Nearly a month and a half ago, we provided segments of an upcoming book on recorded conversations with one of Carole Lombard’s friends at RKO, Orson Welles (http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/610122.html
). Comments Orson made regarding Carole and other Hollywood notables, issued in advance of the book’s release earlier this month, caused a furor around the blogosphere.
Now the book, “My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom And Orson Welles,” edited by Peter Biskind, has been released — and to borrow the advertising slogan used in Welles’ cinematic landmark, “Citizen Kane,” it’s terrific. Not the most factual of books, nor the most soothing or sympathetic portrayal of this multimedia genius, but terrific just the same. This aging lion, wounded by Hollywood yet still trying to put all sorts of movie projects together despite lacking money, is a riveting raconteur…at times incredibly perceptive, at others merely an expert at shoveling bull.
Welles has a little bit more to say about Lombard beyond his controversial allegation that the plane she was aboard in 1942 was shot down by Nazi snipers, a claim that seems dubious at best.
O.W.: I remember when [Clark] Gable made a picture called ‘Parnell,’ a costume picture. Nineteen thirty-seven, with Myrna Loy. Nobody came. They released it toempty theaters! Proving that there’s no such thing as the star who can’t empty a theater. I think it was the only MGM film that lost money. Not that it mattered to [Louis B.] Mayer. Money was almost no object to Metro, ’cause they couldn’t lose money.
H.J.: You mean the way they had the distribution set up, owning the theaters, they were so locked in that–
O.W.: And when I learned to fly, I flew with Carole over Metro, at lunchtime. We buzzed the commissary, just as everyone was coming out, and she dropped leaflets that said, “Remember ‘Parnell'”! That’s the kind of girl she was.
Get the bull detectors out, folks. The “Parnell” anecdote has long been part of Lombard lore (it well may be apochryphal), but no one has ever said Welles was part of it. And if the incident ever took place, it would have been in the latter part of 1937 or early in 1938...when Orson spent most or all of his time in New York, directing or performing on the stage or on radio. (Welles earlier says he did some stage work in Los Angeles before Irving Thalberg’s death in 1936, but added he never met the man, whom he had little regard for.)
Back to the conversation:
H.J.: [Lombard] looked to me like kind of a road-company Garbo.
O.W.: Not at all Garboesque! My God, she was earthy. She looked like a great beauty, but she behaved like a waitress in a hash house. That was her style of acting, too, and it had a great allure. She wasn’t vulgar; she was just… I got to know her when I had to make peace between her and Charles Laughton. I was sort of an emissary for Laughton. They were making a picture called ‘They Knew What They Wanted,’ about an Italian vintner who gets a mail-order wife, played by Lombard, you know? The movie was directed by Garson Kanin. Laughton was the simple Italian peasant. He would come down to my office, and sit down across the desk from me, and put his head on the desk and cry.
O.W.: In the middle of the day. Said, “I can’t go on the way they’re making fun of me on the set.” ‘Cause they were sending him up so. And then I would go and talk to Gar, and talk to Carole, and say, “You know, he is a great actor. Take it easy with him. You’re gonna ruin your own picture.”
One’s tempted to believe Welles’ “I got to know her” comment negates what he just said about “Parnell,” but we’ll give Orson the benefit of the doubt on that one. The rest of that block makes sense…and as for the “road-company Garbo” remark, perhaps Jaglom had been a bit confused about her after watching “The Princess Comes Across.” He certainly seems confused after making this statement, which Welles refutes and then follows with a comment about Gable:
H.J.: Now, Lombard could not have been very bright.
O.W.: Very bright. Brighter than any director she ever worked with. She had all the ideas. Jack Barrymore told me the same thing. He said, “I’ve never played with an actress so intelligent in my life.”
H.J.: But Gable was certainly not bright.
O.W.: No, but terribly nice. Just a nice big hunk of man. If you’re working hard that long — if you have to be in makeup at five-fifteen, and you get home at seven o’clock — how much brightness do you want? The guys just wanted to stagger home — and, if they could, get laid. Otherwise, a happy smile and get ready for the next day’s work.
Carole also figures into this comment of his, regarding his movie-going days in the 1930s:
“I didn’t like the screwball comedies at all, with the exception of Carole Lombard. Anything with her — that was fine.”
Welles has some other notable things to say about his contemporaries:
* Of ex-wife Rita Hayworth, whom he directed in “The Lady From Shanghai,” he says “she was a really talented actress who never got a chance,” adding they still had affection for each other following their divorce. “When I almost died of hepatitis, she spent five months with me while I recovered. And she never did anything except take care of me.”
* His thoughts on Frank Capra:
O.W.: The only really bad Capra picture I’ve ever seen is this ‘Shangri-La.’ It’s terrible — terrible. Absurd! I screamed with laughter! Shangri-La, where they were kept, was this sort of Oriental country club. Still, I was a great Capra fan.
H.J.: ‘It’s A Wonderful Life.’ You want to hate it, but–
O.W.: Well, yes — hokey. It is sheer Norman Rockwell, from the beginning to the end. But you cannot resist it! There’s no way of hating that movie.
* Welles said he rejected performing in “Anna And The King Of Siam” (a part that went to Rex Harrison) “because I couldn’t stand Irene Dunne, who had already been cast. That’s why I turned down ‘Gaslight,’ too. She was going to do it. And then after I turned it down, they got [Ingrid] Bergman and I was out.” Why such antipathy for Dunne?
“Irene Dunne was so dry-toothed and such a good fucking Catholic that I wanted to kick her in the crotch. Such a goody-goody. And she was always heading the censorship groups. and all that. Conservative, in a terrible Catholic-Christian way that I found peculiarly offensive. To me, she was the non-singing Jeanette MacDonald, you know., And I hated her as an actress. She was so ladylike that I knew there wouldn’t be any electricity between us.”
Interesting that Welles lambastes Dunne for her ultra-Catholic behavior but says nothing about Loretta Young (with whom he worked in “The Stranger”), whose detractors tend to paint with the same brush.
* While Welles noted he got along well with several conservative film personalities such as John Wayne and John Ford, one he had little affection for (calling him a “raving maniac”) was right-winger Adolphe Menjou. Welles tells an anecdote about a USO troupe Menjou headed in north Africa during World War II, at a time Noel Coward was heading its UK equivalent. They met at a mess hall in Casablanca, and Menjou criticized the many trysts black American soldiers were having with English girls (although Menjou used the “n”-word), saying you didn’t know what race would result from such miscegenation. Coward called it “perfectly marvelous,” which infuriated Menjou. According to Welles, Coward replied, “At last there’ll be a race of Englishmen with good teeth.”
I simply can’t say enough about this book, as Welles proves himself a 20th-century Falstaff (a role he played in the 1966 movie “Chimes At Midnight”) — comedic, at times absurd, but surprising you with his depth when you least expect it. Orson regularly appears in lists of people from history you’d like to invite for dinner…but lunch will do just fine, thank you. We’re delighted Welles and Jaglom brought us to the table.