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.
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.
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.
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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