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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.”

TCM PRE-CODE FRIDAYS: The Women of RED DUST (1932)

All September long, TCM is shining the spotlight on those films made during the illustrious years of 1929-1934, the saucy and seductive era we call “pre-Code.” In the days prior to codified morality on film, writers and filmmakers were free to tell the stories they thought their audiences would accept, and these films often defy the stereotypes that mainstream audiences visualize when they  conceptualize classic film.

In pre-Code Hollywood, sex and seduction drove plots and defined characters. Women and men knew what they had, and weren’t afraid to flaunt it. It was an open, expressive time for film, and a time to push the social envelope and challenge audiences to analyze those things outside their comfort zone.

At the height of the pre-Code era came Red Dust (1932), a story about an American rubber farmer (Clark Gable) in Indochina who is torn between a stable relationship with one woman, and a steamy affair with another. One woman is a prostitute, and the other a refined lady of the city.

Think you know which one is the stable relationship, and which is the steamy affair?

The prostitute Vantine cares for Dennis Carson after he is shot by the jealous woman with whom he is having an affair (Mary Astor).

The film forces the audience to rethink pre-conceived notions of morality and goodness by switching expected characterizations of women. In this film, it is Jean Harlow’s character of the prostitute Vantine who represents core, upstanding virtue. Though she is a lady of the night, she strives to maintain her standards and dignity when the cards are stacked against her.

Early in the film, after a passionate night with Dennis, the rubber farmer offers her money without a word of judgment. Here we learn two things: though Dennis has just spent the night with a prostitute, he holds his head high the next morning and does what he feels is right. He holds core values and does not shame or feel shamed. We also learn that Vantine is more than just your average prostitute. She yearns for sincere love and a stable partner. When Dennis offers Vantine the money, she sweetly refuses, letting Dennis know that she enjoyed the evening with him.

Mary Astor’s character, a classy, ladylike woman named Barbara, soon arrives in Indochina with her husband, who is to work as an engineer on the rubber plantation. Dennis is attracted to Barbara, and sends her husband away on a long trip whereupon he begins to seduce her.  Dennis is so enamored with Barbara that she persuades her to leave her husband for him, but he soon has a change of heart when he learns just how much her husband loves Barbara. Dennis pretends never to have loved her, and Barbara, in a rageful moment, shoots him. When her husband runs in, they simultaneously cover their relationship and provide Barbara an alibi by saying that Dennis had tried unsuccessfully to seduce her. The film ends with Vantine sitting by Dennis’ side on the bed, reading him bedtime stories.

Visual symbolism. The prostitute, shunned by society, sits on a higher plane than the woman whom society labels as dignified.

This gray moral area and complex characterization of a female character is common in pre-Code cinema, but becomes far less so when one examines movies released from late 1934 on. The modification of the Hays Code in July of 1934 signified a major shift in the portrayals of women on film, and erased once and for all any gray moral area that may have existed prior to the Code’s enforcement. The Hays Code clearly stipulated that there should be no doubt as to where morality existed and where it did not, especially in regard to women, spelling out a clear message for the audience and leaving little room for speculation or analytical thought. In response to these new rules, filmmaking itself experienced a massive upheaval after the enforcement of the Code, and a new cinematic technique developed. In order to make the movies they wanted to make, screenwriters, directors, producers, and actors had to come up with subtle ways to trick the censors and make the film’s message as clear as it could be. The result was the biting innuendo, suggestive costuming, and creative use of props and dialogue that make up the landscape of post-Code cinema.

A movie like Red Dust, however, is a hallmark of the pre-Code era, and would have been nearly impossible to make had it been attempted just a few years later. We’re lucky that it was made when it was.

See you next time!

TREASURES FROM THE WARNER ARCHIVE: Polly of the Circus (1932)

Upon my return from Los Angeles early this morning, I was thrilled to find my Warner Archive titles waiting for me in the mail, thus allowing me to begin my new collaboration with the Warner Archive sooner than I had anticipated. I had initially projected that “Treasures From the Warner Archive” would begin in June, but I don’t see any reason for waiting any longer than necessary. So without further ado, this is the first installment in this series. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you a delightful pre-Code, featuring a young Clark Gable and Marion Davies in one of her best roles–it’s a balancing act of love, passion and virtue in Polly of the Circus.

The film begins with a debate about a circus billboard in a small, conservative town as Polly (Marion Davies), the featured act in the circus, is pictured on a billboard wearing only her leotard. This offends the local townspeople and the police insist on her legs being covered, which leads to elaborate drapings over her legs on every billboard in town. Polly objects to this, and takes up her objections with the minister (Clark Gable), who ignores her and the drapings remain. At the opening night of the circus, Polly is heckled by an audience member about the billboards, which causes her to lose her focus and fall 50 feet from the trapeze.

She is gravely injured, and the minister, Mr. Hartley, takes her in to heal her. During her convalescence, Polly and Mr. Hartley fall deeply in love and eventually marry. His uncle, also a minister, objects to her marrying a circus girl, as does the church, and Mr. Hartley is stuck between the woman he loves and the ministry he has spent his whole life training for. He is left with limited options, as divorcing Polly would be a sure way to be excommunicated from the church. Polly, seeing his pain, does the only thing she thinks she can–she leaves him and rejoins the circus. Severely depressed, facing the stunt that left her injured before, she says to her friend “If I’m supposed to make it, I’ll make it.” Just then, Mr. Hartley appears below her, calling to her excitedly. He has chosen to live openly with her. She smiles broadly. “I’ll make it!” she cries, as she pulls off the stunt with perfection. She joins Mr. Hartley at the bottom of the trapeze, as the movie ends.

Looking up at Polly from the base of the trapeze.

Looking up at Polly from the base of the trapeze.

I have seen a great many Marion Davies movies, and Polly of the Circus stands as one of my personal favorites. Not only is it a close examination on the timeless issue of it means to be torn between two serious life choices, but it is also a deft and clever pre-Code, with delightfully suggestive dialogue and witty double-entendres. One of my favorite lines of the movie is one in which Mr. Hartley and Polly are getting to know each other, discussing what it means for Mr. Hartley to be a minister. Polly says “Well I suppose even a minister has his moments. But of course your wife would have to sleep in the woodshed…during Lent.”

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Mr. Hartley laughs heartily at this, showing the audience that we all know exactly what she means. It is a movie that doesn’t overpower the audience, but one that leaves a rich aftertaste when the movie is finished.

Polly of the Circus is the first of two movies that Marion Davies did with Clark Gable, and this one is considered the better of the two. In 1934, Cosmopolitan Pictures (the production company with which Marion was affiliated) moved from MGM to Warner Bros., and Marion made 4 movies there before she retired in 1937. Her second-to-last film at Warner Bros. was one entitled Cain and Mabel, one for which Cosmopolitan boss William Randolph Hearst had high hopes. It was a multi-million dollar production, and again teamed Marion Davies and Clark Gable (on loan from MGM), two stars that were almost guaranteed to bring the studio a profit. However, Hearst overestimated the potential of the production, and Cain and Mabel failed to make a profit. It was a terrible blow to the studio, and its failure at the box office is tragic because, in retrospect, it is indeed a fun movie to watch. The Warner Archive has also made Cain and Mabel available on demand, and that is one that I will be reviewing in the future. Stay tuned!

But as much as I love Cain and Mabel, it is Polly of the Circus that is closer to my heart. A beautiful love story set against the backdrop of a circus is a winning combination, and the movie delivers. I am so glad that the Warner Archive has made it available, and that I could talk about it here.

If you would like to order Polly of the Circus, here is the link to its page on the Warner Archive. Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for the next installment in this series, when I will talk about Barbara Stanwyck in The Woman in Red.

See you next time!

LIVE FROM THE TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL DAY 4 (Closing Day): “Gilda,” Women of Early Hollywood, “It Happened One Night,” “The General,” Closing Night Party

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Well readers, the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival has come to a close. It has been a busy and very exciting 4 days, and your author is at once exhilarated, exhausted, and ready for next year!

In my humble opinion, this 4th day held the best lineup of the festival. Gilda was first on the agenda at the Egyptian Theatre, and though I had seen it on the big screen once before I was all too eager to see it again. The movie tells a story that is complex and hard to follow, but in all truth, the movie is not about the story. The audience is too busy watching Rita Hayworth to have any time for following a plot anyway. It is the ultimate noir, almost a caricature of the genre, and it really seems as though everything  that happens when Rita Hayworth is offscreen is just filler. Rita is the heart and soul of the movie, and because of her, the film is considered to be one of the great noir films of all time. Instead of trying to describe Rita in this movie with words, I will give you some clips so that if you haven’t seen this film, you will see what Gilda is all about.

Hayworth’s performance is rendered even more stunning when one examines who she was offscreen. By all accounts sweet, quiet, and timid, Rita Hayworth was the antithesis of the character of Gilda. She only gave a handful of interviews in her life due to paralyzing shyness, and Louella Parsons (who had met Rita as a teenager just starting her career) noted that she could barely look strangers in the eye. Here she is sultry, sexy, steamy, and an all-around tiger with every man she meets. Suffice it to say, I am of the opinion that Rita Hayworth was robbed of an Oscar nomination for this role.

Our next event happened in Club TCM, a discussion with Cari Beauchamp about women writers in early Hollywood, focusing specifically on Frances Marion. Beauchamp has produced a documentary on Frances Marion, and offered fascinating insight into who she was as a woman, as a writer, and as a member of a fledgling industry. Marion was extremely prolific–one surprising trivia bit Beauchamp related was that out of the 9 pictures nominated for Best Picture at the 1st Academy Awards, Frances Marion had written 7 of them. She eventually left the industry as it became increasingly production- and output-oriented, and she decided to pursue other tasks in which she did not have to compete. She became an accomplished sculptor and painter in her later years.

I must say that I find Cari Beauchamp to be one of the most fun, enthusiastic, and accessible film historians I have ever come across. She is a renowned scholar, and has written highly respected biographies and documentaries, yet her presentations are always down-to-earth and casual, with plenty of humor and no shortage of one-liners. As an example of a classic Cari Beauchamp utterance, she referred to the papers of Fred Thomson (Frances Marion’s husband), noting: “His stuff on de Mille is freaking hilarious.” She is very popular among us young classic film bloggers, enthusiasts, and devotees!

Next up was It Happened One Night, introduced by Cari Beauchamp once again. She pointed out a number of the continuity errors in the movie, ones which I had never noticed in my literally dozens of times seeing this movie. For example, in the famous “Man on the Flying Trapeze” number, the inside of the bus is rocking back and forth while the outside stays still. At one point, Claudette Colbert’s handkerchief disappears and reappears a number of times. The road Clark Gable drives on sometimes has a line, sometimes does not. Regardless of these errors, this movie remains the cream of the screwball comedy crop–one of the very first, and one of the very best.

The next movie was one I was very excited to see–not only is The General (1926) Buster Keaton’s best known film and arguably (or not arguably) his best, but the movie was to be shown at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, giving it the majestic treatment it deserves. The movie is about a young engineer in Georgia during the Civil War who wants to enlist in the army but is rejected because he would be more use to the South as an engineer. However, when he sits on the wheel of a train to think, the train starts and he is carried to an army base. Buster Keaton antics ensue, and he ends up foiling deserters, hearing enemy plots, and derailing trains from the North. It is Buster Keaton on a grand scale, and his antics are more polished and refined in this movie than they are in his shorts or even his other feature films. I am used to a Buster Keaton whose comedy is mostly slapstick, but this film highlights his ability to create subtle humor through facial expressions. One scene in particular stands out for me–when Buster sees yet another obstacle in his path, he expresses his incredulity through blinks of his eyes. It gives the audience a clear view of what he is feeling, yet Buster never for a minute lets go of his famous deadpan face.

Keaton was also known for dangerous stunts that he performed himself. Here are some stunts from the movie that demonstrate what he was capable of.

The General marked the final event of the TCM Classic Film Festival. A closing night party tied off the festivities, during which we said goodbye to friends and acquaintances that we met here, and even made plans to meet up again before the next festival. I always have fun at the TCM Classic Film Festival, and I can’t wait for next year!

Thank you, dear readers, for following along during these 4 days that seem to have gone by so quickly. I hope you enjoyed this coverage, and I will be resuming regular blogging duties upon arrival back home, including catching up on the Carole Lombard Filmography Project.

See you soon!