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Carole Lombard: Hollywood’s Original Queen of Comedy

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Carole Lombard had a foul mouth and a generous heart, thus her nickname “The Profane Angel”. She could also easily be called the “Queen of Screwball Comedy”. Her comedic talent has never been matched.

Carole Lombard was born Jane Peters, on October 6, 1908 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her parents divorced when she was eight years old. On a trip out to the West Coast, her mother liked what she saw so much that she moved Jane and her two older brothers out to LA.

There Jane was discovered while she played baseball in the street. She appeared in “A Perfect Crime” in 1921 at the age of twelve. Then she went back to school and lived a normal life, but not for long. At the age of fifteen, Jane dropped out for good and started performing in stage shows.

In 1925 she signed a contract with Fox and started filming silent shorts. Jane soon decided that she didn’t quite have a movie star name. She asked a family friend if she could borrow his glamorous last name and she became Carol Lombard. When the studio mistakenly tacked an ‘e’ on the end of Carol in the credits of one of her movies, they decided to officially keep that spelling.

Things were going well for Carole until a serious car accident in 1926 forced her to put movies aside for a while. The left side of her face was seriously damaged. Throughout the rest of her career, she concealed her scars with the careful application of makeup. Though she had soon fully recovered, her contract with Fox was cancelled.

Carole then started making shorts with Pathe. She performed in more than a dozen slapstick comedies under the direction of Mack Sennett. The legendary king of slapstick is greatly responsible for helping to develop the superb comic timing that jumpstarted Carole’s career. Getting hit in the face with a cream pie was a savvy career move for Carole Lombard.

However, for the bulk of her early career, Carole starred in very serious roles in very serious films. There is no sign of her giddy comic genius in the dramatic movie stills from these years. In a typical shot, her eyes are heavily lined and she looks to the skies in melodramatic agony. In 1932, Carole played her only role with her eventual soulmate Clark Gable and it was, unfortunately, one of those serious handkerchief- wringing roles. The movie, “No Man of Her Own” would have probably been forgotten if it hadn’t of been for the pairing that foreshadowed a great love affair.

Carole Lombard

At the time, Carole was married to actor William Powell. They had married when Carole was 23 and Powell was 39. The marriage lasted only 23 months, but the pair remained friends. They even eventually performed together in one of the great classics of screwball comedy, “My Man Godfrey”.

After her divorce, Carole drifted aimlessly in her love life, but her career caught fire. In a dramatic departure from agonizing melodramas, she took a role opposite John Barrymore in “Twentieth Century”. She screeched, howled, and otherwise barreled her way through a great performance and suddenly, she was a comedy star. Her giddy performance exploited all the best parts of her slapstick training and she made it look attractive too. Carole made insanity the height of chic and started the true era of screwball comedy.

Carole’s success rose with that role with ex-husband William Powell in “My Man Godfrey”. The movie is a terrific example of her great timing and giddy delivery. It was the only role she ever received an academy award nomination for. She also artfully stumbled and yelled her way through “Nothing Sacred”, a biting black comedy and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”, the only comedy Hitchcock ever directed (he did it as a favor for Carole).

Her popularity was explosive and it didn’t end with the fans. Everytime Carole came onto the set, there was a roaring chorus of greeting from every single member of the crew. Carole loved everyone and she treated even the lowliest errand boy like a close chum.

Carole lived a wild life in Hollywood. She swore like a sailor, played practical jokes all the time, and she was always the most entertaining part of any party. At one such party, where it was required that the guests wear white, she showed up in a white ambulance, wearing a white nightgown. She was brought in on a stretcher and party guest Clark Gable was smitten.

It was after this night that Carole and Clark began their famous love affair. People who know nothing about Carole’s movies are quite familiar with this touching story of true love. You only need look at a picture of the two together to understand the power of their mutual attraction.

Of course, the Hollywood press couldn’t keep quiet about the affair. Though Clark was still married, an issue of Photoplay included Carole and Clark in a feature about “Hollywood’s Unmarried Husbands and Wives”. The article was a great humiliation for Clark’s society belle wife. She knew that divorce was inevitable, but she had been promised that she would be the one to divorce Clark. Now that the lid was officially off the affair, Clark initiated the divorce proceedings himself. Carole and Clark were married in 1939.

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard

Clark and Carole

When Carole and Clark appeared together at the opening of “Gone With the Wind”, it created a sensation. However, though both were at the peak of their careers, Carole and Clark retreated to the country. They surrounded themselves with animals on a ranch in then desolate Encino, California and took to calling each other “Ma” and “Pa”.

Both still appeared in movies. Carole even tackled drama again, with some success. Though it seems a bit soapy today, she shined in “Made for Each Other” with Jimmy Stewart. She also starred in “To Be or Not To Be” with Jack Benny. It was another great black comedy and Carole toned down her insanity with hilarious results. Her style was evolving, but unfortunately, she never had a chance to reach the heights of her talents.

In January 1942, Carole took a private plane with her mother and 20 other passengers in order to participate in a war bond rally in her home state of Indiana. On the trip home, the plane crashed in the hills outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. None of the passengers survived.

Clark had to be forcefully restrained from scaling the hills to look for Carole. He screamed that he didn’t want to go home to an empty house. When he did return home, Clark was horrified when one of his wife’s famous pranks backfired. He later told Ava Gardner that Carole had arranged for a dummy to be put in her bed so he would think it was her. For one terrible moment, Clark thought his wife had arrived home safely after all.

Clark never did recover from Carole’s death. Carole was a success in every way: she excelled in her craft, her marriage, as a person and as a movie star. It is one of the saddest movie tragedies that she died at the age of 33, before she had even reached the extent of her greatness. Her genius movie performances are our solace and treasure.

classic quotes
Marvelous girl. Crazy as a bedbug. – Howard Hawks

Swore like a man–other women try, but she really did. – Fred MacMurray

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Richard Todd

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Richard Todd The Virgin Queen

Even in his 1950s heyday, a lot of people would have thought twice before crossing a busy road to see Richard Todd. Yet he was enormously popular. With clean-cut, chiselled features you could cut your hand on, nicely proportioned shoulders and more virtue up front than a van-load of Bibles, Todd looked as if he had come off a drawing-board instead of having been born the usual way. Wisely, he made the most of what he had, which could be summed up as an inability to sit still while there was a horse to leap astride, a swollen river to swim, or a tree to vanish into.

His first big success was as a dour Scots Guards corporal in The Hasty Heart (1949, Vincent Sherman). The setting is a wartime Burma field hospital, and Todd, unknowingly, is riddled with some fatal disease. He is arrogant and dismissive, more difficult to handle than a Scots football fan at closing time, but everyone else, including fellow patient Ronald Reagan and nursing sister Patricia Neal, knows that his number is up so tolerance prevails.

Looking every inch a stage weepie – which it originally was – the story rumbles on towards a predictable climax, with Todd learning of, and coming to terms with, his condition, but not before a rather pathetic attempt to woo Miss Neal – ‘I’ve good teeth,’ he insists. Todd’s playing is in tune with the sombre mood of the piece and his faltering, change-of-heart address at the end works reasonably well, but some of the earlier writing lacks conviction.

He was another terminal case in Flesh and Blood (1951, Anthony Kimmins), a consumptive medical student who discards pushy girlfriend Ursula Howells for some peace and quiet – only to find his action has precisely the opposite effect. Miss Howells rounds on him like a demented fishwife, hollering, ‘I wish you’d die!’ to which poor Todd, semi-convulsed in yet another coughing fit splutters, ‘I’m . . . doing . . . my . . . best!’ She gets her wish, but Todd reappears as his own grandson, an even worse cad with the ladies. ‘Do you think I’d have let you kick me around all this time without adoring you’, trills Glynis Johns, pacifist daughter of an ammunitions tycoon when, after she has carried out a chequered pursuit of the rotter, he grudgingly proposes to her.

Walt Disney picked Todd for three costume actioners, including an attempt at Robin Hood, during 1953-1954, as if determined, at all costs, to establish him as Errol Flynn’s successor. In The Sword and the Rose (1953, Ken Annakin) and Rob Roy the Highland Rogue (1953, Harold French) only the costumes, and Miss Rice were changed. Disney brought in his Flesh and Blood co-star Glynis Johns, plus Robin hoodlums James Robertson Justice and Michael Gough.

Todd risked being adversely compared with Errol Flynn for a second time as Raleigh to Bette Davis‘ Elizabeth in Virgin Queen (1955, Henry Koster), which did nothing for Todd, but reminded audiences how far ahead of his imitators the charismatic Flynn had been in his heyday.

Todd rose to the bait as wartime flying ace Guy Gibson in The Dambusters (1955, Michael Anderson), a pleasantly restrained performance projecting strength of character without showiness. Todd had not been an easy actor to accom- modate dialogue-wise, but the hero of the Mohne and Eder dam raids settled on his shoulders like an expensively tailored jacket, and the film, whose over-reverence for its subject was its only obvious flaw, was hugely successful.

Several factors helped to maximise its impact. There was Todd’s remarkable physical resemblance to Gibson, and Michael Redgrave’s to Dr (later Sir) Barnes Wallis, the bouncing bomb’s dogged inventor; there was the near-documentary feel of the early experimentation sequences, the squadron briefings and the raid itself; the despairing loss as well as the triumph expressed by Redgrave as the dreadful death toll becomes known, due as much to the dangers of low flying in the dark in a target zone surrounded on all sides by steep hills as to the enemy’s defending battery stations; and there was the stirring theme music by Eric Coates, impossible to hear then or now without the spirits being stirred.

Richard Todd

Nothing much stirred watching D-Day Sixth of ]une (1956, Henry Koster), which used the Normandy landings as backdrop for a turgid love triangle involving Todd as a British colonel, Dana Wynter as his girlfriend, a cross between Mary Poppins and a toothpaste commercial, and Robert Taylor as a married Gl captain who fills in for Todd while the lad is engaging the Hun elsewhere.

Even though it means putting the china doll-like Miss Wynter in storage for a while, Todd is no shrinking violet when the call-to-arms comes. ‘I have a singular theory – the quicker more of us go, the quicker more of us’ll come back,’ he tells Miss Wynter. Her grumpy old retired defence chief dad is in agreement – ‘A bit of cold steel now is worth twenty Americans later,’ he urges, before killing himself because he is too old to kill others.

Miss Wynter’s tally falls short of twenty Americans, presumably because not enough of them looked like Robert Taylor. Their dreary, lukewarm affair has to be heard to be believed. Apologising for her father’s dismissive attitude towards LIS troops – they meet originally when Taylor is sent along to smooth out an incident involving her father and a group of Gls – Miss Wynter explains rather grandly: ‘We [meaning the British] are not much good at being thank- ful. We haven’t had an opportunity to he thank- ful to anyone, except maybe God, in several hundred years.’

Later, on a dance floor, she ticks him off: ‘Don’t be cross but would you mind awfully not calling me Honey.’ Sitting in a cafe overlooking the Thames, the watchful Taylor acknowledges the presence of the moon. Miss Wynter coos, ‘Please God, let him be looking at it,’ apparently unaware that any soldier staring at the moon is unlikely to notice an enemy sniper creeping up behind him.

In the end. Miss Wynter loses both of them. Taylor is badly wounded in action and shipped home to the USA, and Todd is killed when he trips over a land mine on the newly-liberated beachhead.

Richard Todd

It took the filming of a real-life heroic naval incident, the escape from Chinese waters of the RN frigate Amethyst in 1949, after months of blockading, as Yangtse Incident (1957, Michael Anderson), to restore Todd’s prestige after D-Day Sixth of June. Todd played the ship’s commander, the redoubtable Commander Kerans – a part which suited his sharp-eyed, closed-mouth style comfortably – and the tension of the wait in Communist waters followed by the ship’s nimble getaway down the Yangtse River under cover of darkness, was graphically conveyed without the need to resort to expensive special effects.

In Danger Within (1959, Don Chaffey), a wartime POW drama, Todd was a paratroop colonel who heads the obligatory escape committee, plagued on this occasion by the presence of a mysterious traitor. He appeared against type in Never Let Go (1960, John Guillerman), as a seedy cosmetics salesman whose car is nicked by sadistic Birmingham car-thief Peter Sellers. In the conflict that follows, Todd is the underdog but he comes through in a way that Sellers could never have anticipated. This was an intriguing – but not altogether successful – pairing of two stars playing outside their familiar selves.

By the early 1960s, he was beginning to run out of steam. He played a Gary Cooper-style lawman in The Hellions (1961, Ken Annakin), urging the inhabitants of a remote 19th-century South African township to find their backbone and repel Lionel Jeffries’ outlaw gang. In The Longest Day (1962, Ken Annakin) he risked re- minding us of his earlier Normandy landings caper, in a small role as a British Army major, again refreshingly brisk and stiff-upper-lip among hordes of laconic Americans.

In one of his later films, Asylum (1972, Roy Ward Baker), a modest Amicus horror compilation, Todd’s was the first story, a loony tale in which he and lover-doll Barbara Parkins bump off and dismember his troublesome wife, Sylvia Sims. He packages the assortment of odd limbs in neat brown paper packs, and stores them in a freezer till he can get around to final disposal. But the victim refuses to rest in pieces. Like a well- drilled football squad, the gory parcels gang up to inflict a nasty surprise on Todd and his girlfriend.

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Howard Keel

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Howard Keel

He may be best known to younger generations as Clayton Farlow on Dallas, but Howard Keel had a vast and impressive film career before settling down on Southfork. In more than thirty film roles throughout the 50s and 60s, Howard starred opposite some of Hollywood’s most notable legends.

Born Harry Clifford Leek in Gillespie, Illinois, Howard was working as a representative for Douglas Aircraft Corporation in Southern California when he was selected for a role in the Los Angeles Theatre Guild. He worked on Broadway in Carousel and Oklahoma before landing the role of Boke in the 1948 British thriller The Small Voice. He was 29. A role in 1950’s Pagan Love Song followed, but it was his role in the Oscar-winning Annie Get Your Gun that gained Howard real notice.

Obviously deciding film adaptations of popular musicals were a good idea, Howard chose as his next film 1951’s Show Boat. Playing Ava Gardner’s leading man, Howard helped the film become the second highest-grossing film of that year.

Howard Keel

Thanks to a string of not-so-memorable films, Howard’s career treaded water for the next couple of years. In 1953 he redeemed himself, however, by starring in the Doris Day rendition of Calamity Jane. Equally successful was that year’s Kiss Me Kate, starring Howard and Kathryn Grayson. And in 1954, he co-starred with Jane Powell in the Academy Award-nominated Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

After 1959’s The Big Fisherman, the quality of film roles Howard was accepting began to decline. He chose more commercial films, mostly westerns and science fiction films, and as a result, his audience began to narrow. In 1968 he seemed to disappear altogether, possibly never to be resurrected, if it weren’t for a certain TV show that was looking for an opposing father figure.

By the time Howard joined Dallas as Clayton Farlow, it was already in its fourth season. Viewers were watching in droves and Howard’s role — to stand up to the vicious Ewings — would require an authority and confidence only a veteran actor could deliver. After a brief flirtation with Sue Ellen, Clayton became involved with the matriarch of the Ewing family, Miss Ellie. By the end of the series, the characters would marry.

After Dallas’ end in 1991, Howard appeared in the TV movie Hart to Hart: Home is Where the Heart Is and hosted both That’s Entertainment! III and The Making of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Keel died in 2004.

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Robert Wagner

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Robert Wagner

Robert Wagner proved to be more than just a pretty face. An enduring and versatile entertainer, he had many successful Hollywood incarnations: from awkward juvenile lead to bobby-sox idol to assured leading man to television star and finally back to captivating character actor. The Brylcreem Kid, as he was known in the early days, turned out to be a major talent.

Born February 10, 1930, in Detroit, Michigan, Robert Wagner was not supposed to become an actor. The son of a wealthy steel executive, Robert was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps and achieve great things in the world of business. But Robert caught the acting bug instead, and moved to Los Angeles before he was twenty to pursue his dreams.

His good looks and easy going manner got him into films and soon he became a contract player for 20th Century Fox. One of his first notable roles was in a unique John Ford war comedy called “What Price Glory?” (1952) which put him on screen with the likes of James Cagney. The film was originally intended to be a musical, though the final cut only contained two songs. The Ford film got Wagner noticed and he quickly appeared in a slew of smaller roles in films like “With a Song in My Heart” (1952) and “Stars and Stripes Forever” (1952).

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood

Robert with Natalie Wood

Wagner soon progressed to leading man status in films like “Prince Valiant” (1953). But while the roles were getting bigger, they weren’t very challenging, and Wagner still wasn’t taken very seriously as an actor. Woman-kind swooned over Wagner’s all-American looks and every bobby-soxer wished they could take him to their prom. In 1954, however, Wagner got the chance to cut his teeth on a more serious role and display his talent in Edward Dmytryk’s riveting western “Broken Lance.”

Wagner seemed well on his way to establishing himself as a serious actor with another lead role in the western “White Feather” (1955) and the crime drama “A Kiss Before Dying” (1956), when suddenly his personal life completely eclipsed his professional life. In 1956, he met the love of his life, Natalie Wood. In 1957, they married in Scottsdale, Arizona. Hollywood trumpeted their marriage as the most “glittering union of the 20th century.” The public could not hear enough about the two love-birds and were ecstatic when they made their first film together, “All the Fine Young Cannibals” (1960). The moroseness of the film, however, turned out to be prescient: While the two appeared to be the perfect couple, living the perfect life, they were actually living on the edge and running out of money.

The two were deeply in love, but professional and financial stress began to take its toll on their marriage. Wagner was being overshadowed by new male leads like Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, while Wood was placed on a fourteen month suspension by Warner Bros. for refusing to shoot a film in England. They couldn’t afford to upkeep their $150,000 mansion on Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills, they couldn’t live up to the shimmering facade the tabloids had created, they couldn’t get the work they wanted in Hollywood. They wound up divorcing in 1962.

Wagner was a wreck after the divorce and went to Europe to film “The Longest Day” (1962), in part to assuage his grief. On the rebound, he married his old friend Marion Marshall in 1963. Still unable to regain his leading man status, Wagner tried his hand at comedy in “The Pink Panther” (1963) and at mystery in “Harper” (1966) — in which he played a supporting role to the man who had contributed to edging him out of the spotlight: Paul Newman. Reluctantly, Wagner went into television to star in “It Takes a Thief” (1968). The new medium resurrected his career, and he went on to star in many TV movies and several TV series, including the one he is most known for, “Hart to Hart” (1979).

While Wagner’s professional life was once again thriving by the late sixties, his personal life was not. He was still desperately in love with Natalie Wood, though he was still married to his second wife and Wood was newly married to British producer Richard Gregson. Each had a daughter. Wagner was divorced again in 1970, and one fated day, in 1971, Natalie and Robert ran into one another in a restaurant. The years of hardship and strife disappeared; the old magic was back. Wood divorced Gregson and the two love birds re-married in 1972 on their yacht, The Splendour.

Their second marriage really was picture perfect. The two were overjoyed to be reunited, and raised their children together happily. They made three television movies together during this time: “The Affair” (1973), “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1976), and “Hart to Hart” (1979). Then, in 1981, tragedy struck and Wagner’s life was shattered again. Under mysterious circumstances, Wood slipped from the deck of The Splendour and drowned. Wagner was inconsolable and spent the next ten years trying to lose himself in his work, and raising Natalie’s and his daughters alone.

Wagner eventually remarried to Jill St. John, though to this day he finds it difficult to talk about his wife Natalie Wood’s death.

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