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.

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.

Shock Value

#12 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

The quote above is from a review published in Vanity Fair magazine.  It is just another example of how the censors in the 1930s were wringing their hands over the movies instead of worrying about more important things.

It looks so silly to us now, in the modern era, when we’ve moved past the belief that a movie could inspire violence.  

Those people in the 1930s and their quaint movie violence and their old-fashioned, paternalistic worries about the impact of art on society.

It’s a nice thing to tell ourselves.  There’s only one problem.

This review wasn’t written in 1932 about Scarface.

It was written last year about Joker, a film starring Joaquin Phoenix is his Oscar winning role as psychopathic Arthur Fleck who rises to glory among disaffected American men when he murders someone on live television.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

After the trouble with the censors on Hell’s Angels, Howard Hughes doubled-down.

It was almost as if he went looking for the most objectionable film he could possibly make as a follow up.

It was almost as if he took the ban on gangster films as a dare.

He made Scarface, at least in part, for the shock value.  Just like Joker.

In the film Scarface, screenwriter Ben Hecht wrote a script based loosely on Al Capone, who had a scar on his face like the one Tony Camonte sports in the film.  He also drew inspiration from the Borgias, a treacherous Spanish family that ascended to power and the papacy in the fifteenth century and was accused of murder, adultery, and incest.

The Hays Office warned Hughes not to make the film, and vowed that people would not see it if he did.

Hughes sent his director Howard Hawks a memo:  “Screw the Hays Office.  Start the picture and make it as realistic, as exciting, as grisly as possible.”

Hawks did.  The film follows a similar line as the Warners Brothers gangster films, but with more graphic violence.  Tony Camonte bullies his way up the ladder of organized crime, using a machine gun to mow down anyone who gets in his way.  He builds a fortress with steel doors and windows to protect himself from his enemies, and explodes in jealous rages when his sister so much as looks at another man.

Scarface gloried in its excesses—Tony murders, steals, and lies with reckless abandon.

The Hays Office had never outright rejected a film, but it came close with Scarface.

It demanded changes—primarily around removing the insinuations of incest between Tony and his sister.  (In the original version, Tony tears her dress and slaps her after seeing her dancing with a man.  When he discovers she’s eloped, he murders her new husband in cold blood, even though he’s a trusted friend and business partner.)

Brotherly love…

They also wanted changes in the ending—in a lost version, after the cops surround him, Tony runs into the street firing his machine gun.  They don’t take him down until he’s emptied of bullets, and the movie ends with the clicking sound of him firing empty rounds as he dies.

But for once the Hays Office had success in suppressing a movie, and very few people saw the uncut version.  The film was banned outright in multiple states and after its initial run, it was unseen until 1980, when Universal bought the rights and released it on video.

Howard Hughes was incensed that the censors had ruined his film, and believed their effort was politically motivated.  He left Hollywood after Scarface, and did not make another film for ten years.

Since he died in 1976, it is impossible to know what Hughes would have thought of the gory remake of his film in 1983.  Likely he would have been envious, for Al Pacino’s Scarface gloried in violence, foul language, drugs, and sex.  

Fifty years after the fact, director Brian De Palma got to make the unrepentantly shocking film Hughes wanted.

As to whether or not Hughes would’ve liked Joker, I couldn’t hazard a guess.