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CLFP: “True Confession” (1937)

carole lombard

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

True Confession (1937) is one of the films marking the twilight of Carole Lombard’s short but illustrious career. By the time this film was made, Carole had shot 71 movies in a career spanning a total of 16 years, and after True Confession she would make 7 more before her sudden and untimely death. In this movie, Carole plays perhaps the strangest and screwiest heroine of her career, a pathological liar who runs the world amok with her fibs. A user review on iMDB rather aptly describes her antics as “right out of the Lucy Ricardo playbook.”

Helen Bartlett (Lombard) is a writer who has perpetual writer’s block and instead of writing, lives her life in a fantasy world of lies. Her husband Ken (Fred MacMurray) is an unfailingly honest lawyer who struggles with money because his principles do not allow him to take the case of any guilty party. After Ken refuses the case of a guilty ham thief, Helen takes a job as secretary to wealthy businessman Otto Krayler but on the first day of the job he seduces her. She flees and plans not to return, until she finds that she has left her hat and coat at his office. She goes back to get them and learns that Otto Krayler has been murdered during the time she was gone. She is arrested on suspicion of the murder and then Helen, the pathological liar, relays a vivid account of how she did indeed kill Otto Krayler. Then she gives conflicting testimony, saying that she did not. She is put on trial for his murder, wherein her husband defends her and she pleads self-defense, as they reason that no one will believe her innocence.

To complicate matters, a man named Charley Jasper (John Barrymore), a noted criminologist, is convinced that she is indeed innocent. Helen panics at this, as she believes a plea of “not guilty” will result in her conviction. Jasper keeps his thoughts to himself, and Helen is found innocent in the court.

After her acquittal, Helen writes a successful novel about her life story and she buys a house on Martha’s Lake with Ken. Charley comes over to visit and tries to blackmail them with Krayler’s wallet, saying that HE killed Krayler, therefore rendering Helen’s testimony perjury. He then reveals that his brother-in-law killed Krayler, and Ken leaves the house fuming over Helen’s lie to the court. She tries to get him to come back by saying that she is pregnant, which is another lie. He returns, but then finds out that she is not. The movie ends as Ken brings Helen into the house vowing to teach her not to lie.

The whole movie is completely backward and this not only makes it great fun to watch, but also almost a brain teaser, as nothing is as it should be. Much of the movie is spent trying to figure out how far Helen’s lies will take her before they backfire. She is an unlikely heroine, someone who deliberately fools the courts and her husband, but yet due to Carole’s portrayal of the character of Helen, we somehow find ourselves rooting for her. It is likely that if this movie were made today it would not be accepted as a comedy. Instead, I would venture to say that it would be presented as a courtroom drama, ending with Helen receiving the psychological help that she so clearly needs.

The cast of “True Confession” (missing: John Barrymore) eats lunch between scenes.

During the filming of “Twentieth Century” three years earlier, Carole and John Barrymore became good friends. By 1937, John Barrymore was in the ravages of severe alcoholism and an illness that could have been the then-unknown Alzheimer’s Disease. His career was in a steep decline, as he was often on a binge and when he was sober, he could barely remember his lines. Carole advocated passionately for him, using her significant power with Paramount to demand that her friend be given the role of Charley Jasper in True Confession. Though Barrymore was a very risky hire at that point, Carole did not back down and Paramount conceded to Barrymore as Charley. He gave a performance that demonstrated, as it did in Twentieth Century, that he had a great talent for comedy and had these films come earlier in his career, he may have developed this talent to his professional advantage. As it was, though, despite Carole’s efforts, this film could not turn Barrymore’s life around and he died of cirrhosis of the liver brought on by his lifetime of alcohol consumption.

Carole remained his friend to the end. She was extremely well liked in Hollywood, an easygoing and friendly personality who made friends with all her costars. She was a loyal friend, and often went to the bat for them, as she did with Barrymore on this film.

See you next time!

CLFP: “Virtue” (1932)

carole lombard

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

When I learned that Virtue was to be a part of the pre-code festival at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco this evening, I knew I had to go. This is one of Carole Lombard’s more well-known movies, but one which is rarely seen. This was, perhaps, my one chance to see this movie and review it for the Carole Lombard Filmography Project.

At the outset, the movie plays like a pretty standard pre-code. Mae, a streetwalker, is banned from town after being caught picking up men. Despite the court order to stay away, she returns and strikes up a relationship with a cab driver named Jimmy, not telling him she has been a streetwalker. They marry and on their wedding night, they come home to find a detective in their house. The detective says he is on to Mae and informs her husband that he has married a former streetwalker. Hurt and confused, Jimmy nonetheless decides to make a go of their marriage.

Mae learns that she has been found out.

Jimmy has a dream of being part owner of a gas station, and he has made plans with his friend Flanagan to purchase one to operate together. Though he has vowed to make the best of his marriage to Mae, he is constantly paranoid about her activities when he is not around. Mae assures him that he has nothing to worry about–their bank account shows only what he brings home from work, no more, no less. He is thrilled and excited about getting closer to his dream of owning a gas station, and Mae joins him in his excitement.

This is the point where the movie turns from a run-of-the-mill pre-code to something rather unique.

One day, Mae’s friend Gert falls ill and asks Mae for $200 for an operation. At first Mae says no, but ultimately gives in when Gert tries to commit suicide by drinking poison. When Mae comes home after lending Gert the money, she finds that her husband thinks he met his financial goal that day–not knowing that he was short the $200 that Mae lent Gert.

Later that evening, a friend comes over saying that Gert had asked HIM for $200 for an operation, then pretended to drink poison when he said no. Though she said nothing in order to keep her secret, Mae realizes that Gert was scamming them, and sets out to find her. She is nowhere to be found. Finally Mae tracks her down and starts beating her up, telling her that if she didn’t get the money back she would kill her. Gert swears she will, and tells her to come back tomorrow evening.

Mae beats Gert in this poster for the movie.

The next morning Jimmy, still suspicious, asks her what she did the previous evening. In order to maintain the secret of the $200, she replies that she had just stayed home. When asked what she would do that evening, she replies that she will probably do the same. When the evening rolls around and Mae sets out for Gert’s house, the jealous husband follows her. She enters Gert’s apartment, and her husband assumes that she is there to prostitute herself.

Meanwhile we learn that Gert has been giving the scammed money to a man named Toots O’Neill, the pimp of Lil, Mae and Gert’s mutual friend and fellow prostitute. In order to pay Mae back, Gert steals the money out of Toots’ wallet. When Toots finds out that she stole the money, he starts a fight with her to get it back, ultimately throwing her to the ground. She hits her head on a heater, killing her instantly.

Jimmy sees the silhouette of Toots lifting Gert’s dead body, and it looks like an embrace. He assumes it is Mae, and he is furious.

Meanwhile, Mae finds the door unlocked and enters. Toots hides with Gert’s body but watches her through a crack in the door. Mae finds the $200 on the table and takes it–but accidentally leaves her coat and purse.

She returns home to a furious Jimmy, and when she tries to explain, he will not listen to her and leaves. She hands him the $200 telling him that it is his, but he assumes it is her money from streetwalking and will not take it.

Mae’s coat and purse are found by detectives investigating Gert’s murder, and as they believe she was the only one there with Gert, they identify her as the guilty party in the murder and throw her in jail.

Forlorn about the failure of his marriage, Jimmy has passed out drunk at a local bar. A friend finds him and notifies him of Mae’s murder charge. He sobers up to defend her, and through a series of circumstances he sees Toots’ silhouette and recognizes it as the silhouette he saw in Gert’s apartment. He knows she couldn’t have been alone that night. When he confronts Toots with Lil present, Toots pulls a gun on him and Lil offers him an alibi, saying that she will testify that he was with her that evening. She convinces him to go to the courthouse instead of running out of town, as that will show that he is innocent and has nothing to hide.

Jimmy sees Toots’ silhouette.

Toots and Lil show up at the courthouse and Toots presents his testimony that he was with Lil all night. The judge asks Lil if this is true….and Lil replies that no, this is not true. She had to tell him that she would vouch for him to get him down to the courthouse, and says that he was about to run out of town. Toots is arrested, and Mae set free. The movie ends as Mae and Jimmy get back together, and Jimmy’s dream of a gas station has finally come true.

This was an extraordinarily complex, tight and well put together story. In writing this review, I felt an obligation to write out the entire story instead of the general skeleton, as the film unravels in such a straight and unwavering line that it is impossible to describe one event without all the others. Carole gives a wonderful performance, and the supporting cast is also magnificent. It is interesting to see how versatile of an actress Carole was. She plays this streetwalker with as much aplomb as her later dizzy screwball roles, and she could easily have remained a dramatic actress had her career not gone toward comedy. Had Carole lived longer, I would venture to say that she could have been comparable to someone like Barbara Stanwyck, capable of playing a wide variety of genres with equal skill.

Virtue is a movie that deserves to be seen by anyone with an interest in pre-code Hollywood, or simply classic Hollywood in general. It is unusually thorough in its treatment of its characters and its plot is meticulously thought out and detailed. The fact that this movie is so rare is a real shame, as it would be enjoyed by so many people if it were more widely available.

See you next time!

CLFP: “High Voltage” (1929)

carole lombard

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

For fans of the sophisticated screwballs that defined the majority of Carole Lombard’s career, it is often difficult to fathom that Carole started off as a dramatic actress. From the late silent era until 1934 when Twentieth Century changed her career, Carole Lombard (or, as she was often billed in her early films, “Carol Lombard”) was cast as in roles that highlighted her striking, angelic and ethereal beauty instead of capturing her bubbly and sociable offscreen personality. High Voltage is one of the movies that introduced Carole to the dramatic speaking roles of the early 1930s–her first full-length “talkie,” after a few significant roles in silent films notably as one of Mack Sennett’s “Bathing Beauties.” High Voltage is a rather straightforward film, nothing particularly interesting to speak of, but it is a wonderful look into early sound production that was still imperfect.

A busload of passengers is stranded in a snowstorm, and upon encountering an abandoned church, huddles together there until their rescue. Two of the passengers begin to fall in love, but there is a complication–regarding the man’s status with the law.

The plot of the movie is very basic, but is filled with lots of ornate dialogue that is oddly anachronistic. The movie is a bit difficult to understand, but this is more due to the scratchy print than anything else–it would greatly benefit from a restoration that would perhaps make the movie slightly more interesting to watch.

I might also add that this movie was made in 1929, the year sound film began to come into widespread use. Filmmakers were still experimenting with how to use dialogue, how to direct speaking actors, and how to seamlessly morph a highly successful silent medium into a speaking one without losing the character. It is fascinating to watch Carole in this film, because she is still very much a silent actress in her movements and expressions. During a scene where the group hears a rescue plane, Carole gets up dramatically and runs to the window, flailing and pointing energetically outside. It looks exactly like a scene that should occur in a silent movie, so much so that I instinctively half expected intertitles to show up on the screen. Her makeup is also reminiscent of traditional silent film–specifically the eyeliner she wears under her eyes, used to accentuate features and aid physical expressionism.

Despite its status as Carole’s first talkie, this is a rather minor Lombard film, one that doesn’t showcase her talent particularly well, but the filming is a prime example of cinematic technique in early sound films and this may be of interest to film historians.

See you next time!

CLFP: “Nothing Sacred” (1937)

carole lombard

The Carole Lombard Filmography Project is back in full swing, after your humble author took it upon herself to put it on hold until the Dueling Divas Blogathon was finished. I am happy to say that Carole has come back, and the next film to be covered is one of my favorites, and a hallmark film in her career.

Much is made of Carole Lombard’s angelic and ethereal beauty. Despite her tragically short time in movies she was considered to be one of the great beauties of the 1930’s, and never was her beauty more apparent than in Nothing Sacred, the first screwball comedy shot in Technicolor and Carole Lombard’s first and only feature shot using the relatively recent invention. Nothing Sacred holds a place as one of the very first films to have made full use of Technicolor technology, and the visuals are strikingly soft, almost like a watercolor painting.

When discussing this film in film circles, it has become something of an expectation to bring up what a shame it was that Carole Lombard didn’t have a chance to make more movies in Technicolor, as color film was clearly a medium on which she could make her mark. Her gentle features are highlighted and accentuated, and it is difficult for the viewer to look at anyone else when she is onscreen.

Lombard plays Hazel Flagg, a young woman who has been told she is dying of radium poisoning. A New York newspaperman named Wally Cook (Fredric March), demoted to the obituary section as punishment for trying to pass an ordinary Harlem resident off as an African prince at a charity event, learns of her story and decides it would make a sensational news piece. However, little does Wally know that Hazel has just been told by her doctor that the diagnosis was incorrect, and she is actually in perfect health. When Wally goes to her hometown in Vermont, Hazel jumps at the chance to leave her small town in Vermont and go to New York City, not telling Wally that the diagnosis was incorrect. The name of Hazel Flagg becomes synonymous with tragedy, and no one doubts the validity of her story. But when Wally calls in a renowned expert on radium poisoning, everything begins to fall apart in hilarious ways.

Though Nothing Sacred is indeed considered a screwball comedy, it is strikingly dry in comparison to the zany and madcap My Man Godfrey, released the previous year. Nothing Sacred is a far tighter film–instead of being character-driven like My Man Godfrey, the complex satire that makes up the plot is the primary focus in this movie.

Underneath the humor, Nothing Sacred also makes a serious commentary on the influence of the news media and the nature of fame. Hazel Flagg symbolizes the ability of a single person to dupe and manipulate the media in order to achieve recognition, and Wally Cook is an example of the exceptional lengths to which a newspaperman will go to get a story. These are problems that continue to be relevant today, and in the aftermath of some recent political events the movie is all the more poignant. Through screwball humor and comedic antics, with Carole Lombard giving a magnificent comedic performance as Hazel, Nothing Sacred succeeds in touching upon a serious issue in journalism with aplomb, sharp wit, and a fair amount of irony.

See you next time!

CLFP Guest Post: “Vigil in the Night” (1940)

A few days ago, I received a message in my inbox from Dan Day over at The Hitless Wonder Movie Blog expressing interest in writing a piece on Vigil in the Night (1940) for the Carole Lombard Filmography Project. I am happy to have Dan as the CLFP’s first guest post! If you have any pieces about Carole that you would like to submit to the project, please email your piece to fowler.lara@gmail.com along with your name, website, and some brief biographical information so we can get to know you! I welcome any and all pieces related to Carole’s life and career, and look forward to supplementing this project with reader input.

Here is Dan’s post. Enjoy!

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“Vigil in the Night” (1940)

“Vigil in the Night” is a film that does not have a huge reputation, even among Carole Lombard fans. Most books and articles written on the actress barely mention it, and even the fact that the movie was directed by the acclaimed George Stevens doesn’t seem to help it. Despite the fact that “Vigil” is not a great film–it’s a somewhat depressing soap opera–it contains one of Carole Lombard’s most underrated and overlooked performances.

Lombard plays Anne Lee, a quiet, dignified English nurse. Despite her integrity and professionalism, Anne winds up in one major crisis after another, most of them involving her irresponsible sister Lucy (Anne Shirley). Along the way, Anne meets up with the ultra-noble Dr. Prescott (Brian Aherne). Anne and Prescott are drawn to one another but the both of them are too dedicated to their profession to really become a couple.

As mentioned, “Vigil” is very much a medical soap opera, and it is heavy going at times. Most of the plot revolves around sick children (a major epidemic makes up the film’s climax). This is certainly a long way from the “fun” movies Lombard made in the mid ’30s. This is probably why Lombard fans have never really warmed to it. Her character is nothing like the usual Carole role.

Anne Lee’s self-sacrificial nature may be a bit hard to swallow for a 21st Century viewer. But Carole makes Lee’s actions totally believable. Lombard is brilliant here. Her accent is perfect–but it’s not just the accent that makes her English. Lombard’s whole manner, her body language, her speech patterns, are of a decent, dedicated, responsible professional. It may not be the Carole that her fans wanted to see, but her performance perfectly suits this story. If the film had a better script, or had been better received, Carole could have very well gotten an Academy Award nomination.

This film was made during the period when Carole was doing very different work than she had before. Other films she appeared in around this time include “Made for Each Other”, “In Name Only”, and “They Knew What They Wanted”. These films–and “Vigil”–are usually not considered among her best work, but they show that there was more to Carole than just wild comedy. They also show that Lombard was aware that the Screwball Era was over, and she had to try other roles and other types of stories.

Vigil in the Night” is not a BAD film….it’s very well made, with capable direction by George Stevens. It has a believable English “look”, courtesy of the technical departments of RKO. The supporting cast is fine. Mention must be made of a very young Peter Cushing, who has a small role. He would later become famous for his roles in several Gothic horror films.

The main problem with “Vigil” is the heavy-handed dramatics. One gets the feeling that RKO was trying to make an “important” film. That being said, “Vigil” is worth a look for any true Carole Lombard fan. It contains one of her best performances, and proves that Lombard was not just a funny, beautiful woman–she was a great actress, period.

“Vigil in the Night” is available on DVD-R from the Warner Archives.

CLFP: “My Man Godfrey” (1936)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A magnificently crafted screenplay and powerhouse comedic performances by Carole Lombard, William Powell, and Alice Brady are the hallmarks of this beloved zany comedy that is unmatched in its blend of screwball camp and surrealist humor. It has become one of the most respected comedies to come out of Hollywood, and its appeal stands the test of time–the script is just as hysterically funny today as it was in 1936. Its unceasing barrage of witty lines and humorous situations renders the film a difficult one to keep up with, and a real challenge to examine.

Godfrey Smith (William Powell) is out of work, and makes his home at the city dump in the midst of the Great Depression. A socialite by the name of Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick) approaches him, explaining that she is in need of a “forgotten man” to complete a scavenger hunt for a party. She offers him $5 if he obliges. Offended, he chases her off, forcing her to trip and fall on an ash pile. Cornelia’s sister Irene (Carole Lombard) is delighted at this spectacle, and she and Godfrey strike up a discussion about the nature of scavenger hunts and the ethics of using human beings as objects in a game (“It’s kind of sordid when you think about it,” Irene says). In order to prevent Cornelia from winning the scavenger hunt, Godfrey offers to be Irene’s “forgotten man.”

The party is chaos, with participants trying to register all their finds at the same time. Amid people showing off items such as spindles, goldfish, and Chinese gongs, Godfrey and Irene emerge and Irene is declared the winner of the scavenger hunt. When Godfrey is asked to make a speech, he calls the entire party a group of “nitwits,” saying that it will be a pleasure to return to the dump. However, in appreciation for his help in her victory, Irene offers him a job as the family butler. He accepts, grateful to have a job.

When Godfrey starts work the next day, he learns the extent of the Bullock family’s eccentricity. Irene has a tendency to throw childlike temper tantrums, which the dizzy scatterbrained Mrs. Bullock (Alice Brady) treats with performances by her live-in protegé, Carlo, which invariably upset Irene even further. The long-suffering Mr. Bullock is having trouble with money, but every time the concept is mentioned, Carlo sighs dramatically and Mrs. Bullock commands the conversation to stop as it’s “upsetting Carlo.” Cornelia is set on revenge against Godfrey for taking away her scavenger hunt victory, but Mrs. Bullock ultimately protects him saying “He’s the first thing Irene has shown any affection for since her Pomeranian died last summer.” Indeed, Irene takes to Godfrey very quickly, in a way that makes Godfrey uncomfortable.

Cornelia, still set on getting Godfrey fired, hatches a scheme to accuse him of stealing her pearls. Godfrey realizes that he has been framed, and begins to hatch a scheme of his own. We learn that Godfrey is not all that he has claimed to be. Raised in a rich, aristocratic family, Godfrey chose to live in the dump to get a taste of how the other half lives. Godfrey’s scheme involved buying stock for the family by taking Cornelia’s pearls and transmuting them into gold, then into stock, then back into pearls. Cornelia got her pearls back, the family’s money troubles were over, and Cornelia had a complete change of heart in regard to Godfrey. He did take some money for himself in order to open a nightclub called “The Dump,” and there he made a name for himself again and married Irene, whose feelings he had begun to return.

As uproariously funny as this movie is, My Man Godfrey is an incredibly difficult piece to analyze. The dialogue is so rapid fire and each line so funny that it is difficult to extract specific bits of dialogue that drive the story forward or provide important information about the characters. The nature of the film is that every bit of dialogue is important, and trying to find a quote more noteworthy than another is an exercise in futility. This is a brilliantly crafted film in every way; from the screenplay to the directing to even the cinematography, My Man Godfrey is a screwball masterpiece. Though Lombard was undoubtedly the star, Alice Brady gives a bravado performance as the nutty mother that nearly steals the show. The moment she shows up at the scavenger hunt party carrying a goat, the character of the mother is established. Speaking in a high, Billie Burke-like voice with a quirky laugh, she plays an essential role in creating the film’s zany quality.

Alice Brady as the mother.

In addition to its status as one of the great screwball comedies of all time, this movie is notable for the unique offscreen relationship of Lombard and Powell. After making Man of the World together, Lombard and Powell were married in early 1931. Their marriage didn’t last long, they were divorced after 2 years, but they remained good friends and worked together wonderfully. In fact, William Powell refused to do the film unless Carole Lombard was cast as Irene–he felt her perfect for the role. Their chemistry is evident in My Man Godfrey, and though they had divorced 3 years earlier, the friendship that they held offscreen is felt by the audience.

There exists a series of outtakes from the set of My Man Godfrey that show the fun atmosphere on the set, and also demonstrate Carole Lombard’s famous love of cursing. It was said that she loved to shock people with her ability to let out strings of 4-letter words, inconsistent with her angelic face and outwardly soft appearance. I am including these outtakes below.

See you next time!

CLFP: “Love Before Breakfast” (1936)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Owing to the classy title, stellar cast, and the surprise thrill I got from Hands Across the Table, I had high hopes for this low budget comedy starring Lombard, Cesar Romero, and Preston Foster. This is a screwball yarn about a young woman pursued by two men–her fiancé who suddenly takes a job in Japan, and a wealthy businessman who takes the opportunity of her fiancé’s absence to court her vigorously. He seems to show up everywhere she does, and the young woman is disinterested to say the least. Just as the businessman begins to get the hint, the young woman finds that she has fallen in love with him and the tables are turned.

That is about as much of the plot as I can muster up. It’s definitely a vehicle solely to show the beauty of its stars, with little attention paid to the plot or the plausibility of the story. I had a difficult time watching it, as I simply could not follow the seemingly arbitrary sequence of scenes or the flimsy, poorly developed plot. It feels like an incomplete film, as though some vital scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.

The movie was inspired by a work from Faith Baldwin, the noted early 20th century novelist. She is credited at the start of the film as the author of the novel on which this story was based, but in fact no novel was ever published. Love Before Breakfast was a short story in a magazine written by Baldwin that never expanded into novel form.

A redeeming quality of this movie is, indeed, the sheer beauty of Carole Lombard. There is one scene in which the character receives a very authentic-looking black eye. The beauty of Carole Lombard is completely unfettered, even appearing in raggedy clothes with the black eye, she displays a radiant glamor that was unmatched.

Poster art of Lombard with the black eye.

Thanks for reading, see you next time!