Tag Archives: carole lombard

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!

The Double Standard of “To Be or Not To Be” (1942)

At the outbreak of World War II, before the bombing of Pearl Harbor leading to the United States’ involvement in the war, there were a number of films made poking fun at Hitler and Nazism in general, always portraying Hitler as a sort of bumbling idiot and the object of ridicule. Probably the most famous example is the 1940 Charlie Chaplin classic The Great Dictator, in which Chaplin portrays Adenoid Hynkel, a Hitler-like character ruling the country of Tomania with an iron fist. However, the film I would like to explore today is somewhat lesser-known than The Great Dictator, yet carries a good deal more weight considering that the film’s release was the unfortunate victim of superbly bad timing.

This incredibly fast and complex story of mistaken identity in war-torn Poland, starring beautifully funny Carole Lombard and multi-talented Jack Benny, is dark humor at its best, concerning a group of actors who get mixed up with Nazi spies.The film is intended as a satire, and it is an uproariously funny piece that holds up extremely well with the passing years. Interestingly, it plays very much like a Mel Brooks comedy, with dialogue that could have easily been written by Brooks and scenarios that could have come from his comedic mind. Lending credibility to this statement, Mel Brooks did indeed remake this film in 1983, this time starring Anne Bancroft in the Carole Lombard role and Mel Brooks in the one played originally by Jack Benny. It is not hard to understand why it so appealed to him.

Carole Lombard and Jack Benny.

The filming of this movie began in October of 1941, while the U.S. was still at peace with the world, though Hitler had invaded Poland the month before and Europe was already in shambles. When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, prompting the United States’ entry into World War II, To Be or Not To Be was just wrapping production, which was finalized on December 23. All of a sudden, this satirical parody of the Nazis didn’t seem so funny anymore. When the film was released on March 6, 1942, it angered critics and much of the public, who claimed that the film’s light treatment of the war which was now all too real to them, was inappropriate and offensive.

And as if that weren’t enough, To Be or Not To Be had another problem to contend with.

Carole Lombard in Indianapolis on the day before her death–January 15, 1942.

Shortly after filming was completed, Carole Lombard, an active liberal Democrat who was always eager to support political causes, embarked upon a tour to raise bond money for the war effort. On January 16, after raising $2 million in war bonds at a rally in Indiana, she boarded TWA Flight 3 back to Los Angeles. After re-fueling in Las Vegas, the plane took off again, but for reasons that are still unknown to this day, suddenly and brutally crashed into Potosi Mountain, killing all 22 passengers onboard. The smart, witty, universally loved star whose future looked extremely bright, was among the first casualties of the U.S. war effort.

One of my all-time favorite images of Carole Lombard that graced the cover of Life Magazine in 1938. I have this magazine in my personal collection.

With Lombard’s death, To Be or Not To Be had to be re-examined. In light of the circumstances, a line was removed from the print: a line in which Lombard, in reference to a plane ride with an admirer, says “What can happen on a plane?” Though upon release Lombard’s performance was hailed as one of the great comedic performances up to that point (as often happens when a film is released after a star’s death), the reality of her passing combined with the shifted connotations of the content creates a film that is funny, sad, and poignant all at the same time. What is created is a supreme work of irony–the circumstances surrounding the film mold it into something that it was not conceived to be, but much like an accident in the kitchen may lead to a new recipe, the concept works marvelously nonetheless. It is a highly enjoyable film, but with a sad quality throughout that can only be read from the future, knowing what we know now.

Here is the opening scene, which gives you a good taste of how the movie will play out right from the beginning. Note “Hitler”‘s utterance of “Heil myself” at 2:58, which was directly appropriated into a song in Mel Brooks’ Broadway musical The Producers.