A Fine (Hitchcockian) Romance: Sex, marriage, and censorship in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)

“If you could do it all over again, would you have married me?”

Ann and David, the titular couple in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), have just learned that their marriage is not legal due to an arcane geographical technicality. With their newfound freedom in hand, they must figure out whether they will stay together or go their separate ways. Ann’s question is as much about the Smith’s unusual marital status as it is the socio-economic politics of the 1930s. The financial turmoil spurred on by the Great Depression led to a decline in divorce rates in the United States, which coincided with a cultural shift toward companionate marriage. For many Americans in the 1930s, finding a romantic partner with a similar ideology and shared interests was just as important as procreation. This radically modern conception of marriage permeated all aspects of popular culture and found its ideal home in screwball comedy, a genre borne out of the era’s economic malaise and the entrenched conservatism of the Production Code. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is one in a long line of screwball comedies from the 1930s and early-40s that explore the new state of marriage and gender relations by foregrounding the sexual compatibility of its lead characters. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is noteworthy for another reason, too: it was director Alfred Hitchcock’s only screwball comedy. The film is not “Hitchcockian” in the obvious sense, but it captures his cheeky spirit by side-stepping the Code’s sex mandate through innuendo, dialogue, and symbolism. Mr. and Mrs. Smith concludes with a sexual reconciliation that undercuts the Code’s pro-marriage ideology and the effectiveness of industry self-regulation.

Sex and the Code

In 1915 the Supreme Court ruled that motion pictures were not granted free speech protection under the U.S. Constitution on the basis that they had the “capacity for evil.” The Supreme Court viewed cinema as a mass medium unlike others that came before it: the immersive storytelling component had the potential to negatively influence impressionable audiences, and the Court made the case that filmmakers had a moral obligation to uphold traditional Protestant values. The Court ruling was a devastating blow for the U.S. film industry because it gave state and municipal censor boards across the country the legal authority to edit films as they saw fit. The consequences of this decision on Hollywood’s bottom line and creative autonomy were dire: theoretically, audiences in Atlanta could watch a slightly different version of a film than those in Minneapolis, depending on the ideological position of the censor board. After years of public pressure, Hollywood star scandals, and the looming threat of a federal censorship law, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) formally adopted the Production Code on March 31, 1930 in an effort to appease social and religious conservatives, many of whom believed Hollywood was still a hotbed of immorality. From then until July 1934, the Code was administered by the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) under the oversight of Jason Joy and James Wingate. Although some view Hollywood’s “pre-Code” era as relatively unencumbered by the censor’s gaze, in reality, script and release print submission was mandatory by late 1931 (Jane M. Greene 2011, pg. 239). In July 1934 the MPPDA created the Production Code Administration (PCA) as the organization tasked with Code enforcement with staunch Catholic, Joseph Breen, at the helm. From that point onward until the Code was replaced with the ratings system in November 1968, no film could be shown in U.S. theaters without a PCA seal – save for a handful of exceptions.

The Code – and the 1927 “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” list that preceded it – aimed to ease the pressure off of the Hollywood studios by make the local censorship process less contentious. By regulating film form and content during the production phase, the MPPDA believed they could preemptively minimize outside influence on Hollywood’s products by anticipating how state and municipal censors might object to a film once it was distributed. PCA oversight happened at every stage of a film’s life cycle, beginning in pre-production with story evaluations and script reviews, through to advertisements and marketing. Guided by the tenet that “no picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it,” the PCA assessed the representation of such topics as crime, violence, sex, and religion to ensure that the “correct standards of life” would be upheld and that “the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” The PCA’s regulatory process focused extensively on dialogue, and film files are ripe with correspondence fixated on linguistic minutiae. But PCA oversight extended far beyond the words in a script to imagery.

Sex was one of the cornerstones of the Production Code, and the provision explicitly prohibited “excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, and suggestive postures and gestures.” Sex could be intimated through such visual cues like ellipses or a character’s body language, but only if it was essential to the plot, and never in such a way as to condone wanton passion or adultery. Joseph Breen’s Catholicism also shaped the PCA’s approach to industry self-regulation, particularly as it related to sex. Breen believed that the sanctity of marriage and family life were the foundations of a healthy and thriving society. Hollywood’s depiction of marriage was a focal point in his mandate, and while he could not completely erase topics like sex and adultery from the screen, he ensured that they were placed under what Thomas Doherty describes as “strict surveillance and severe limitations” (2007, pg. 92). But Hollywood filmmakers quickly figured out ways to navigate the Code’s guidelines through innuendo and symbolism; out of artistic repression, an entirely new cinematic language was born. Ironically, too, a direct line of communication opened between filmmakers and their audiences once the latter learned Hollywood’s representational shorthand. Ultimately, this put the PCA on constant defense to adapt their policy, and rendered the industry’s self-regulatory efforts severely ineffective over time (Grégoire Halbout 2022, pg. 308). 

Andrew Sarris famously described the screwball genre as “sex comedy without sex,” and it is a unique classical Hollywood genre because it is predicated almost entirely on the representation of one of Breen’s cautionary topics. Apart from a handful of comedies like It Happened One Night (Capra, 1934) and Twentieth Century (Hawks, 1934), the majority of screwball films were made after the July-1934 watershed. Screwball was therefore the first distinctly Code-era genre, and sexual innuendo is its most remarkable feature. To convey romantic and passion without sex, screwball comedies often rely on “play,” which can be literal – like characters playing a game, as is the case in My Man Godfrey (La Cava, 1936) and Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, 1938) – or figurative, through physical comedy, fights, and verbal sparring. Sex represented in abstraction ensured that Hollywood filmmakers followed the Code, technically speaking, just as they continued to find novel ways to push back on it in both tone and spirit.

“Sacrificial Lambs”

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is an extreme and perhaps unusual example of screwball comedy’s sexual provocation. It is also a unique entry in Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre. In his book-length interview with Francqois Truffaut, Hitchcock claimed that he agreed to direct the film as a “friendly gesture” to lead actress, Carole Lombard, in her “comeback” film after several years in melodrama (1985, pg. 139). He first expressed interest in working with Lombard back in 1939, telling columnist J. Danvers Williams of Film Weekly:

I should like to cast Lombard not in the type of superficial comedy which she so often plays but in a much more meaty comedy-drama, giving her plenty of scope for characterization. I believe that, imaginatively treated, Lombard is capable of giving a performance equal to that of any of the best male actors, like [Paul] Muni and Leslie Howard (March 4, 1939 pg. 13).

According to screenwriter Norman Krasna, Mr. and Mrs. Smith came about when he pitched a story entitled “”Who Was That Lady I Seen You With?” to Lombard, who brought it to RKO head, George Schaefer. He allegedly bought the project from Krasna, and Hitchcock signed on later. Throughout his life Hitchcock maintained that he “didn’t understand the type of people” in the film, and deferred authorial intent to Krasna (Truffaut 1985, pg. 139). The idea that Hitchcock took a hands-off approach to Mr. and Mrs. Smith has also been supported through the years by the fact that he allowed Lombard to direct his cameo, the first and only time he relinquished such creative control (see footage below). However, RKO production records show that it was Hitchcock, not Lombard nor Schaefer, who initially pursued the project. Mr. and Mrs. Smith may be an anomaly in Hitchcock’s body of film work, but it is still “Hitchcockian.” It combines thinly-veiled sexual subtext with the director’s penchant for dark comedy, but without the heavy-handed moral message expected from Code era films. Sex is at the heart of the his comedic portrayal of nonlegal matrimony, and Ann and David enjoy it without irreparable consequence. 

Hitchcock’s biographer, Patrick McGilligan explains that he challenged the Code “with exceptional tenacity in the American phase of his career, pushing the boundaries of sex and violence in his films. And usually he did so deviously, rather by direct confrontation, stalling, surrendering by degrees, swapping off one cherished transgression for another.” He achieved this by what John Billheimer calls “gleeful layering,” whereby he’d include as much deliberately provocative dialogue or plot points in his scripts as he could. The so-called “sacrificial lambs” would be used as leverage to convince the censors to concede on imagery, which he believed to be more important than plot or dialogue (Billheimer 2019 pg. 2). During the PCA’s first-draft script review, they found eighteen unacceptable dialogue entries such as the words “stinks” and “old bat” (Billheimer, pg. 81). Krasna revised his screenplay and submitted a second draft, leaving only three of the objectionable items. One was a scene in which David pencils Ann’s maiden name – Krausheimer – into his work calendar. He changes the word “Miss” to “Mistress” as a sly acknowledgment of the “pieties of chaste womanhood” (DiBattista 2008, 109). The PCA responded in turn: “The gag on the use of the word ‘mistress’ is unacceptable.” Hitchcock instructed Krasna to disregard the PCA’s objection, and instead conceded to cut three sounds of a toilet flushing, a shot “panning between Lombard’s legs” in the breakfast scene, and a reference to Mamma Lucy’s “big bazooms.” The PCA agreed. The “mistress” gag remains in the release print.

“If you could do it all over again, would you have married me?

We are first introduced to the Smiths in their bedroom where they have been holed away during a three day domestic dispute. Piles of used dishes and bed linens are scattered on the floor, while their rumpled pajamas, mussed hair, and David’s stubble all signal the length of their standoff. Clever tongue-in-cheek nods to their sexual compatibility are peppered throughout the scene, such as Ann’s insistence that all marriage ceremonies should include the provision, “you are not allowed to leave the bedroom after a quarrel until you’ve made up.” The couple cuddle in bed in what can only be described as a post-coital embrace: Ann nuzzles her head into David’s chest and playfully taps his nose. Their affectionate body language and soft, dulcet tones show that they are still madly in love with each other. For the Smiths, marital spats are resolved in bed.

The couple’s affection continues in a scene over breakfast, which begins with a close-up shot of Ann playing “footsie” with David under the table. The shot of their feet is shorthand for their physical chemistry and, crucially, the evolving dynamics of their complicated relationship. The camera cuts to a shot reverse-shot setup beginning with Ann. She is intoxicated from their sexual reunion, and asks with a dreamy lilt in her voice, “If you could do it all over again, would you have married me?” David pauses, sighs, then replies, “Well honestly, no.” The film cuts to the aforementioned under-the-table shot, and we see Ann’s feet slowly slide down David’s shins. He continues to explain that he would’ve remained a bachelor had he known what it’s like to be married. As he does, the camera cuts away from their feet back to Ann. She furrows her brows; crestfallen, she wrings her hands nervously at the indignity of David’s confession. However, this reaction shot is superfluous given the amusing storytelling of the feet imagery. For Hitchcock, feet, not faces, are symbolic of marital discord.

Ann’s theoretical question becomes reality when the couple later discover that they are not legally married because of a convoluted geographical rule. That revelation, combined with David’s blasé attitude about marriage, are the final pushes Ann needs to enjoy the single life. Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s “remarriage” narrative structure is a typical feature in the screwball genre. Philosopher Stanley Cavell was the first to identify the narrative pattern in classical-era screwball comedy, defining it as stories about quarreling couples who break-up (or divorce) over the course of a film and reunite by the conclusion. Cavell explains that in screwball comedy “neither law nor sexuality is sufficient to ensure true marriage…what provides legitimacy is the mutual willingness for remarriage.” Hollywood’s fascination with the remarriage structure coincided with the rise of companionate marriages in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. The availability of contraception, combined with women’s growing presence in the workforce and their subsequent financial independent, meant that for the first time, there was a significant portion of the American populace that viewed marriage (and sex) as means of pleasure rather than procreation. Companionate marriage – which is predicated on compatibility and sexual fulfillment – put women’s physical and emotional happiness on equal footing with their male partners. On average, women were staying single longer than their Victorian grandmothers, and their sexual liberation was an extension of the unprecedented modernity of the Jazz Age. Screwball’s remarriage storylines mirrored the era’s social and cultural changes by focusing on the screwball couple’s sexual and emotional compatibility. 

Mr. and Mrs. Smith follows remarriage convention by showing that neither David nor Ann are entirely happy without their partner. Ann gets a job in a department store and goes on dates with her boss, Mr. Flugle (Francis Compton) and David’s law partner, Jeff (Gene Raymond). But they are all calculated moves to make David seethe with jealousy. Similarly, David learns that the single life is no a bed of roses. He goes on a blind double date at an upscale Manhattan nightclub with an acquaintance named Chuck and his two friends, Gloria and Gertie. Through a disparaging class contrast, David realizes that they are no match for Ann’s refinement. Gloria and Gertie are the crass and dizzy variety who wear garishly patterned dresses, insist on chop suey for dinner, and use vulgar flirtatious slang like “cookie” and “big boy” in mixed company (see clip below). In an ironic twist of fate David spots Ann and Jeff from across the club. He is embarrassed to be seen with Gloria and Gertie, so he pretends to be dining with the sophisticated woman at the next table. To make matters worse, he even punches himself in the face to give himself a nosebleed. His plan backfires when Gloria and Gertie try to stop the nosebleed at the dinner table, which gets Ann’s attention. She flashes a delicious, pitiful smirk as she realizes that David still has feelings for her.

As much as Mr. and Mrs. Smith adheres to convention, it also breaks from it, too. The film offers no clear path towards a marital reunification, and makes repeated reference to the nonlegal status of the Smiths’ relationship – like aforementioned “mistress” gag – without any definite moral condemnation against their mutual sexual desires. In the Smiths’ world, sex outside of the legal parameters of marriage can be pleasurable and fun.

The film’s concluding scene bookends the opening by foregrounding sex through suggestive framing and innuendo. David learns that Ann and Jeff are spending the weekend at a ski resort in Lake Placid. He tails them there, and in a last ditch effort to win Ann’s affection, pretends to be frostbitten and delirious from cold. However, his plan backfires again when Ann spies him sitting in bed in his adjoining cabin, smoking a cigarette. In the couple’s final showdown, David puts Ann in a headlock. When Jeff doesn’t come to her rescue, Ann has an epiphany. She realizes that she can take care of herself and that she doesn’t want anything to do with either man. She tells them both off, and storms back to her cabin in a huff.

Ann is frustrated and fed up, and decides to ski back to the chalet. David follows her, and suggests that she spend the night with him. In close up, she shakes her head furiously, smirks, and says “Not on your life.” Ann fiddles with her skis in an attempt to lure David to help her; he takes the bait, and kneels down to fasten her bindings. Lombard conveys Ann’s feigned indifference by defiantly avoiding eye contact. Ann stands up, and her legs wobble as she tries to regain her balance. David playfully pokes Ann’s chest, causing her to lose her footing; she falls backward into her chair with her skis flung above her head. Now stuck in an uncomfortable position, Ann exaggerates her vulnerability with borderline cartoonish physical gestures to let us know that she’s deliberately trying to get his attention. From the outset,  Mr. and Mrs. Smith repeatedly reminds us that Ann is independent: her eagerness to get a job at the department store and her indifference when David threatens to cut off his monetary support suggest that she is capable of providing for herself. But in this context, her excessive fumbling and uncoordinated body movements make her uncharacteristically helpless. Ann’s performance here, combined with her coy grins in close-up shots behind David’s back, are clues that she is being disingenuous. 

David eventually catches on to Ann’s duplicity. He loosens his tie and drops it on his bed – another subtle hint at the sexual reconciliation that will follow (Kiriakou 2020 pg. 125). In a medium close-up framed by her mangled skis, Ann grimaces. Here’s how the rest of the scene unfolds:

Ann’s feigned protestations fall on deaf ears. Her skis move into the empty frame forming an X position. That image, combined with the musical crescendo and the slow fades to black, tell us that their reconciliation is, again, a sexual one. Hitchcock uses innuendo and symbolism like the skis throughout the film to show that Ann and David’s relationship is driven by physical intimacy. But those cues tell us very little about Ann and David’s future. After sex, what comes next? Ann never agrees to remarry David, nor does she admit that she needs him other than as a sexual partner. Within the context of the PCA’s pro-marriage mandate, Mr. and Mrs. Smith is surprisingly nonchalant about the legal and moral future of Ann and David’s relationship. Their ambiguous marital status in the concluding scene create a space for the film to celebrate sex for the sake of mutual pleasure, free from the expectations of progeny or domesticity. Screwball comedy’s like Mr. and Mrs. Smith relied on the remarriage narrative structure to accommodated the Code’s moral position, but it also gave filmmakers the wiggle room to play with subjects like sex, love, and desire. The genre may have been “sex comedies without sex,” but intimacy was the cornerstone of any happy screwball partnership.

WORKS CITED

Billheimer, John. Hitchcock and the Censors. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2019.

DiBattista, Maria. Fast-Talking Dames. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Doherty, Thomas. Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Greene, Jane M. “Manners Before Morals: Sophisticated Comedy and the Production Code, 1930 – 1934.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 28 (April 2011): 239 – 256.

Halbout, Grégoire. Hollywood Screwball Comedy, 1934-1945: Sex, Love, and Democratic Ideals. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022.

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

Truffaut, François and Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Williams, J. Danvers. “What I’d Do to the Stars.” Film Weekly. March 4, 1939, pg. 12-13.

More Than the “Queen of Screwball Comedy:” Carole Lombard’s Lesser Known Films

A few weeks ago a friend suggested that I share my list of favorite Carole Lombard films. Over the past 15 years I’ve made no secret about my preferences for such titles as Hands Across The Table (Mitchell Leisen, 1935) and Nothing Sacred (William Wellman, 1937) over others like Fools for Scandal (Mervyn LeRoy, 1938). As is often the case with stars closely identified with a particular genre, many of Lombard’s “best of” lists are screwball comedy heavy. They’re a great starting point for those unfamiliar with Lombard’s acting style, but they also offer an incomplete portrait of her diverse twenty-year career. Films like My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936) and To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942) are rightly celebrated for their technical finesse, razor-sharp dialogue, and enduring cultural significance, but there’s also more to Lombard’s stardom and career than just screwball comedy. So, instead of rehashing a basic list of screwball greats, what follows are my suggestions (in no particular order) of some of Lombard’s lesser known films that reflect her dynamic talent and versatility.

Smith’s Pony (Alfred J. Goulding, 1927)

No Carole Lombard film list is complete without at least a few of her Mack Sennett silent comedies. Lombard made 18 comedy shorts with the legendary slapstick producer between 1927 and 1929, appearing in both supporting and lead roles. I was initially hesitant to include Smith’s Pony because until recently, it was only available to view in an archival setting. However, I’ve managed to track down a fairly decent copy (see link below). Smith’s Pony was the first film that neophyte Lombard made upon signing her contract with Sennett, and remains one of the standouts of her silent period. Smith’s Pony was part of the “Smith Family” series that Sennett began producing in 1925, which he conceived to reflect “the average American family…who just naturally manage to get themselves into one predicament after another.” He had previously attempted a family series in 1920, but the Smith iteration was his first with recurring actors: Raymond McKee and Ruth Hiatt play Jimmy and Mabel Smith, respectively, while Mary Ann Jackson (later of Our Gang fame) was cast as their daughter, Bubbles, and Sennett’s dog, Teddy III, plays Captain. The Smith series was a major success, and over the course of the next four years Sennett produced nearly two dozen films. In this installment, the Smiths go on vacation to San Francisco. Along their journey they eat at a Chinese restaurant and attend a local horse show where Bubbles becomes enamored with a shetland pony. She pleads with Jimmy to buy it for her and he eventually relents, but he does not want to tell Mabel about their family’s newest addition until they return home. Unfortunately, she overhears Jimmy bargaining with the horse’s owner, Lillian (played by Lombard), and mistakenly believes that they are running away together. Lillian was one in a long line of modern “vamp” characters that Lombard played in her early career, trading on her youthful beauty and irresistible sex appeal. It’s been said that Lombard’s so-called “natural” affinity for screwball grew out of her formative years with Sennett, but because she was hired to be one of his “bathing beauties,” she is far less physical than one might expect. Smith’s Pony is typical of the coquettish roles that make up the bulk of her silent oeuvre.

The SMITH’S PONY file is too large for WordPress, but I have uploaded it to my Google Drive. You can download it for free here.

The Swim Princess (Alfred J. Goulding, 1928)

Smith’s Pony may be representative of Sennett-era Lombard, but The Swim Princess is arguably the best of the bunch. By the time The Swim Princess went into production in January 1928, Lombard’s star status in Sennett’s troupe was on the rise. In late-1927, Lombard’s career was put on pause following a devastating car accident that left her with permanent facial scars. While she recuperated at home, Sennett gave her ample publicity to keep her name in the press, and promised her meaty roles upon her return to work. The Swim Princess was one of the first films she made following her accident, and she has a “star reveal” moment fit for a Hollywood A-lister. Framed lovingly in a medium close up, Lombard first appears with her back to the camera. As she turns around, she flashes a triumphant grin (with her hair and cloche hat strategically placed to cover her scars) as if to say “I’m back!” The Swim Princess was the fourth installment in Sennett’s “Girl Comedies” series, which was an updated version of his aforementioned bathing beauties ensemble. It follows the hijinks of a collegiate swim team and, in keeping with the gratuitous spirit of his bathing girls, is ripe with full-body shots of young female athletes in tight fitted swim suits. Lombard plays the rebellious star athlete, Trudy, who pays more attention to boys than her sport. She gets arrested for reckless driving on the way to her swim meet, which puts her team’s future at risk. Unlike many of Lombard’s Sennett shorts, The Swim Princess is the rare opportunity to see her performs what I consider to be some of the most demanding stunt of her career: in a feat of endurance and sheer fortitude, she balances between the doorway of a moving train and a car! The only surviving copies are housed in the UCLA and Cinémathèque française archives, so unfortunately your chances of seeing this film are low. But take my word for it: The Swim Princess is silly fun that is typical of Keystone’s irreverent style.

From left to right: Jim Hallett, Daphne Pollard, Barney Hellum, and Lombard.

It Pays to Advertise (Frank Tuttle, 1931)

Lombard’s “best known” pre-Code films are undoubtedly No Man of Her Own (Wesley Ruggles, 1932) and Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934), but It Pays to Advertise is a cute comedy worthy of a distinguished place in her early career filmography. The film gave her a chance to distance herself from her early-30s glamour girl persona, which exploited her conventional beauty and feminine allure at the expense of performative substance. In It Pays to Advertise, Lombard got the chance to be more than just a pretty face. It was the first of two films that she made in 1931 with Norman Foster (the second being Up Pops the Devil), and their chemistry is an undeniable highlight. As you can probably guess from the title, the film chronicles the allure of modern advertising. Rodney (Foster) wants to prove that you can sell anything with just the right marketing. He decides to promote a made-up product called “13 Soap” with the slogan “unlucky for dirt;” it is an overnight success. The only problem? There is no such soap! The film’s presentation of mass marketing ignited a debate in 1931 about the state of product placement in Hollywood cinema. Not long after the film’s release, P.S. Harrison of the eponymous trade paper, Harrison’s Reports, published a scathing article in which he predicted excessive product placement would one day “dwindle [studio] profits” and ultimately “kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.” He, along with producer and Universal co-founder, Carl Laemmle, issued a dire warning to the Hollywood studios: “make more films like It Pays to Advertise, and you’ll run the risk of squandering public good will.” By modern standards the film’s depiction of marketing is rather quaint, but the conversation that it inspired is eerily prescient given the unwieldy conglomeration our current media landscape.

From left to right: Eugene Pallette, Carole, Norman Foster, and Skeets Gallagher.

I Take This Woman (Marion Gehring, 1931)

I won’t beat around the bush; there’s only one reason why I’ve included I Take This Woman on my list: Lombard’s chemistry with her co-star, Gary Cooper. Sure, I could wax poetic about the class conflict love story, or tell you that it was stage producer Marion Gehring’s Hollywood debut, but let’s be honest – this film is striking simply because of Lombard and Cooper’s smoldering screen presence. He plays a cowboy and she a wealthy New York socialite; they get married after a whirlwind romance, and must learn to overcome their incompatible backgrounds to navigate life together. Lombard and Cooper had an affair during production that ended on a sour note, although their personal grievances did not prohibit them from making a second film together, the saccharine Shirley Temple vehicle, Now and Forever (Henry Hathaway, 1934). Lombard was not one to speak ill of her paramours, but she made a rare disparaging remark about Cooper: “In conversation, by the time he opens his mouth it’s tomorrow.” However fleeting or tumultuous their private affair may have been, it thoroughly intensified their chemistry; in spite of the run-of-the-mill narrative and blasé stylistic choices, I Take This Woman is a testament to the allure of Hollywood stardom. Sometimes hot people are enough to make a film worth watching!

Virtue (Edward Buzzell, 1932)

One of Lombard’s biggest professional regrets was that she turned down two roles opposite James Cagney. She was originally cast in both Taxi! (Roy Del Ruth, 1931) and Hard to Handle (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933) but was unhappy with her parts; in the case of the latter film, she was even suspended without pay at Paramount for refusing to co-operate with a loan-out deal with Warner Brothers. Lombard never ended up working with Cagney, but she did make a romantic drama with his best friend, Pat O’Brien. Virtue is a sharp, inspiring entry in Lombard’s early-30s filmography, and its grimy ambiance is an example of pre-Code cinema at its best. Fast-talking cabbies, slick gangsters, and prostitutes rub shoulders in seedy hotels, dive bars, and on street corners; every day is a marathon to the next, but the film avoids heavy-handed judgment of its characters or their actions. Lombard’s plays a streetwalker named Mae, who is arguably the most fleshed out role of her early career (yes, even more than Lily Garland in Twentieth Century). Mae tries to go straight she marries a taxi driver, Jimmy (O’Brien), but continues to be punished for her past sins. She befriends another reformed prostitute, Gert (Shirley Grey), and is soon implicated in a blackmail-murder plot. Mae gets dragged back into the underworld that she desperately fought to leave behind, and the fate of her freedom and marriage are thrown into jeopardy. Lombard thrived as a sassy pre-Code dame, blending world-weary cynicism with just the right amount of disarming honesty and sex appeal. Buzzell makes great use of mirrors (both literally and metaphorically) to symbolize character deception and to advance the narrative. Close-ups on Lombard’s round, expressive eyes – her greatest feature – remind us that underneath Mae’s thorny shell, she is hopelessly devoted to Jimmy. But make no mistake; she is nobody’s fool. With a superb supporting cast of pre-Code stalwarts like Mayo Methot and Jack La Rue, Virtue is an arresting foray into the hypocrisy of moral redemption.

Lombard and Pat O’Brien in a publicity photo for Virtue (1932).

Brief Moment (David Burton, 1933)

A final pre-Code highlight is the melodrama Brief Moment, which was the first of Lombard’s two pairings with Gene Raymond. She plays Abby Fane, a nightclub singer who marries a lazy playboy, Rodney, living off his father’s millions. Abby encourages Rodney to get a job, but after only a few weeks he falls back into his old habits. Abby is in line with the “gold-digger with a heart” character type of Lombard’s early career: she is the dramatic version of Lillian, and like Smith’s Pony, this film leans into Lombard’s sophisticated and conventionally beautiful image to make her characterization believable. When Lombard landed her Paramount contract in 1930, she was a relatively blank slate. The studio was eager to duplicate the success they had with stars like Kay Francis and Marlene Dietrich, so they transformed Lombard into their next glamour girl. In the early-30s Lombard’s star persona was dripping with refinement, and complemented by her real-life romance with William Powell (to whom she was married from 1931 to 1933). Powell’s urbanity added a worldly quality to Lombard’s stardom, and together, they personified the chic glamour of the Hollywood set. Lombard’s sophisticated persona is not on equal footing with her more famous screwball screen image, but when she was given the space to develop her characters, she is able to imbue warmth into otherwise hard archetypal roles. Lombard compensates Abby’s brooding with a fragile undertone that softens her around the edges. Abby is stern with Rodney in an effort to make him change his ways, but Lombard plays her with her characteristic disarming affection that, at times, makes her seem almost maternal.

Lombard and Gene Raymond in a publicity photo for Brief Moment (1933).

The Gay Bride (Jack Conway, 1934)

Carole Lombard once called The Gay Bride the “worst” film she ever made. I disagree: that honor goes to the abysmal screwball comedy, Fools for Scandal. The Gay Bride may not be in the league of some of Lombard’s greatest comedies, but as I outlined in my review, it’s a farcical twist on the gangster story with solid performances from Lombard, Chester Morris, and Nat Pendleton. It was the only film that Lombard made at Metro-Goldwyn Mayer; by the end of her 20 year Hollywood career, she worked at every major studio in town. In keeping with MGM’s penchant for opulence, one notable highlights is a musical number featuring Lombard in angelic close-up shots. But Lombard’s character, Mary, is no saint: she is a ruthless gold-digger on the hunt for her next prey. She works her way through a mob until she meets her match in Jimmy the “Office Boy,” who sees through her phony affectations. What The Gay Bride lacks in bold, artistic choices it makes up in its comedic flourish, represented particularly well in Pendleton’s oafish performance as the himbo gangster, “Shoots” Magiz. Some fans may have written off The Gay Bride entirely because of Lombard’s negative opinion, but it is worthy of a much higher ranking in her comedy oeuvre.

From left to right: Jack Conway, Lombard, and Chester Morris.

Swing High, Swing Low (Mitchell Leisen, 1937)

In my estimation, Swing High, Swing Low has garnered an unfairly negative reputation because of the dismal quality of the available prints. At some point in the years since its release, a subpar copy was made from an incomplete 35mm print and footage from director Mitchell Leisen’s personal 16mm copy; most versions in circulation today are from that botch job. Print issues aside, I content that Swing High, Swing Low is a marvel and, as I wrote in my lengthier review, features one of Lombard’s strongest performances of her career. At times, Lombard’s early performances could be a bit histrionic and wooden, but in this film she handles the comedy-melodrama hybrid with a confident, understated maturity that signals her significant growth as an actor. Swing High, Swing Low was the third of four film she made with Fred MacMurray, and the second with director Mitchell Leisen. In many ways, the film parallels their earlier collaboration, Hands Across the Table, in both its aesthetic drama and sympathetic framing of ill-fated romance. I have confirmed that Paramount does not have the original negative in their archive, but it’s a mystery as to whether it is buried deep within the Fox collection in the Disney vault. A proper restoration of Swing High, Swing Low is sorely needed, and in my opinion, a little TLC will do wonders rehabilitating the film’s status.

Lombard and MacMurray in a publicity photo for Swing High, Swing Low (1937).

They Knew What They Wanted (Garson Kanin, 1940)

Admittedly, I have my issues with They Knew What They Wanted. Principally, Charles Laughton’s hammy performance as Italian vintner, Tony Patucci, is out of sync with the film’s downtrodden tone. But even with its faults, the film is an example par excellence of Lombard’s ease with heavy, melodramatic material. After a string of successful screwball comedies including the aforementioned My Man Godfrey and Nothing Sacred, Lombard was getting tired with the genre and feared that her comedic iconicity would lead to her becoming typecast. Her seven-year Paramount contract expired in 1937, and she embarked on a freelance career. After completing a one-picture deal with Warner Brothers for Fools for Scandal, Lombard abandoned screwball altogether and turned to melodrama. They Knew What They Wanted was the final film in what I have dubbed her “dramatic phase,” and while my favorite film from the era is In Name Only (Jack Conway, 1939), Lombard’s performance as waitress-turned-mail order bride, Amy Peters, is confident, introspective, and tragic. Amy is tired of life, and out of desperation, accepts Tony’s hand in marriage despite never meeting in person. Tony is afraid of rejection, so he sends Amy a photo of his farm hand, Joe; when she arrives at his vineyard, she is understandably upset but agrees to marry him anyway. Keen to win over Amy’s affections, Tony falls off his roof on the eve of his wedding in a display of bravado, and is bedridden during the first few months of their marriage. Amy is lonely and aching for companionship, so she turns to Joe for comfort – and ends up pregnant. Lombard plays Amy with tenderness and biting suspicion; like some of Lombard’s pre-Code characters, Amy adopts a hard shell for self-protection, and only lets down her guard in moments of weakness. Some fans have criticized RKO’s casting of William Gargan as an “unbelievable” love interest opposite Lombard. I wholeheartedly disagree: he makes Joe slick enough to seduce Amy when she is at her most vulnerable. Gargan’s grounded acting style is a much-needed contrast to Laughton’s theatrics, and his brusque and weathered image add an earthy quality to the film.

From left to right: Harry Carey, Frank Fay, Charles Laughton, and Lombard.

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 she made her comment, the film has acquired a negative reputation, unfairly dismissed by both biographers and fans as a forgettable entry in her early career filmography. 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). 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 sees through her phony affectations and brands her a chiseler. As is customary in screwball comedy, Office Boy and Mary’s antagonism eventually turns into love – but since 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 gloomier tone and centered on the fatal consequences of love in 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 comedy 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 “Mississippi Honeymoon.”

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

MGM assigned the film to the Jack Conway, whose previous 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 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 uniform enforcement of the Production Code in July 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 was, by definition, incompatible with that ideal. It’s 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 legitimacy are his saving graces; 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 cartoon 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 decadent, over-the-top style: she gesticulates wildly, and hams up 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 suggests that she simply 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 WWII defense bonds tour in Indiana, which was organized by the Hollywood Victory Committee in support of the U.S. war effort. 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 death has been discussed at length by myself and others, and nothing I add here will adequately encapsulate the magnitude of that loss. On this solemn anniversary I choose 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 humor. 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 that would eventually be called screwball comedy. Lily Garland (her character in Twentieth Century) embodies many of the prototypical screwball heroine’s characteristics, and her feisty confidence is symbolic of the genre’s progressive (for their time) gender politics. Screwball heroines like Lily are independent spirits who flaunt their “unruliness” – or the defiance of conventionally feminine appearance or behavior – as if it were a badge of honor. Lily’s transgressive streak 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 about My Man Godfrey (La Cava, 1936) that first christened Lombard’s performance style as “screwy.” Given the genre’s etymology, it’s no wonder that the link between Lombard and screwball comedy is so tightly intertwined; her dizzy temperament is the essence of cinematic screwiness (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 72). That iconicity helped to establish Lombard’s 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. 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 in films like The Swim Princess (Alfred J. Goulding, 1928) and The Campus Vamp (Harry Edwards, 1928). Contrary to popular belief, Lombard’s silent comedies are far less physically demanding than one might expect, and her primary role 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 was a so-called “natural” comedian. Her next 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 Carole Lombard was chic personified, and was even voted Hollywood’s best dressed star (a title that she eventually came to resent). Her star persona’s sophisticated aura was solidified by her marriage to William Powell (from 1931-1933), whose own debonaire image complemented her screen glamour. During their brief period of marital bliss, Lombard also starred in a few consecutive films including Ladies’ Man (Mendes, 1931), No More Orchids (Lang, 1932), and The Eagle and the Hawk (Walker, 1933) that reinforced her beautiful, esoteric image.

Twentieth Century recalibrated Lombard’s image and career, and it gave her the space to harness the untapped elements of her performative arsenal. It was the first film to showcase the range of her acting skills, 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 physical inhibition. 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 refuted the contemporaneous belief that women were too delicate to perform physical comedy as well as their male peers. Female comedy discourse, particularly in the early 20th century, often centered on what’s known as the “pretty/funny” divide. Historically, women were considered either pretty or funny – 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 agency and sexual appeal. Comedic “unruliness” was depicted as a threatening disruption to 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 irresistible.

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 to encourage her to pursue television (Ball 1997, pg. 168). Lombard cannot lay claim to any of I Love Lucy‘s groundbreaking comedy, but her influence is evident in Ball’s kooky and boisterous physicality. Lombard’s films are now almost a century old, but much like Ball, there’s a refreshing, modern quality to her screen antics. Lombard’s characters were vivacious, charismatic, and full of vitality, and the nervous energy that I described earlier 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 comprehend. She may have reached a level of power and fame that few will ever achieve, but Lombard continued to challenge herself professionally. 1937 marked a high point in her career: not only was she the highest paid actor in Hollywood (raking in a whopping $465,000), but it also marked the beginning of a lucrative freelance career. Freelancing gave her the freedom to sign short-term contracts with the studios and producers of her choosing including Warner Brothers, RKO, and Selznick International. At a time when Lombard was growing tired of screwball and feared typecasting, these freelance deals set her career on a new course in melodrama in such films as In Name Only (Cromwell, 1939) and They Knew What They Wanted (Kanin, 1940). What’s more, Lombard was the first Hollywood star to include profit participation deals in her studio contracts (in which she took a reduced salary in exchange for a percentage of her films’ box office grosses), paving the way for other actors to receive equitable 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 classical Hollywood-era actresses. It’s futile to speculate how she would have dealt with aging and all of the barriers that her peers had to face decades later. 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 (as 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 observed:

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 old age. However, in her all-too-short thirty-three years Lombard left us with a diverse body of film and radio work. From slapstick to screwball comedy to melodrama, Lombard’s career touched every major Hollywood studio and nearly all genres. 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 becomes further enshrined in Hollywood’s 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 17, 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 17, 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.