Like James Dean, Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe, actress Carole Lombard is forever frozen in time because of her tragic death at a young age -- like them, she never grew old in front of the camera.
Lombard, one of the Hollywood’s best-loved stars of the 1930s and early ‘40s, died in 1942 at age 33 in a plane crash. She seemed to have everything. The lithe blond was glamorous, beautiful, smart as a whip and moved with ease from comedies to dramas on the silver screen. She had just finished one of her best films, Ernst Lubitsch’s antiwar comedy, “To Be or Not to Be.” She was married to the reigning king of Hollywood, Clark Gable, and the two fondly referred to each other as Ma and Pa. Known as the “Profane Angel” because of her ribald sense of humor and language, Lombard was just one of the guys on the set -- adored by her co-stars, directors and crew. There was no diva lurking inside of Lombard.
“Her death is such a sad thing because it robbed us of seeing her mature,” says Rick Jewell, associate dean of USC’s School of Cinema and Television and a longtime devotee of Lombard. “Just think if Barbara Stanwyck had died at the same time. We wouldn’t have seen her in ‘Double Indemnity’ or Claudette Colbert in ‘Since You Went Away.’ There are all kinds of amazing possibilities that were foreclosed for all of us as audience members when she died in that plane crash.”
Thankfully, Lombard left behind a body of work that spanned two decades and spawned more than 70 shorts and feature films; 12 of her best are featured in “Nothing Sacred: The Films of Carole Lombard,” a retrospective that begins Friday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Leo S. Bing Theatre. The two-week tribute kicks off with an irresistible double feature: a restored print of her only Technicolor movie, 1937’s screwball classic “Nothing Sacred,” directed by William Wellman, and one of her most delightful comedies, 1934’s “Twentieth Century,” directed with breakneck breeziness by Howard Hawks.
The festival highlights Lombard’s gifts as one of the most adept comedic actresses of her era, as deft at playing the sophisticate as she was performing physical pratfalls and stunts. Gems in the festival also include 1932’s melodrama “No Man of Her Own,” which teamed her with her future husband Gable (Dec. 5) and 1936’s “My Man Godfrey,” the epitome of the screwball comedy, which screens Dec. 6 along with the fun 1932 pre-code drama “Virtue.”
The retrospective also demonstrates Lombard’s versatility as a dramatic actress in 1939’s “Made for Each Other” and “In Name Only” (Dec. 12). The festival concludes Dec. 13 with her last film, “To Be or Not to Be,” which was released posthumously, and the 1936 comedy “The Princess Comes Across.”
Whereas Hollywood today courts the teen male audience, in the 1930s, the industry targeted adult females. “The thinking back then was the woman in the household determined what the family went to see,” says Jewell. “You had to have these strong actresses so the women of the time could identify with them.”
When Lombard hit her stride in 1934 with “Twentieth Century” playing a temperamental actress pursued for a role by her ex-lover, an egomaniacal director (John Barrymore), she had been kicking around Hollywood for more than a decade.
Born Jane Alice Peters in Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1908, Lombard moved with her mother, Elizabeth, and the rest of the family to Los Angeles in 1916 after her parents were divorced. She was spotted by a director playing baseball in a neighborhood street and was signed to do one picture, “A Perfect Crime,” in 1921 at age 12. But offers dried up after this one film. At 15, Lombard, quit school and joined a theater group; in 1925, she signed a contract with Fox, where she appeared in a few forgotten films. The following year, her career almost came to a halt when she was in a car accident, which scarred the left side of her face -- plastic surgery and makeup helped conceal the scar. Fox canceled her contract after she recovered, so she moved into shorts in 1928. She soon found herself back at Fox for “Me, Gangster” and with the introduction of sound made a smooth transition into talkies. Paramount signed her to a contract, and she never stopped working.
Jewell sites “My Man Godfrey” as his favorite Lombard film. The actress received her one Oscar nomination for her role as a ditzy rich girl who is asked to get a homeless man during a scavenger hunt. And she finds a literate, former executive (her real-life ex-husband William Powell) living on skid row who lost everything in the Depression. He ends up becoming her crazy family’s butler and the two fall in love.
Lombard moved into more dramatic work in 1937.
“I think what Lombard did was kind of follow a path that Cary Grant was laying out at the same time, which is they both got out of their Paramount contracts and didn’t sign a long-term studio contract, which made them independent to pick and choose their roles,” says Jewell. The United States had entered World War II just a month before Lombard went home with her mother for a war bond rally in Indiana. On Jan. 16, 1942, she, her mother and 20 other people were flying back to California -- Lombard wanted to surprise Gable by returning early -- when the plane went down outside of Las Vegas. Everyone perished.
Hollywood closed its studio doors for a day of mourning. A distraught Gable immediately joined the service. A Liberty ship was named in her honor and President Franklin D. Roosevelt awarded Lombard the Medal of Freedom. Roosevelt said of her: “She is and will always be a star; one we shall never forget nor cease to be grateful to.”
Lombard and her mother were interred at Forest Lawn in Glendale. Though Gable married two more times, he supposedly never got over Lombard’s death. When he died 18 years later, he was buried next to her.
‘Nothing Sacred: The Films of Carole Lombard’
Where: L.A. County Museum of Art, Leo S. Bing Theater, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Fridays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.
Ends: Dec. 13
Price: $8, general; $6, for museum and AFI members, seniors (62 and up) and students with a valid I.D.
Contact: (323) 857-6010
Friday: “Nothing Sacred” and “Twentieth Century”
Saturday: “Hands Across the Table” and “Love Before Breakfast”
Dec. 5: “True Confession” and “No Man of Her Own”
Dec. 6: “My Man Godfrey” and “Virtue”
Dec. 12: “Made for Each Other” and “In Name Only”
Dec. 13: “To Be or Not to Be” and “The Princess Comes Across”