An unsung gem: Swing High, Swing Low (1937)

Swing High, Swing Low is arguably one of Carole Lombard’s most complex, yet least discussed films. It was the third of four titles that she made with Fred MacMurray (their second pairing with director Mitchell Leisen), and in my opinion, the one that has garnered the most unfairly maligned reputation. As the second film adaptation of the hit George Manker Watters-Arthur Hopkins play, “Burlesque” (1927), Swing High, Swing Low was a critical and box office success when it was released in March 1937. Today, its reputation has fallen dramatically, largely because of the poor state of the available prints. The film entered the public domain in 1965, and for years has circulated online and in different home video formats with abysmal sound and picture quality, almost to the point of being unwatchable. I don’t share Leisen’s biographer David Chierichetti’s opinion that Lombard gave her finest performance (1995 pg. 95) – that designation is reserved for Nothing Sacred – but I think it ranks among her most captivating and self-assured. The film suffers from some pacing issues (particularly in the second half), but is salvaged by gorgeous high contrast cinematography, rich performances from Lombard and MacMurray, and a powerful story about the dark side of fame.

First, a short synopsis. Swing High, Swing Low chronicles the tumultuous relationship of singer, Maggie King (Lombard) and trumpet player, “Skid” Johnson (MacMurray). They meet on an ocean liner in the Panama Canal, and eventually settle in Balboa in a one-room apartment with Skid’s friend, Harry (Charles Butterworth). Maggie lands a job as a showgirl at an Irish bar, Murphy’s, run by a stern but sympathetic eponymous landlady (Cecilia Cunningham). Maggie and Skid are in dire straigts financially, so she convinces Murphy to hire him for her nightclub band, and even lies about them being married. Maggie becomes jealous after she discovers that Skid’s former girlfriend, Anita (Dorothy Lamour), also works at the club. Anita eventually leaves Panama for New York and Maggie and Skid get married. Skid’s popularity grows, and Maggie encourages him to move to New York to advance his career. Skid embarks for New York alone, and lands a job in the same nightclub as Anita; he soon becomes intoxicated by fame, fortune, and her affections. Maggie borrows money from Murphy to sail to New York, but Anita sabotages her plans by hiding a letter notifying Skid of her arrival. When Skid does not greet Maggie at the port, she tracks him down in Anita’s hotel room, drunk and disoriented. Maggie files for divorce and leaves for France, which sends Skid into a drunken spiral that costs him his career. Months later, Skid is reunited with Maggie on Harry’s radio show, and with a little encouragement, he finds the confidence he needs to once again play his trumpet.

Swing High, Swing Low went into production in the fall of 1936 with a budget of nearly $740,000. It was produced by Arthur Hornblow, Jr. and co-written by Virginia Van Upp and Oscar Hammerstein II under the working title, “Panama Girl.” Allegedly, both Gary Cooper and Bing Crosby were briefly considered to play Skid before the role ultimately went to MacMurray. It was newcomer Dorothy Lamour’s third film, and in her memoirs My Side of the Road, she reveals that she was starstruck by Lombard, whom she describes as one of her favorite actresses. Lamour commended Lombard’s down-to-earth demeanor, explaining that “within minutes, I felt like I was working with a good friend instead of a big star…” Lombard apparently sensed Lamour’s nerves on set, so she “deliberately kept ‘blowing her lines'” until the neophyte felt at ease (1980, pg. 57-58).

Unlike Lamour, by 1937 Lombard was a seasoned Hollywood veteran, and Swing High, Swing Low was the penultimate film that she made during her seven year contract with Paramount. By then, her screwball comedy persona was firmly established thanks to such films as Twentieth Century (Hawks, 1934) and My Man Godfrey (La Cava, 1936). At first glance Swing High, Swing Low appears to have been an unusual career choice; the film has its light-hearted moments, particularly in scenes with Maggie, Skid, and Harry in their apartment, but it is far more somber and down-beat than what audiences would’ve expected from a Lombard vehicle in the mid-1930s. It’s worth noting that Lombard was sensitive to how she was perceived by the public, and as I’ve previously written, she took a hands-on approach to her own publicity. Despite the fame and critical acclaim that resulted from her screwball films, as the film went into production she was beginning to feel that she was being typecast. Swing High, Swing Low was therefore a pivotal film in Lombard’s career, for it marked the beginning of her slow shift away from straight comedy roles and her beloved screwball persona. Lombard completely abandoned her comedy comfort zone a mere two years later to try her hand at melodrama, appearing in four back-to-back titles: Made for Each Other (Cromwell, 1939), In Name Only (Cromwell, 1939), Vigil in the Night (Stevens, 1940), and They Knew What they Wanted (Kanin, 1940).

Swing High, Swing Low is memorable for another reason, too: it is the one and only film to feature Lombard’s real singing voice. She had previous been dubbed in such films as Brief Moment (Burton, 1933); in this film, she sings the Sam Coslow-Al Siegel jazz number, “I Hear a Call to Arms.” She first sings the song in a sexy, dimly-lit scene that takes place in Murphy’s bar. Framed in close-up, Lombard croons while nuzzled into Fred MacMurray’s chest. He accompanies her on trumpet with his arms wrapped around her shoulders, and their body language captures the intimacy of their musical bond. The song is reprised at the film’s conclusion when Maggie wills Skid to once again play his trumpet. This time, however, he relies on her for physical and emotional support and the song’s title and lyrics take on literal significance.

Maggie and Skid reprise “I Hear A Call to Arms.”

Lombard took singing lessons with Siegel before the film went into production, but was still apprehensive about using her real voice. According to Mitchell Leisen, “she didn’t think she could do it and she begged me to have somebody dub her numbers, but I said nobody could have the same quality of voice and it would be unbelievable. So she did it and it came out beautifully.” Lombard was no Jeanette MacDonald, but her poor vocals do not detract from Ted Tetzlaff’s intimate camerawork and emotional gravitas of both scenes. Nor did they dissuade Paramount from capitalizing on her performance: the studio produced sheet music as a merchandise tie-in, and used her image to promote Lucky Strike cigarettes’ throat-soothing properties.

Lombard does a fine job balancing her high-energy, expressive performance style with the subtle restraint required in the film’s dramatic moments. In one of my favorite scenes (which happens to be a critical turning point in Maggie and Skid’s relationship), Maggie waits longingly for Skid to come home from his night on the town. She stews in bed, listening intently for any sign of his arrival. The shallow focus and tight framing that Tetzlaff uses to photograph Lombard’s face is sublime. Mosquito netting creates a gauzy, dream-like texture along the edges of the frame, while her rickety window blinds cast a noirish shadow, almost like worry lines, on her face. The evening moonlight illuminates Lombard’s eyes, betraying Maggie’s nervous apprehension. Even in this washed out print, the scene evokes a haunting estrangement that alludes to their fates; I suspect it must’ve looked gorgeously moody in the original release prints.



When Skid finally arrives home, Maggie tells him that her friend, Ella, has encouraged her to take a job in New York. Of course, she has no intention of leaving Panama, but wants to test Skid’s commitment and affection. The camera cuts to a medium-close up of Skid laying in bed in the other room. He is partially blocked by his bed frame, and like Maggie, is swathed in mosquito netting. He sits up, and after a pause says, “Now you’re getting some sense. You should’ve done that weeks ago.” It’s not the answer Maggie had hoped for, and as the camera cuts back to her room, we see her bury her head into her pillow in frustration. Sorrowful music swells as the camera cuts to Skid, who calls out, “Maggie…aren’t you gonna ride me about not coming home?” Cutting back again to the initial close-up in Maggie’s room, she shakes her head through tears, turns onto her back and whimpers, “Goodnight Skid.” His nonchalant attitude is the confirmation Maggie needs that her love has not been reciprocated. She does not realize that he wasn’t being truthful, and that deep down he only wants her to be happy. Disjointed spaces and obstructed framing are symbols of Maggie and Skid’s miscommunication; they love each other, but perhaps out of self-preservation, they are too afraid to be honest about their feelings.

This scene is reminiscent of a moment in Lombard and MacMurray’s first Leisen film, Hands Across the Table (1935), in which Regi (Lombard) locks herself in her bedroom to hide her amorous feelings from her temporary houseguest, Ted (MacMurray) (see photos below). Leisen’s masterful use of the close-up reveals Regi’s and Maggie’s deep-rooted vulnerability and the pain that comes when love is taken for granted. Notably, in both scenes MacMurray’s character is kept at a greater distance, either through framing or with objects blocking our view. Leisen relies on these visual cues to create sympathy with Lombard’s characters by approximating their loneliness and heartache.

There’s an undeniable charm to Lombard and MacMurray’s other screen collaborations, and their opposing performance styles formed the basis of the ideal screwball couple dynamic; passion and capricious on the one hand, logic and patience on the other. The tangled romances in Hands Across the Table and Swing High, Swing Low tap into a unique character dynamic, allowing them to meet somewhere in the middle. Opposite MacMurray, Lombard’s Leisen heroines take on a maturity and introspection that is equally matched by a lightness that he draws from her.

Lombard is the focal point of this website, but I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that Swing High, Swing Low is Fred MacMurray’s movie. In spite of the slogging pace of the film’s second half and the way it belabors the effects of Skid’s drinking, MacMurray delivers what I consider the richest and most assertive performance out of all of his Lombard pairings. Without an ounce of star vanity, MacMurray was not afraid to come across unsympathetically when Skid’s drinking gets the best of him. Fame and fortune goes to Skid’s head and he becomes egotistical and, at times, even vicious. There’s a certain degree of character self-awareness in the way MacMurray plays Skid, as if he knows he’s made poor choices but doesn’t know how to stop himself. Perhaps because of MacMurray’s honest, all-American star persona, it is not hard to feel pity for Skid. Played another way or by another actor, Skid might’ve become a total self-absorbed monster, but MacMurray adds just enough humanity to his performance to save him from going over the edge.

Swing High, Swing Low opened on March 12, 1937 to generally positive critical reviews, with Motion Picture Review Digest calling it “one of the brightest cinematic candles on Paramount’s 25th Birthday cake” (1937 pg. 102). MacMurray received praised for giving what the The Hollywood Reporter observed as “undoubtedly his finest performance in his best opportunity to date” (March 10, pg. 3), while The Film Daily described it as an “ideal” Lombard-MacMurray vehicle (March 15, pg. 18). During its premiere week, it earned roughly $16-17,000 each in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and San Francisco (Variety 1937, pg. 10), while The Film Daily reported that it broke “attendance and money records in all parts of the U.S.,” and that it was on track to be on of their highest grossing films of the year (March 16, pg. 4).

A proper restoration of Swing High, Swing Low is sorely needed, but may just be next to impossible. According Chierichetti, when 20th Century Fox bought the rights to “Burlesque” in the 1940s they may have obtained the original negative from Paramount. In the 1980s, the American Film Institute inquired about the film since the copy they had in their collection was missing three reels. After exhaustive searches in both studios’ archives, Paramount was allegedly only able to produce an incomplete nitrate release print. The version that currently circulates online and in home video format was supposedly assembled from that print plus three reels from Leisen’s personal 16mm copy, which were blown up to 35mm (1995 pg. 104).

Since it has been about 40 years since AFI’s inquiry, I recently contacted both Disney (Fox’s current owner) and UCLA (where Paramount’s archives are housed) to inquire about the missing negative. Admittedly, it was a bit of a Hail Mary on my part given the prior unsuccessful attempts, but I figured it was worth a shot. UCLA got back to me within 24 hours and confirmed that they have one reel of a 16mm safety print in their collection – sadly, not the camera negative. Disney, on the other hand, did not answer my inquiry. I have written about Disney for about 10 years so I am all too aware that access to the company archive is notoriously challenging for non-“cast members” (their term for employees); when permission is seldom granted, it usually comes with strict caveats. Alas, if the original negative is buried somewhere in the Fox archive, I have little hope that Disney will cooperate with a restoration project given the limited profitability of such an endeavor.

It is understandable that some fans may have written off Swing High, Swing Low – the quality alone makes it difficult to watch. But even with the print issues, it is a remarkable film with vibrant aesthetic choices (from what I can tell) and a solid range of performances. Maggie is indicative of the type of role Lombard saw herself playing in the next phase of her career: cheeky, headstrong, and brimming with emotional sensitivity. She and MacMurray flourished under Mitchell Leisen’s guidance because he gave them the space to draw upon otherwise underused acting skills and subvert their established star personas. Swing High, Swing Low marked the beginning of a “new” and mature Carole Lombard, proving that she was more than just the queen of screwball comedy.

WORKS CITED

Chierichetti, David. Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director. New York: Photoventures Press, 1995.

“Comparative Grosses for March.” Variety. April 14, 1937, pg. 10.

The Film Daily. March 15, 1937, pg. 18.

The Hollywood Reporter. March 10, 1937, pg. 3.

Lamour, Dorothy and Dick McInnes. My Side of the Road. New York: Prentice Hall, 1980.

Motion Picture Review Digest. June 26, 1937.

“‘Swing High, Swing Low’ Setting Theater Records.” The Film Daily, March 16, 1937, pg. 1, 4.

Madalynne Field: right-hand woman

One of the goals of this website is to chronicle Carole Lombard’s life and career, and a formative part of her story are her family, friends, and colleagues. While it is has never been my intention to try and uncover the “real” Carole Lombard (a thankless endeavor that no living historian will accomplish), getting to know the people around her will enrich our understanding of her stardom. A few months ago, I profiled Lombard’s fruitful but contentious relationship with her longtime agent, Myron Selznick. Another key figure in Lombard’s life was her former Sennett colleague, de-facto manager, and best friend, Madalynne Field (aka “Fieldsie” – a nickname given to her by Lombard). Selznick may have been Carole Lombard’s’s most important collaborator, but Fieldsie was her biggest champion and grounding in both life and work.

A beautiful portrait of Fieldsie that was originally published in Carole Lombard’s Life Story, c. 1942.

Unfortunately, not much is known about Fieldsie apart from her associations with Lombard. She seldom granted interviews, preferring instead to let her best friend bask in the spotlight. However, in my research I was able to listen to an interview in the the Margaret Herrick Library archives conducted by Clark Gable’s biographer, Lyn Tornabene, and Fieldsie’s son (and Carole’s godson), Richard Lang, for her book Long Live the King: A Biography of Clark Gable (1977). Recorded not long after Fieldsie’s death in 1974, Lang describes his mother as strict, meticulous, and imposing – qualities that earned her the nickname “The General.” He also notes her wicked sense of humor and sharp wit, two traits that immediately endeared her to Lombard upon their first meeting in 1927. Lang is no longer alive to share his mother’s story (he passed away in 1997), but his interview with Tornabene gives us historians rich insight into Fieldsie’s personality – her humor, headstrong nature, and loyalty.

Born on April 1, 1907 in Charlotte, Michigan to John Rosswell Field and Agnes May Cooper, Fieldsie and her family moved west to Los Angeles by 1910. She and her older sister, Frances, both attended Abraham Lincoln High School in the Lincoln Heights district. Fieldsie was studious, after class she worked in the bookstore selling school supplies and candy to her fellow pupils. It is not known when Fieldsie first caught the acting bug, but archival records show that by 1926 she was working as a bit player in the two-reel Stern Brothers comedy series including And George Did (Scott Pembroke, 1926) and Dancing Fools (Francis Corby, 1927). That year she also appeared in Jess Robbins’ The Non-Stop Bride and Ella Cinders alongside Colleen Moore. Like Lombard, Fieldsie signed a contract with Sennett in mid-1927 and remained with his company until roughly 1929. She. appeared in 16 Sennett short films including 9 with Lombard such as The Girl from Everywhere (Edward F. Cline, 1927), Run, Girl Run (Alfred J. Goulding, 1928), and The Campus Carmen (Alfred J. Goulding, 1928). Sennett’s troupe was relatively small so the two women quickly became friends, and they would often carpool to the studio together in Fieldsie’s car to save money on gasoline (Hall 1939 pg. 24). They bonding over their careers and similar senses of humor, and in Fieldsie, Lombard found a trusted confidante. In illuminating interview with Modern Screen from 1936, Fieldsie explains that after revealing to Lombard that she was self-conscious about her weight, Carole told her: “Beauty is an asset to a woman as long as she has something inside. But if she hasn’t, beauty doesn’t count” (Babcock 1936, pg. 92).

The Abraham Lincoln HS bookstore staff, c. 1923. Fieldsie is in the front row, second from the right.
From Exhibitor’s Daily Review, January 12, 1927.

Lombard’s conventional, all-American appearance and curvaceous physique propelled her to become one of Sennett’s “bathing beauties,” but Fieldsie’s stature – 6 feet tall and weighing around 250 lbs. – limited her to comic foil roles as the perennial “fat girl.” I’m not sure how some of the weight-related jokes landed in the late-1920s, but when watching the Sennett films today, I can’t help but feel a bit sad for Fieldsie. Gags like being too heavy to be carried on a stretcher, or getting distracted by pancakes (both in Run, Girl, Run – see clip below) affected her body image and self-worth, and by all accounts, she hid her feelings behind her stoic demeanor and penchant for practical jokes. In spite of her immaculate comedic timing, ambition, and drive, Hollywood’s obsession with beauty made it almost impossible for her to be taken seriously as an actress.

Fieldsie in Run, Girl, Run.

In 1930, Lombard signed a seven year contract with Paramount. Despite what has been written by Lombard’s biographers, Fieldsie did not immediately begin working as her secretary. In the aforementioned Modern Screen article, Fieldsie explains that she was still trying her hand as an actor “earning $35 per week” making films at Universal and Fox. One such film was Fancy Curves (Lou Breslow, 1932), a short in which an enthusiastic Fieldsie plays baseball with Babe Ruth (see clip below). As an aside, on Fieldsie’s filmography it is listed that she had an uncredited role in Paris Interlude (1934). I recently watched the film in preparation for this essay, and can confirm that she does not appear. Moreover, given the demanding nature of her work with Lombard, it is unlikely that she would have taken time away from her responsibilities to accept a bit part. Fancy Curves would have therefore been her final acting role.

Fieldsie in Fancy Curves.

Fieldsie did not enter Lombard’s employ until late-1931. She had enrolled in night school to learn stenography with William Haines’ sister, Ann, and recalled being “fascinated” by shorthand. By her own account, she was so enthusiastic about her new skills that she begged Lombard’s then-husband, William Powell, to let her take down his letters because he had the most “perfect English diction of any man” she knew (Ibid). At the same time that Lombard’s film career skyrocketed, lucrative acting jobs for Fieldsie were becoming increasingly scarce, so she made the difficult decision to quit acting and become Carole’s full-time secretary. Initially, both women were reluctant because they did not want to ruin their great friendship. In this excerpt from Modern Screen, Fieldsie describes her job and working relationship with Lombard in detail:

As Fieldsie herself admits, she functioned more like a live-in best friend/manager than secretary. When Lombard and Powell divorced in 1933, she bought a house on Hollywood Boulevard – and Fieldsie moved in with her. Lombard was hands-on with all aspects of her career, devoting time to learning her craft and all of the ephemeral responsibilities of stardom (for example, she took a keen interest in crafting her own publicity). But Fieldsie was in-charge of running Lombard’s house and taking care of her day-to-day tasks, and Lombard would often tell her friends and business associates that she would be “lost” without her. In many ways, she was the person who kept the Lombard star machine running. Personality-wise, Lombard and Fieldsie were like complementary forces: the former was a generous and exuberant free spirit (described by her best friend as the ” little champion of the down-trodden”), whereas the latter was fastidious in her work, organized, and efficient. For example, when Lombard made headlines in support of a high tax bracket for the wealthy (including herself), she credited Fieldie’s impeccable bookkeeping as the reason why, despite making $465,000, she was still left with an impressive $20,000. Fieldsie brought stability to Lombard’s life, and was indispensable to her business interests.

As Lombard’s best friend, Fieldsie became popular among the Hollywood social circle. It was through Carole that she met director Walter Lang, who became her steady boyfriend by 1934. The couple would go on double dates with Lombard and her beaus, first with Russ Columbo and, later, Clark Gable (see photo below). After several years of dating, Lang and Fieldsie married in Nashua, Iowa on July 5, 1938. Their union would produce one child, a son named Walter Richard Lang Jr. born in 1939, who went on to be a successful TV director of such shows as Kung Fu, Beverly Hills 90210, and Melrose Place. The couple remained together until Lang’s death from kidney failure in 1972.

Walter Lang and Madalynne Field’s marriage licence.

When Fieldsie married Lang, she retired from Carole’s services to devoted her time to her family. Not one to languish in the spotlight, she rarely made public appearances post-1938 with a few exceptions. The first was as a special guest on the Lux Radio Theatre’s adaptation of My Man Godfrey in May 1938 (available to stream here). In an interview/ad spot for Lux soap with host Cecil B. DeMille, Fieldsie discusses Lombard’s new home in the San Fernando Valley, and her fashion sense. Although the exchange with DeMille was scripted, there’s an undeniable warmth and affection in Fieldsie’s voice as she speaks about Lombard, and it’s almost as if she was bursting with pride as she tells him about Carole’s charitable endeavors during a devastating flood. Although brief, the interview illuminates the mutual love and respect between the two women.

Fieldsie’s second major public appearance was in January 1944, two years after Lombard’s untimely death, when she served as the master of ceremonies at the christening of the liberty ship, the U.S.S. Carole Lombard. Also in attendance were Lombard’s husband, Clark Gable, his boss, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, Robert Montgomery, and Irene Dunne. Initially, Fieldsie was asked to pay tribute, but she knew she would be too overcome with emotion to speak about Lombard publicly. She requested instead that her friend, Irene Dunne, take her place; Dunne graciously accepted, and christened the ship with a bottle of champagne.

Without Fieldsie.
With Fieldsie.

When Walter Lang retired in 1961, the couple retreated to Palm Springs. Their social calendar was often full, and they mingled with the friends they made during their time in Hollywood including Fieldsie’s old shorthand chum, Bill Powell, and his wife, Mousie. In Richard Lang’s interview with Lyn Tornabene, he wistfully recalled his mother’s strength, vitality, and independence, qualities that never wavered even in Fieldsie’s later life. Sadly, much like her late best friend, Fieldsie’s life was cut short by tragedy. In the early hours of a late-September morning, Fieldsie was attacked on the head with a lead pipe in a violent home invasion. She fell into a coma but did not recover, and died on October 1, 1974. She was just 67 years old.

For too long, Fieldsie has remained a footnote in Carole Lombard’s life story. It’s a cruel irony that she has been erased from some of the press photos from the liberty ship christening (see above). Fieldsie’s loyalty to Lombard was unwavering, and Carole’s devotion to her best friend was reciprocal. Nevertheless, one can only imagine Fieldsie’s bittersweet feeling of working adjacent to an industry that disqualified her based on appearance alone. Hollywood may have shunned Fieldsie, but she played an integral role in managing one of its most popular stars.

WORKS CITED

Babcock, Muriel. “Lombard Ltd.” Modern Screen, June 1936. Pgs. 38-39, 91-93.

Hall, Gladys. “What’s the Matter with Lombard?” Modern Screen, September 1939. Pgs. 24-25, 83-85.

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 Pendleton) 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 Pendleton 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 Pendleton. 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.

Pendleton’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. Pendleton’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 Pendleton’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 Pendleton, 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 Pendleton, 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 the silent era. 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 Lombard’s career and, crucially, her growth as a comedian. 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 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 (or, to put it crudely, eye candy) 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 contract 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 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 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.