Made For Each Other (1939):  Carole Lombard Gets Serious

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.

Sources

  • Swindell, Larry.  Screwball:  The Life of Carole Lombard.  1975.
  • Eliot, Marc.  Jimmy Stewart:  A Biography.  2006.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Bette Davis: The Shrew Who Would Not Be Tamed

Bette Davis

Part VII: Bette Davis: The Shrew Who Would Not Be Tamed

Of Human Bondage (1935) opening banner
Dangerous (1935) opening banner

It’s time.

Bette Davis is the Queen of Hollywood.

Part VII of this blog is her coronation.

Even in an industry filled with originals, they broke the mold when they made Bette.  Probably she broke it herself, for though she was undoubtedly a trailblazer for women in Hollywood, she wanted no one following in her footsteps.

She could be a nightmare to work with.  She wrested control from weak directors, intimidated her co-stars, and took Warner Brothers to court to demand better roles.  She was mouthy, she was brash, and she left no fight unfought.  She had four husbands, none of which, she says, were “ever man enough to become Mr. Bette Davis.”

And no one ever put her in her place.  Not for long, anyway.

She did it the hard way. It says so right on her tombstone.

Bette Davis tombstone

With nothing more than determined fury, she can put even the worst movie on her back and carry it into something you simply cannot tear your eyes from. 

Bette’s got it all.

You want the back of the baseball card statistics? 

One hundred films spanning nearly sixty years.

Ten Best Actress Oscar nominations, including a five-year run of consecutive nominations. 

Zero supporting actress nominations—Bette Davis was not supporting role material.  If she was in a film, she took it over.  As she herself said, “I will never be below the title.”

Two Oscar wins.

The first woman ever to receive the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

You want modern day relevance?

In 1966, Elizabeth Taylor’s character in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf drunkenly imitated Davis from her film Beyond the Forest, looking around at the home her husband has worked so hard to provide and proclaiming, “What a dump.”

No less than Taylor Swift covered the song “Bette Davis Eyes” during her Speak Now World Tour in 2011.

And in 2017, FX aired Feud: Bette and Joan, an eight-episode miniseries chronicling the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  Susan Sarandon plays Davis at the apex of her feud with Joan Crawford.

You want the films?

I thought you’d never ask. 

Let’s start with Dangerous, the first film to garner her an Oscar nomination—and her first of two Oscar wins. 

Her Oscar for this film is often written off as a consolation prize for work in Of Human Bondage, made the year before and though widely praised, was not even nominated.

Though shocking in its time, Of Human Bondage is a bit of bore today but for one incredible scene in which Davis viciously dresses down Leslie Howard’s character.  He’s a kind but pathetic man who’s thrown his life away for her despite the fact that she obviously doesn’t deserve such a sacrifice.

This scene—and this film—is an early draft of many of Bette’s eventual masterpieces.  It showcases her ability to make herself ugly onscreen both inside and out.  No one has ever played the unrepentant bitch with as much relish as Bette Davis, and no actress was ever as willing to make herself hideously ugly for the sake of a role.  (At least until they started handing out Best Actress Awards for the effort.)

It’s a shame that if Bette was only going to win two Oscars that one went to Dangerous, if only because she has so many iconic performances (Judith Traherne, Regina Giddens, Charlotte Vale, Margo Channing to name just a few) and Joyce Heath is not among them.

But Dangerous has its charms.

Davis plays Joyce Heath, a down on her luck stage actress who has become a drunk.  She is rescued by Don Bellows, who was once so moved by one of her performances that he cannot stand to see her suffering.  He takes her to his country house to dry out away from the spotlight.  She spends the first half of the film getting drunk and throwing bitchy barbs his way.

He sees through her pain, and they fall in love.  He throws over his lovely and dependable fiancée and plans to marry Joyce.

The catch?  She’s already married.

Joyce’s husband refuses to give her a divorce, so Joyce drives them both into a tree, figuring that either she’ll end up dead or he will.  Either way she’ll be free of him.

But they both survive, and her husband is permanently crippled.

Unlike in Of Human Bondage, here the shrew relents.  Joyce realizes she has ruined lives and must repent.  She gives up Don and the film ends with her going back to the husband she doesn’t love, intent on making amends by taking care of him and giving him a happy marriage.

Franchot Tone and Bette Davis in Dangerous (1935)

Just like Joyce Heath, Bette Davis had her eye on another woman’s fellow during the film.  She’d fallen in love with her co-star Franchot Tone, and meant to have him.

The problem?

He was head over heels in love with his fiancée, Joan Crawford.

And thus the seeds of a legendary feud were planted.

Of Human Bondage (1935) Verdict - Film Buffs Only
Dangerous (1935) Verdict - Film Buffs Only

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Bette Davis

In Name Only (1939): Crying Clowns

Kay Francis, Carole Lombard, and Cary Grant poster In Name Only (1939)
In Name Only (1939) opening banner

Even if you haven’t watched them, you’ve probably heard of most of the best films of 1939.  It’s the birthplace of some of the most beloved, quoted and remembered films.  In 1939, every major star we think of from the Golden Age made a film—Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis, John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart…I could go on.

Nineteen-thirty nine gave us Dark Victory, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind.

And it’s perhaps because it was released during the year that was an embarrassment of riches that we often forget about a wonderful melodrama called In Name Only.

We might also forget about it because it defies expectations—in 1939, if you put your quarter down for a movie starring the two greatest screwball comedians ever to have lived, you expect to laugh.

And yet Carole Lombard and Cary Grant deliver two quietly lovely performances as an earnest couple in love despite the fact he is married to someone else.

It would be like casting Melissa McCarthy and George Clooney in a Nicholas Sparks movie.

It shouldn’t work.

And yet In Name Only is a tender gem that should not be overlooked.

Cary Grant and Carole Lombard, In Name Only (1939)

Grant plays Alec Walker, a wealthy man who’s been emotionally dead since discovering his cold-blooded wife married him only for his money and no longer pretends she ever loved him.  He’s resigned to his loveless marriage until he meets Julie Eden, an open hearted widow with a young daughter.

Desperate for the moments of happiness he finds with Julie, he doesn’t tell her he is married.  Once she inevitably finds out, the love between them becomes equal parts joy and sorrow.

Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, and Kay Francis, In Name Only (1939)

Carole Lombard, deprived of all her physical comedy tricks, is quite convincing as a good, moral woman caught between her heart and the strictures of the time.  It is clear that she never would have entertained a romance with Alec had she known he was married.  And yet once she loves him, she finds it impossible to either stay with him or to give him up.

Carole Lombard and Cary Grant, In Name Only (1939)

And it’s hard to blame Alec for misleading her, as he is stifled in his loveless home and at first just looking for some afternoons filled with light and laughter.  Cary Grant can never be anything less than charming, but he tones down his mischievous side so that we know Alec has nothing but respect for Julie despite deceiving her.  This is no casual fling, and he is no cad.

Alec’s wife does all she can to paint Julie as a common tramp, and Julie agonizes over her disgrace of carrying on with a married man.  Alec demands a divorce, but his wife finds one reason after another to delay until it becomes clear she will never free him.

Julie leaves Alec, breaking her heart to salvage her self-respect, but when Alec grows deathly ill both wife and mistress rush to his side.

Carole Lombard, and Cary Grant in a poster for In Name Only (1939)

In true soap opera fashion, Alec’s viper of a wife keeps Julie from seeing him.  Without Julie, Alec has lost the will to live and is near death.  When Julie finally reaches him and promises him they will be together, he turns the corner for the better.  His wife is exposed as the viper she is, and a happy ending is assured.

Cue the dramatic music.

It’s a sentimental, dramatic tear-jerker.  

Just the kind of movie I’m a sucker for.

In Name Only (1939) Verdict - Give It A Shot

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Kay Francis, Carole Lombard, and Cary Grant in a poster for In Name Only (1939)