Above is Carole Lombard in what Paramount Pictures called a “personality poster” — measuring 14″ x 17″, it was something theaters used to promote stars and add ambience to the lobby or foyer. Lombard signed with Paramount in mid-1930, and would remain with the studio through the end of 1937.
Carole entered Paramount a struggling starlet who had recently been dismissed from Pathe, probably for too closely resembling new hire Constance Bennett; she left it a full-fledged star, gaining a palatial dressing room among other benefits, and was one of the movie industry’s most popular actresses. And yet, it could be argued that Paramount had very little to do with Lombard’s ascension to the top rank.
What are the four films most associated with Carole? “Twentieth Century” (Columbia), “My Man Godfrey” (Universal), “Nothing Sacred” (Selznick International) and “To Be Or Not To Be” (United Artists). None were made at Paramount; she had no equivalent of Marlene Dietrich’s “Shanghai Express,” Claudette Colbert’s “Cleopatra” or Miriam Hopkins’ “Trouble In Paradise” at her home base. In many ways, Lombard’s Paramount period is a study in frustration, as neither the studio nor, for a time, Carole herself realized what potential resided in this sleek blonde.
As part of the Paramount Centennial Blogathon hosted by The Hollywood Revue (http://hollywoodrevue.wordpress.com), here are my thoughts on some of Lombard’s 22 movies made for Paramount. Rather than examine them chronologically, I’ll look at them in a variety of categories. Ready? Here goes.
* Best – “Hands Across The Table” (1935). As stated earlier, none of Carole’s Paramount films are considered on the same plateau as her “big four,” but this comedy, co-starring Fred MacMurray and directed by Mitchell Leisen, comes pretty close and is generally put on a second tier with “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and one or two other titles. At first envisioned as a Colbert vehicle (that Lombard was considered for that kind of role showed how her status had risen in Hollywood after “Twentieth Century”), Carole makes it her own with humor, warmth and a sexual tension with MacMurray that was rare for a post-Code comedy. (Indeed, MacMurray would be Lombard’s leading man for her next, and final, three films at the studio.) Ernst Lubitsch, briefly Paramount’s head of production, exercised care with this project, and it showed.
* Worst – “No One Man” (1932), with honorable (?) mention to “Rumba” (1935). I’ve not seen either, but opinions from those I respect place these two at the bottom. “No One Man” was the first film of Carole’s at Paramount where she played the lead role, and if some of her other performances of the time are indicative, she likely wasn’t ready. And any movie that produces the above publicity still, with Lombard between Ricardo Cortez and Paul Lukas, must be pretty dire (is she auditioning to become an NFL replacement official?).
* Most anomalous – “Supernatural” (1933). What’s a nice girl like Carole doing in hokum like this? Well, at the time, she really hadn’t set herself apart from any of Paramount’s stable of starlets, so she was assigned to a genre she was obviously uncomfortable with (and one she never wanted to work in again). The funny thing is, her performance isn’t half bad; she gives it all she has, even though she ran the risk of being stuck as a horror queen (one fan magazine tried to label her the “Sheba of Shivers”). The film is no classic, but has its moments.
* Most musical – “Swing High, Swing Low” (1937). This is the closest Carole got to starring in a genuine musical, and the only movie where she actually sings rather than being dubbed. (It’s MacMurray -- a real-life jazz saxophonist before moving into acting — who’s dubbed here as a trumpet player.) People liked this movie; it was Paramount’s biggest money-maker of 1937, and yet no full-length 35mm print of it survives. Which brings us to our next category…
* Rarest – “I Take This Woman” (1931). Had a 16mm print of this movie not been given to author Mary Roberts Rinehart, whose novel “Lost Ecstasy” was adapted into this film, this collaboration between Carole and Gary Cooper would be lost to history. It was restored nearly a dozen years ago, and has since been shown a handful of times at repertory houses, but it’s not been made available on DVD or telecast on Turner Classic Movies. Given the stars are two Hollywood legends, each with legions of fans, that’s bewildering.
* Most clad in lingerie – “Safety In Numbers” (1930). Looking for work following her Pathe dismissal, Lombard freelanced for a bit, making a movie at Fox before answering the call for a decorative supporting part in this Buddy Rogers romp. Hired for her sex appeal (Carole had, after all, been a Mack Sennett bathing beauty), she added texture to a stereotypical role. Director Victor Schertzinger recommended Paramount sign her to a contract, and it did. “Safety In Numbers” was Lombard’s first film at Paramount; her last had a special quality of its own…
* Most divisive – “True Confession” (1937). Perhaps no film of Lombard’s generates more intense debate regarding its quality than this, her swan song at Paramount. There are those who would place it alongside “Hands Across The Table” and “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” in her second tier; others, most notably Leonard Maltin, don’t think much of it at all. Despite MacMurray’s presence, it’s a film that more celebrates zaniness than romance, and for some, it’s simply too screwy. But any movie that features John Barrymore (hired, and billed third, at Carole’s behest), not to mention the always-reliable Una Merkel in her trademark role of heroine’s best friend, has something going to it.
* Least “Hollywood” – “Fast And Loose” (1930). While the story certainly holds true to Hollywood tradition, where it was filmed wasn’t. This would be Lombard’s only film at Paramount’s Astoria studios in Queens, N.Y., a facility Paramount would shut down the following year, for economic and other reasons. (Most of the Broadway actors who sought film careers had moved west.)
* Most over-the-top – “White Woman” (1933). Susan Sontag was born in January 1933, but here was a movie that defined “camp” some three decades before she popularized the term. It’s steamy but hardly sensual, as Charles Laughton chews the scenery like a dog with a bone toy and Lombard senses the entire story is absurd but can do little to stop it from being that way. Her next film, also in the waning months of pre-Code, took advantage of its relaxed approach…
* Sexiest – “Bolero” (1934). This film could also qualify as “most anachronistic,” as it takes place several years before Maurice Ravel penned the classical composition in 1928. But Carole’s scene, where she strips down to lingerie and stockings to show off her dancing ability (and perhaps other skills as well) to dancer George Raft, lets us see Lombard in a light that audiences would be denied as of mid-1934. A few years ago, one writer said of this scene that any man who saw it must have been convinced that Carole was one of the best lays in the world (it is believed Raft learned this firsthand). See it and judge for yourself.
* Most confusing – “The Princess Comes Across” (1936). For the second Lombard-MacMurray collaboration, Paramount officials apparently couldn’t decide whether this was to be a straight romantic comedy or a murder-mystery. The final result is a little of each, and not entirely satisfying. It’s hardly a bad movie, but it had the potential to be so much more. Perhaps this movie is also a microcosm of Carole’s seven years at Paramount.