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.

More Stars Than There Are In Heaven

#5 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Before 1932, movies usually had only one or two stars to anchor the film and draw an audience.

But MGM—as we’ve discussed and they once boasted—had “more stars than there are in heaven,” so they came up with a simple but brilliant idea—instead of having one or two leads, what if they stuffed a movie full of stars and let them play off one other?

The experiment produced Grand Hotel—the first ensemble film and a precursor to modern films like Ocean’s 11 and Boogie Nights.

MGM pulled out all the stops for Grand Hotel.  They started with the grandest sets ever constructed.  The lobby was the film’s crown jewel, complete with a circular check-in desk and a dizzying spiral staircase.  The entirety of the film takes place inside this luxurious Berlin hotel, temporary home of the rich and famous.

Then they studded the cast with the highest quality stars from their stable.

John Barrymore plays Baron Felix von Geigern, an amiable thief who steals a necklace from Greta Garbo’s Grusinskaya, a temperamental Russian ballerina whose inevitable aging is impacting her career.

After disappearing and missing one of her performances without explanation, Grusinskaya shows up at her room and Garbo utters her most famous line:

“I want to be alone.”

Garbo wants, as always, to be alone

The Baron and Grusinskaya ultimately fall in love, but before they do, the Baron engages in some surprisingly sexy flirting with Joan Crawford’s Flaemmchen.  

Upon learning she is a stenographer, he asks:

“I don’t suppose you’d take some… dictation from me sometime.”

And yes, he means exactly what your dirty mind thinks he means.

John Barrymore to Joan Crawford: “Are you reducing?”

Though Flaemmchen likes the Baron very much, it turns out she is more than just a stenographer for Preysing, a lying and ruthless businessman played by Wallace Berry.

Berry makes Flaemmchen a rather indecent proposal, but as a working girl who can only afford one meal a day, she grudgingly accepts.

Meanwhile, Lionel Barrymore is Otto Kringelein, a poor factory worker who is dying.  He decides to spend what time and money he has left in the grandest hotel in the world.

Kringelein befriends both the Baron and Flaemmchen before discovering Presysing’s presence, and denouncing the businessman who has abused Kringelein and all the other workers in his factory.

If you can’t follow all that, suffice it to say that these great actors play off one another brilliantly in scene after scene as their lives intersect in surprising ways.

This was the first film starring both Barrymore brothers.  The Barrymores are an acting dynasty. John, Lionel, and their sister Ethel were all actors.  Their father and mother, Maurice and Georgia Drew Barrymore, acted on the stage in the late nineteenth century.  

Both of John’s children, John Jr. and Diana Barrymore, also became actors.

By the time John Barrymore’s seven-year-old granddaughter Drew showed up in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), she was the fourth generation of actors in the Barrymore family.

But back to Grand Hotel.

Grand Hotel Premiere

Just in case the “greatest cast ever assembled” and gem-filled script weren’t enough, MGM staged a lavish premiere party at Grauman’s Chinese theater.  While hoards of fans watched, all of MGM’s stars—whether they were in the film or not—dressed up in their finest and paraded down the carpet.

The studio recreated the film’s circular lobby desk for the premiere and had each star sign a huge hotel register book.  Each then gave a sound bite to the press and their adoring public.

Everyone who was anyone was there.

Except Garbo, of course.

It worked.  Grand Hotel was an exceptionally good movie, a box office smash and Best Picture Winner.  Interestingly, it remains the only Best Picture Winner with no other nominations. All those stars and no acting nominations.  Perhaps it makes sense, because they were so good that none shined brighter than the others.

Grand Hotel is my favorite of the films I’ve reported on thus far for this project.  It teeters just on the edge—but doesn’t quite make—a “Timeless- Watch It Tonight” rating.

But we’re all still stuck at home and if you’ve blown through Tiger King, you might want to give it a shot.