Best remembered for her light comedies of the ’30s and early ’40s, Carole Lombard is Turner Classic Movies Star of the Day on Sunday, August 28, as TCM’s continues its "Summer Under the Stars" film series. Unfortunately, TCM isn’t showing any hard-to-find Carole Lombard movies. So, don’t expect Swing High, Swing Low; We’re Not Dressing; the eminently dreadful (and compulsively watchable) White Woman; I Take This Woman; Up Pops the Devil; It Pays to Advertise, Power, etc. [Carole Lombard Movie Schedule.]
Having said that, TCM did show the lesser-known Virtue (1932) and Brief Moment (1933) earlier today, and will be showing The Racketeer (1929) later this evening. Directed by the all but completely forgotten Howard Higgin, The Racketeer is a crime melodrama that features future King Kong semi-villain Robert Armstrong.
Chances are The Racketeer will turn out to be nothing more than a historical curiosity — but that’s not a bad thing at all. First, that early talkie period produced a number of bizarre efforts. Second, there’s the fact that during that time Carole Lombard was billed as Carol Lombard. And finally, it’ll be interesting to check out a movie directed by Howard Higgin, who handled several future movie and/or stage stars at the beginning of their film careers: Lombard in The Racketeer and High Voltage (1929), Lombard and Joan Bennett in Power (1928), future Lombard husband Clark Gable in The Painted Desert (1931), Bette Davis and Pat O’Brien in Hell’s House (1932), and Constance Cummings in The Last Man (1932).
TCM is currently showing Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942), Lombard’s last movie. Despite my admiration for both Lombard and Lubitsch, I can’t say I’m a big fan of this satire set during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Some found it tasteless at the time; watching it decades later, I found nothing offensive about it. My problem with To Be or Not to Be is Jack Benny, who is okay in a role that I wish had gone to someone less clownish like, say, Melvyn Douglas or Cary Grant, or even Herbert Marshall or Brian Aherne.
Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey (1936) is one of the best comedies of the ’30s — or any other decade. La Cava proves himself Lubitsch’s equal in terms of comedy timing and sophistication, while Morrie Ryskind and Eric Hatch’s screenplay (from Hatch’s novel) is filled with witty repartees and a hilarious cast of characters. La Cava, Ryskind, and Hatch were lucky that Universal — then a somewhat minor studio — managed to come up with a first-rate ensemble: Carole Lombard from Paramount, Lombard’s former husband William Powell from MGM, in addition to veteran stage and screen actress Alice Brady, Gail Patrick, Mischa Auer, Alan Mowbray, and, doing his usual grouchy bit, Eugene Pallette.
Neither William A. Wellman’s Nothing Sacred (1937) nor Alfred Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) are first-rate comedies, but both are perfectly watchable chiefly thanks to Lombard — who is ably paired with Fredric March in Wellman’s comedy about a woman who wrongly believes she’s dying of radium poisoning, and with Robert Montgomery in Hitchcock’s highly unusual comedy foray. Produced by David O. Selznick, Nothing Sacred is chiefly notable as the first feature screwball comedy to be shot in three-strip Technicolor.
And in case you’re wondering, the Lombard-Montgomery Mr. and Mrs. Smith, written by Norman Krasna, has nothing to do with the Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie movie Mr. & Mrs. Smith. In the former, a married couple discover their marriage certificate isn’t valid; in the latter, a married couple discover they’re hired assassins to bump one another off.