’s off-screen relationship. In the years since its release, its status in the Lombard and Gable fandoms has become akin to that of fan fiction, and it’s a film that fans can use to project their fantasies about the couple’s real romance. Despite wishful thinking from some fans and gossip columnists, at the time of filming Lombard and Gable were not a couple and, in fact, were married to other people: Clark to his second wife, Rhea Langham Gable, and Carole to William Powell. Lombard and Gable did not begin dating until January 1936 after reconnecting at the annual Mayfair Ball (the “white party” referenced in the snippet below).

From Silver Screen (July 1939).

This Silver Screen article is ripe with inaccuracies, yet in 1936 this false narrative took hold and has remained a constitutive part of the discourse about their relationship ever since. While researching for my book, I discovered that Paramount was eager to capitalize on public interest in Hollywood’s newest star couple, and sent a letter to the Production Code Administration (PCA) to have No Man of Her Own certified for a 1936 re-release. In correspondence with the PCA, Paramount executive John Hammell wrote that the motivation for his request was “the importance of the cast (Gable and Lombard)” (Production Code Administration records, 1936). At the time of the re-release, Lombard was still under contract to Paramount. The studio’s decision to rush the film out in this early stage of her romance with Gable reveals that they identified the potential bankability in their star couple image.

Even with this scheduled re-release and the couple’s overwhelmingly positive public acceptance, the studios and gossip press still had to address the “Rhea problem.” Some columnists took a cynical perspective, including Motion Picture magazine columnist Ford Black, who wrote that Gable would never divorce Rhea because “Hollywood fears, above all else, the wrath of millions of moviegoers whose moral sensibilities are assumed to be as fragile as a gold leaf…” (1939, pg. 30). Historian Michael Hammond explains the reason for Black’s opinion: box office success equated public approval, and in spite of the precarious morality of their public affair, Lombard and Gable were extremely popular stars individually and as a couple (2015, pg. 55). In short, why risk spoiling established success with a divorce?

Other columnists took a different approach: to distract from Gable’s marital status, during the couple’s courtship period contemporaneous media frequently emphasized his and Lombard’s compatibility. For example, Photoplay columnist Edward Doherty observed that the two stars “had a lot in common…both enjoy informality. They like to be themselves. They welcome anything simple and natural which will give them fun” (Doherty 1938, pg. 18). The couple had a “practical, salt-of-the earth quality that lacked pretense” (Lane 2016, pg. 401) and unlike Rhea and Gable’s first wife, Josephine Dillon – who were older and described as “thoroughly serious women” – Lombard was “imaginative, modernistic, unconventional, and oh, so young!” (Lewis 1936, pg. 46). Despite being the “other woman” technically, Lombard was celebrated as Gable’s equal in interests, ideology, and age.

From Photoplay (May 1938).

As the above snippet reveals, is impossible to extricate the insidious ageism from the fan magazine discourse about Rhea Gable, particularly in comparisons with Lombard. In articles that highlight Carole’s vivacious personality and youthful energy, it’s not hard to interpret such descriptions as implicit condemnations of Rhea. By the late-1930s Rhea was the target of of considerable public backlash for refusing to grant Gable a divorce (see photos below). Ironically it was Rhea, not Carole who was considered the “other woman,” and someone who “interfered with her husband’s life and depressed him mentally” (Dixon Mann 1938, pg. 24). Unlike Rhea, Lombard was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars with her own devoted fan base, and both she and Gable “received acceptance in the film community and mainstream media” (Abrams 2008, pg. 74). Hollywood’s willingness to ignore their own self-imposed moral standards may have been hypocritical, but was a clear sign of Lombard and Gable’s combined star power and overwhelming public approval (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 143). With the film industry and the public on Carole’s side, Rhea eventually filed for divorce and Lombard and Gable married on March 29, 1939.

From Modern Screen, 1938.

With that context in mind, one can understand why No Man of Her Own was – and still is – so important in the Lombard-Gable romance mythology. For the rest of Lombard’s life, and even posthumously, it’s difficult to find a discussion of her relationship with Gable without mention of No Man of Her Own. The film’s narrative bears no resemblance to reality, yet over the years it has taken on a quasi-documentary status, functioning almost like “evidence” of the couple’s off-screen dynamics. The clearest example of this is the 1976 biopic, Gable and Lombard, which makes heavy use of No Man of Her Own, and even recreates one of the film’s iconic promotional photos for its title sequence. Gable and Lombard opens with the original photo on the left, and as the title credits roll Lombard’s and Gable’s faces morph into those of James Brolin and Jill Clayburgh. This imagery is also used in the film’s trailer, and is paired with the tagline “They don’t love like that any more.”

I’ve made my distain for this biopic quite clear: it severely bends historical facts and chronology, and although I adore Jill Clayburgh’s work, this film’s characterization of Lombard is maddening. Of course, I don’t watch biopics for historical accuracy, and as a Lombard scholar, I’m not the film’s target audience. All of that aside, equally troubling is the fact that Gable and Lombard leans heavily into the idea that the couple’s screen chemistry in No Man of Her Own is interchangeable with their private lives. Such conflation continues to appear to this day: fan-made tributes to the Gables available on YouTube and social media often feature clips or stills from No Man of Her Own. Similarly, fan discourse about the film often touch upon Lombard and Gable’s off-screen romantic status. Like Gable and Lombard, fan media helps to cement No Man of Her Own‘s legacy as an extension of their real-life relationship. With the foundation set in the mid-1930s, it’s no wonder why some contemporary fans would continue to perpetuate this appealing but inaccurate mythology.

Gable and Lombard in a publicity photo for No Man of Her Own.
James Brolin and Jill Clayburgh in the title sequence of Gable and Lombard (1976).

In reality, Lombard and Gable were fairly private people who set boundaries with the press (for example, not allowing photographers inside their Encino home). As much as I’m immersed in everything Carole Lombard, neither I nor any other researcher can claim to know the details of her private life. It would be distracting to her star legacy to speculate on the similarities or differences between No Man of Her Own and her marriage to Gable. And besides, does it matter? Far too much time and energy is spent dissecting the private lives of classical Hollywood stars, which does little to help contemporary fans understand their bodies of work, or the studio system’s role in manufacturing star identities. In the case of Lombard, the overly romanticized discourse about No Man of Her Own has had a consequential effect on her star persona, as well as her and Gable’s iconicity as a star couple. As I’ve previously argued, a lot of unnecessary cultural value is put into Lombard’s relationship with Gable (Kiriakou 2020 pg. 154), viewed through the distorted lens of No Man of Her Own and carefully curated publicity discourse. I believe this has come at the expense of her own independent star identity. It is my goal through this website, my book, and elsewhere to correct that narrative, so that we can think about Lombard’s stardom on her own terms, but also the gendered, ideological, and moral implications Lombard and Gable’s star couple image.

Works Cited

Abrams, Brett L. Hollywood Bohemians: Transgressive Sexuality and the Selling of the Movie Dreamland. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. Inc., 2008.

Black, Ford. “Will Clark Gable Ever Marry Carole Lombard?” Motion Picture, February 1939: 30-31.

Dixon Mann, Margaret. “Happiness Ahead for Clark and Carole.” Picture Play, August 1938: 23-24.

Doherty, Edward. “Can the Gable-Lombard Love Story Have a Happy Ending?” Photoplay, May 1938: 18-19.

Hammond, Michael. “‘Good Fellowship’: Carole Lombard and Clark Gable.” In First Comes Love: Power Couples, Celebrity Kinship, and Cultural Politics, eds. Shelley Cobb and Neil McEwen. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015, 53 – 72.

Lane, Christina. “A Modern Marriage for the Masses: Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, and the Cultural Front.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Vol. 33, No. 1 (2016): 401 – 436.

Letter from John Hammell to Joseph L. Breen, September 21, 1936. Production Code Administration records. Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Lewis, Frederick. “Is Carole Lombard in Love at Last?” Liberty, November 14, 1936: 46-47.

Kiriakou, Olympia. Becoming Carole Lombard: Stardom, Comedy, and Legacy. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.