Tuesday, October 06, 2020

A Birthday Tribute to Carole Lombard

Note: The dazzling Carole Lombard was born October 6, 1908.

This article on Lombard was written for ClassicFlix in 2014. I'm sharing it here for new readers, updated with photos and relevant links.

For additional information please visit my 2011 post Carole Lombard and Kimberly Crest, as well as my 2014 post Carole Lombard and TWA Flight 3.

January 16th, 2014, marked the 72nd anniversary of actress Carole Lombard's tragically early death in the crash of TWA Flight 3.

Lombard was on a highly successful war bonds drive just weeks after Pearl Harbor when her plane crashed outside Las Vegas, Nevada, killing all 22 people on board. Details of Lombard's life and the ill-fated flight have been chronicled in Robert Matzen's outstanding new book FIREBALL: CAROLE LOMBARD AND THE MYSTERY OF FLIGHT 3.

On the flight's anniversary I attended a lecture by Matzen on TWA Flight 3 at the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica.

As I considered Carole Lombard's sudden death and how much Hollywood lost with her passing, my thoughts inevitably turned to the start of her life, when she was little Jane Peters of Fort Wayne, Indiana. This in turn caused me to recall an exciting experience I had as a college student, when I discovered previously unidentified photos of little Jane, the movie-star-to-be.

An interesting bit of trivia unknown to many Lombard fans is she was related to the Kimberly family, co-founders of the Kimberly-Clark company, which was established in the 19th century and is still in existence today.

Like many wealthy and not-so-wealthy families, the Kimberlys were lured by California's balmy weather and relocated from Neenah, Wisconsin to Redlands, California in 1905; they purchased a mansion which had been built a few years previously and named it Kimberly Crest.

I came into the story as a history major at the University of Redlands in the mid '80s, when I had a senior year internship cataloging and preserving photos at the Kimberly Crest mansion. A classic film fan even then, I was immediately interested when the curator told me Carole Lombard was a relative.

In those pre-Internet days when facts and photos were harder to come by, I fortunately owned two reference books on Lombard which had photos of her as a child. I studied them carefully so I would have an idea of what she looked like before I began my semester's work.

On the first day of my internship, I hardly knew where to begin. I flipped through scores of photos, trying to assess what I'd be working with that semester, and then I came to a photo of two little girls labeled simply "Christmas 1919."

I knew immediately I'd struck pay dirt; there was simply no mistaking the beautiful eyes of the little girl standing on the right in the photo. Carole Lombard, then known as Jane Peters, would have been 11 years old.

The curator was a bit thunderstruck I'd found the photo within a couple hours of going to work, but fortunately family patriarch J.A. Kimberly kept diaries. The pages for Christmastime of 1919 immediately verified my find. Mr. Kimberly referenced a Christmas visit by "Totsie and Jane." It was known from other references that Totsie was a family nickname for Jane's mother, Elizabeth "Bessie" Peters. The Peters family had moved to California in the mid-teens after Jane's parents divorced.

I later discovered three additional photos of Jane, aka Carole.

The finds, which verified longtime local rumors that Lombard had spent time with the Kimberlys as a child, caused something of a splash in Redlands, resulting in local newspaper stories and eventually even a segment of the PBS TV series ON CAMPUS, narrated by George Fenneman. (He was not at the shoot in Redlands.)

Just a couple of years after her Christmas visit to Redlands, Jane began working in silent films, first under the name Carol Lombard, then adding an "e" a few years later and becoming Carole.

Equally adept at comedy and drama, Carole ultimately amassed over 75 credits in shorts and feature films, becoming one of Hollywood's greatest stars. In her personal life, there was a short-lived marriage to William Powell -- who remained a friend and made MY MAN GODFREY (1936) with her after their divorce -- and then, famously, her marriage to the "King" of Hollywood, Clark Gable.

Though her early death robbed us all of the performances which were never to be, Carole Lombard left behind a fine body of work with a number of inspired, memorable performances. Here are a few favorites which are available on DVD. Please click any hyperlinked title for my extended review.

NO MAN OF HER OWN (1932) - Sparks fly in this pre-Code starring Lombard and the man she would one day marry, Clark Gable. Gable plays a card sharp who meets Lombard, a small town librarian, and decides he might like to reform if she's part of his future. It's cinema's loss this pair never worked together on film again, as their chemistry is electric.

TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934) - This was a transitional film for Lombard as she moved from pre-Code dramatic heroine to screwball comedy star. She plays an actress contending with a crazy director (John Barrymore) in this, at times, frenetic Howard Hawks comedy.

HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE (1935) - The first of four films Lombard made with Fred MacMurray, this Depression tale directed by Mitchell Leisen is the story of a manicurist (Lombard) and a playboy (MacMurray) whose family lost its money in the crash. They each want to marry to increase their fortunes -- Lombard has a likely prospect in wheelchair-bound Ralph Bellamy -- but fortunately, or unfortunately, they fall in love. At times, the tone of this ostensible comedy turns quite dark; in contrast, a late-night love scene between MacMurray and Lombard is filled with romantic longing and is superbly acted. MacMurray and Lombard were an excellent screen team.

LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST (1936) - In this giddy film, business magnate Scott (Preston Foster) won't take no for an answer when he pursues beautiful Kay (Lombard), who's just become engaged to Bill (Cesar Romero). Kay resists so long that one starts wondering what Scott sees in her, even if she is beautiful -- but she is Carole Lombard, with her unique combination of daffiness and vulnerability, and that's reason enough for Preston Foster to stalk her until she says yes!

THE PRINCESS COMES ACROSS (1936) - Band leader King Mantell (Fred MacMurray) falls for Swedish Princess Olga (Lombard) during a transatlantic crossing, but the Princess isn't exactly what she seems... Part screwball comedy and part murder mystery, with a little concertina music on the side! A very enjoyable film.

MY MAN GODFREY (1936) - Possibly the best Lombard film of them all, and certainly my favorite, Carole stars as dizzy Irene Bullock, who hires a hobo (William Powell) to be the family butler during the midst of a scavenger hunt. This film encapsulates what Carole Lombard was all about, utterly crazy and utterly gorgeous. Who can forget her reaction when Godfrey puts her in a cold shower? "Godfrey loves me, Godfrey loves me!"

NOTHING SACRED (1937) - Directed by William Wellman, Lombard plays Hazel Flagg, who believes she is dying and is exploited by newsman Wally Cook (Fredric March), who makes her a media darling. The storyline about media manipulation and "stardom" remains highly relevant today.

IN NAME ONLY (1939) - One of the best soapers ever made, this moving drama stars Lombard as a young widow with a little girl who falls in love with Alec (Cary Grant) -- who is married "in name only" to the venomous Maida (Kay Francis). A terrific trio of stars in a wonderfully absorbing movie with a most satisfying conclusion.

MR. AND MRS. SMITH (1941) - This comedy, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is one I've come to appreciate more on repeat viewings over the years. Lombard and co-star Robert Montgomery manage to go beyond the script and convey some very interesting steamy undercurrents in this tale of a couple who learn their marriage isn't valid.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) - This film gives MY MAN GODFREY a run for its money as Lombard's greatest performance. She plays Polish actress Maria Tura in Ernst Lubitsch's dazzling dark comedy, which finds a troop of ham actors matching wits against the Nazis. A brilliant swan song by a remarkable actress.

This post is adapted from an article originally published at ClassicFlix in 2014.  


Blogger barrylane said...

I have Fireball right here. There are not many works as compelling, certainly not on film, or for that matter, American history.

12:46 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'm so glad you've read it as well. I was extremely impressed both with the depth of Robert Matzen's research and how he shaped it into such a gripping read. I feel it's one of the finest film-related books I've read in the past decade. An important piece of Hollywood/aviation/WWII history.

Best wishes,

12:58 PM  
Blogger dfordoom said...

MacMurray and Lombard were an excellent screen team.

They were terrific. My personal favourite is HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE.

12:56 PM  
Blogger Tiffany Brannan said...

Dear Laura,

What a beautiful tribute to Carole Lombard! Her young death is so sad, but she did make some wonderful movies during her short life. I'm very impressed by your own association with her through the photograph. That's amazing!!!

By the way, PEPS is hosting three blogathons in the remainder of 2020, The 4th Annual Great Blogathon in October (https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2020/09/22/announcing-the-4th-annual-great-breening-blogathon/), The Third Annual Claude Rains Blogathon in November (https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2020/10/01/an-old-friend-is-never-an-added-guest-please-join-us-for-the-third-annual-claude-rains-blogathon/), and The 2nd Happy Holidays Blogathon
(https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2020/10/01/announcing-the-2nd-happy-holidays-blogathon/). If you could join one or more of these blogathons, that would be wonderful. We could really use your talent!

Yours Hopefully,

Tiffany Brannan

1:59 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

DforDoom, I have good memories of HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE. Need to revisit it!

Tiffany, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on Carole as well as the blogathon information, I appreciate it! I'll try to publicize the Nov.-Dec. blogathons here in an upcoming link roundup, and I thank you kindly for the invitation!!

Best wishes,

10:25 AM  

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