Tag Archives: carole lombard

STRONG AND TENDER: The Story of Carole Lombard and Bess Peters

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When Carole Lombard received an Oscar nomination for My Man Godfrey, she was asked where her talent for screwball comedy came from. On the surface, Carole’s own early life had been much like the one her character Irene Bullock lived. She was likely expected to answer that the role came naturally to her because of her youth. But instead she replied with a surprising answer–the character of Irene Bullock, she felt, had a sense of tragedy about her. She never specified what that tragedy was that she saw in Irene Bullock, in much the same way that Carole rarely spoke about the complexities of her childhood experiences in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Those childhood experiences, the good and the bad, served as the underlying inspiration for her portrayal of Irene Bullock and also formed the foundation of her bond with her mother, Bess Peters.

This past weekend, I attended Kimberly Truhler’s pre-code Style and Sin lecture at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. These presentations are extremely popular, drawing crowds from the classic film world and the style world alike, as Kimberly delivers talks on the fashion of pre-code Hollywood and how it has influenced the styles of today. This past weekend focused on the fashion and films of Carole Lombard, with a double feature following of Virtue and Twentieth Century. I knew that I couldn’t miss it, so I came down to Los Angeles for the event.

As Kimberly spoke about Carole Lombard’s childhood, it dawned on me that very little has been written about the strong bond that existed between Carole Lombard and her mother. It was a bond that grew out of a hardship barely visible to outsiders, but that marked Carole in ways that she rarely let show.

Bess Peters gave birth to her daughter, born Jane Alice Peters, in Fort Wayne, Indiana on October 6, 1908. She was the third and youngest child of Bess and her husband, Frederic “Fred” Peters, whose family had become wealthy selling hardware. Bess was from a prominent Fort Wayne family herself, with old money that merged with Fred’s new to provide a very comfortable home for Jane and her two older brothers, Frederick Jr. and Stuart. The three grew up climbing trees and playing sports, with Jane right alongside her older brothers and showing great promise as an athlete.

The elder Frederic Peters had suffered an elevator accident before he married Bess, and it left him with a permanent leg injury and horrendous headaches that affected him so much that his moods changed and he turned violent. While it is not known what happened inside the home, the family was terrified of his headaches. It is thought that Fred was abusive to Bess, and the children witnessed it. “Contrary to the general notion,” Carole said in an interview with Sonia Lee in 1934, “I haven’t had an easy time. I had a horrible childhood because my parents were dreadfully unhappy in their marriage. It left scars on my mind and on my heart.”

Eventually, Bess left with the children. Their trip to California in October of 1915 was discussed in the Fort Wayne press as an extended holiday that included the whole family, but Fred Peters ultimately stayed in Indiana. Carole said in 1932 that her mother needed the rest. They planned to stay in Los Angeles for 6 months, but they found that with the combination of the favorable climate and Fred’s headaches back in Indiana getting worse and worse, they seemed destined to stay.

Jane thrived in California, her tomboyish energy and skill in sports earning her the respect of the neighborhood boys. Her tree-climbing and fence-scaling ruined her clothes, but Bess never discouraged her from it. In a Screenland profile, Bess’ parenting style was described as “100 years ahead of her time.” She cheered her daughter on in anything she tried, and encouraged her to find her own path, wherever that might lead her. Bess’ children were the only connections she had in California, and she needed them as much as they needed her.

Jane was particularly close to her mother, and that closeness remained all their lives. Even when Jane grew up and became Carole Lombard, she clung to Bess and missed her terribly when they weren’t together. When she was with friends, Carole would often think of her mother out of the blue. “That Bessie,” she would announce, “Is she terrific! Do you adore her? Let’s call her up.” And she would telephone her mother, including all her friends in the call. Carole and Bess saw each other nearly every day. Adela Rogers St. Johns noted that theirs was an unusually close bond, even as far as mothers and daughters went.

After Bess and the children left Fort Wayne, Carole rarely if ever saw her father again. Her parents had gone through what Carole referred to as a “Victorian divorce,” never officially divorcing but never again considering themselves husband and wife. She regarded herself as Bess Peters’ child and never thought much about her father. When he died in 1935, she did not attend the funeral.

Bess was an unusual woman, exceedingly tolerant and non-judgmental of her daughter or anyone. Her family had been a bit aristocratic and stuffy, while she was always sophisticated and adventurous. She was proud of Carole’s career and what she had done for herself, having once been an aspiring actress herself. She watched her daughter rise to comedic excellence and international fame, watched her receive an Oscar nomination and become one of the most respected actresses in Hollywood–not only for her work, but also for her vivacious and loving personality. “She is satisfied with the sincere friendship and love that her children offer her,” wrote Screenland magazine about Bess, “and she refuses to block with advice, tears or commands any course they wish to follow.”

Bess Peters with Carole and Clark Gable at their wedding, 1939.

When the United States became involved in World War II, Carole immediately wanted to help. For most film stars, the way to help with the war effort was to entertain the troops and raise money, by traveling to bond rallies in various American cities. Being a native daughter of Indiana, the natural place for Carole to go was Indianapolis, and there she went in mid-January of 1942, raising over $1 million in bonds during her time there. Bess was there with her, lending her daughter support and cheering her on as always.

To get back to Los Angeles on January 16, 1942, Carole and Bess boarded TWA Flight 3 which would leave from Indianapolis and refuel in Nevada before heading to its final destination. The details of what happened that night are well known. If you are curious, I would recommend reading Robert Matzen’s excellent book Fireball, but what is relevant here is that due to blackouts and severe lack of visibility, TWA Flight 33 crashed violently into Mount Potosi in the Sierra Nevadas, killing everyone onboard. The crash site where Carole and Bess died together is now a de facto cemetery, virtually untouched since the night of the crash 77 years ago.

In her memorial of Carole Lombard, Adela Rogers St. Johns  wrote of the “strong and tender” Carole, remarking on her close relationship with Bess as evidence of who she was as a person. At the close of her section about Bess, she writes: “Someone said to me this morning that it seemed so awful that her mother should have been killed, too. I can’t feel that, knowing them. It would have been so awful for the one that was left.”

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TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL DAY 1: Meet TCM, So You Think You Know Movies?, QUEEN CHRISTINA, My Man Godfrey

Exhausted but beyond excited, I arrived in Los Angeles last night for the kickoff of the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival, taking place in Hollywood this weekend for its sixth year. The theme this year is “History According to the Movies,” which leaves plenty of room for interpretation…and controversial programming. When the full schedule of the TCM Classic Film Festival was announced several weeks ago, the internet started buzzing. Bloggers and film fans began asking questions–why were there so many modern movies scheduled?  Is TCM changing direction? Today at the annual Meet TCM panel prior to the official start of the festival, a film fan brought the question to the attention of Charlie Tabesh, head of programming at the channel. Tabesh answered that the modern programming of this year’s festival fits into the theme of “History According to the Movies,” and TCM has always operated according to themes. If the channel were paying tribute to the career of Katharine Hepburn, Tabesh continued, they would show not only Hepburn’s admired early work, but also her last film, Love Affair, made in the 1990s and generally acknowledged to be far from great.

MORNING GLORY (top), which won Katharine Hepburn her first Oscar, would get equal attention with LOVE AFFAIR (bottom) on TCM in a tribute to Hepburn’s career.

Much of the discussion centered around the fact that the festival is screening Out of Sight, a film from 1998 edited by Anne V. Coates. Having edited Lawrence of Arabia, Murder on the Orient Express, and several other noteworthy titles that firmly establish her in the landscape of classic Hollywood, Coates is a deserved honoree at the festival this year for her achievements in editing and, Tabesh said, she requested that the festival screen Out of Sight for a look into what editing looks like today. A look into editing from a woman in the business for over 50 years is a remarkable gift to festival goers. As there is no set definition of “classic,” TCM is obligated to identify and adhere to what they as a channel and a brand consider to be classic cinema, and for Tabesh, classic film has no expiration date. This is clear in TCM’s choice of programming on the channel as well as at the festival–for an in-depth discussion of TCM’s programming choices and what makes a classic, see my article TCM Programming and the Definition of Classic Film. After a short break for lunch, which I spent with my friend Spencer and fellow blogger Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film, festivalgoers convened again at Club TCM for an exciting round of So You Think You Know Movies?, TCM’s difficult and rapid-fire trivia competition. So You Think You Know Movies? is designed for the trivia master, with extremely obscure questions about film history and culture. Trivia is my strong suit, and our team did well, but ultimately a team of 8 called The Flickers won the grand prize, and deservedly so. When quizzed on the spot after the game, they knew almost all the answers to the supplementary questions, which were just as difficult as in the regular game.

As those with high-level passes got ready for the big opening night screening of The Sound of Music, I had a few hours to relax wherein I caught up on some preliminary blogging until 5:30, when I decided it was time to get in line for Queen Christina. A word about lines at the festival–passholders must line up in order to gain entrance to a movie, and entrance is first come, first served. Needless to say, lines queue up quickly. As I deduced that Queen Christina, a hugely popular movie with two hugely popular stars (Greta Garbo and John Gilbert), I gave myself an hour to play it safe in case it sold out. The movie began at 6:30, and the audience was treated to two wonderful things–first, an introduction by noted film historian Cari Beauchamp, and then a rare lighting test that showed Greta Garbo acting in a casual manner.  Cari Beauchamp’s talk included details about Greta Garbo’s personal life (“Ernst Lubitsch said that Greta Garbo was the most uninhibited people he knew,” she related), and about her acting in general, in this film and beyond. It was a great introduction to a fascinating film. Queen Christina is one of the last great hurrahs of the days before the full implementation of the Production Code. It tells the true story of Sweden’s queen Christina, who lived in the mid-1600s and who many historians now believe was either transgender or intersex. The film hints gingerly at these subjects, though even in the days before the Production Code, the industry was bound by what it thought the public would accept, so a full examination of a transgender person was out of the question. However, in scenes like these, director Rouben Mamoulian gives the audience an idea of what it is he’s trying to get across.

For a full analysis of the LGBT implications of Queen Christina, feel free to check out my post on the subject for the Queer Film Blogathon in 2011.

Next up was one of my favorites, a showing of the screwball classic My Man Godfrey in a theater that was packed to the gills with enthusiastic fans. This is one that I have seen on the big screen several times, but always seem to come back for more whenever it is showing. One of the zaniest screwball comedies of all time, it is a masterpiece of ensemble acting and director Gregory La Cava directs Carole Lombard and William Powell to perfection. Alice Brady, playing the eccentric and off-the-wall mother, was robbed of an Oscar  in 1936, though the film itself received 6 Oscar nominations including Alice Brady for Best Supporting Actress, and remains one of the best-loved screwballs among devotees of classic cinema. We have a big day tomorrow, so I’d better get to bed. See you tomorrow night!

TREASURES FROM THE WARNER ARCHIVE: In Name Only

Readers, it has been a long time since my last installment of Treasures From the Warner Archive! I’ve been so bogged down with various film-related projects over the past several months that I feel as though it has been decades since my post about Going Hollywood. But we will fix that this evening with a look at In Name Only, a magnificently cast movie that should have skyrocketed to the top of the list of the most famous Carole Lombard films, but somehow never really made it there.

Alec Walker (Cary Grant) doesn’t love his wife, Maida (Kay Francis), but feels stuck in the marriage until he meets Julie (Carole Lombard), and falls in love with her. Maida, however, is not so willing to give him up and uses her cunning and wiles to keep him with her at all costs.

The story of a young man stuck in a loveless marriage who tries to marry the woman he loves is a familiar yarn in these post-Code years, but this is certainly one rife with a great deal of physical beauty. Cary Grant and Carole Lombard bring their own recognized brands of attractiveness to their roles, but it is Kay Francis who steals the show in this regard.

Kay Francis is one of the most under-celebrated beauties of her time. A talented and sought-after actress in the pre-Code days, she was named “box office poison” in 1938 and her career faltered. Carole Lombard, renowned for using her power to revive the careers of her fellow actors, demanded that Kay Francis be her co-star in In Name Only. With Francis’ raven-black hair, olive complexion and alto voice, she should have been in competition with the likes of Hedy Lamarr and Lana Turner. But instead, despite Carole Lombard’s best efforts, she was relegated to character roles for the rest of her career and never truly regained the momentum that her star power had achieved in the early 1930s. A sad ending for a talented and shining star.

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This movie may have garnered more attention had it not been released in the legendary year of 1939. Though it is a solid effort, it had no chance of going up against the hype that was afforded The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, Goodbye Mr. Chips, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. More than anything, I think the failure of In Name Only to live up to its potential was due to the fact that it had the misfortune to be released in the most celebrated year in cinema history.

See you next time!

Romantic Comedy Blogathon: DAY 1 ENTRIES

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It’s here, readers! Vince and I have been collecting entries all day for the Romantic Comedy Blogathon, and without any further ado, I give you the 7 entries we received today. Enjoy, and be sure to tune back in tomorrow for Day 2!

Over at Cary Grant Won’t Eat You, Leah gives us 5 reasons why English majors will love the zany 1941 romantic comedy Ball of Firehttp://carygrantwonteatyou.com/englishmajors-balloffire/

Meanwhile, at The Blonde at the Film, we get an enthusiastic review of one of Cameron’s favorite comedies, The More the Merrierhttp://theblondeatthefilm.com/2014/05/01/the-more-the-merrier-1943/

And at The Man on the Flying Trapeze, David gives us a rundown of Monkey Business (which he likes better than one certain other beloved screwball comedy…see which one!) http://moviedavid.blogspot.com/2014/05/my-romantic-comedy-blogathon-entry.html

Mildred’s Fatburgers cooks up some romance, Reno-style, with the beloved comedy The Awful Truth. http://www.mildredsfatburgers.com/1/post/2014/05/the-road-to-reno-is-paved-with-suspicions.html

Vanessa over at Stardust takes a look at a movie without which no romantic comedy blogathon could ever be complete. In fact, it needs no introduction. The winner of the first Oscar sweep, it’s…. http://bwallover.blogspot.ca/2014/04/the-romantic-comedy-blogathon-it.html

Critica Retro looks at a Frank Capra masterpiece where romantic comedy meets straight drama, in her rundown of Meet John Doe. As always, remember to hit Le’s handy translate button located on the right side of her page if you don’t speak Portuguese! http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com.br/2014/05/adoravel-vagabundo-meet-john-doe-1941.html

And finally, last for today but certainly not least, my fabulous co-host for this blogathon over at Carole & Co. takes a look at Carole Lombard’s Lady By Choice. When Vince talks about Carole Lombard, you’re hearing from a true expert! http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/691567.html

That’s all for today, folks! Tune in tomorrow for the next installment of the Romantic Comedy Blogathon!

Romantic Comedy Blogathon Starts Tomorrow!

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May is upon us, readers, and you know what that means–it’s time for the Romantic Comedy Blogathon! Co-hosted by Backlots and Vince over at Carole & Co., the Romantic Comedy Blogathon runs from May 1-May 6 and is an opportunity for bloggers to swoon over their favorite romantic comedies and give us all a taste of that romance that classic Hollywood did so well.

We have a huge list of participants this year and we’re still accepting requests, so if you have something you would like to submit, let us know! This is shaping up to be a monumental blogathon, and I’m so excited to read all the entries.

For participants, there are two ways you may submit your post:

  • When your post is finished, link to this post. We will then post your link live on Backlots and Carole & Co. so all of our readers can go to your blog and read the entry.
  • Leave your link as a comment on this post.

In past blogathons I have accepted email submissions, but I find that sometimes emails get lost, so to keep all the submissions in one place I would like to have the entries linked or left as comments. My sanity thanks you!

Marion Davies in THE PATSY sums up how many entries we’re expecting.

If you have any further questions, feel free to leave them in the comments or email me or Vince, but if not…see you tomorrow for the Romantic Comedy Blogathon!

Book Review: GEORGE HURRELL’S HOLLYWOOD

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Glamor, fashion, and beautifully seductive images are hallmarks of George Hurrell’s unmistakable photographic style. The preferred photographer of many classic Hollywood stars, he became indelibly associated with the Golden Age of Hollywood, and one of the most famous names in portrait photography.

Jean Harlow as photographed by Hurrell. As seen in GEORGE HURRELL’S HOLLYWOOD.

Never has Hurrell been more aptly celebrated than in Mark Vieira’s big and beautiful new coffee table book George Hurrell’s Hollywood (published by Running Press Books), that chronicles Hurrell’s life and work, his relationship to his photographic subjects, and his growth as a photographer over the course of his monumentally lengthy career. A detailed biography of Hurrell is accentuated by hundreds of stunning photographs, ranging from Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford all the way to Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas.

Carole Lombard, as photographed by Hurrell. Seen in GEORGE HURRELL’S HOLLYWOOD.

Vieira was a longtime friend of Hurrell’s, and draws on exclusive archival research, interviews, and diaries to create a portrait of the artist never before seen in any book. He details Hurrell’s rise to fame, his flourishing career in Hollywood’s Golden Age, and ultimately his perseverance when times got extremely hard due to scandal and corruption from the underworld of the art collectors’ community.

The book is also a treasure trove for lovers of old Hollywood gossip, providing the reader with information about the mystery of Greta Garbo that existed offscreen as well as on (Vieira relates an anecdote on the unusual way in which Hurrell finally succeeded in getting Garbo to smile for a picture), the eccentricities of Marlene Dietrich, and the resistance of Olivia de Havilland to Hurrell’s unorthodox methods of getting a shot. One of my favorite parts of the book is an examination of how Hurrell airbrushed his subjects. A famous Hurrell photograph of Joan Crawford, glamorous, sexy, and a true movie star, is shown alongside its original negative–and we see Crawford as the freckle-faced, normal woman she was when she came into Hurrell’s studio. The difference between the two photographs is astounding, and shows what Hurrell was capable of long before the days of digital airbrushing and Photoshop.

Hurrell expanded his horizons a bit during the second half of his career, photographing such musical notables as Diana Ross, David Bowie, and Natalie Cole (Hurrell’s photograph of Cole appeared on the cover of her album Unforgettable…With Love). Sharon Stone, his last photographic subject, provides the foreword to this book and an alluring photograph of Stone graces the first page of text.

Hurrell’s photograph of Sharon Stone that appears alongside the foreword of GEORGE HURRELL’S HOLLYWOOD.

Click here to order your copy of the book. George Hurrell’s Hollywood is a must-have for anyone interested in classic Hollywood, photography, the art world, or simply the life of a fascinating personality whose career survived multiple setbacks and difficulties. A truly loving and fitting portrait to a photographic genius, featuring 420 breathtaking images that testify to the man and his art.

Joan Crawford in 1930, as seen in GEORGE HURRELL’S HOLLYWOOD.

See you next time!

CLFP: SWING HIGH, SWING LOW (1937)

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By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

A mix of light comedy and dark drama defines Swing High, Swing Low, the third movie to team Carole Lombard and frequent co-star Fred MacMurray and the only one that might be classified as a drama. At the beginning we see what looks to be a screwball comedy in the vein of the team’s earlier Hands Across the Table, until the story takes a complete turn in the second half during which it proceeds to deal with large themes such as divorce, fallen stardom, and alcoholism in an unusually frank manner.

Maggie (Lombard), young stowaway on a ship to California via Panama is courted by Skip (MacMurray), a young soldier on his final day of the army, and she reluctantly agrees to go on a date with him at a local Panamanian bar. After a brawl between the soldier and a local caballero, they land in court and while humorously trying to break the language barrier they keep getting fined more and more money for contempt. During their struggle they hear Maggie’s boat leaving, and she is stuck in Panama and forced to move in with Skip and his musician roommate until the next boat. She discovers Skip’s talent for the trumpet and encourages him to play professionally. The three of them form a small group with the roommate playing the piano, Skip playing trumpet, and Maggie singing at the bar, where there is also a sensual dancer by the name of Anita Rodriguez (Dorothy Lamour) who has her eye on Skip. By this time, Skip and Maggie have fallen in love and marry, Maggie leaving her desire to stow away on the next ship to California.

Skip receives an offer to go to New York to play at the El Greco, and leaves a forlorn Maggie behind in Panama. She writes him every day, but never receives a reply. Eventually she sails to New York to find him, and learns that Anita also appears in Skip’s show at the El Greco. Suspecting infidelity, she calls Anita’s room at the hotel and her worst fears are confirmed when Skip answers the phone. She writes him a letter informing him of her intention to get a divorce, and this sends Skip into a deep depression. He loses his job at the El Greco, and turns to alcohol to numb his pain. He tries to rejoin the army, but they won’t take him due to his alcoholism. His old roommate tries to get his career back on track with a radio spot for their old band, and the program director contacts Maggie who has just returned from getting the divorce in Paris to see if she would help. Hearing Skip’s plight, Maggie goes to find him and the band plays together again with Skip leaning on Maggie for support, ending the film on a hopeful note for Skip’s future.

The issue of divorce was a tricky one in the 1930’s, and most movies that deal with divorce during that period end with the decree not going through. Swing High, Swing Low is different. Not only does Maggie obtain the divorce that she sought, but she does not romantically involve herself with Skip again in the end. Instead, Maggie is shown as a sympathetic character who was correct in filing for divorce from the man who wronged her, but who has the dignity and confidence to care for him when he is in need. This greatly surprised me as not only does it validate divorce, a very risky move under the code, but it also validates a woman’s judgment regarding the infidelity of a man and paints her as the man’s saving grace at the end, instead of the reverse.

This is certainly not the best of Lombard and MacMurray’s four pairings, but to me it may be the most interesting due to the thematic switch halfway through and the gender role reversal that ends the film. The acting by MacMurray is marvelous, and Carole Lombard is given the ability to show her talent for both screwball comedy and for drama. Given the versatility she showed in her movies I often think that if Carole Lombard had lived longer, she may have proven to be one of the most versatile actresses of her day, equal to the likes of Irene Dunne and Barbara Stanwyck. A poignant thought.

See you next time!