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Vol. LXII, No. 48
 
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
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DVD Review

“THE GREATEST STAR OF THEM ALL”: So said William Wellman, who directed Carole Lombard in “Nothing Sacred” (1937). Seen here in a rare serious moment from “My Man Godfrey,” Lombard was also “the sexiest of the comediennes,” according to Pauline Kael, who observed that she “threw herself into scenes in a much more physical sense than the other women did, and her all-outedness seemed spontaneously giddy … a natural, uninhibited cut-up — naturally high-spirited.” New York’s Film Forum begins its centenary salute this Friday, November 21, and will be showing her films through December 2. For more information visit www.filmforum.org/films/lombard.html.

Carole Lombard at 100: A Beacon on the Hollywood Lightship, Still Shining

Stuart Mitchner

When Carole Lombard (1908-1942) died in a plane crash while returning from a war bond rally, President Roosevelt declared her to be “the first female war casualty.” In a cablegram sent to her husband, Clark Gable, FDR caught the spirit of her appeal when he said that she “brought joy to all who knew her, and to millions who knew her only as a great artist.”

Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, as Jane Alice Peters a hundred years ago October 6, Carole Lombard will be the subject of a centenary retrospective at the Film Forum in Manhattan beginning this Friday, November 21. A celebration of the star whose spirit helped cheer up a reeling nation is all the more timely now that the current financial crisis has revived the spectre of the Great Depression. The box office hits she graced were national morale boosters like My Man Godfrey (1936), in which she plays a daffy, impossible, goodhearted and wholly endearing rich girl, and We’re Not Dressing (1934), where she’s a headstrong, free-spirited heiress who feuds with and falls for a sailor played by Bing Crosby. Although she was the highest-paid star in Hollywood in her prime, she was never a prima donna. “The electricians, carpenters, and prop men all adored her,” recalled Crosby, “because she was so regular, so devoid of temperament and showboating …. The fact that she could make us think of her as being a good guy rather than a sexy mama is one of those unbelievable manifestations impossible to explain.”

Asked what made Lombard Hollywood’s “most interesting personality in 1936,” Barbara Stanwyck said it was “because she’s so alive, modern, frank, and natural that she stands out like a beacon on a lightship in this odd place called Hollywood.”

Add sex appeal, wit, and intelligence to the qualities Stanwyck lists and you can understand what makes Lombard seem so contemporary, so never dated, in spite of her almost emblematic relationship to the thirties. Until she came into her own in 1934 and let her hair down, both figuratively and literally, she was playing female romantic leads in routine pictures geared to the Depression dynamic, like the three shown last month on Turner Classic Movies. In Virtue (1932), she’s a streetwalker who cons and falls in love with a cabbie; in No More Orchids (1932), she’s a rich girl refusing an arranged marriage to royalty so that she can have the man she loves, who is, of course, poor. Brief Moment (1933) has her trying to make a responsible wage-earner out of a rich, never-worked-a-day-in-his-life playboy. Whether she’s playing nightclub singers, fan dancers, golddiggers, chorus girls, fashion models, or manicurists, her spirit shines through. As competent as she is in the early films, however, the roles are too straight, the plots too prosaic.

The comic romantic chemistry that produced the glory of Lombard begins with her performance as the heiress at sea in We’re Not Dressing, where the whirl of madcap activity verges on the surreal. Imagine a Great Depression version of Gilligan’s Island, with a bear on rollerskates careening down the decks of the doomed vessel shortly before Lombard’s drunken uncle (Leon Errol) sets the shipwreck in motion; then they come ashore on an island that just happens to be inhabited by those ace anthropologists, George Burns and Gracie Allen. Although she may appear a little stilted (she’s supposed to be an uppity heiress, after all) next to Crosby’s laid-back sailor and her zany entourage (which includes, along with the forever-soused uncle, his loopy inamorata Ethel Merman, and Droopy the bear), she’s clearly on her way and even gets to do a bit of the bewitching mugging she will perfect two years later in My Man Godfrey. In her love scenes with Crosby he’s singing and she’s swooning (like millions of women everywhere), except that she’s adoring him so adorably (but only when he isn’t looking), it becomes as good as a duet, with her luminous beauty singing along.

In her next film, Twentieth Century (1934), Lombard comes fiercely into her own as the shopgirl-turned-actress Lily Garland. With Howard Hawks directing, Ben Hecht writing the dialogue, and John Barrymore going full tilt as the producer who makes a star of the shopgirl (after changing her name from Mildred Plotka), Lombard delivers a performance among those that moved Andrew Sarris to claim that “no American novelist of the past half-century has created a woman character one tenth as fascinating as Carole Lombard.” In a real-life reflection of the plot, Lombard learned on the job by dishing it out, blow for blow, with Barrymore, whose Oscar Jaffe is a magnificently bombastic self-portrait with glimmers of previous turns as Mr. Hyde, Captain Ahab, and Svengali.

Howard Hawks takes credit for goading Lombard into the liberating, all-out shouting and kicking scene with Barrymore on the first day’s shooting. Seeing that she wasn’t getting anywhere (Barrymore was holding his nose), Hawks took her aside and after informing her about Barrymore’s opinion of her abilities, told her to “quit acting “and just “do any damn thing that comes into your mind that’s natural”; when she said she wanted to kick Barrymore where he lived (only she put it more colorfully), Hawks said go ahead, “only no more acting,” assuring her that if she didn’t stop emoting by the book, he was going to fire her. So warned, she cut loose with a flurry of kicks aimed at Barrymore’s most vulnerable region and by the time the ensuing verbal battle between Lily Garland and Oscar Jaffe was over (“We went through twelve pages without a break”), Barrymore thought she was “fabulous” and eventually declared her to be the finest actress he’d ever worked with.

Another Dimension

Writing in the Spectator about the only other picture Lombard and Barrymore made together, 1937’s True Confession, Graham Greene called it “that rare thing, cinema, and the best comedy of the year.” Some months later, after seeing Lombard in Fools for Scandal, Greene outdid himself trying to describe her voice, in which he found “that same odd beauty a street musician discovers in old iron, scraping out heart-breaking and nostalgic melodies.” Greene evokes another dimension of Lombard’s presence when he refers to “those hollow Garbo features, those neurotic elbows and bewildered hands.” In fact, the same actress who plays the daffy, delirious, all-out nitwit Irene in My Man Godfrey has a countenance worthy of a Hollywood Mt. Rushmore. It’s not merely a matter of bone structure but of a spacious forehead lowering over a gaze that could intimidate a basilisk. In True Confession, where she plays a compulsive liar whose ultimate fib is to confess to murder so that her lawyer husband (Fred MacMurray) can make a stirring case in her defense, she telegraphs every fabrication, her face enacting a visual play on words as she puts her tongue in her cheek and rolls it around. Each little spur-of-the-moment plot is hatched with diabolical gusto. That she can be both beautiful, forceful, and funny as she accomplishes these moves shows how much she learned from Barrymore’s nonstop plotting of wild scenarios in Twentieth Century.

Mad Irene

Like his Twentieth Century, Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby (1938) is sheer mayhem from beginning to end; the comic energy never lets up, and neither does Katherine Hepburn, whose mad Susan is worth comparing to Carole Lombard’s mad Irene in My Man Godfrey. Hepburn’s virtuoso performance as Susan is so good it’s scarily convincing; she really does seem more mad than madcap. Cary Grant’s mild-mannered paleontologist is well aware that having her around is like being at the mercy of the Diva of Disaster. He never has time to actually fall in love with her; he’s always the hapless, passive, ultimately submissive victim of her crazed devotion. Baby has no statements to make; it’s purely amoral. In Godfrey, director Gregory LaCava takes on the all but impossible task of making a statement about the Depression at the same time that he’s conducting a three-ring circus of lunacy involving a wealthy, wildly dysfunctional family. Lombard’s Irene shines through the odd mixture of Depression morality and screwball comedy. She’s as instantly lovable as she is lovely and the gown she’s luminously wrapped in when William Powell’s Godfrey first sets eyes on her is the silver lamé essence of cinema. As beautiful as Hepburn is in Baby, it’s a brittle, frantic beauty that glows with neither ardor nor even passion because she’s so admirably possessed by the comic momentum Hawks has set rolling. Lombard’s ardor is touching and funny from the first scene. She doesn’t care that Godfrey’s a bum (it’s as if she has subliminal knowledge of the truth: that he’s the enlightened scion of old wealth); she doesn’t have an ounce of snob in her and nutty though she may be (she brings a policeman’s horse home with her one night), she sees through to the truth of Godfrey’s nobility before anyone else in her crazy family does. Like Hepburn, she never gives up and so achieves the object of her love quest in an even more improbable denouement. She’s also everything that Hepburn isn’t; soft, yielding, open, and bright with the “alive, modern, frank, and natural” force that Barbara Stanwyck saw shining forth like a beacon beamed by a presence who more than any other embodied the joy of living.

At Film Forum

If you can’t get to the Carole Lombard centenary that begins at Film Forum this Friday with a double bill featuring My Man Godfrey and Twentieth Century, you can find My Man Godfrey at the library, along with DVDs of her two last films, To Be Or Not To Be and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, as well as Carole Lombard: The Glamour Collection, which contains six pictures, including True Confession and We’re Not Dressing.

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