Best remembered for her light comedies of the 1930s and early 1940s, Carole Lombard is Turner Classic Movies Star of the Day on Sunday, Aug. 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.
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.
Mitchell Leisen’s Hands Across the Table (1935) would have been more enjoyable had Carole Lombard ended up with Ralph Bellamy instead of Fred MacMurray. In fact, MacMurray’s obnoxious Average Joe portrayal – who comes across as the Average Jerk instead – all but destroys the film. His character should have gone to, once again, Melvyn Douglas, Herbert Marshall, Cary Grant, Brian Aherne, Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Edward G. Robinson, Bela Lugosi, Ginger Rogers, May Robson, or just about anyone else in Hollywood at that time.
I haven’t watched Vigil in the Night (1940), a melodrama about two sisters/nurses that isn’t considered one of George Stevens’ best. The cast, however, is good: in addition to Lombard, there are Brian Aherne and Anne Shirley. Vigil in the Night is also of interest in that it’s one of Lombard’s rare post-1935 non-comedic roles.
Carole Lombard died at the age of 33 in a plane crash on January 16, 1942.
Schedule (ET) and synopses from the TCM website:
6:00 AM BRIEF MOMENT (1933) A nightclub singer tries to rehabilitate a wealthy playboy. Director: David Burton. Cast: Carole Lombard, Gene Raymond, Donald Cook. Black and white. 69 min.
7:15 AM NO MORE ORCHIDS (1932) A wealthy woman opposes her uncle to marry a poor man. Director:Walter Lang. Cast: Carole Lombard, Walter Connolly, Louise Closser Hale. Black and white. 68 min.
8:30 AM THE GAY BRIDE (1934) A gold digger tries to get ahead by marrying a succession of ill-fated racketeers. Director:Jack Conway. Cast: Carole Lombard, Chester Morris, ZaSu Pitts. Black and white. 80 min.
10:00 AM FOOLS FOR SCANDAL (1938) A Hollywood star falls for a broken down aristocrat. Director:Mervyn LeRoy. Cast: Carole Lombard, Fernand Gravet, Ralph Bellamy. Black and white. 80 min.
11:30 AM LADY BY CHOICE (1934) To improve her image, a fan dancer “adopts” an old woman to be her mother. Director: David Burton. Cast: Carole Lombard, May Robson, Roger Pryor. Black and white. 76 min.
1:00 PM VIRTUE (1932) A taxi driver falls for a sassy New York con girl. Director: Edward Buzzell. Cast: Carole Lombard, Pat O’Brien, Ward Bond. Black and white. 69 min.
4:30 PM TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934) A tempestuous theatrical director tries to win back the star he created and then drove away. Director:Howard Hawks. Cast:John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, Walter Connolly. Black and white. 91 min.
6:15 PM TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) A troupe of squabbling actors joins the Polish underground to dupe the Nazis. Director: Ernst Lubitsch. Cast: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack. Black and white. 99 min.
8:00 PM MY MAN GODFREY (1936) A zany heiress tries to help a tramp by making him the family butler. Director: Gregory La Cava. Cast: William Powell, Carole Lombard, Alice Brady. Black and white. 94 min.
10:00 PM HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE (1935) A manicurist uses her beauty and emery board to snag a rich husband. Director: Mitchell Leisen. Cast: Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, Ralph Bellamy. Black and white. 80 min.
11:30 PM NOTHING SACRED (1937) When a small-town girl is diagnosed with a rare, deadly disease, an ambitious newspaper man turns her into a national heroine. Director: William A. Wellman. Cast: Carole Lombard, Fredric March, Charles Winninger. Color. 74 min.
1:00 AM MR. AND MRS. SMITH (1941) A quarrelsome couple discovers their marriage isn’t legal. Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Cast: Carole Lombard, Robert Montgomery, Gene Raymond. Black and white. 95 min.
3:00 AM VIGIL IN THE NIGHT (1940) A good nurse ruins her career by covering up for her sister’s careless mistake. Director: George Stevens. Cast: Carole Lombard, Brian Aherne, Anne Shirley. Black and white. 96 min.
4:45 AM THE RACKETEER (1929) A young beauty marries a gangster to help her musician boyfriend’s career. Director: Howard Higgin. Cast: Robert Armstrong, Carol Lombard, Roland Drew. Black and white. 66 min.
Turner Classic Movies website.