Carole Lombard wanted to get serious. She was the undisputed Queen of the screwball comedy, but audiences were growing tired of the genre by the late thirties so she pivoted to stay relevant.
Plus, she wanted an Oscar. Though she’d been previously nominated for her role as the zany Irene Bullock in My Man Godfrey (1936), she knew physical comediennes rarely won Academy Awards.
In Made For Each Other (1939), she starred opposite up and coming actor James Stewart. At the time, Carole Lombard was the bigger star. Though both were thirty years old during production, Lombard had been making talkies for 9 years (with some work in the silents before that), while Stewart was a mere 3 years into what would become a legendary career.
Stewart plays Johnny Mason, a young lawyer who surprises his mother and boss when he impulsively marries Jane (Lombard), a woman he’s just met and fallen in love with, instead of the boss’ daughter.
Jane and Johnny embark on married life with all of its trials and tribulations—starting with a cancelled honeymoon when lawyer Johnny is called back to the office for an important case. Jane tries to get along with her mother-in-law, whose disapproval and criticism are all the more stifling because Mrs. Mason lives with them. And there’s never enough money, especially after the baby comes along.
And yet their problems are ultimately small, the normal ebb and flow of any young marriage. In my favorite scene, Jane insists that Johnny ask his boss for a raise and promotion. She wants more money, sure, but she’s mostly indignant that his boss doesn’t appreciate him enough. While Johnny eats a drumstick of cold chicken, he practices standing up to his boss while Jane encourages him.
It’s sweet and funny (without being the least bit screwball), and endears both Jane and Johnny to us.
But after the light and airy first half, the film’s second half takes a dark turn. Johnny and Jane have let their problems overwhelm them and are on a brink of a break-up the audience knows won’t stick. But their arguing is interrupted when their baby becomes deathly ill.
All hope will be lost unless the baby receives a life-saving serum, but it will require a pilot to fly it to the hospital in a terrible storm.
Instead of tearing them apart, the terror of tragedy cements Johnny and Jane together. Even Johnny’s mother can appreciate their love in this moment—as indeed she always could, her anger coming from her own widowed loneliness rather than any true dislike of Jane.
I’ll spoil the ending by saying the pilot arrives in time and the baby is saved.
(The plot point around the serum, preposterous as it sounds, was actually based on an incident when producer David O. Selznick’s brother Myron became deathly ill and serum was flown in to save his life.)
Carole Lombard followed the film up with In Name Only (1939), another romantic drama, this one with Cary Grant.
Both are tender, lovely films that are well worth your time. They didn’t get their due at the time because when audiences went to a Carole Lombard film they expected her to play the fool. And they don’t get their due today because they’re lost in the sea of legendary films made in 1939, Hollywood’s greatest year.
After the lackluster box office receipts of both films, Lombard returned to comedy.
Her roles in Made For Each Other and In Name Only, wonderful as they are, were not quite Academy Award worthy. But she showed enough acting chops, that I’m convinced that if she’d lived (she died 3 years later in a plane crash at the age of 33), Carole Lombard would’ve found her way back into more dramatic roles and eventually won the Oscar she coveted.
As for James Stewart, he would get his first Oscar nomination in 1939, not for Made For Each Other, but another little film released that year called Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
You can watch Made For Each Other for free on You Tube.
- Swindell, Larry. Screwball: The Life of Carole Lombard. 1975.
- Eliot, Marc. Jimmy Stewart: A Biography. 2006.
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