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Comic Portrait: Carole Lombard at Film Forum

The Stop Smiling Film Review

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Friday, November 21, 2008


Carole Lombard
At Film Forum in New York City, Nov. 21 – Dec. 2

By Bruce Bennett

Many years ago a friend offered a fanciful theory that the actual cause of airplane crashes was a dawning realization by those on board that the underlying physical principles governing aviation just don’t make any sense. All it took was one person ceasing to believe in flight before doubt would spread like wildfire and the aircraft would drop from the sky like Wile E. Coyote briefly frozen in midair after running past a cliff edge in a Road Runner cartoon. This oddball supposition came to mind while considering the tragically short life and marvelously comic work of Carole Lombard, who is the subject of a 12-day, 23-film centenary-year retrospective at Film Forum. As any Joe Franklin-age nostalgiac can tell you, Lombard was killed in 1942 when the DC-3 she boarded at the end of a war-bond tour in Indiana slammed into a Nevada mountainside en route to Los Angeles.

At the same time my friend’s notion of the need for unwavering belief in air travel tangentially addresses the reputation of an actress praised by her Hollywood peers in the years leading up her death as a consummate professional who was patient, prepared, unpretentious, and adored by casts and crews alike. No matter how uninhibited her role, Carole Lombard saw to it that the earthbound vehicles she starred in stayed together and that her collaborators got their due.

By the time she fell to earth at age 33, Carole Lombard had spent two decades in the picture business. Her career began when Alan Dwan cast the then 13-year-old Jane Peters in his 1923 film The Perfect Crime on the basis of a shellacking Dwan witnessed young Jane giving her brothers while the director was coincidentally visiting her next-door neighbors. By sixteen Lombard was the recipient of a contract with Fox studios and the name that, barring a few early postings without the e on “Carole,” she would take to the grave.

Lombard was arguably saved from the string of placid leading lady roles William Fox signed her for by a car accident at age 18. The crash left her with a visible scar on her left cheek and a torn-up contract. With nowhere else to go, she traded in evening gowns and pearls for swimsuits and custard pies as a “Bathing Beauty” at the considerably more down-market Mack Sennett studios. Perhaps because the boss had made his bones treating everyone in his employ from Chaplin down with equal suspicion (legend has it Sennett had vertical dividers bolted to the bench seats in the writer’s room at his former fiefdom Keystone Studios so his gag men couldn’t nap while at work), the Sennett rank and file clung together like an abused family, an on-set culture that Lombard brought with her to the backlots and soundstages of Pathe, Fox, and, most notably, Paramount at the conclusion of her Sennett exile.

“She worked with me on every scene,” Fred MacMurray said of his fellow Paramount contractee and considerably more experienced co-star when he and Lombard starred in Mitchell Leisen’s excellent 1935 comedy Hands Across the Table. “I owe so much of that performance and my subsequent career to her.” Lombard’s assist went even further. No stranger to contract disputes (she was suspended during her teen-year tenure at Fox when she held out for more money), Lombard also encouraged MacMurray to ask for what he deserved when the success of their first picture together warranted a second pairing the following year in William K. Howard’s The Princess Comes Across. “My name was in star billing alongside Carole’s,” MacMurray told Mitchell Leisen’s biographer David Chierichetti, “but I was still being paid a pittance from my stock contract.” At Lombard’s urging, MacMurray successfully held out for a top-billed wage from Paramount. “You’re worth it, they know it and sooner or later they’ll have to give it to you,” MacMurray remembered Lombard telling him, “Besides, I’ll tell them I won’t make The Princess Comes Across with anyone else.”

The accepted orthodoxy in American film history is that the advent of the talkies and the cumbersome soundproofing and microphones that came with it sent the late period silent film’s sophisticated visual storytelling back to the film grammar stone age. It was, we’re told, principally the efforts of visionary camera stylists like Alfred Hitchcock and dialogue masters like Howard Hawks that toppled the tyranny of sound film’s technical encumbrances. The Hawks and Hitchcock entries in the series, the justifiably revered Twentieth Century, and the curiously overlooked Mr. and Mrs. Smith respectively are both breezily modern, immensely entertaining comedies showcasing their directors’ gifts for gracefully break neck comic escalation in Hawks’ case and sharply defined narrative point of view in the Hitchcock film.

But film history always appears willing to leave the actor out of the equation when adding up how movies endured the transitional years from silence to sound. Innovation and evolution in cinema storytelling was and still is shepherded on the backs of performers. Hollywood directors like Hawks, Hitchcock, Leisen, William Wellman, and the underrated William K. Howard who helped smooth out the talkies by liberating the camera and getting things moving were lucky to have a precision dynamo like Carole Lombard on the other side of the lens. Lombard’s alternately heavy-lidded or saucer-wide eyes and wind-tunnel perfect figure looked great from any angle. Her equal ease with physical comedy and rapid-fire dialogue, and almost supernatural ability to mug with comic accuracy and emotional sincerity have never been equaled. Stacked up next to Lombard, Lucille Ball, clearly in creative debt to her real-life friend, seems like Fabian lost in the shadow of Elvis Presley.

Few if any other performers of her generation could ride the turn away from comic towards melodramatic sharp enough to puncture that John Cromwell’s Made For Each Other takes during its last few reels. Lombard, unlike co-star Jimmy Stewart, was equipped to handle the bizarre genre splice with seamless facility. “Everything she did was exquisite,” Mitchell Leisen recalled of their collaborations. Spanning Hollywood’s first all talking decade, Film Forum’s nearly two dozen examples of Carole Lombard’s meticulous and yet miraculously high-wire application of her craft prove Leisen’s potentially sentiment clouded words a simple statement of fact.

 

 

 

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