Nothing Sacred (1937), gender, and physical comedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dated October 21, 1937.

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

A Nothing Sacred film poster.

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

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

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

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

A viewer letter complaining about the film’s violence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WORKS CITED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Silver Screen (July 1939).

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

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

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

From Photoplay (May 1938).

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

From Modern Screen, 1938.

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fools for Scandal (1938): a screwball comedy slip up

Among critics and fans alike, Fools for Scandal (1938) is considered one of Carole Lombard’s worst films – and for good reason! Upon my first viewing of Lombard’s filmography, I ranked Fools for Scandal slightly above The Gay Bride (1934) – the film which Carole herself described in the mid-1930s as her least favorite (Harvey 1998, pg. 212). However, through subsequent viewings and some reflection, I think The Gay Bride holds up quite well as a light gangster comedy. Conversely, Fools for Scandal is clunky, unfunny, and downright tedious in spots. It’s no wonder that when Lombard debunked retirement rumors in 1940, she joked that if there had ever been that time she considered leaving the film industry, it would’ve been following the release of Fools for Scandal:

From Screenland, May 1940.

The story is fairly standard screwball fare. Lombard plays a movie star named Kay Winters, who is on a holiday in Paris in a disguise to preserve her anonymity. One day in Montmartre, she meets a poor marquis named Rene (Fernand Gravet), who offers to give her a tour of the “real” Paris – not one that you find in guidebooks, but the locals’ city. Not long after Kay reveals her true identity to Rene does she return to her home in London; undeterred, he follows her to her house on the night she’s throwing a costume party. Although Kay is allegedly in love with Rene, she considers him a nuisance. To complicate matters, Kay jokingly hires Rene to be her chef, which makes her boyfriend, Phillip (Ralph Bellamy), insanely jealous. Rene’s sudden presence in Kay’s life becomes the subject of gossip around London after her friend, Lady Malverton (Isabel Jeans), spreads a rumor that he was hired to be her “love chef.” Eventually, Kay admits that she’s in love with Rene, and the film concludes with the couple kissing on stage at the Paris Opera house in front of an audience.

Are you still with me?

Fools for Scandal was based on the play “Return Engagement” by Nancy Hamilton, James Shute, and Rosemary Casey, which itself was an adaptation of Richard Sheridan’s “The School for Scandal.” It was Lombard’s first and only film for Warner Brothers, and she agreed to the role as part of a one-picture freelance deal she signed with the studio in 1937, which gave her a salary of $150,000, the right to choose her own cameraman and costume designer (Ted Tetzlaff and Travis Banton, respectively), and star billing (Carman 2015, pg. 158). The one bright spot in this otherwise dismal film are Travis Banton’s lovely costumes, especially the elegant black floor-length dress Lombard wears in some of the promotional photos (see below). Happily, Banton’s designs are much more sophisticated than much of the film’s comedy.

Lombard wears one of Travis Banton’s designs in a publicity photo taken by Scotty Welbourne.

The film was primarily designed to be a star vehicle for Lombard, but it also gave Warner Brothers an opportunity to introduce French actor, Fernand Gravet, to American audiences. This was the second film in Gravet’s two-picture deal with Warners (Life, March 1937, pg. 24) before he signed with Metro-Goldwyn Mayer in 1938. Unfortunately, neither Fools for Scandal nor Gravet’s U.S. film career were hits. Although he occasionally worked with other American filmmakers – most notably William Wyler in How to Steal a Million (1966) – Gravet never rose to leading man status in the United States.

From the continuity script.
Carole Lombard and Fernand Gravet in a publicity photo.

One of the film’s major shortcomings is the missing chemistry between Lombard and Gravet. While I don’t think their respective performance styles were discordant, Gravet is not one of Lombard’s most convincing leading men. This is evident in the script itself. Fools for Scandal leans heavily into the “battle of the sexes” trope, but does so without giving us a plausible reconciliation scene, which helps viewers understand why these two characters are in love with each other in the first place. Screwball comedy scholar Tina Olsin Lent argues that the “battle of the sexes” trope helped filmmakers address shifting societal conceptions of marriage in the 1930s. As morality evolved so too did the purpose of marriage, and as Olsin Lent writes, “marriage became less a social and economic institution based upon spiritual love and more a sexual and emotional union based on sexual attraction” (1995, pg. 320).

The second, more practical reason for the “battle of the sexes” trope was that it gave filmmakers an opportunity to circumvent the Production Code. Film critic Andrew Sarris famously described the screwball genre as “sex comedies without the sex,” (1975, pg. 11), referring to the fact that explicit portrayals of “passion” were discouraged under the Code (see below). The tension between the romantic leads in screwball comedies (whether it be sexual or otherwise) is therefore considered by most scholars as a substitute for overt sexual expression.

An excerpt from the Production Code.

To convey romantic and sexual compatibility without sex, screwball comedies often rely on “play.” Play 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 metaphorical, represented through physical comedy and fast-paced banter. The most obvious example of the latter is the hotel scene in Nothing Sacred (William Wellman, 1937). For those who haven’t seen Nothing Sacred, it tells the story of a small town woman named Hazel Flagg (Lombard) who pretends to have terminal radium poisoning in order to get a free trip to New York courtesy of the newspaper, The Morning Star. In an effort to conceal Hazel’s fake illness and avoid humiliation in front of prestigious doctors, reporter Wally Cook (Fredric March) tells her that she must pretend to look sick. Minutes before the doctors’ arrival, Wally says, “We gotta raise your pulse to 160, quick! We gotta have you gasping, panting and covered with a cold sweat inside of five minutes.” To rile Hazel up, Wally encourages her to punch him – which Hazel eventually does, but not before Wally knocks her out. The sexual subtext in this scene is all too clear, and while Wellman abides by the Code’s letter, he flaunts its spirit – with gusto!

From Nothing Sacred (1937).

Fools for Scandal relies heavily on combative banter to express Kay and Rene’s sexual tension, but aside from one scene when they dine together in a Parisian cafe, the film does not satisfyingly convince us that she actually loves (or even likes) him! Instead, Kay repeatedly pleads with Rene to “get out” of her house or “leave me alone;” whether it be the morning after her costume party or when Rene serves her breakfast in bed, the entire romance seems unexplainably one-sided. Some might argue that Kay’s dismissiveness is her way of hiding her true feelings for him. Unfortunately, this is not brought to bear in Lombard’s performance: it’s disappointingly one-dimensional, and lacking the warmth and depth she imbues in her other screwball roles. Her performance suggests that Kay is perpetually aggravated, not lovesick.

Lombard as Kay Winters.

Then towards the end of the film, as if by some miracle, Lombard drops Kay’s brusque attitude. In a romantic embrace with Rene, Kay professes in a soft, breathy voice: “my life was so nice and peaceful until you came along.” I remember seeing this scene for the first time and thinking “did I miss something?” Unlike Lombard’s more dynamic screwball comedies, Fools for Scandal lacks a definitive turning point in Kay and Rene’s relationship. As a result, by the film’s conclusion in the Paris Opera house, viewers are left wondering why we should care about Rene’s tornadic presence in Kay’s life, or what she finds attractive about him in the first place.

Overall, Fools for Scandal is a screwball comedy that doesn’t know how to be a screwball comedy. It contains all of the genre’s classic conventions – an adversarial couple, absurd situations, fast-paced banter, masquerading, and courtship – but fails to do anything interesting with them. The result is a hodge-podge of farcical situations that are severely lacking humor or sincerity. Consider, for a moment, the masquerade ball sequence: when Rene first arrives at Kay’s home in London, he’s greeted by a bunch of strangers wearing papier-mâché animal masks. We learn that Kay is hosting a costume party, and each character is wearing a mask that mirrors their personality – Kay is dressed as a furry bunny, Phillip is wearing a hound dog mask, and Lady Malverton is a squawking bird. Unlike the masquerade trope in screwball comedies like My Man Godfrey (1936), The Lady Eve (1941), or Some Like it Hot (1959) – where hidden identity is integral to a character’s arc – this masquerade sequence is simply superficially weird. Of course, screwball zaniness need not be explained by any sort of logic, but the scene is entirely out of step with the film’s tone and style.

Production on Fools for Scandal began in late-1937 and wrapped in January 1938. During this time, Warner Brothers tried to capitalize on Lombard’s star power to bolster public interest in the film, and published a series of pre-production and on-set photos in popular fan magazines of the day (see below). In 1937 Lombard was at the peak of her career, and after making just over $465,000, she was named the highest paid star in Hollywood (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 188). Warners wasn’t noted for their memorable screwball comedies like Paramount or RKO Pictures, but the studio hoped that at the very least, Lombard’s reputation and box office popularity would help make the film a success.

From L to R: Mervyn LeRoy, Harry Warner, Carole Lombard, Jack Warner, Fernand Gravet, Hal Wallis at a luncheon to promote the film.
Lombard and Jack Warner cut some cake to celebrate the film.

However, production documents reveal that Warners quickly realized that something was missing. Not long after filming began, the studio hired noted comedy writer, Irv Brecher, to work on additional dialogue. Brecher had made a name for himself in radio, working for performers like Al Jolson; 1937 marked his foray into screenwriting, and he later wrote the screenplays for Marx brothers comedies At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940). Despite Brecher’s added talent and a substantial marketing campaign, Fools for Scandal was a commercial and critical failure upon its April 1938 release. The film did well in some markets – particularly the Great Lakes region (Motion Picture Daily, May 1938, pg. 11) – but with a $1.3 million budget, Warners reported an overall loss.

As this Modern Screen film review makes clear, critics felt that the comedy was “confusing” and that Lombard’s performance failed to measure up to her previous screwball triumphs. By all accounts, Lombard was taken aback by the film’s dismal performance. Given the power and status she held in the industry at the time, Fools for Scandal was not the career-ending film that some speculate it could’ve been. That said, it did help shape the trajectory of Lombard’s late-career. Prior to the film’s release, she had been seriously contemplating a break from screwball comedy because she didn’t want to be typecast. She yearned to challenge herself professionally, and believed that tackling other genres would help demonstrate her versatility. Fools for Scandal‘s failure was the final push Lombard needed to take her career down a different path, and for the next few years, she earnestly tried to distance herself from the film and her screwball persona.

WORKS CITED

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

Harvey, James. Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.

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

“Movie of the Week: The King and the Chorus Girl.” Life, March 29, 1937, pg. 24.

Olsin Lent, Tina. “Romantic Love and Friendship: The Redefinition of Gender Relations in Screwball Comedy.” In Classical Hollywood Comedy, eds. Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins. New York: Routledge, 1998, 314 – 331.

Sarris, Andrew. “The Sex Comedy Without Sex.” American Film, Vol. 3 No. 5 (1975):

“‘Scandal,’ Dorsey $18,600 Buffalo.” Motion Picture Daily, May 13, 1938, pg. 11.

Lombard and Louella on the radio (1934)

Although Carole Lombard’s main medium was film, she was no stranger to radio. By the mid-1930s, she was performing regularly on the era’s most popular radio programs such as the Lux Radio Theatre and the Screen Guild Theatre. In 1939, Lombard was one of several stars that appeared on the short-lived NBC series The Circle, which was touted as the “Hollywood version” of the famed Algonquin Round Table. In her private life, Lombard was an avid radio listener, and enjoyed the programs of her colleagues and friends like Jack Benny and Orson Welles. Happily, much of Lombard’s radio work still survives (you can listen to the available recordings here).

Having spent over a decade researching Carole Lombard, I previously thought that I had a complete listing of all of her radio work. However, through the recent acquisition of some memorabilia, I became aware of an entirely new-to-me radio appearance! Among my latest batch of possessions is a script for a Louella Parsons radio interview with Lombard and costume designer, Travis Banton. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any recordings of this show (if anybody finds one, please send it my way).

The script does not include any production information, but through context clues and some research, I’ve managed to come up with a bit of information. First, the date: this broadcast likely aired in the spring of 1934. The script references two Lombard films, Bolero and “You Belong to Me” (the working title of Now and Forever), which gave me an initial date range of February to August (their respective release dates). As you can see by the photo below, the orchestra plays “Bolero” as Lombard’s theme, which suggests that the film was already in theaters and this may have been one of Lombard’s required promotional appearances. My other reason for the spring time frame is simple: at the end of the interview Raymond Paige and his California Melodeers perform Easter-themed music.

Louella Parsons had long made a name for herself in print media, and by 1928 she began her foray into radio with the Sun-Kist radio show, a fifteen-minute program on CBS featuring interviews with Hollywood stars. In 1931, the show changed sponsors – from Sun-Kist to Charis Foundation Garment – but followed a similar format. By the spring of 1934, Parsons signed another contract with CBS called Hollywood Hotel, a variety style program sponsored by the Campbell Soup Company. Hollywood Hotel featured top stars performing in “twenty-minute vignettes” of popular films, which “served not only to popularize the radio show but also as excellent publicity for the films (Himes 1990, pg. 67). Parsons used her power and influence to pressure stars to appear on her show for free, leading the Screen Actors Guild to adopt a rule in 1941 that prohibited its members from performing on the radio without compensation (Barbas 2005, pg. 229). There’s no show title on my script, but since it follows a simple interview format with no dramatizations, I am confident that it is the Charis sponsored program.

The interview is set in Banton’s Paramount studio office where Parsons is eager to discuss Lombard’s personal and screen style. Unfortunately, the script is too delicate to scan (the pages are about as thin as tissue paper), but here are some notable excerpts:

On a practical level, this interview coincides with the film industry’s push to create marketing tie-ins with fashion manufacturers. Charles Eckert explains that by 1930, industrialist Bernard Waldman created the Modern Manufacturing Bureau (MMB) in New York as a “fashion middle-man,” bringing together low-cost manufacturers and the Hollywood studios. The MMB oversaw the industrial production of what we’d consider today as “fast fashion” – inexpensive, mass-produced versions of high-end designs (Eckert 1999, pg. 103). They also worked to identify and drive consumer demand for both the fashion and film industries. The studio heads banked on the idea that fans wanted tangible connections to their favorite stars: if fans could dress just like their favorite actors, they would become invested in Hollywood and its products. The stars were akin to fashion models, and played a critical role in ensuring audiences were loyal to the Hollywood brand – both psychologically and financially. Lombard was, of course, one of those stars.

Lombard in publicity photos for Brief Moment (1933).
Fans could purchase inexpensive versions of Lombard’s costumes, such as the dress worn in these photos.

When Lombard signed her contract with Paramount in 1930, she was not yet an established star. She had achieved some success with Mack Sennett’s acting troupe, but she was essentially a blank canvas with little name recognition and a nondescript public image. As the studios often did with their new talent, Paramount set about to make Lombard into a household name, and decided that she would be their latest Hollywood glamour girl. In the early-1930s, Lombard was known as a “clotheshorse” (Swindell 1975, pg. 113), someone whose on and off-screen images personified refined sophistication. As this radio script and other popular media of the time makes clear, Lombard was included on Hollywood’s “best dressed” lists, and was frequently featured in fan magazine spreads touting her fashion sense.

Unfortunately, Lombard’s glamorous persona came at the expense of her acting capabilities, and many of her early-30s Paramount films are rather forgettable (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 62). This is clearly evident in a film like The Eagle and the Hawk (1933): Lombard plays the ambiguous “Beautiful Lady,” and her only real purpose is, as her character’s name suggests, to look attractive.

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

Contemporaneous critics and fans took note of the shallowness of Lombard’s early-1930s glamorous persona. For example, in a 1932 Photoplay article entitled “30 Girls in a Race for Stardom,” columnist “Cal York” writes: “It is strange about Carole Lombard. She’s the Constance Bennett screen type in appearance and ability, and yet – here’s a little secret – exhibitors, who are the boys who buy pictures for the theaters, are not wasting any time crying for Lombard pictures – yet. Somehow she hasn’t piqued the public curiosity to date…” (York 1932, pg. 75). It’s clear from Lombard’s early Paramount films that the studio unwisely invested in an image that was largely superficial. Luckily for Lombard, she found her greatest success from loan-outs deals away from Paramount (Carman 2015, pg. 27), which gave her the opportunity to push herself creatively and develop a strong screen image that resonated with audiences. Paramount’s mismanagement was ultimately Lombard’s gain, and by the mid-1930s she had successfully shed her glamour girl reputation in favor of her more accessible screwball persona.

One bright spot from Lombard’s Paramount tenure was he working relationship with Travis Banton. While Lombard may not have been the fashion-conscious star that the studio made her out to be, in reality, she took a hands-on approach to her stardom and collaborated closely with Banton to craft designs that would enhance her appearance. Lombard and Banton got along so well that in her late-career, she included provision in her freelance contracts with Warner Brothers and Selznick International Pictures requiring that he be employed as her personal costume designer (Carman 2015, pg. 158). As I discussed in a previous essay, Lombard actively monitored her own publicity, and was keenly attentive to the way her off-screen image was perceived by the media and the public. It therefore makes sense that she would also take an interest in her costumes; in Banton, she found a dedicated and talented partner.

Banton and Lombard, c. 1935.

Paramount largely gave up their glamour girl efforts by 1936, once they realized Lombard’s screwball comedy persona was much more commercially and critically viable. In an effort to uphold her new star-character screwball symbiosis, fan magazines in the mid-to-late-1930s made a point to distance Lombard from her earlier glamour girl image. Lombard also worked to shed her glamour girl reputation: in a 1937 Picture Play interview, she revealed: “Personally I resent being tagged a ‘glamour girl.’ It’s such an absurd, extravagant label. It implies so much that I’m not” (Maddox 1937, pg. 16). Her candor in this interview underscores the aloofness of her early-30s glamorous persona, and how little it did to showcase her talents as an actor. In that light, the Parsons interview doesn’t necessarily change my perceptions of Lombard’s stardom – if anything, it reaffirms the artifice of her early-30s stardom. Nevertheless, it is still valuable from a research standpoint, if only because it is further proof of the evolution of Lombard’s image on the road to Hollywood superstardom.

WORKS CITED

Barbas, Samantha. The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.

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

Eckert, Charles. “The Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window.” In Movies and Mass Culture, ed. John Belton, 95 – 118. London: The Altone Press, 1999.

Himes, Michele. Hollywood and Broadcasting: From Radio to Cable. Urbana: The University of Chicago Press, 1990.

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

Maddox, Ben. “The Real Low-Down on Lombard.” Picture Play, January 1937, 16.

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

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

Carole Lombard: Publicity Agent (September, 1938)

To make it in Hollywood one needs luck, talent and, of course, good publicity. Carole Lombard aimed for the latter when, in September 1938, she went to work in the Selznick International Pictures publicity department.

From her earliest days in the industry, Carole Lombard understood the value of positive press coverage. In September 1927, she was in a car accident that left her with permanent facial scars. Given Hollywood’s obsession with glamour and physical perfection, at the time Lombard believed that her scars “permanently defaced her beauty and completely shattered her screen ambitions” (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 19). She was then under contract with slapstick producer, Mack Sennett, and had only a few acting credits to her name; having been abruptly released from a Fox contract a few years prior, she feared that she would again suffer the same fate. However, Sennett proved to be sympathetic to Lombard’s plight. During her lengthy recovery period, he tried to keep her career on-track by including her in a plethora of Sennett-related promotional posters, news items, and interviews (see example below). He even came up with a new nickname for Lombard – “Carole of the Curves” – which was used in both his and Pathé’s (his distributor) publicity materials (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 19).

A magazine advertisement for The Girl From Everywhere (1927). Although Lombard only has a bit part, she is featured prominently (by name) in the top left corner.

From that early experience, Lombard became savvy about her publicity, and gained a reputation amongst gossip columnists and press agents as one of the most amiable Hollywood stars. Throughout her career and, in particular, after she went freelance in 1937 she “courted various studio publicists to keep her name constantly appearing in fan discourse and the press” (Carman 2015, pg. 113). It therefore came as no surprise that Lombard concocted this publicity department idea with her friend and Selznick IP publicity agent, Russell Birdwell.

Lombard in her SIP publicity office.
Lombard with Russell Birdwell

Working as a de-facto publicity agent brought Lombard a lot of press and public attention. Through her stardom, movie fans could get a glimpse at one of the most important areas of the studio system. The significance of studio publicity departments and the popular news media cannot be overstated, since they almost single-handedly disseminated information about the industry and its key players. Historian Anthony Slide writes that the relationship between these two industry factions was “incestuous” and “built upon trust and mutual necessity” (2010, pg. 7). The studios needed these news outlets to release stories and photos of their stars, while the news outlets required access to the studios’ rosters of talent in order to stay in business. Although there had been some discord between these two factions in the 1920s (Jeffers McDonald 2016, pg. 34), by the mid-1930s they were working together to publish curated stories that would help shape stars’ public personas. Fan magazines and other news outlets even went so far as to “submit stories for studio approval prior to publication” (Slide 2010, pg. 8).

In the case of Lombard, since she had become the unofficial queen of screwball comedy in the mid-1930s, validating her screen image meant portraying her as being equally kooky in her private life. For example, a 1937 article from Hollywood magazine claims that her performance in My Man Godfrey was “achieved by allowing her own personality to come through…she did, literally, betray her real character to the public” (pg. 34). Similarly, in “The Utterly Balmy Home Life of Carole Lombard” – an article that goes to great lengths to convince readers of Lombard’s symbiotic screwball personality – columnist Harry Lang describes Lombard and her home life as chaotic. After listing her ménage of pets (including dogs, cats, ducks, and doves), he reflects: “Does all this sound absolutely batty? Screwy? Insane? Balmy?—okay, then, make the most of it…when it comes to the business of getting the most downright, sheer fun out of this usually drab business of living, then I had all prizes unreservedly to Carole Lombard” (Lang 1937, pg. 24). While fun to read, these types of publicity stories also served a legitimate purpose: to enshrine her screwball persona as “authentic,” in order to legitimize her popular (and financially viable) screen image.

From Hollywood (January 1937).

Yet there are instances throughout Lombard’s career where she made it clear that she was quite unlike her popular screen image. In a rare self-reflexive interview with Picture Play columnist Ben Maddox, Lombard appears eager to create some distance between the on and off-screen versions of herself. She says: “I had to struggle for years to do comedy. But I don’t think I was at the top when I was merely an insipid ingénue, and I don’t agree that I’m so proficient in comedy as I can be in straight drama. It’s my goal, professionally. Otherwise I want a sane private life. That’s why I look at those so-called glamour yarns as more of a handicap than a help. Fun’s fun, in its place. I don’t always laugh, though” (Maddox 1937, pg. 17).

In early-1937, Lombard was nearing the end of her seven-year contract with Paramount, and was on the cusp of negotiating lucrative freelance deals with them, Warner Brothers, and Selznick International. Her insistence about not being a proficient comedian would’ve likely come as a shock to readers who, by that time, were familiar with her slapstick and screwball comedy performances. In reality, Lombard had grown tired of the screwball genre, and feared that she was becoming typecast. Instead, she wanted to challenge herself professionally and prove that she was equally adept at other types of film roles.

Lombard as Irene Bullock in My Man Godfrey (1936).

Therefore, there was an incentive behind Lombard’s publicity schtick: to create buzz for her upcoming Selznick International film, Made for Each Other. This was Lombard’s second film with producer David O. Selznick. In 1937 she signed three-picture deal with his studio, which saw her earning $150,000 per film and, after a 1938 renegotiation, a percentage of the distributors gross (Carman 2015, pg. 158). It was also her first dramatic venture after a string of screwball comedies including Love Before Breakfast, The Princess Comes Across, My Man Godfrey (all 1936), and Fools for Scandal (1938).

A lot was riding on Made for Each Other, and Lombard was eager for the public to accept her in this new type of role. Although the film wouldn’t be released for several more months (in February 1939), Russell Birdwell ensured that Lombard was photographed in the publicity department office alongside her co-star James Stewart. Happily, Lombard received critical praise for her performance in Made for Each Other, with Variety proclaiming that she and Stewart gave “two of Hollywood’s best performances of the year.” Unfortunately, that same review notes that Lombard’s “serious role…is likely to cause comment” from the public (February 1, 1939, pg. 13). Despite promising initial gains, Selznick International reported a total loss of $292,000.

James Stewart, Carole Lombard, and Janet Gaynor in the Selznick International Pictures publicity office.

While Hollywood has always enjoyed telling stories about itself, at the time, it was highly unusual for a star to actively participate in pulling back the industry curtain. After her work week was over, Lombard published an essay in The Hollywood Reporter chronicling her experiences. She detailed the work that goes into maintaining star images, explaining to readers: “Publicity is one of the most important – if not the most important topic – under discussion in Hollywood today. The motion picture capital has come to a long overdue realization that its publicity, foremost among its contacts with the rest of the world, has the power to make Hollywood the most beloved place on earth or the most hated. That, of course, goes for all the personalities in Hollywood” (1938, pg. 10).

Lombard claimed that she learned to think like a publicity agent, and shared the types of questions that drives much of the day-to-day decision making. She writes: “what features of a picture are to be sold heaviest? What angle will best convince the public the picture must be seen? How are the personalities in the cast to be handled? What is the best way to present them to the public, considering the type of roles they are playing? These are but a few of the basic questions you will hear around the office…” (1938, pg. 10).

It’s clear that this publicity department experience served an immediate material purpose, but it also influenced Lombard’s own perceptions about her stardom. This manifested itself most clearly in the details of her late-career freelance contracts. One of the perks of freelancing in the studio-era is that it gave actors greater agency over the conditions of their labor. When Lombard went freelance in 1937, she was finally able to be more selective about the types of roles she played. She could also gain control over her star image. Her three-picture contract with Selznick International included provisions that gave her the right to approve any publicity campaigns that used her name and likeness (Carman 2015, pg. 158). Such a provision makes sense in light of the ideas she shared in The Hollywood Reporter article: she was in the midst of reinventing herself as a dramatic actress, and was therefore eager to ensure that any publicity material would “fit” her new screen persona.

Carole Lombard and James Stewart in a publicity photo for Made for Each Other (1939).

Due to a variety of personal and professional reasons (too complicated to outline here), Lombard and Selznick broke the terms of her contract, and eventually settled in March 1940 for a $25,000 payment to the actress. Incidentally, her subsequent contract with RKO included another publicity-related provision: the right to employ the publicity agent of her choice. Ever the loyal friend and shrewd businesswoman, Lombard chose to be represented by none other than Russell Birdwell.

WORKS CITED

Author unknown. “Carole Lombard Betrays Herself.” Hollywood. January 1937, pg. 34 – 35, 66.

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

“Film Reviews.” Variety, February 1, 1939, pg. 13.

Jeffers McDonald, Tamar. “Reviewing Reviewing the Fan Mags.” Film History Vol. 28, No. 4 (Winter 2016): 29 – 57.

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

Lang, Harry. “The Utterly Balmy Home Life of Carole Lombard.” Motion Picture. February 1937, pg. 24 – 25.

Lombard, Carole. “Every Actor Should Take At Least One Week’s Whirl At Publicity.” The Hollywood Reporter. October 24, 1938, pg. 10.

Maddox, Ben. “The Real Low-Down on Lombard.” Picture Play. January 1937, pg. 16-17, 88.

Slide, Anthony. Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine: A History of Star Makers, Fabricators, and Gossip Mongers. Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 2010.

A Trip to Baltimore (December 1940)

Shortly after Christmas 1940, Carole Lombard and her husband, Clark Gable, traveled east from Los Angeles to Baltimore. The reason? A visit to Johns Hopkins Hospital for help with the couple’s infertility.

Throughout her lifetime, Lombard made various public statements about wanting to be a mother. She was famously quoted as saying to gossip columnist, Louella Parsons: “I’ll work a few more years, and then I want a family. I’ll let Pa be the star, and I’ll stay home, darn the socks and look after the kids” (Spicer 2002, pg. 179). These sentiments found their way into publicity stories about the Gable marriage, and gained considerable traction by 1940. For example, in a Movie and Radio Guide article detailing the Gables’ home life, columnist James Street addressed the persistent rumors about Carole being pregnant. He writes, “Mrs. Gable said simply that if she were going to have a baby she would be very proud and would announce it instead of hiding it. One gathers the impression that they would like to have a baby” (1940, pg. 76).

Street’s quote hints at the fact that Lombard’s journey to motherhood was much more difficult than she had expected. In the May 1940 Screenland article entitled “Help Kills Those Crazy Rumors About Me!” columnist Elizabeth Wilson describes how in August 1939, Lombard suffered an alleged appendectomy while filming of Vigil in the Night:

Screenland (May 1940)

This medical emergency was no appendectomy but, as sources later confirmed, a miscarriage. Towards the end of this article, Lombard mentions with great sadness that “rumors I’m going to have a baby are not true. I wish they were” (Wilson 1940, pg. 91). Lombard’s then-mysterious illness delayed Vigil in the Night’s production schedule, leading RKO to publish a release announcement in several trade papers. This one comes from the August 22, 1939 issue of Motion Picture Daily:

The fact that motherhood eluded Lombard in such a public fashion must have been incredibly painful. Her grief was compounded by the fact that Gable had a child of his own (whom he never publicly acknowledged or cared for): a daughter named Judy Lewis with Loretta Young. While some have argued that Lombard didn’t know about Gable’s daughter (Matzen 2017, pg. 131), that is untrue given that Judy’s parentage was, by her own admission, common knowledge in Hollywood. And, of course, Carole set up a bank account for Judy using her own funds, presumably because Gable was disinterested in providing financial support for his child.

Around that time too, Lombard’s close friends and family were having their own children: her best friend, Madalynne Field, and husband Walter Lang had a son (Lombard’s godson) in July 1939, while her brother, Fred, had a son (her only nephew) in November 1940. While Lombard was a doting aunt and godmother, she also desperately wanted children of her own. It’s therefore no surprise that she and Gable eagerly sought out medical advice from some of the best fertility doctors in the United States.

Prior to their visit to Johns Hopkins, the Gables took in the sights of Washington, D.C. They even paid a visit to the White House on December 29th, 1940. There, they met President Franklin D. Roosevelt and sat in attendance during his national address.

From BOX OFFICE (January 4, 1941).

On January 2nd, 1941 the Gables had their Johns Hopkins appointment with doctors Dr. Richard Telnide and Dr. Benjamin Baker. Accompanying them on their trip East was Gable’s best friend and MGM publicity agent, Howard Strickling, who helped monitor the press coverage. Strickling arranged for photographers to take shots of the Gables arriving at the hospital (see below). As an aside: I remember seeing these photographs for the first time years ago and thought that they seemed quite invasive. Of course, publicity comes with the territory of Hollywood stardom, but I can only imagine how unsettling it must have been to have such an intimate event shared with the world.

Although some biographers have offered their speculations about the appointment, I believe that such details should remain private. However, their visit to Johns Hopkins was quite brief. The Gables returned to D.C. for a few more days, and then flew back to Los Angeles on Sunday January 5th. At the time, the press was told that the official reason for their Johns Hopkins visit was to attend to a shoulder injury Gable had sustained years prior. Other news outlets published this same cover story, as the clippings here confirm:

From Modern Screen (March 1942)
From Modern Screen (November 1942)

The press stuck with the Gable shoulder injury story for the rest of Lombard’s life, but some outlets later reported that Gable was treated for a toothache. Pregnancy rumors continued to persist until Lombard’s death in 1942, and only afterwards was infertility revealed as the real reason for the visit. One of the first documented accounts comes from the April 1942 issue of Photoplay:

From the article “What the Loss of Carole Lombard Means to Clark Gable,” Photoplay (April 1942).

Lombard and Gable never had children of their own, and based on several sources, it is likely that Carole suffered a second miscarriage in 1941. It’s futile to speculate what could’ve happened had Lombard lived: would she have had her own children? Would she have adopted? Would she have even stayed married to Gable? However, it’s clear that beyond any professional goals she might have had, motherhood was the most sacred ambition that went unrealized during her lifetime.


WORKS CITED

Matzen, Robert. Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3. Pittsburgh: GoodKnight Books, 2017.

Spicer, Chrystopher J. Clark Gable: Biography, Filmography, Bibliography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co. Inc., 2002.

Street, James. “Two Happy People – Part IV.” Movie and Radio Guide (May 18 – 24, 1940), 76.

Waterbury, Ruth. “What the Loss of Carole Lombard Means to Clark Gable.” Photoplay (April 1942): 29 – 30, 68 – 69.

Wilson, Elizabeth. “‘Help Kill Those Crazy Rumors About Me!’ Says Carole Lombard (Mrs. Clark Gable).” Screenland (May 1940): 26 – 27, 91.

A Letter to President Roosevelt (December, 1941)

Earlier this month we marked the 79th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the United States’s official entry into World War II. Just as it had done during WWI, Hollywood quickly shifted into patriotic mode: studios accelerated production on films with war-time themes and began to work with the newly formed Office of War Information to coordinate the on-screen representation of war-related subjects. Additionally, industry personnel organized special committees and events around the country that would help support the war effort.

On December 10th, 1941 industry personnel met at the Roosevelt Hotel for the first Hollywood Victory Committee meeting, with Clark Gable presiding as the chairman. From December 1941 to December 1945, the Hollywood Victory Committee coordinated the activities of just over 20 separate national organizations, as well as radio and in-person appearances of Hollywood stars around the world, and the service of industry talent in civilian war agencies. According to government records, the Committee helped plan nearly 5000 in-person events during the war (Special Committee on Postwar Economic Policy and Planning 1945, pg. 2619). One such endeavor was the 1942 Hollywood Victory Caravan, which featured nearly 50 stars including Bette Davis, Bob Hope, Humphrey Bogart, and Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy on a train tour to 14 cities across the United States. In total, the Victory Caravan raised around $700,000 for Army and Navy relief funds.

Chairman Clark Gable chats with Hollywood Victory Committee members Gary Cooper, Irene Dunne, and Cary Grant, c. December 1941.
Hollywood stars on the cross-country Hollywood Victory Caravan, c. 1942.

Since the United States was still segregated, the “Hollywood Victory Committee” was all-white. However, there was an equally impactful “Negro Division” chaired by actress Hattie McDaniel. Like their parent organization, the “Negro Division” supported war-related efforts of African-American talent such as Eddie Anderson, Louise Beavers, and Lena Horne. According to historian Donald Bogle, McDaniel devoted much of her time and energy to the cause, including hosting a “massive benefit at the Shrine Auditorium in July 1942 to raise money for black military groups.” Meanwhile, stars like Lena Horne and Hazel Scott toured U.S. military bases, while musician Phil Moore performed on the Armed Services Radio, and became the network’s musical director (Bogle 2005, pg. 234).

Hattie McDaniel (center), chairwoman of the “Negro Division” of the Hollywood Victory Committee, accompanies a group of actresses for a special performance at Minter Field.
Lena Horne (center) with servicemen during WWII.

Like her husband, Carole Lombard was also a member of the Hollywood Victory Committee, and was eager to participate in the war effort. Of course, Lombard was always known as a patriotic star. For example, in 1938 she made headlines after declaring herself in favor of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s so-called “Wealth Tax.” In a show of support, she issued a public statement saying that it was the patriotic duty of the richest Americans to pay the highest percentage of taxes “for the improvement of the country.” Her pro-tax sentiment came just as she earned nearly $450,000 in annual income, a sum that made her the highest paid actor in Hollywood (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 188). That year, she paid nearly $350,000 in taxes, and after deducting accountants’ fees and other expenses, Lombard announced publicly that she was left with $20,000 (a figure that was still far and above what the average American made in the late-1930s). Lombard told reporters that “$20,000 a year is still plenty for me and as for giving the government most of my income, I think that’s fine” (Othman, 1938, pg. 6). Lombard’s statement boosted her already favorable public image. Implicitly, too, Lombard called attention to the disproportionate wealth of those in Hollywood (including herself), and the devastating economic disparity that existed in the United States during the Depression. As historian Eric Hoyt aptly summarized, her ideology also “anticipated the sense of patriotic tax-paying the U.S. government tried to foster among the public” in World War II (2010, pg. 12), and helped to strengthen her patriotic and atypical Hollywood star image.

After Pearl Harbor, the Gables didn’t quite know how they would be of best use to the government. Earlier that December, Lombard had just wrapped production on To Be or Not To Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942) and was preparing to begin shooting They All Kissed the Bride in the new year. Meanwhile, Gable was about to embark on Somewhere I’ll Find You (Wesley Ruggles, 1942); in their down time between films, they hoped that they could somehow lend their support to the war effort. On the 10th (the same day as the first Hollywood Victory Committee meeting), they wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, asking where their talents would be best served:

President Roosevelt sent a reply letter on December 16th thanking the Gables for their offer. He encouraged them to continue acting in “inspirational and patriotic pictures” that would “help maintain the spirit and morale of the nation,” which he described as being “indispensable at this time.” While Lombard and Gable both were flattered that the President believed their work was a comfort in such a dark time, Carole felt like she wanted to do more.

At a subsequent Victory Committee meeting, she volunteered her services. The Committee coordinated with the Gables, MGM (Clark’s home studio), and Carole’s team: it was decided that after the holidays, she would travel to her home state of Indiana on what would be Hollywood’s first war bonds tour of World War II. That trip (the subject of a future blog post) would tragically bring an end to Carole’s life and those of twenty-one others. The fact that Hollywood continued to raise funds and make films to boost public morale was certainly not down to Lombard, nor was she the first civilian casualty. That said, Lombard’s patriotism and fame did help to personalize the war, and her premature death served as a public reminder of the incalculable loss and sacrifice that so many others would also face during that time.

WORKS CITED

Bogle, Donald. Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood. New York: Random House, 2005.

Hoyt, Eric. “Hollywood and the Income Tax, 1929 – 1955.” Film History Vol. 22 (2010): 5 – 21.

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

Othman, Frederick C. “Carole Lombard ‘Glad to pay $445,000 taxes, said.” San Jose News, August 26, 1938, 6.

Special Committee on Postwar Economic Policy and Planning. “Hearings Before the Special Committee on Postwar Economic Policy and Planning,” United States Congressional Records, 1945.

My introduction to Carole Lombard: Hands Across the Table (1935)

Choosing the topic for my inaugural blog post was daunting! I’ve been researching and writing about Carole Lombard for about 12 years, and could talk about her for hours. By way of an introduction, I thought I’d share how I first became interested in Lombard and, briefly, what her stardom and films mean to me.

In 2008, I was a high school senior living in Toronto and working a part-time job at “Starstruck Entertainment.” Starstruck (now closed) had a huge selection of classical Hollywood home videos – one of the reasons I wanted to work there in the first place! I had long been a fan of older films, but working there gave me an opportunity to dive into the world of classical Hollywood cinema. Spending most of my paychecks at the store, I would bring home a stack of new DVDs every week and embark on my self-education. One day, I decided to buy the “Carole Lombard: The Glamour Collection” box set – featuring an assortment of Lombard’s early-to-mid-1930s films such as Man of the World (Richard Wallace, 1931), Hands Across the Table (Mitchell Leisen, 1935), and Love Before Breakfast (Walter Lang, 1936).

I previously only knew Lombard as the wife of Clark Gable, but had never seen any of her films nor knew anything about her as a star. I decided to watch the films in the box set out of chronological order (as one does!), and began with Hands Across the Table. To acknowledge Lombard’s beauty is obvious, but I remember immediately being captured by her radiant screen presence. I quickly worked through the box set and embarked on the beginning of my research journey, eventually leading to BA and PhD dissertations and, most recently, my book.

In Hands Across the Table, Lombard plays a hotel manicurist named Regi Allen who is caught in a love-triangle with a poor playboy, Theodore ‘Ted’ Drew III (Fred MacMurray), and a wealthy ex-aviator and hotel resident, Allen Macklyn (Ralph Bellamy). Regi’s goal is to marry for money, and although she becomes a close friend love interest of Allen, she does not see him as a romantic partner. Regi initially believes that Ted is rich and tries to impress him, but after a night on the town, she discovers that he is penniless and engaged to the “pineapple heiress,” Vivian Snowden (Astrid Allwyn). That night Ted gets drunk, and Regi agrees to let him sleep on her sofa, causing him to miss his cruise to Bermuda (a present from his wealthy father-in-law). The next morning, Ted reveals that he intends to marry Vivian for her money. Realizing that they’re both partners in the same game, Regi invites him to stay with her for the week until his boat returns from Bermuda. As you can imagine, Regi and Ted fall in love, but she refuses to give into her feelings, believing that money is still more important than love. All the while, Allen continues to profess his unreciprocated love for Regi, leading to a confrontation with Ted. Eventually, Regi comes to terms with her love for Ted, and the couple live happily ever after – much to Allen’s disappointment.

Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard in a publicity photo for Hands Across the Table (Mitchell Leisen, 1935).

As with many of her film roles, Lombard’s performance exudes a natural charm that makes Regi both charismatic and relatable. At the same time, the film goes to great lengths to showing how her upbringing and economic circumstances have caused her to adopt a protective shell. For example, while having tea with Allen, Regi explains her motives for wanting to marry a rich man. Surrounded by the opulence of Allen’s penthouse apartment and with a hardness in her voice, she tells him, “I know what [poverty] got my mother into. She was young and pretty once. I saw her count pennies and wash and struggle, until she was old and ugly. I heard her nagging my father until he hated to come home. You couldn’t blame him. You couldn’t blame anything but poverty.”

One of the tropes of the screwball genre is class consciousness, particularly through a parody of the wealthy. Wes Gehring notes that screwball comedies often feature a “Depression-era fascination with the upper classes” (2008, pg. 5), and in many cases, the rich are portrayed as buffonishly out-of-touch and egotistical. This is illustrated in many screwball comedies, but perhaps none quite as pointedly as the opening scene of My Man Godfrey (La Cava, 1936), where Park Avenue socialites Irene and Cornelia Bullock search through a city dump for “forgotten men” as items for their scavenger hunt. In screwball comedy, the juxtaposition between rich and working class “offers a humorous critiques of upper class frivolity, while acknowledging the urgent sense of despair rooted in contemporaneous American society” (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 75). In that way, classical screwball comedy mediated on the anxieties and fears of contemporaneous U.S. society, and Cornelia and Irene’s blindness to the economic marginalization of the forgotten men reflects the bleak wealth disparity of the Depression.

Unlike My Man Godfrey, the socio-economic critique in Hands Across the Table is far more subtle. Allen and Vivian aren’t necessarily caricatures because of their wealth, and although Regi professes herself to be a “heel,” the film does not offer an explicit condemnation of her ideology. As her revelation about her childhood confirms, wealth is not simply desired for materialistic indulgence, but fundamentally, a matter of practical necessity; to live comfortably and without having to experience her mother’s unhappiness. Perhaps had this been a pre-Code comedy, Regi could’ve been a less sympathetic gold-digger: on paper, her character checks all of the boxes. She eventually accept the error of her ways (unsurprising given the Code’s conservative morality), but in a way that is neither prescriptive nor righteous.

Allen Macklyn (Ralph Bellamy) and Regi Allen (Carole Lombard) have tea on his hotel balcony.

For me, the most memorable thing about Hands Across the Table is the chemistry between Lombard and Fred MacMurray. It was the first of four films together and, in my opinion, the one that most aptly demonstrates their proficiency as screwball comedians. Lombard’s comedic style is often frantic and breathy, while MacMurray’s is earnest. While quite different in performative style and tone, Lombard and MacMurray’s both imbue in their characters a playful, exuberant quality that make us believe they’re having fun with each other. Off-screen, the actors got along very well, and Lombard even helped MacMurray perfect his comedic timing. Director Mitchell Leisen recalled that “Carole was a great help to Fred. She’d get down on the floor and say, ‘Now be funny, Uncle Fred, or I’ll pluck your eyebrows out.’ (Sikov 1989, pg. 72).

Regi gives Ted a sloppy manicure (notice the bandages).

No scene displays their chemistry as vividly as when Regi and Ted made a phone call to Vivian. Pretending to be the long-distance telephone operator, Regi helps Ted keep up his Bermuda charade. Lombard holds her nose in order to make Regi’s telephone operator voice sound more nasally, and hams up her delivery. Regi repeatedly interrupts the call as Ted and Vivian exchange a series of unanswered “hellos” and “can you hear me?” Through intercutting, Leisen provides a neat contrast between Regi and Vivian. Sitting in her glass phone booth, Vivian wears a fancy evening gown and jewels; on the other hand, Regi is dressed far more modestly, wearing a white apron over her simple black dress. As Vivian gets increasingly frustrated by the phone call, we see Regi and Ted giggling as they try to maintain their composure. Regi and Ted’s camaraderie is clear, and this scene confirms to viewers that they are far more compatible than Ted and Vivian ever could be. By the end of the call, Regi and Ted fall to the floor in fits of laughter. Of the scene’s finale, Mitchell Leisen recalls that Lombard and MacMurray were having so much fun that he just let the camera roll. His artistic choice paid off, as viewers can see the natural exuberance that they brought to their roles.

With Regi’s help, Ted calls his fiancée, Vivian, pretending to be in Bermuda.
Vivian (Astrid Allwyn) on the phone with Ted (and Regi).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the wonderful supporting cast including Ruth Donnelly, Edward Gargan, and Marie Prevost. It’s a particular delight to see Lombard and Prevost in the same film, since they both worked for Mack Sennett as “Bathing Beauties” – albiet, about a decade apart. Prevost plays Nona, Regi’s superstitious, scatterbrained best friend and co-worker, and provides a comedic foil to Lombard’s more cynical character.

Lombard and her fellow Sennett alum, Marie Prevost.

Watching Hands Across the Table for the first time unlocked an entirely new realm of possibilities for me as a film fan. As I began to delve deeper into my Lombard research, I realized how much I enjoyed her films, and the type of feisty and independent screwball woman she portrayed on screen. That said, Lombard’s talents extended far beyond the screwball genre, and she has a diverse filmography to prove it. She was also a progressive feminist and business-minded star who used her position to improve the conditions of star labor in the Hollywood studio system. Her pre-mature death in 1942 cut short a life of promise and unfulfilled dreams, but in her 33 years she accomplished so much for herself, and for other women in the industry. Rather than seeing her story as one of tragedy, I believe she should be remembered for her rich career, and the ways that she used her stardom to better the lives of those around her.

WORKS CITED:

Gehring, Wes D. Romantic vs. Screwball Comedy: Charting the Difference. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2008.

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

Sikov, Ed. Screwball: Hollywood’s Madcap Romantic Comedies. New York: Crown Publishers, 1989.