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Actress Carole Lombard on TCM: 1 of World’s Highest-Paid Women

actress Carole LombardActress Carole Lombard: TCM’s “Summer Under the Stars” series continues with the presentation of 15 movies starring one of cinema’s top performers of the late 1930s and early 1940s – who also happened to be one of the highest-paid women in the world.
  • TCM’s “Summer Under the Stars” schedule – Aug. 18: Turner Classic Movies will be placing the spotlight on actress Carole Lombard, with the presentation of 15 of her films from 1932–1942. Best remembered as the madcap heroine of several “screwball” comedies of the studio era, Lombard was one of the highest-paid women on the planet.
  • This Carole Lombard article includes a brief overview of three of her TCM films: True Confession, Twentieth Century, and Vigil in the Night.

TCM’s ‘Summer Under the Stars’ schedule on Aug. 18: Tribute to actress Carole Lombard, the star of several ‘screwball’ comedy classics and 1 of the highest-paid women in the world

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Turner Classic Movies’ “Summer Under the Stars” schedule – Aug. 18: TCM will be presenting 15 titles starring Carole Lombard, one of the biggest names of the studio era, now best remembered for her light comedies of the 1930s and early 1940s.

After a long apprenticeship – her first film, at age 12, came out in 1921 – Lombard began landing lead and co-lead roles in the early 1930s, finally reaching stardom in mid-decade.

Unfortunately, TCM will be covering only the last ten or so years of her career. In other words: No silents (in most of which she went either uncredited or credited as Carol Lombard) or dawn-of-the-sound-era fare.

So here’s hoping that someone, some day will unearth, to name a mere two of Lombard’s silent era films, restored prints of Pretty Ladies[1] (featuring a pre-stardom Norma Shearer, long-legged dancer Ann Pennington as herself, and, supposedly, Lombard, Myrna Loy, and Joan Crawford in bits) and Power (featuring another future star, Joan Bennett).

Also missing from the TCM schedule are all but one of Lombard’s pre-1936 Paramount titles. The sole exception is Wesley Ruggles’ 1932 melodrama No Man of Her Own[2], in which Lombard and Dorothy Mackaill (when will TCM show the part-talkie The Barker[1]?) vie for the same man, Clark Gable. (Lombard and Gable were married in 1939; No Man of Her Own was their only movie together. Curiously, at that time Lombard was married to another Hollywood star, William Powell.[3])

So, if you were hoping to finally get to watch Carole Lombard in White Woman (dreary but a must all the same), The Eagle and the Hawk (the restored, complete version, please), Supernatural, I Take This Woman, Rumba, or Bolero, well, tough luck.

On the positive side, this is your chance to check out Walter Lang’s No More Orchids and David Burton’s Lady by Choice. As per the website Once Upon a Screen…, neither Columbia release has been aired on TCM since 2014.

Hefty salary

As for Carole Lombard being one of the highest-paid women in the world, that’s no exaggeration.

In 1937, she reportedly earned $465,000 ($450,000 for three movies; $15,000 for radio appearances) – of which she is supposed to have kept $50,000 (or $70,000, depending on the source) after agents’ fees and taxes. Remember, in those pre-Ronald Reagan days, the rich actually had to (at least on paper) pay taxes in the then more egalitarian United States.

Lombard’s thriving career was cut short when, on her way back to Los Angeles from a war bond tour, she died at age 33 in a small-plane crash in January 1942.

Below is a brief overview of three Carole Lombard movies: True Confession, Twentieth Century, and Vigil in the Night. (See TCM’s Carole Lombard “Summer Under the Stars” schedule further below. Most titles will remain available for a while on the Watch TCM app.)

True Confession (1937)

“Lie, Lie, Leila” would have been an apt title for Paramount’s “screwball” comedy True Confession – if only Carole Lombard’s weirdo character hadn’t been named Helen.

The story revolves around a fiction writer who has a problem sticking to the facts whenever her tongue is placed on her cheek. (It could be the other way around.) Married to an unsuccessful attorney, she also has a problem paying the household bills.

Things looks desperate, but the gods finally smile on her: She gets a job as a secretary, her sex-crazed boss jumps on her, she quits in a huff, the boss gets murdered, she all but confesses to the crime (while claiming innocence), the husband is hired to defend her in court so he can prove his mettle to the whole world.

Propelled by an intriguing premise – the absurdity is the point – True Confession starts out well, but about halfway into the narrative it mostly runs out of both wit and laughs.

On the plus side, Lombard is fine as the compulsive liar, even though at times – when that tongue is placed on that cheek – it’s clear that we’re watching a performance.

Fred MacMurray, Lombard’s mismatched costar in four titles,* is his usual humdrum self in a role that begged for someone like Cary Grant or Melvyn Douglas – or Paramount’s own Ray Milland. John Barrymore, however, does have a great time immodestly stealing every scene he’s in as the movie’s other weirdo.

Oscar nominee Wesley Ruggles (Cimarron, 1930–31) directed True Confession from a screenplay credited to frequent collaborator Claude Binyon (e.g., The Gilded Lily, Sing You Sinners), adapting Georges Berr and Louis Verneuil’s 1934 play Mon crime (which starred Edwige Feuillère).

Paramount remade True Confession – as Cross My Heart – in 1946, with Betty Hutton in the old Lombard role and Sonny Tufts as her leading man, under the direction of future Red Scare blacklistee John Berry. And this year, François Ozon has delivered his own loose take on the story by way of The Crime Is Mine / Mon crime, starring Nadia Tereszkiewicz, Rebecca Marder, and Isabelle Huppert (as a character supposedly inspired by Sarah Bernhardt).

* TCM will also be presenting the Carole Lombard-Fred MacMurray movies Swing High, Swing Low (hopefully a better print than the usual crummy one) and The Princess Comes Across. Hands Across the Table has been left out.

Twentieth Century (1934)

Generally regarded as one of the earliest screwball comedies – alongside (stretching things quite a bit) Frank Capra’s multiple Oscar winner It Happened One NightHoward HawksTwentieth Century stars True Confession’s John Barrymore as eccentric Broadway impresario Oscar Jaffe (inspired by David Belasco) who will stop at nothing to get his former protégée, stage and Hollywood diva Lily Garland (previously, the lingerie model Mildred Plotka), to work with him again and thus save his theater, his reputation, and his finances.

If this sounds a bit familiar, well, perhaps it’s because it is.

Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote the screen adaptation of their own 1932 Broadway hit Twentieth Century*, itself based on Charles Bruce Millholland’s unpublished play Napoleon of Broadway. As it happens, Hecht and MacArthur also penned the 1928 Broadway hit The Front Page, in which Chicago tabloid editor Walter Burns will stop at nothing to keep ace reporter Hildy Johnson on his payroll.

In large part because of its two stars, the movie transfer of Twentieth Century (shut out at the Academy Awards) is far superior to Lewis Milestone’s Oscar-nominated 1931 version of The Front Page.† John Barrymore is nothing short of sensational as the Broadway producer, while Carole Lombard holds her own as both the insecure lingerie model and the haughty great diva. Just as good is Etienne Girardot as a mild-mannered escapee from a mental institution.

By the way, the title of the play/movie doesn’t refer to the period that, by 1934, had already given the planet one world war, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, and the rise of fascism and nazism. Instead, it’s the name of one of the story’s key characters: The 20th Century Limited, the train that, from 1902 to 1967, connected New York City’s Grand Central Terminal to Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station.

* Moffat Johnston and Eugenie Leontovich starred in the play. A musicalized version, On the Twentieth Century, opened on Broadway in 1978. Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote the book, Cy Coleman composed the music, and Hal Prince directed the proceedings. John Cullum and Madeline Kahn headed the cast.

† The two leads in the movie adaptation of The Front Page are recent Broadway import Pat O’Brien and silent era veteran Adolphe Menjou.

Carole Lombard Vigil in the NightCarole Lombard in Vigil in the Night: Though best remembered for her sophisticated comedies, Lombard was also seen in numerous serious roles, notably as a devoted English nurse in George Stevens’s gripping 1940 drama.

Vigil in the Night (1940)

“There’s nothing in the world so bad as a bad nurse, nor so good as a good one,” says hospital matron Winifred Harris to young English nurse Carole Lombard in the socio-psychological drama Vigil in the Night.

Lombard and her sister, Anne Shirley (also both English and a nurse, and an Oscar nominee for Stella Dallas, 1937), learn that truth the hard way. Recklessness on Shirley’s part leads to the death of a patient; as the older sister and the one who had goaded Shirley into becoming a nurse, Lombard takes the blame. She’s expelled from the hospital but eventually lands a job at another small-town institution.

From then on, Lombard and viewers experience human cruelty, selfishness, stupidity, and, this being a hospital movie, disease and death – including an epidemic that could have been prevented had cost-conscious businessman and chair of the hospital board Julien Mitchell provided the facility with the necessary financial assistance. The perfect example as to why each society needs its own high-quality, taxpayer-funded health service.

But Vigil in the Night isn’t all darkness: The film also shows us human selflessness, compassion, redemption, and … maskless nurses treating ultra-contagious patients. Ah, let’s not forget that this being a Hollywood movie, we’re also given the chance to enjoy a bit of romance between nurse Lombard and the handsome and seriously underrated doctor Brian Aherne (Oscar nominee for Juarez, 1939).

Directed by George Stevens from a screenplay by Fred Guiol, P.J. Wolfson, and Rowland Leigh, adapting A.J. Cronin’s serialized 1939 novella, the largely forgotten Vigil of the NIght isn’t a “great” movie. But no matter. It’s an engrossing, moving, and, generally speaking, capably acted one.

Now, despite her undeniable charisma and several good moments, Carole Lombard isn’t 100 percent up to the task. Not sounding (or “acting”) at all English, she speaks in soft-yet-somber tones in a role made to order for someone like Celia Johnson or Nurse Edith Cavell herself, Anna Neagle.

Note: The TCM print of what seems to be a beautiful movie – cinematography by Robert De Grasse, art direction by Van Nest Polglase, set decoration by Darrell Silvera – looks like a mediocre video transfer from a darkish 16 mm print. Fingers crossed this will be remedied in the not too distant future.

Immediately below is TCM’s Carole Lombard movie schedule.

TCM’s ‘Summer Under the Stars’ schedule: Carole Lombard

Aug. 18, EDT

6:00 AM No More Orchids (1932)
1h 11m | Comedy-Drama
Director: Walter Lang.
Cast: Carole Lombard, Walter Connolly, Louise Closser Hale, Lyle Talbot, C. Aubrey Smith, Allen Vincent.

7:15 AM The Gay Bride (1934)
1h 20m | Comedy
Director: Jack Conway.
Cast: Carole Lombard, Chester Morris, ZaSu Pitts, Leo Carrillo, Nat Pendleton, Sam Hardy.

8:45 AM Fools for Scandal (1938)
1h 21m | Comedy
Director: Mervyn LeRoy.
Cast: Carole Lombard, Fernand Gravet, Ralph Bellamy, Allen Jenkins, Isabel Jeans, Marie Wilson, Heather Thatcher.

10:15 AM Swing High, Swing Low (1937)
1h 37m | Musical
Director: Mitchell Leisen.
Cast: Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, Charles Butterworth, Jean Dixon, Dorothy Lamour, Cecil Cunningham, Franklin Pangborn, Anthony Quinn.

12:00 PM Nothing Sacred (1937)
1h 15m | Comedy
Director: William A. Wellman.
Cast: Carole Lombard, Fredric March, Charles Winninger, Walter Connolly, Sig Ruman, Frank Fay, Margaret Hamilton.

1:15 PM Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)
1h 29m | Comedy
Director: Alfred Hitchcock.
Cast: Carole Lombard, Robert Montgomery, Gene Raymond, Jack Carson, Philip Merivale, Lucile Watson, William Tracy, Charles Halton, Esther Dale, Emma Dunn, Betty Compson, Pamela Blake (as Adele Pearce).

3:00 PM To Be or Not to Be (1942)
1h 39m | Comedy
Director: Ernst Lubitsch.
Cast: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Felix Bressart, Lionel Atwill, Stanley Ridges, Sig Ruman, Tom Dugan, Charles Halton, Maude Eburne, Miles Mander.

4:45 PM In Name Only (1939)
1h 42m | Drama
Director: John Cromwell.
Cast: Carole Lombard, Cary Grant, Kay Francis, Charles Coburn, Helen Vinson, Katharine Alexander, Nella Walker, Peggy Ann Garner, Spencer Charters.

6:30 PM No Man of Her Own (1932)
1h 25m | Drama
Director: Wesley Ruggles.
Cast: Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Dorothy Mackaill, Grant Mitchell, Elizabeth Patterson, J. Farrell MacDonald, Tommy Conlon, Charley Grapewin.

8:00 PM The Princess Comes Across (1936)
1h 16m| Comedy
Director: William K. Howard.
Cast: Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, Douglass Dumbrile, Alison Skipworth, William Frawley, Porter Hall, Lumsden Hare, Sig Ruman, Mischa Auer, Bradley Page.

9:30 PM True Confession (1937)
1h 15m | Comedy
Director: Wesley Ruggles.
Cast: Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, John Barrymore, Una Merkel, Porter Hall, Edgar Kennedy, Lynne Overman, Toby Wing, Hattie McDaniel.

11:15 PM My Man Godfrey (1936)
1h 35m | Comedy
Director: Gregory La Cava.
Cast: William Powell, Carole Lombard, Alice Brady, Gail Patrick, Eugene Pallette, Jean Dixon, Alan Mowbray, Mischa Auer, Pat Flaherty, Robert Light.

1:00 AM Twentieth Century (1934)
1h 31m | Comedy
Director: Howard Hawks.
Cast: John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Ralph Forbes, Charles Lane (as Charles Levison), Etienne Girardot, Dale Fuller, Edgar Kennedy, Billie Seward.

2:45 AM Vigil in the Night (1940)
1h 36m | Drama
Director: George Stevens.
Cast: Carole Lombard, Brian Aherne, Anne Shirley, Julien Mitchell, Robert Coote, Peter Cushing, Ethel Griffies, Doris Lloyd.

4:30 AM Lady by Choice (1934)
1h 18m | Romantic Drama
Director: David Burton.
Cast: Carole Lombard, May Robson, Roger Pryor, Walter Connolly, Arthur Hohl, Raymond Walburn, Henry Kolker.

“Actress Carole Lombard on TCM: 1 of World’s Highest-Paid Women” notes

Send in the Pretty Ladies

[1] A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release, Pretty Ladies should be a part of the Warner Bros. library. So, what’s TCM’s excuse?

A First National/Warner Bros. release, George Fitzmaurice’s The Barker – for which Betty Compson was a finalist for the 1928–29 Best Actress Academy Award* – was remade as Hoopla at the Fox Film Corporation and as Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe at 20th Century Fox. The remakes starred, respectively, Clara Bow (possibly her career-best work) and Betty Grable.

That means the rights to The Barker may now belong to Fox – which now belongs to Disney. Either way, The Barker will fall into the public domain at the end of this year.

* No nominations were announced for the second Academy Awards. Betty Compson’s unofficial nod notwithstanding, The Barker’s most notable performance is that of Dorothy Mackaill as the “older woman” romancing 18-year-old Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Milton Sills is The Barker’s title character and Fairbanks Jr.’s father.

No remake of its own

[2] The 1932 No Man of Her Own has no connection to Mitchell Leisen’s 1950 psychological drama of the same name starring Barbara Stanwyck.

An aside: The 1950 movie is far more intriguing.

William Powell & Carole Lombard

[3] TCM will be showing one of the three William Powell-Carole Lombard pairings, Gregory La Cava’s sophisticated comedy My Man Godfrey, which earned them both Academy Award nominations. (One of three for Powell; Lombard’s single Oscar nod.)

The other two Powell-Lombard titles are Richard Wallace’s Man of the World (which has been aired on TCM), also featuring Wynne Gibson, and Lothar Mendes’ Ladies‘ Man (which has been shown on the Criterion Channel), also featuring Kay Francis.

Carole Lombard “Summer Under the Stars” schedule via Turner Classic Movies.

Carole Lombard’s 1937 income is discussed in the Oct. 17, 1938, issue of Life.

Carole Lombard Vigil in the Night movie image: RKO Pictures.

“Actress Carole Lombard on TCM: 1 of World’s Highest-Paid Women” last updated in September 2023.

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