When I think of Carole Lombard, the first thing that comes to mind – well, the second, after her ditzy heiress in My Man Godfrey – is how her career would have developed in the 1940s, after her forte, screwball comedies, fell out of favor. Most of her fellow 1930s screwballers, e.g., Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, actually did well in the 1940s – whether in dramas or comedies – but had their respective film careers come to an abrupt halt in the early 1950s when television and a radical change in audience demographics in the United States wreaked havoc on the careers of most female stars. Among the screwball-comedy actresses of the 1930s, only Katharine Hepburn went on making (increasingly fewer) films after the demise of the studio era.
Reportedly the highest-paid actress in films in 1937, Carole Lombard (born Jane Alice Peters in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on Oct. 6, 1908) was known for her wit, charm, comic abilities, and for her 1939 marriage to Clark Gable. Lombard was equally well-known – in Hollywood circles, that is – for having the most expletive-filled mouth west of the Mississippi and for being nearly as much an expert in lighting as the studios’ technicians. (She probably had to, considering that she had a large forehead and a square jaw that would be the envy of most football players. Even so, whether because of her own or the cinematographers’ efforts, Lombard looked stunning in her films.)
Though she did appear in several well-respected vehicles, as far as I’m concerned, with the exception of the aforementioned My Man Godfrey, one of the best screwball comedies ever, the chief reason to watch Carole Lombard films is Carole Lombard herself. Virtue, Hands Across the Table, Love Before Breakfast, True Confession, Made for Each Other would all have been insufferable if it weren’t for her presence in them. But since she is in them, then they’re all worth watching.
This October, celebrating the actress’ centenary, Turner Classic Movies has named Carole Lombard their Star of the Month. The Lombard series ends this evening with showings of four of her last films: the dramas In Name Only and Vigil in the Night, and the comedies Mr. and Mrs. Smith (right) and To Be or Not To Be. Of those, I’ve only seen the two comedies.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a middling effort from an unlikely source: Alfred Hitchcock. When the comedy works it’s less because of the director or screenwriter Norman Krasna than because of Lombard’s and co-star Robert Montgomery’s delightful performances.
Written by Edwin Justus Mayer and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, To Be or Not To Be is one of the filmmaker’s best-liked films. As usual, I disagree. Not that I find To Be or Not To Be a poor comedy. In fact, this anti-Nazi farce is thoroughly watchable. But that’s it. It’s watchable, on a par with Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Lubitsch could have – and frequently did – better, though I put most of the blame on Jack Benny, whom I find even less humorous than Mel Brooks in the 1983 remake.
Still, Lombard is as droll as ever. Her performance alone is enough for me to recommend To Be or Not To Be, which turned out to be her last film appearance. On Jan. 16, 1942, the 33-year-old actress was killed in a plane crash at Table Rock Mountain, Nevada, while returning to Los Angeles from a war bond tour. (A line from To Be or Not To Be, “What can happen in a plane?” was deleted from the final release print following Lombard’s death. Mercifully, the poorly received line, “What he did to Shakespeare we are doing now to Poland” remained in the picture.)
Critics at the time had many qualms about the material, as Lubitsch’s comedy is set in Poland during the Nazi invasion. “There’s no escaping what, to use the gentlest terms for it, must be called a lapse of taste in the picture. There have been, and will be, harsher words for it,” wrote the National Board of Review, while the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther complained that “in a spirit of levity, confused by frequent doses of shock, Mr. Lubitsch has set his actors to performing a spy-thriller of fantastic design amid the ruins and frightful oppressions of Nazi-invaded Warsaw. To say it is callous and macabre is understating the case.”
Despite the accusations – or perhaps because of them – according to Scott Eyman’s Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, To Be or Not To Be grossed a remarkable $2.1 million in worldwide rentals.
As for my “what if” conjectures about the post-To Be or Not To Be Lombard, all I can say is: I have no idea how Carole Lombard would have fared as she matured, but her death was a major loss to the film world all the same.
Schedule (Eastern Time) and synopses from the TCM website:
8:00 PM To Be or Not to Be (1942). A troupe of squabbling actors joins the Polish underground to dupe the Nazis. Cast: Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, Robert Stack. Dir: Ernst Lubitsch. BW-99 min.
10:00 PM Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941). A quarrelsome couple discovers their marriage isn’t legal. Cast: Carole Lombard, Robert Montgomery, Gene Raymond. Dir: Alfred Hitchcock. BW-95 min.
12:00 AM Vigil in the Night (1940). A good nurse ruins her career by covering up for her sister’s careless mistake. Cast: Carole Lombard, Anne Shirley, Brian Aherne. Dir: George Stevens. BW-96 min.