Carole Lombard, the queen of screwball, is the subject of a film retrospective at Seattle Art Museum.
If Flight 3 from New York hadn’t crashed in the Spring Mountains of Southern Nevada in the early evening of Friday, June 16, 1942, many more of us would know the name of Carole Lombard. The popular actress, known for her delirious screwball-comedy gifts, died in the crash after a long day spent urging crowds in her native Indiana to purchase war bonds.
The plane ride was a last-minute change from a scheduled train trip, as Lombard was eager to get home to California and to her husband, Clark Gable. She was 33.
Now, several generations later, it’s tempting to ponder what Lombard’s career might have held if she’d lived: more classic screwball performances, more ventures into drama, perhaps an Oscar, perhaps the kind of late-life career retrospectives and honors many of her contemporaries enjoyed well into the ’80s and ’90s.
Instead, she’s a sparkle in the dust of distant history. Many have forgotten her; many know her only as a name that occasionally pops up in movie reviews and essays (sometimes in comparison to current funny women like Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Westfeldt, who share Lombard’s knack for rapid-fire delivery). Few are left who remember her heyday.
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That situation can be rectified this summer, with the arrival at Seattle Art Museum of “Goddess of Laughter: The Comedies of Carole Lombard.” The series, comprising six films from 1934-1937, features Lombard at her dizzying best — her ditsy, fast-talking heiress in “My Man Godfrey” (which earned the actress her sole Academy Award nomination); her vulnerable manicurist juggling two men in “Hands Across the Table”; her daffy diva in “Twentieth Century”; her wickedly funny Garbo impression in “The Princess Comes Across.” And has anyone ever done a funnier screen hiccup than Lombard’s dainty eruptions in “Nothing Sacred”? Not likely.
Blessed with delicate features, an alluringly low voice that could speed up as if on a racetrack, and an ability to convey moonstruck lovesickness like nobody else (when she stares at William Powell in “My Man Godfrey,” you wonder how the man remains upright in the face of such loopy force), Lombard was a true original.
She was born Jane Alice Peters to a well-off Fort Wayne, Ind., family in 1908. As a child, she moved to Los Angeles with her mother and brothers, and made her screen debut at age 12 after being seen by a Hollywood director (playing baseball or boxing with her brothers, depending on which biography you read).
By her midteens, she was a contract player at the Fox studio, re-christened Carol Lombard. (The “e” came later, as a result of a misspelling in a 1930 movie ad; she was then still so little-known that it was easier to change her name than change the ad.) She worked in a number of Mack Sennett slapstick comedies in the late ’20s, and finally had her breakthrough in 1934 in “Twentieth Century,” playing opposite John Barrymore as a salesgirl turned movie star. From then on, she worked steadily as a top-line star, mostly in comedies.
Considered one of Hollywood’s most beloved eccentrics, Lombard’s carefree screen persona carried into her real life as well. She was known for her outrageous parties, her salty vocabulary (an assistant director on the set of “True Confession” reportedly interrupted one of her outbursts with, “Please, Miss Lombard, please! Remember there are ladies present!”) and her kind heart.
She was married twice, both times to Hollywood royalty. A two-year marriage to William Powell in the early ’30s resulted in a lifelong friendship: Post-divorce, she helped take care of him when he battled cancer and he lobbied to get her cast opposite him in “My Man Godfrey.” Lombard married Gable in 1939. They famously called each other “Ma” and “Pa.”
Still in her 20s for most of her iconic performances (Lombard slowed her moviemaking pace after marrying Gable), she was nonetheless an actor in perfect control. She could make audiences laugh hysterically — her “Svedish” pronunciation of “powder puff” in “The Princess Comes Across” is a scream — even as she stole their hearts.
Lombard was unafraid to project vulnerability onscreen, and there’s something infinitely touching about many of her performances. In “Hands Across the Table,” she takes the role of a gold-digging manicurist and turns it upside down, projecting through a faltering voice and a jittery nervousness that this young woman is afraid not just of missing out on money, but on love.
Watch the films of “Goddess of Laughter” and you might just fall in love too. A nation mourned when Lombard’s bright life ended far too soon on that June night long ago.
The words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a condolence telegram sent to Gable, seem appropriate to remember: “She brought great joy to all who knew her and to the millions who knew her only as a great artist. She gave unselfishly of her time and talent to serve her Government in peace and war. She loved her country. She is and always will be a star, one we shall never forget nor cease to be grateful to.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org