Scarlett and Melanie: Film’s First Frenemies

In 1935, young producer David O. Selznick left MGM to start his own production company.  Despite his successes at MGM, Paramount, and RKO, Selznick longed for creative freedom.  In those days the studios were movie factories–producing one after another, with a bigger eye on the budget than the quality.

Selznick didn’t want to crank out films.  He wanted to make one-of-a-kind original works of art that would stand the test of time.

And he believed Margaret Mitchell’s romanticized novel of the fall of the south could be his crown jewel.

He spent two years casting his masterpiece, interviewing 1,400 women before deciding on a leading lady.  He second guessed every move by his scriptwriters.  He was a complete control freak–burning through three directors who couldn’t take his constant meddling and his blistering memos that went on for many single-spaced typed pages.

He nearly worked himself to death and bankrupted his new company, but in the end he accomplished his impossible goal.

Gone With the Wind is the greatest movie that ever was and ever will be.

No movie will ever again capture a nation’s attention again like Gone With the Wind because movies no longer hold an outsized place in our culture.

In 1939, you watched sports by going to the games.  You read the news in the morning paper.  You read stories in novels or listened to them on the serialized radio shows.

The only screen you ever saw was the giant silver one at the movie theater.

And there was Gone With the Wind, an epic tale that blew away anything anyone had ever seen before.  It was the first movie many people saw in color, over twice as long as the average film of the day.

It was promoted as an event–unlike other movies of the time, it had reserved seating, premium priced tickets, and an intermission.  It was initially booked only in huge theaters with at least 850 seats.

People knew they were seeing something special.

More people saw Gone With the Wind in the movie theater than any other movie that has ever existed, and it is inconceivable that another movie will ever surpass it.  It sold more than two times as many tickets as Avengers:  Endgame, the top film of last year.

It holds a place of cultural relevance nearly as high as The Wizard of Oz, without the benefit of thirty years of annual event showings on television.  (While The Wizard of Oz made its television debut in 1956, viewers could not watch Scarlett and Rhett on the small screen until 1976.)

It’s been the subject of recent controversy over its romanticized depiction of slavery, but the fact that people want it banned in 2020 only further illustrates its hold on the American public.

Even if you haven’t seen it, you likely know the plot.  Vain, selfish southern belle Scarlett O’Hara convinces herself she loves Ashley Wilkes, the one man she cannot have, and one who is temperamentally unsuited to make her happy.  While pinning for happily married Ashley, Scarlett misses out on happiness with Rhett Butler, a man who does love her and would make her happy.

All this plays out during the Civil War and its aftermath, a war that devastates the south and decimates Scarlett’s family and beloved plantation home, Tara.

Gone With the Wind is classified as a historical epic romance, but it’s really a war movie.  

And while Scarlett and Rhett’s romance gets all the press, in many ways the central relationship of the film is that between Scarlett and Ashley’s wife, Melanie Hamilton Wilkes.

Scarlett is often written off as a vicious conniver, and Melanie the saintly doormat who’s oblivious to Scarlett’s faults.

Yet it’s not that simple.

In the film’s opening scene, Scarlett makes clear her disdain for Melanie Hamilton, as a no-fun “goody goody” whom Scarlett would dislike even if she weren’t engaged to Ashley Wilkes.

Melanie, for her part, hopes she and Scarlett will become great friends.

Scarlett spends the first half of the film as a spoiled rich girl who schemes to steal Ashley away, even after he marries Melanie.  She is shameless and plays on Ashley’s lust–if not love–for her.  Even when the war begins, she is more consumed by petty jealousy and concerns.  With Ashely off to war, Scarlett visits Melanie in Atlanta so that she will be there to see Ashley home from the war.

Scarlett despises the war and can’t stomach nursing the injured men.  She is as selfish as ever.  But everything changes when the Yankees are on the cusp of invading Atlanta and a pregnant Melanie is too weak to evacuate.  Though she wants nothing more than to return to Tara and her mother, Scarlett stays behind with Melanie.  She has the chance to leave with Rhett, and again with Melanie’s Aunt Pitty, but she stays.  

When Melanie goes into labor, Scarlett looks for help and finds none–most of the Confederate Army has pulled out of Atlanta, the doctor cannot leave the thousands of injured men, and Scarlett’s slave Prissy admits she lied about knowing how to deliver babies.

As Melanie cries out for help, Scarlett realizes she is on her own.

And for the first time in her life, she rises to the occasion.  She walks up the stairs with a look of grim determination on her face, and for the first time we see the steel-willed survivor inside her.

Scarlett delivers the baby and saves Melanie’s life.  She takes them on a harrowing journey back to Tara, where Scarlett hopes her mother will take over.

But when they reach Tara, they find the place looted and burned and without a scrap of food or money.  Scarlett’s mother is dead and her father has gone insane.  Melanie is still dangerously ill.  Scarlett’s two sisters are useless.  All but three of the slaves have run off.

There was never a more ill-prepared head of the family than Scarlett O’Hara.

Standing with a raised fist and a dirty radish pulled from the ground, she vows:

“As god as my witness, they’re not going to lick me.  I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over I’ll never be hungry again.  No, nor will any of my folk.  If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill.  As god as witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”

That quote sets up the second half of the film–Scarlett will lie, cheat, steal and kill to protect Tara.  And despite continuing to despise her and desire her husband, Scarlett considers Melanie and the baby part of the folk under her protection.

Scarlett gets them through the war and its brutal aftermath.  Even when Ashley returns home, he is of no help to Scarlett.  He is a southern gentleman, without the grit required to drag them back to prosperity.

Like all of us, Scarlett’s greatest strength is also her greatest weakness.

If not for Scarlett, Melanie, her baby, and Ashely would’ve starved to death in the aftermath of the war.

And yet when the war is over, Scarlett cannot shed her skin of ruthlessness.

Rhett sweeps her off her feet and marries her, wanting nothing more than to spoil and soothe her.  Though she has every outer appearance of returning to the petty rich girl she once was, her nightmares betray that the horror of war has not left her.  

She is haunted by her former hunger, driven to acquire more money via fair means or foul to keep the beast of poverty at baby.

Because of this, I’ve always had a soft spot for Scarlett O’Hara.  So does Melanie Wilkes.

Even as Scarlett continues to try to steal her husband, and her well-bred social set wants Melanie to drop Scarlett as a friend, Melanie stands by Scarlett.

Years later on her deathbed, Melanie wants to talk to Scarlett.  There are no tearful confessions on either side, but Melanie says just enough to know that she has not been oblivious to Scarlett’s machinations for her husband, and asks Scarlett to care for him.

It’s not because she’s a doormat–it’s because she knows that she and her baby wouldn’t be alive without Scarlett.  And it’s clear to Melanie, as it is to Rhett–that Scarlett has PTSD from the war, though they wouldn’t know to call it that.

In the end, Melanie knows Scarlett better than Scarlett knows herself.  

And Scarlett, despite her lifelong protests that she despises Melanie, never left the weaker woman behind.

The Wizard of Oz: “No Place Like Home”

So far, I’ve written 33 posts and covered 44 classic films.  There’s only one I’d bet that everyone reading has seen.

It’s time for the Wizard of Oz, perhaps the world’s only universally beloved film.

Everyone knows Tarzan’s strange yodel, even if they couldn’t pick Johnny Weissmuller out of a lineup.  Gone With the Wind is the greatest cinematic achievement in the history of film.  Casablanca has half a dozen quotes you know, even if you’ve never seen the film.  I’ve read a dozen novels in my life where the main character (always a woman) loves The Philadelphia Story.  No one has ever successfully remade a Hitchcock film (and after watching the 2020 Rebecca I was so excited to see, I believe no one ever will.)

And yet, for all their lore, these films are slowly receding from the public consciousness.  Discovered less and less by younger generations, they’re increasingly relegated to a niche market.  Instead of flipping through channels and discovering Bogart and Bergman on Turner Classic Movies, we’re working our way through the Hallmark movie lineup or our Netflix queues (where the oldest non-documentary film was made in 1954.)

There is nothing wrong with this, of course.  As time marches on, these films become cemented as artifacts of a different era.

But The Wizard of Oz is different.  Eighty years later, it is still a living, breathing part of our popular culture.

How do I know?

Every Halloween, I pass out candy to half a dozen little girls dressed in blue gingham dresses and ruby red slippers.  Drew Barrymore herself dressed up as Glinda the Good Witch this year.

Just last season Saturday Night Live did a skit with Kate McKinnon as Dorothy.  

And Wicked, a retelling from the witch’s point of view, is one of the most popular contemporary musicals that brought us Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel (who played the Wicked Witch before she Let It Go.)

While writing this entry, I texted my friends with young children and asked if they had shown The Wizard of Oz to their kids.  

Mine never saw it, replied a mother of two kids in grade school.  But they said they knew the story and proceeded to tell me.

You walk into any Barnes and Noble, and even with their gutted out DVD sections, you’ll still find a copy of The Wizard of Oz for sale.

Why?

It wasn’t because of its unprecedented success in 1939.

MGM spent a fortune on the film and initially considered it a disappointment.  It was the fifth top-grossing film of the year, just behind Dark Victory, but because of its huge production budget it lost money during its initial run.  And though it was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture, it won only two awards for score and song.  (Was there ever a more worthy Oscar win than Somewhere Over the Rainbow for Best Song?)

So it was just one of dozens of successful movies made in the Golden Age.  Here, then gone.  For the next seventeen years, there was nothing to suggest this particular film would become a national treasure.

Then came television.

On November 3, 1956, The Wizard of Oz was the first theatrical film shown on television.  Roughly 45 million people watched from home that night, nearly matching the total tickets sold during its entire theatrical run.  

The movie ran for the second time in 1959, and thereafter became an annual tradition.  It aired once a year on commercial network television from 1959-1991.  Even today it continues to run on cable television.

Margaret Hamilton (1902 – 1985) as the Wicked Witch and Judy Garland (1922 – 1969) as Dorothy Gale in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, 1939. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Isn’t that where you first saw it?

It was a network television event, a family tradition similar today only to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  It’s a two hour nostalgia machine for adults with childhoods that spanned from the sixties to the nineties.

Four factors led to its long-term television dominance, and thus a cultural sprawl that reaches today’s children and could never have been achieved in the movie theater alone.

First, it was a family affair.  After the initial prime time broadcast, CBS showed subsequent versions earlier in the evening, so that children could watch.  It is the rare film that holds equal wonder for children and adults.

Second, its very success insulated it from competition.  For the initial viewing, CBS signed a deal with MGM for four viewings with an option for additional showings.  Neither CBS nor MGM anticipated much interest beyond the initial viewing.  CBS was just looking for content to fill up its new medium.

Once MGM and the other studios realized how popular their films could be on television, they were unwilling to sell them as cheaply to the networks.  It had never occurred to the studios that they could make new money—big money—off these dusty old films that were no longer showing on the big screen.

So while the studios bickered with the networks and sealed their best films in a vault, The Wizard of Oz played on and on.

Third, during the early broadcasts most Americans had black and white televisions.  When color made its way into most American homes in the sixties, families were clamoring to finally see the gold in the yellow brick road they’d watched Dortothy skip down many times.

Finally, and most important, the film delivers. 

I don’t need to review the plot, do I?

We all remember the clicking ruby slippers, the poppy fields (an opium reference that went over my head the first fifty times I saw it), and the Wicked Witch of the West shrieking that she would “get you my pretty, and your little dog too.”

Flying monkeys.  Lions and tigers and bears (oh my!)  Munchkins.  Yellow brick roads.  The cowardly lion, the tin man, and the scarecrow, who we all miss most of all.

Watching the Wizard of Oz is like returning to a never-changing hometown.  It doesn’t matter how many years it’s been, I know every turn in the yellow brick road like the back of my hand.

You do too.

Stella Dallas: Barbara’s Four-Hanky Smash

#23 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Part IV: The Case for Barbara Stanwyck

The greatest actress to never win an Oscar is Barbara Stanwyck.

You may disagree—you may think it’s Glenn Close (7 nominations), Deborah Kerr (6), Irene Dunne (5), Rosalind Russell (4), or even Greta Garbo (3).  

Hear me out.  In Part IV, I make my case.

Stanwyck’s quest should’ve been over before it began in 1937 with Stella Dallas.  

Stanwyck plays the title character, a woman who is pretty and poor and snags a man above her station.  Stephen Dallas marries Stella in a moment of loneliness.  He’s a kind man, but he’s quiet, reserved, and of old money.  He’s used to doing things in the proper manner.

Stella is loud and always ready for a good time.  She’s vulgar in her dress, her walk, her talk. She’s also generous, warm, and fun-loving.

And she’s an excellent mother to their daughter Laurel.

It’s not enough.  Stella, despite her early promises to change, is decidedly low class. 

Her past is in her bones.

The marriage between Stephen and Stella sours as Stephen finds he can’t remake her into the society wife he should’ve married and Stella increasingly resents his attempts to do so.

Soon enough, they are living separate lives, which suits them both.  Stella and Laurel live a charmed existence, doting on one another as Laurel grows into a lovely young woman.  She is Stella’s greatest triumph and best pal.

As Laurel grows up, she begins to understand the differences between the refined society of her father and the slapdash existence of her mother.  

Stella begins to understand that although she could never gain acceptance to the country club set, Laurel can.  

Or could—if she didn’t have a mother her peers see as a joke.

The movie gets a lot of justified praise for its final scene, when Stella makes a grand gesture of sacrifice for Laurel.

But I love the scenes of gradual awakening—Stella realizing that no one showed up at Laurel’s birthday party because she is her mother, and Laurel feeling both incredible embarrassment and overwhelming love for her ill-bred, unladylike, wonderful, gregarious mother.

There’s a scene on a train when Stella and Laurel overhear Laurel’s friends making fun of Stella.  The mutual pain is palpable as Stella protects Laurel by pretending not to hear, and Laurel crawls into bed with her mother and gives her a tender kiss.

In the end, Stanwyck’s Stella walks away heartbroken but satisfied Laurel will have everything she ever wanted.

Everything but her mother.

The film lives or dies on the portrayal of Stella—we have to love Stella despite her flaws.  There’s no easy villain to blame—not Stella or Stephen, not Stephen’s new wife, not even Laurel’s preppy boyfriend.  It’s a film about the way the world is, instead of the way we wish it to be.

Stanwyck had to age twenty years throughout the course of the film, starting out as the pretty wide-eyed social climber and ending in a frumpy, slightly overweight middle age.

Stanwyck delivers.

Stella Dallas is the first film to fully showcase Barbara Stanwyck’s natural and realistic acting.  We take it for granted today that actors want to look and feel like real people on the screen, but that wasn’t the case in the 1930s and 1940s.  Acting was still peeling away from the silent era, when big dramatic gestures ruled the day.  You didn’t actually have to believe the character Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn played was a real person.  You could almost see the actress winking at the camera, letting the audience know it was all just a bit of fun.  You could see the acting.

In this film, you can’t see Barbara Stanwyck.  You only see Stella.

Stanwyck’s films aren’t of the 1930s or 1940s.  They’re films of any time, any place.

Barbara Stanwyck was nominated for an Oscar for Stella Dallas, and widely predicted to win.  She lost to Luise Rainer in The Good Earth, perhaps a film that was better in 1937 but has not aged as well as Stella Dallas.

Stella Dallas was a commercial success as well, one of the top five box office hits of 1937.  It was so popular that Stella and Laurel’s story continued in a radio soap opera that ran for nearly twenty years.

Stanwyck would go on to receive three more Oscar nominations, and play several iconic characters, but she said late in her life that Stella Dallas was her favorite role.

It’s easy to see why. 

Stella Dallas was Stanwyck’s first tour de force.  The fact that Stella Dallas is the third or fourth best role Stanwyck played is a testament to the brilliance of her long career.  If she had won this Oscar, as she should have, I could easily be writing a blog about how Barbara Stanwyck was the greatest actress to only win one Ocsar.

She’s that good.

Next week Stanwyck trades in her frumpy dresses and weepy endings for elegant gowns and laughs in a film where she is dressed by the legendary costume designer Edith Head and directed by the inimitable Preston Sturges.

The results are biblical.

The King of Hollywood Meets the Screwball Queen

#22 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Clark Gable married five times and slept with every woman who would have him, regardless of his—or her—marital status.

But the only woman he ever loved was Carole Lombard.

Clark Gable made eight movies with Joan Crawford.  He made seven with Myrna Loy, six with Jean Harlow, four with Lana Turner, and two each with Marion Davies, Norma Shearer, Claudette Colbert, Loretta Young, Heddy Lamarr, and Ava Gardner.

But he made just a single film with the leading lady of his heart.

They met on the set of No Man of Her Own, a rather charming Paramount picture.  Clark Gable plays Babe, a gambler and card sharp.  To avoid trouble with the police, he leaves New York City and hides out in a small town until things cool down.  He meets Lombard’s Connie Randall, a bored and beautiful librarian who is ripe for adventure.

Babe turns on the charm, and Connie is not immune.  Though inexperienced, Connie is not naive, and when Babe proposes they spend the night together, she presents a counteroffer—they flip a coin, and if she wins, they get married.

She wins the toss.

They proceed from lust to marriage to love.  Babe hides his criminal enterprise from Connie, but eventually gives it up and goes straight to be worthy of her.  Yet in the end Connie proves an able match for Babe, for she has known of his gambling and stealing all along and loves him anyway.  

No Man of Her Own is a good but not great movie, forgettable but for the fact that Gable and Lombard eventually became Hollywood’s real-life power couple.

There’s chemistry between them on the screen.

On the set, however, there was nothing doing.

Lombard was still happily married to her first husband William Powell, and Clark Gable thought Lombard swore far too much for a lady.

Four years later, they met up again at a party and this time Gable fell in love with her, even if she did swear like a drunken soldier.

But in her profanity, as in so many other things, Carole Lombard was crazy like a fox.  It started as self-defense.  As a young, beautiful blonde in Hollywood, the men she worked with both on and off camera were constantly pawing at her.  Lombard delivered her profanity in a breezy, devil-may-care attitude that usually turned their minds from seeing her as a romantic object, to one-of-the-guys, a pal.  Thus she got the men to keep their hands to themselves without alienating those who could help advance her career.

She played pranks, threw parties, went hunting and fishing with Clark and his friends.

And fell for him just as hard as he fell for her.

They married in 1939 during a break in filming Gone With the Wind.  It was a private ceremony with only a few attendants, as neither wanted the media to turn it into a circus.

Because she was as savvy with her business dealings as she was with her swearing, she made more money than Clark, despite him starring in the most commercially successful movie of all time.

She could convince anyone to do anything.  She talked Alfred Hitchcock into directing her in  a screwball comedy.  He did it because he loved her.  Mr. and Mrs. Smith was a good film, starring Lombard and Robert Montgomery as a couple who find out four years after their wedding that due to a technicality their marriage license isn’t valid, and that they’re not legally married.  It was Hitchcock’s only comedy in his long career.

When World War II broke out, Carole Lombard wanted to help.  She wrapped filming on her film To Be Or Not To Be with Jack Benny and signed on to sell war bonds.  She took her mother on a cross-country trip and due to her tireless efforts, sold a record-breaking two million dollars of war bonds in a single day.

While on that trip, she pondered the next phase of her life and her career.  

Trying to win an Oscar, she’d dipped her toes into some films with more serious subjects.  Maybe she could do another one of those.  Or maybe she’d keep making comedies—she was already signed on to star in They All Kissed the Bride with Melvyn Douglas.

Maybe she’d take an extended leave from Hollywood—throw herself into the war effort.  Convince Clark to enlist in the war, then start a family when it was over.  She knew a lot about the movie business—maybe when she returned to work she’d direct a film herself.

But for now, all she wanted was to finish the war bond tour and return home to Clark.

If they made a movie of the story of Carole Lombard’s life, I’d tell you to turn it off right now. 

You don’t want to know how this story ends.

She didn’t make They All Kissed the Bride, or start a family.  She didn’t direct.  

On January 16, 1942, the plane she was taking back to Hollywood and Clark and her future crashed in the mountains outside Las Vegas.

There were no survivors.

Carole Lombard was dead at thirty-three.

Because she was flying back from her war bond tour, President Franklin Roosevelt declared her the first woman killed in the war.  In June the United States christened a war ship the S.S. Lombard, and it served in the Pacific theater throughout the war.

Clark Gable fulfilled her dying wish and enlisted in the United States Army Air Force.

Joan Crawford filled her role in They All Kissed The Bride, and donated her salary to the Red Cross that had helped search for the bodies in the Nevada mountains.

Though she’s left us with a stack of wonderful films, Carole Lombard’s death at thirty-three cut her down in her prime.  Hollywood is haunted by the films she never made.

If she’d lived, she’d almost certainly have eventually won an Oscar.  She had the looks of a quintessential Hitchcock blonde, and the director loved her.  She likely would’ve starred in one of his thrillers and perhaps opened up a whole new chapter in her career.

Thirty-three.

At thirty-three, Katharine Hepburn had never even met Spencer Tracy, much less made a picture with him.  She scored ten of her twelve Oscar nominations and three of her four Oscar wins after age thirty-three.

At thirty-three, Bette Davis had not yet made All About Eve, Barbara Stanwyck had not made Double Indemnity, and Joan Crawford had not made Mildred Pierce.

Undoubtedly, the best was yet to come for Carole Lombard. 

Her death ripped the guts out of Hollywood, and out of Clark Gable.

Hollywood recovered, of course.  Hollywood is bigger than any one star, even one as bright as Lombard.

Gable never did.  Despite living eighteen more years and marrying two more times, upon his death Clark Gable was buried next to Carole Lombard Gable.

Carole Lombard: One In A Million

#21 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Though she ultimately reached meteoric heights, Carole Lombard was not an overnight success.  

She started on the fast track, appearing in her first film at thirteen and signing a contract with Fox, who recognized the potential in a blonde beauty.  She was playing small parts and learning the ropes of the moving-making industry.  But at sixteen, she was in a devastating car crash.  While otherwise unharmed, the windshield shattered and cut her beautiful face to pieces.  She endured a risky surgery and painful recovery, but there was still a scar on her left cheek and around her left eye.  In later years, camera men and makeup artists were good at camouflage, but you can still see the minor scars in some of her films if you know where to look.

A pretty young blond with a scarred face was no use to Fox.

They fired her without a second thought.  Hollywood giveth, Hollywood taketh away.

For just about any one of the other millions of pretty young blondes who flock to Hollywood to find fame and fortune, that would’ve been the end of their acting career.

But Carole Lombard was not just one of the millions.

She was off the fast track.  No matter— she would start at the bottom.

A year after the accident, she signed on to make short films with Mack Sennett at Pathé on Poverty Row.  Sennett didn’t care about her scar because he wanted her to dance in his chorus, and take pies to the face.  He didn’t take many close-ups anyway.

Poverty Row wasn’t the breeding ground for major stars.  The goal was quantity, not quality, and the short silent films were a dying art as the talkies came to town.

But Carole Lombard threw herself into the roles, and she learned slapstick comedy.  

Scar or no scar, she was too pretty and too talented to go unnoticed for long.  She worked her way up into feature roles at Pathé and eventually signed a contract with Paramount.

As a legitimitate Hollywood leading lady, she was no longer one of the millions.  But she was still just one of hundreds of actresses playing glamorous ingenues.  

But Carole Lombard was not just one of the hundreds.

In Twentieth Century, she finally got the chance to prove it.

She got the part of Lily Garland opposite John Barrymore.

In 1934 when Twentieth Century came out, John Barrymore was the most respected actor in Hollywood.  He was a king among royalty.  He’d started his career on the stage, and brought that air of east coast respectability that insecure Los Angelans craved.  He also drank too much, could be difficult to work with, and at times put his hands on his leading ladies in places where they shouldn’t be.

He played Oscar Jaffe, a theater director who plucks a plain, boring young woman off the street and makes her a theater star.  For a time, they are partners on and off the stage.  But he is so overbearing that she leaves him for fame and fortune in Hollywood.  A few years later, they find themselves traveling together on the famous Twentieth Century train and Jaffe tries to lure her back to his theater and his bed.

The film is a farce.  Jaffe and Garland are ridiculous egomaniacs, obsessed with their careers and the minutiae of the theater world.  They’re always acting, alway overly dramatic.

The film is quite unapologetically mocking the narcissism and shallowness of actors.

Twentieth Century was a film tailor-made for John Barrymore.  It was a chance for him to chew up some scenery, act the ham, and play an exaggerated version of his reputation on the screen.

Carole Lombard was just supposed to be the blonde at his side.

But she stole the movie from him.

She met him step for step.  When he yelled, she yelled louder.  When he flailed about, she reached back to her Mack Sennet days and pulled out all the outrageous slapstick and comedic timing she’d honed in Hollywood’s gutter.

She went for it.  It’s meant to be ridiculous, and it is.

Though the movie wasn’t a huge success with the public—a lot of its humor were Hollywood inside jokes about the industry and the people in it—audiences took note of Carole Lombard’s performance.

She wasn’t just a pretty face.  She was funny.   

Audiences called her an overnight success.  It only took her thirteen years and thirty-eight prior films (not including the Sennett shorts) to get there.

She’d found her superpower and begun her climb to the top.  

Twentieth Century invented the screwball comedy, and Carole Lombard became the genre’s undisputed queen.  She would make dozens, My Man Godfrey the greatest among them.  The term “screwball” came from a Godfrey review in Variety magazine article that said, “Lombard has played screwball dames before, but none so screwy as this one.”

(For the record, Lily Garland is every bit as screwy as Irene Bullock.)

By the time she reached her zenith, Carole Lombard was American’s finest comedienne, half of Hollywood’s biggest power couple, and the highest paid and most beloved woman in Hollywood.  

She was Melissa McCarthy, Beyonce, and Sandra Bullock all in one package.

Not one of the hundreds.

One in a million.

The Good Life

#20 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Director Frank Capra on the set of You Can’t Take It With You

Frank Capra was on a roll.  Starting in 1934 with It Happened One Night, he won the Best Director Oscar in three out of the next five years.  In 1938, he won his third and final Oscar with the ensemble comedy You Can’t Take It With You.  He also began to cement his legacy as a director who perfected a tone in his films that celebrated the best parts of the American dream and gave audiences wholesome and upbeat films to take their minds off their Depression troubles.

Capra was still working under Harry Cohn at Columbia, turning out critical and commercial successes without the benefit of the huge budgets and roster of stars his competition enjoyed over at Paramount and MGM.  In You Can’t Take It With You, Capra managed this by pulling sparkling performances by both young and up-and-coming actors and old favorites.

You Can’t Take It With You started out as a 1936 play by George Kaufmann and Moss Hart.  Capra and writer Robert Riskin expanded the play for the screen.

The film’s initial setup is simple enough—ruthless, greedy banker Anthony Kirby is planning to buy up all the real estate around a competitor’s factory to prevent expansion and put his competition out of business.  It’s an underhanded plan, but it is spoiled by the one eccentric old man who refuses to sell his family home.

Lionel Barrymore plays Grandpa Vanderhof, the lone holdout and benevolent patriarch of the eccentric Vanderhof family, a group of misfits that eschew convention in favor of spending their days—and thus their lives—doing exactly as they choose.  This includes daughter Penny Sycamore writing bad plays all day just because someone once left a typewriter at their house, her husband setting off fireworks in the basement, and granddaughter Essie dancing ballet in the living room, despite her teacher’s continued assertions that, “Confidentially, she stinks!”

Kirby’s dilemma is simple, and unsolvable:  He is a man who throws money at every problem, and the Vanderhofs can’t be bought.

Grandpa Vanderhof refuses to sell for the simple reason that he doesn’t want to leave the home filled with happy memories, and his refusal to sell protects the rest of the neighborhood from being evicted from their homes.

This clash of ideas about what makes a good life—Kirby has more money than he could ever spend but lacks fulfilling relationships with his wife and son, and treats his employees like dirt, while Grandpa Vanderhof lacks wealth and status but has the love and respect of family and friends—is the heart of the film.

Lionel Barrymore as patriarch Grandpa Vanderhof

Capra thickens the plot, of course.  The life philosophies of two old men might be interesting, but a Hollywood film needs youth, beauty, and romance.

In his first starring role James Stewart plays Anthony’s son Tony, the reluctant vice president and heir apparent in his father’s company.  Jean Arthur, also in an early starring role, plays Grandpa Vanderhof’s loving and slightly less crazy granddaughter Alice, who is a stenographer at the Kirby’s bank.

Unbeknownst to both old men, Tony and Alice are in love. 

And we’re off.

There is an inevitable clash of cultures when the Kirbys and Vanderhofs meet, a plot twist where Grandpa Vanderhof nearly loses the house but is saved by the senior Kirby’s dawning realization that Grandpa Vanderhof is the richer man, surrounded by people who love and respect him.  And of course, Tony temporarily loses Alice.

Don’t worry, he gets her back again.

It’s amazing to me that this film was nominated for seven Oscars and won Best Picture and Best Director.  Not because I think it’s undeserving—it certainly is (and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Barrymore wouldn’t have been out of line)—but a picture like this wouldn’t even have been considered for a nomination today.  It’s a comedy with a message so pure and positive it borders on corny.

Its complete lack of cynicism would invalidate its legitimacy in the minds of today’s Oscar voters.  As a critique, it says more about the trend of the Oscars than it does about Capra’s film.

You Can’t Take It With You also serves as a changing of the guard in terms of Hollywood’s leading men.  Though he would act for fifteen more years, at sixty Lionel Barrymore’s best years and films are behind him.  He’s on crutches throughout the film, and this is explained by an accident, but the truth is in real life he was plagued by painful arthritis that would increasingly trouble him the rest of his life.

Barrymore is the heart of the film, and he gets all the best lines.  Yet he’s clearly passing the torch—however reluctantly—to James Stewart.  

Only three years into his nearly sixty year career, James Stewart is already oozing charisma and speaking in his inimitable stutter-step accent.  His wide-eyed Tony is head over heels in love with Alice and her crazy family.  Alice knows it is a bad idea to fall in love with someone whose family will never accept her, but really, what woman could resist Jimmy Stewart when he turns up the charm?

You Can’t Take It With You isn’t a perfect film.  It’s a little too long, and sometimes the antics of the Vanderhof family become irritating.

But honestly, let’s not quibble.  This is a movie made to distract you from your troubles.  You munch on popcorn while watching young people fall in love and old people coming around to the idea that love triumphs over money, and that the American Dream is alive and well.

What could be better than that?

The Walls of Jericho

#19 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

In his unparalleled thirty-year career, Clark Gable starred in 66 films.

Though nominated three times, he won only one Best Actor Oscar.

Can you guess the film?

If you’re like most people, you are certain he won the Oscar for his legendary performance as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind.

You’re wrong.

The King of Hollywood won his lone Oscar for a little film called It Happened One Night.

One of the first screwballs ever made, this little gem shows that the cream does indeed rise to the top.

Columbia started out as a B-movie studio on what was then un-affectionately called poverty row.  Unlike the Big Five, Columbia didn’t own any theaters, and they couldn’t afford to keep big stars on the payroll.  

Upstart director Frank Capra (who would eventually go on to make It’s A Wonderful Life) convinced the notoriously cheap,crude, and hard-nosed studio head Harry Cohn to get some A-list stars on loan to make a funny little escapist road trip that Capra was sure would cheer up Depression audiences.

It’s a simple setup—Claudette Colbert plays Ellie Andrews, a spoiled rich heiress who runs off (again) when her father wants to annul her marriage to a gold digger.  To elude her father’s detectives, she hops on a bus and finds herself sitting next to Gable’s Peter Warne, a newspaper reporter who recognizes her and smells a great story.

He agrees to help her find her husband in exchange for an exclusive.  With no money and no street smarts, Ellie has no choice but to reluctantly agree. 

At one point, they are forced to spend the night in a one-room cabin, and Peter puts a blanket over a clothesline and pronounces it the Wall of Jericho to protect his—not her—modestly.  When Ellie at first refuses to cooperate, Peter begins slowly undressing until she is forced to retreat to her side of the wall.  He’s teasing her, but there’s no malice.  We know that while Peter would like to get to know Ellie in a more biblical manner, he’s a gentleman and no threat to her reputation.

From his side of the wall, Peter watches Ellie’s shadow as she undresses, and though the scene exists to circumvent production code rules, it’s a sexier moment than if they’d torn each other’s clothes off.

Capra and the code leave something to the imagination, to great effect.

Peter and Ellie learn to appreciate one another—Peter teaches Ellie how to properly dunk a donut, and she shows him a thing or two about successfully hitching a ride.

And when her father’s detectives show up, Peter and Ellie work together seamlessly as a team to throw them off the trail.  When they laugh at their success, both Ellie and the audience have forgotten all about her soon-to-be annulled marriage.

As their madcap adventure progresses, their initial disdain slowly melts into love.

We’ve seen this plot a hundred—no, a thousand times before.

But the audiences of 1934 had never seen anything like it, and romantic comedies writers have been ripping off It Happened One Night ever since.

Clark Gable didn’t want to make the film.  He was used to the posh comforts of MGM, and he was angry at Louis B. Mayer for loaning him out to Columbia.  His co-star Claudette Colbert also wasn’t much interested in the film.  She’d been planning a vacation and was forced to cut it short when Columbia met her asking price.

And to be honest, Harry Cohn himself didn’t expect much from the film.  It had no big advertising campaign, no thought of Academy Award nominations.

No one involved, it seemed, understood what a special movie they were making.

No one but the audience.

They loved it.  Its success came from word of mouth, and the good word spread like wildfire.  People saw it, then brought their friends and saw it again.  Its initial run went on and on, far longer than anyone could’ve predicted.

And when Oscar time rolled around, this little film that no one thought was anything special became the first film to win all five major awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay.)  In all of Oscar’s history, only two other films have completed that particular quinfecta.  The other two are from the modern era:  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

It charmed audiences and critics, and if you give it a chance, it’ll charm you too.

Gable is in the type of role he was born to play—a charming rascal with a well-concealed heart of gold.  Colbert is perfect as the spoiled heiress with a lot more going on beneath the hood.  Their chemistry crackles as they practically burn up the screen with their bickering.

When I covered Possessed, I said it would be the first on a list of six essential films to understand why people still love old Hollywood films.

The second film on that list is It Happened One Night.

It’s the most charming screwball, a movie full of heart and laughs, and a great scene with Colbert and Gable in matching pajamas.

You can stream it for three bucks on Amazon.

Rent it tonight, and see for yourself what happens when the Walls of Jericho come tumbling down.

And learn how to properly dunk your donuts.

Silver Linings

#18 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby

Part III: Screwin’ Around

Thus far, I’ve painted the Hollywood censors as the villains of our piece.  I’m justified, I think, in mocking their obsession with showing women’s hemlines, violence, and sex.

When the censors finally got their way in 1934, we didn’t just lose Jane’s loincloth, or steamy kisses, or gangsters riddling each other’s cars with bullets.

We lost—at least for a time—a depth in storytelling.  In making all movies suitable for everyone, producers had to put more mature themes on the shelf.  Gone were the movies questioning the nobility of war (Hell’s Angels), the double standard between men and women (The Divorcée, Anna Christie), or the limited ways in which a poor uneducated woman has to make her way in the world (Baby Face).

Movies got sillier, filled with treacle and drained of substance.

In the end, the great tragedy of the production code is that it forced movies to show the world the way it ought to be, rather than the way it is.

And yet.

The challenge of telling good stories within the constraints of the code unleashed a whirlwind of creative energy in the writers, directors, and producers of Hollywood.

The best, most enduring product of that creativity is the screwball comedy.

The screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s continue to be some of the most beloved, and most rewatched classic movies.  Most people who find their way into classic movies are hooked by a screwball.  Almost every legendary actor, actress, and director has made a screwball.

And they would’ve never happened without censorship.

The screwball comedy is the biggest, brightest silver lining of the production code.  

See, a screwball comedy is a romantic comedy that tells a love story without breaking the rules of the code—no steamy kisses, no couples shown in the same bed, no frank foreplay.

The screwballs are sex comedies without the sex.

In lieu of sex, they manipulate each other, pull each other into harebrained schemes, and almost always someone falls down or gets wet.

But most of all, they bicker.

And drive one another insane.

And thus, prove their love.

It’s the perfect mix of physical comedy and romance.

They range from wry to out-and-out and slapstick.

And today, we’re going to cover two of the most outrageous examples, with heroines who are practically deranged and the men who have the misfortune to fall in love with them.

Bringing Up Baby is the story of David Huxley (Cary Grant), a scientist trying to secure a million dollar grant for his museum, and the chance encounter with Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) that will change his life.  The flighty Susan soon charms and exasperates David into a series of misadventures revolving around her quest to deliver a pet leopard to her aunt.

David is to be married to someone else the day that Susan whisks him away, and fortunately he discovers he loves Susan before it’s too late.

Screwballs are best when the leads are playing off one another, a rat-a-tat-tat rhythm of words ping-ponging between the two.

Bringing Up Baby is a beloved screwball comedy today, but it was a flop back in it’s day.  It was one of the movies that would label Katharine Hepburn as “box office poison” and send her temporarily back east before her triumphant comeback.

Katharine Hepburn had such a persona of a strong woman both on and offscreen that audiences just couldn’t quite buy her as a ditz.  And while her Susan successfully irritated David, she also irritated the audience.

Bringing Up Baby was the first classic film I ever watched, and I remember loving it.  I was probably nine or ten at the time, and I’d never seen anything like it.  I was mesmerized by the black and white film, by Hepburn’s crazy accent, by Cary Grant’s charm.  I fell in love with old movies right then.

But I have to admit that rewatching it, I can understand why audiences turned away from it.  Katharine Hepburn will never be flighty, and she is irritatingThe shenanigans go on for a bit too long and at times the film is just too crazy.  There are so many truly outstanding screwballs that I regret to say that I can’t really recommend you start with this one.

My Man Godfrey is a much better deranged dame screwball (the dames aren’t always deranged, as we’ll see in future posts).  Carole Lombard plays Irene Bullock, a spoiled rich girl who employs William Powell’s Godfrey when she discovers he is a down-on-his-luck man living in the town dump during the Depression.

Godfrey watches the hysterics of the Bullock family with a detached amusement.  He wants to keep his job and his face straight.

Lombard and Powell are marvelous in the film.  Lombard was born to play screwball dames, the crazier, the better, and Irene Bullock was the craziest she ever played.  Powell is a screwball comedy fixture as the straight man, and he is wonderful as Godfrey.

Audiences and critics alike loved the film.  It was nominated for six Oscars, including director and screenplay.  It was the first movie to ever receive nominations in all four acting categories.  Sadly, neither Powell nor Lombard would ever win an Oscar.

We’re going to spend the next few posts exploring more films from this fascinating subgenre.

There can hardly be a better way to spend our time than screwing around with Hollywood’s greatest stars.

Before & After

#17 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

In 1932, Clark Gable, still in his pre-mustache days, made a great pre-code picture with Jean Harlow called Red Dust.  Gable plays Dennis, the owner of a rubber plantation in Indochina.  He lives a physically demanding life devoid of creature comforts.

His world is upended when he goes from having no female company to two very different women vying for his affection.  First, Jean Harlow’s Vantine shows up unannounced.  She’s a bawdy and fun loving prostitute running from trouble, and at first Dennis can’t take his eyes off her.

But when surveyor Gary Willis shows up, Dennis’ head is turned by Gary’s sophisticated wife, Barbara.  

It’s obvious to the audience and to everyone on the plantation except Barbara and Dennis that they are all wrong for one another.  Barbara could never survive in such rugged conditions, and Dennis is not about to shine himself up.

Vantine knows she and Dennis are made for each other, two feral animals in the middle of the jungle, but she’s content to wait for Dennis to come around.  She’s amused by his attempts to make himself suitable for Barbara, whom Vantine calls “The Duchess.”  Unlike Barbara, Vantine doesn’t take life—or herself—too seriously.  And she lives to annoy Dennis.

Harlow is known for her sex appeal, the original blond bombshell.  But what we forget is just how funny she was.  She’s a wonderful comedienne with great timing, which she puts to great use in the film.

Gable is deliciously young and handsome.  He’s always sweaty with two day’s stubble, and I don’t blame Barbara or Vantine for going after him.

Harlow and Gable spark off each other, and it makes it impossible to believe that Dennis will end up with Barbara.  Their chemistry burns up every scene.

But it is Harlow’s Vantine who gets all the best lines.

Twenty-one years later, well after the enforcement of the production code and Gable’s mustache years, MGM remade Red Dust.  They moved the setting to Africa and retitled it Mogambo.  Instead of a rubber plantation, the main character traps African animals to sell to zoos and circuses.  The prostitute is replaced by a showgirl.  The husband and wife that show up are there to make a gorilla documentary instead of a survey.  Otherwise, the plot is remarkably similar.

The Red Dust role played by twenty-one year old Harlow was replaced in Mogambo with thirty-one year old Ava Gardner.  The twenty-six year old Mary Astor role was played by twenty-four year old Grace Kelly.

And the role previously played by thirty-one year old Clark Gable?  

Now played by fifty-two year old Clark Gable.

Ah, Hollywood.

(In truth, Harlow was dead by 1953, but let’s not pretend her status as a corpse had any bearing on the decision to cast a younger actress in the role.  And let’s not forget that Mary Astor was certainly still acting at the time.)

For me, Mogambo was not a great film, certainly not as good as Red Dust.

Ava Gardner’s Honey Bear just doesn’t sparkle like Harlow’s Vantine.  Part of it is the rules of the production code, of course.  In a pre-code world, Vantine is allowed to swagger about as an unrepentant floozy.  The audience is allowed to sympathize with her despite her lack of concern about her checkered present.

Compare Harlow’s entrance as Vantine with Gardner as Honey Bear:

Honey Bear is not as refined as Grace Kelly’s Mrs. Nordley, but it’s not obvious that she’s so much farther down on the social circle that Vic is justified in ordering her not to speak to Mrs. Nordley.  He just comes across as a jerk.

Honey Bear’s past is also whitewashed.  She was once in love with a man who was killed in the war, you see, and so she’s taken a bit of a wrong turn because her heart was shattered.

She’s also terribly jealous and miserable over Vic’s infatuation with Mrs. Nordley.  There is none of Vantine’s amused teasing.  Honey Bear is furious at being unceremoniously thrown over for another woman.

Clark before the mustache and production code with Harlow…..and after with Gardner.

And I hate to say it, but Clark Gable is too old.  He’s twice as old as Grace Kelly and looks even older.  To watch the King of Hollywood lusting after Grace Kelly is just a bit pathetic, and that’s not what the film was going for. (I’ll say nothing of their real life on-set affair.)  And his chemistry with Gardner is non-existent.

Grace Kelly, Clark Gable

Red Dust zips along, but Mogamo drags.  And thanks to the production code, though twenty-years older, Red Dust is actually a much racier and sexier film.

The critics disagree with me, as critics often do.  Gardner was nominated for an Oscar for Lead Actress, and Kelly for Supporting Actress.  Back in 1932, Harlow and Astor weren’t nominated for a thing.  Red Dust did a decent box office, but Mogambo was a smash.

Don’t listen to the critics or the audiences.  Listen to me—next time you’ve got a hankering for Clark Gable in the jungle, skip him with Gardner in the technicolor Mogambo and settle in to watch him with Harlow in black and white.

You won’t be sorry.

Getting Back In

Fortunately, there is no visual evidence of my flip.

Sometimes in life, everything is perfect.  The weather is fine, you’ve got the wind in your hair, and you’re sailing right along, enjoying the ride down the river of life.  Then without warning, a wake comes along and tosses you right into the water.

This happened to me recently.

This isn’t a parable about how we have to rise to life’s biggest challenges—how our plans have been derailed by coronavirus, or how anyone’s life can change on a dime with unexpected tragedy.

No, this is about the time I literally fell out of a boat.

Two weeks ago, I was rowing my little heart out on a hot Wednesday night.

I’m used to rowing in a quad boat with three other more experienced rowers.  But this summer, we’re all rowing in single shells to practice social distancing and keep each other safe.

Rowing a single is very different than a quad or even a double.  The boat is very light and very small, and the trick is to keep it balanced.  This is an endeavor that requires constant vigilance, and the use of the feet as well as the arms in keeping the oars balanced.  One false move and you end up in the Allegheny River.

Which is where I found myself last Wednesday.  It wasn’t entirely unexpected; flipping a single is a rite of passage for a rower.

Just before practice, I asked my coach what to do if I fell out of the boat.

“Get back in,” she called over her shoulder before zooming away in the safety launch.

Falling out of a shell is quite easy to do.

Getting back in?  That’s another story.

So there I was bobbing in the middle of the Allegheny, my shell next to me.  I’d lost my hat but not my glasses, so that was okay.  My coach was nearby in the launch, so I wasn’t in any danger. 

There are two main challenges when trying to get back into a racing shell.  The first is that because you’re in the middle of the river, you have no leverage other than what you can work up with your upper body strength.  You can’t push off the bottom with your legs and launch yourself into the air. 

The second, and more precarious, are the oars.  A racing shell is balanced by the oars, and the oars must stay in position.  This is what makes a racing shell more difficult to get into versus say, a canoe.  In a canoe you could throw the oars into the boat and climb over the side and in, knowing the canoe will stay balanced.

Not so in a rowing shell.  You have to throw yourself in with one hand while holding the handles of both oars in the other.

I took a deep breath and heaved myself up.  I had no sense of how to balance the oars, so I was back in the water almost immediately.  On the third try, I launched myself up onto the boat like a wet seal.  I had a death grip on the oars, and was scrabbling around on my belly to keep myself from tipping over. 

Some people look quite graceful when getting back into a racing shell.

I am not one of those people.

I inched around like a blind worm until I got my feet into position.  I had one final task—getting my butt on the seat.  The seat sits on a track so that it can slide back and forth.  I pushed with my legs—holding the oars steady the whole time, and plopped myself onto the seat.

My fellow rowers cheered my success from their own shells.

My coach threw me the bailer—a sawed off bottle of laundry detergent—which I used to bail the majority of the water out of my shell.

By now I was sweating and quite frankly exhausted.  But I was exhilarated, too.  I hadn’t given up.  I had made it back in the boat, metaphorically as well as literally. 

I was so proud and thrilled that I reared back to throw the bailer to my coach.  And in that one instant, I forgot myself.

One second was all it took to pull defeat from the jaws of victory.

I forgot my vigilance, and I let my oars dip just the slightest fraction.

And found myself back underwater, my boat flipped over above my head.

At least I still had my glasses.