CAROLE LOMBARD: LOVABLE MADCAP
By Dina-Marie Kulzer
Known as the Screwball Queen Of The Screen, Carole Lombard, with her silky blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes, radiant smile and perfectly chiseled high cheekbones was one of the most classically beautiful actresses to ever grace the screen. A brilliant, bright comedienne, Carole Lombard had the rare quality of being as elegant drenched in water or with a pie in her face, as she was with her willowy figure draped in long, shimmering gowns. In retrospect, her distinctive, rapid-fire breathless delivery of dialogue makes it seem as though she was in a rush. It was almost as though she knew she would not be with us for long.
Lombard's beauty is timeless. Looking at her today, she does not have the "dated" look of some of her contemporaries. You could pull her look out of the thirties and put her into the seventies or here in the 21st century, and Lombard would not look out of place. This may be one reason her photo was chosen for a recent GAP clothing advertising campaign. Slim, with a stunning natural and contemporary look, Lombard's photo was used to advertise khaki slacks.
However, beauty was only one aspect of Carole Lombard. There was so much more. Carole was an intelligent, liberated woman far ahead of her time. She had a genuine, direct manner and was famous for both her saucy language and her generosity. One of her directors, Mitchell Leisen, called her: "The profane angel, because she looked like an angel and swore like a sailor." Carole actually used swearing as a way to ward off unwanted advances from Hollywood "wolves". Carole asked her older brothers Frederic and Stuart to teach her curse words and when a man got out of line she would toss off a few well chosen swear words leaving him stunned.
Carole was born Jane Alice Peters, 1908, the daughter of Frederic Peters and Elizabeth Knight. Jane Alice was a bold, little tomboy. The tag-a-long little sister of her two older brothers, Stuart (1905-1956) and Frederic (1902-1979), demanded to be included in all neighborhood baseball and football games... to be thought of as an equal. Her parents divorced when she was eight years old. That year, 1916, Elizabeth Peters decided to take her three children to visit Los Angeles and then decided to settle there. Jane Alice was twelve years old when she received her first role in a silent film titled A Perfect Crime (1921).
She would return to the screen in 1925, with a new name -- Carole Lombard. Her film career was interrupted when Carole was injured in a car accident. Her face hit the windshield and was cut from her nose to her left cheekbone. The doctor sewed 14 stitches into her cut without the use of anesthetic, so her facial muscles would not relax. Still, Carole was left with a deep, red scar. While recuperating, she studied motion picture photography. Eventually, she had plastic surgery which made the scar less noticeable. Carole still had to utilize her knowledge of photography. Cameraman Harry Stradling later said: "She knows as much about the tricks of the trade as I do! In close up work, I wanted to cover her scar by focusing the lights on her face so that it would seem to blend with her cheek. She was the one to tell me that diffusing glass in my lens would do the same job better, and she was right!"
Carole Lombard's Birthplace in Fort Wayne, Indiana - Photographs by Carole Brennan
Carole Lombard & John Barrymore in 20th Century (1934)
After the accident, Carole received good comedy training as one of Mack Sennett's Bathing Beauties, a slap-stick comedy troupe. Later she mostly received ordinary leading lady roles. It was the film Twentieth Century (1934) that gave Carole Lombard a whole new lease on her movie career. Critic William Fleming wrote: "Lombard is like no other Lombard you've ever seen. When you see her, you'll forget the rather stilted Lombard of old. You'll see a star blaze out of this scene, high spots Carole never dreamed of hitting."
Carole credited her co-star John Barrymore with her success in that film. She once explained: "It was Barrymore who taught me to "let go", to abandon myself to my part. When as Oscar Jaffee, the producer, he bellowed at Lily Garland, the actress, I found myself shrieking back at him. When he threw her in his arms and tore his hair, I clutched my throat and "hystericated" -- forgetting everything except to live the character." After Twentieth Century was completed, Barrymore presented Carole with an autographed portrait with the inscription: "To the finest actress I have worked with, bar none."
This moved Carole deeply. When Barrymore’s film career was later on the decline, Carole insisted he be cast with her in another breezy, lighthearted comedy True Confession (1937). Carole Lombard's own enchanting, spontaneous personality shined through in her screwball comedies such as: The Princess Comes Across (1936), the brilliant My Man Godfrey (1936), Nothing Sacred (1937) and the classic Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941).
These films have provided merriment for audiences everywhere. Carole Lombard had no equal in the screwball comedy film genre. Carole did a few wacky things off screen, too. When she was made honorary mayor of Culver City, the first and only thing she did was to declare a studio holiday and send all the employees home, much to boss David Selznick's distress.
James Stewart & Lombard in Made for Each Other (1939)
Frederic Peters, an unidentified guest, Stuart Peters, Bride Lombard and Groom William Powell on June 26, 1931
Carole Lombard & William Powell in Ladies Man (1931)
Carole also tricked her agent, Myron Selznick, into signing over 10% of his earnings to her. In her private life, Carole was married twice. Her first husband was William Powell (1931-1933). Carole remained on friendly terms with Powell after their divorce. It was he who suggested that Carole be cast in My Man Godfrey, for which she received an Oscar nomination as Best Actress. Carole later saw Powell through a battle with cancer. Ironically, William Powell outlived almost all of his contemporaries.
Carole was also in love with Bing Crosby's rival, singer Russ Columbo. In 1934 Columbo was killed in a mysterious shooting incident, that was eventually written off as accidental. In 1939 Carole married the great love of her life, Clark Gable. They lived a happy life together. However, their idyllic marriage would also, sadly have a tragic ending.
Another great love of Carole's was her country. Carole loved the United States and was one of the only people in history to ever come out and defend the income tax system. Carole said: "Every cent anybody pays in taxes is spent to benefit him. There's no better place to spend it. I enjoy this country and really think I get my money's worth."
In January, 1942, Carole Lombard sold over two-million dollars worth of war bonds in her home state of Indiana. Carole, anxious to return home to husband Clark Gable, wanted to take a plane instead of a train. Carole's mother and MGM publicity man Otto Winkler who accompanied her on their tour, were both afraid of flying. They begged her to take the train. Being the fair person she was, Carole said they would flip a coin, heads the train, tails the plane. The fatal coin came up tails.
Gable & Lombard: A Rare Candid Shot-
Dan Yanish, a watchman at a diamond mine near Las Vegas recalled: "It was a beautiful clear night and you could see for miles. It hardly seemed minutes before the plane faded away over the Charleston range when I saw a flash and then big tongues of flame rising from the mountainside. The plane cracked in two like a piece of kindling wood." All passengers, including 33-year-old Carole Lombard, her beloved mother, Otto Winkler and 15 young Army fliers were killed instantly. President Roosevelt awarded Carole Lombard with a medal as "The first woman to be killed in action, in defense of her country, in its war against the Axis Powers."
Carole Lombard, the patriot, died in that plane crash. However, her high spirited, vibrant, image still lives on film -- assuring us that this screen immortal and national heroine will never be forgotten.
Copyright © Dina-Marie Kulzer (aka Dina Di Mambro) 1983-2009. This article may not be reprinted without permission.
One of the last Photographs of Carole Lombard on her ill-fated Bond Tour
Carole Lombard Memorial Bridge in Fort Wayne, Indiana - Photograph by Carole Brennan
Please join the efforts of Carole Lombard admirers worldwide in requesting that a commemorative stamp be issued by the United States Postal Service in their Legends of Hollywood series honoring this great patriot and actress who died in a plane crash while selling U.S. War bonds in 1942. President Roosevelt awarded Carole Lombard with a medal as "The first woman to be killed in action, in defense of her country, in its war against the Axis Powers." There is no actor more deserving of the honor of a commemorative stamp. Please write to:
Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee
US Postal Service
1735 North Lynn St Rm 5013
Arlington VA 22209-6432
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Kulzer has written extensively about classic movie stars of the
golden age of Hollywood from the time she was a teenager. Her book Television
Series Regulars of the Fifties and Sixties In Interview (McFarland Publishing)
consisting of 22 in-depth interviews with stars of classic TV series was published
in 1992. In addition, she has worked as a research consultant
and provided materials for biography specials about Carole Lombard for the A
& E Network and E! Entertainment Television.
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