A life less ordinary: ‘Carole Lombard – Twentieth-Century Star’

❉ A lucid biography of 1930s film star Carole Lombard details her extraordinary life and tragic death.


In this biography of Hollywood star Carole Lombard by Michelle Morgan, we are presented, and not for the first time, with an actor’s life which is arguably more interesting than any of the characters she played. What a biopic Lombard’s life would make. Comedy! Tragedy! Sex! Death! A typical Hollywood star, but no stroppy and insecure egomaniac was she. She preferred to have the fights before the movie was made, and not during. Working with Lombard appears to have been an absolute hoot and she was generous to her fellow actors, even helping to revitalise a few jaded careers.

Carole Lombard’s career came to a premature end in a plane crash at the age of 33 in 1942. Morgan’s account suggests the choice to make the fatal flight was based on the flip of a coin. She had already dodged the Grim Reaper in a car crash at the age of 18, although the scars she received nearly scuppered her fledgling cinema career. She once had a boyfriend who was accidentally killed by a mishandled duelling pistol. He wouldn’t have minded since he seemed to think his time was nearly up anyway. Lombard’s first husband’s girl friend, and second husband’s co-star and friend, Jean Harlow, died from kidney failure at a very young age, and our star later suffered from an appendicitis, only a few years before she and her mother were killed on Table Rock mountain.

One of the most striking photos ever taken of Carole Lombard.

Behind all the headline making drama, there was success brought about by perseverance, tenacity, even stubbornness. She had an ability to listen and learn from the best. Lombard had no formal training as an actress, and had to work out silent-screen acting basics, such as what to do with your hands, as she went along. The only time she received training was during the transition to sound. Lombard discovered that the best way to learn is to watch your fellow actors and absorb their technique. She went from one studio to another, from one mediocre script to the next, waiting for that signature break-out role, all while trying to keep happy gossip columnists and studio executives. In those early days, she felt out of her depth.

From an early age Lombard was determined to plough her own furrow, having come from a comfortable background, although she later considered her childhood to have been horrible since her parents separated and she rarely saw her father, even going as far as to avoid his funeral. She developed a tomboy personae, preferring the company of her rough and tumble brothers to girls. She even changed her name into something less ‘girly’. This independent streak would run throughout her life. When she married for a second time, she omitted the word ‘obey’ from her list of vows. On set, she had a fondness for swearing, horse play, practical jokes and this helped her cope with the seedier side of the business. ‘I must laugh and clown through life,’ she once observed. Tomboy she may have been, but to the male eye, she was considered pleasingly decorative. She was a Mack Sennett ‘bathing beauty’, there to be regularly soaked in water. In western films she was a ‘sprig of parsley’ and one later review remarked on her ‘eye interest’ while her two leading male actors, both fighting in the film for her attention, were praised for their characterizations.

circa 1933: American actress Carole Lombard (Jane Alice Peters, 1908 - 1942) who starred in Mack Sennett's comedies before joining Paramount in 1930. She married and divorced actor William Powell, before marrying screen hearthrob Clark Gable. She died in an aircrash. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Carole Lombard circa 1933.

The eye interest would soon gain praise for her own comic characterisation whether playing ‘nutty, slap-happy, goofy’ types or more memorably as a ‘gold digging chiseller’. Lombard looked to the future and like others before and since, wanted to be considered a serious actress, tackle challenging roles in better scripts. She once refused to do one picture leading to a brief suspension, a tactic she advised one new and budding star in the making in order to get better money. He won his case.

Michelle Morgan has limited resources to draw upon, which is not necessarily a drawback for the biographer and works very hard to present as complete a life as can be drawn. Virtually every interview Lombard ever gave to the Hollywood press, either official or fan based, seems to have been accessed. It seems Lombard left no other record and we are left to the popular press to give her life some record. As she grew older, her interviews became less frequent as she became frustrated with how they were more interested in the private life than the public art. Lombard hated rumours and gossip and called out interviewers who repeated it to her face.

Carole reading a copy of Photoplay. In real life she quickly grew frustrated – and often furious – with fan magazines’ intrusion into her personal life.

There was a lot going on in her private life, including one failed marriage, which is all quite tame these days, but these were the days of morality clauses in film contracts, which Lombard fought against. She was ‘living in sin’ with one of the biggest stars of this time, Clark Gable, who was waiting for his estranged wife to grant him a divorce. After marriage, both she and Gable understandably preferred not to live their lives in the public gaze and tried their best to avoid publicity junkets such as the premier for his film ‘Gone With the Wind’, although their appearance did their reputations for being’ down to earth’ much good.

Morgan’s entertaining and lucid biography presents Lombard as a confident and down to earth person, determined to demonstrate her independence as far as she could, and steer the course of her career, which she was well aware had a finite shelf life. She argued over points in her contract with David A. Selznick so much that she made one film with him before coming to an agreement. Selznick eventually dropped her after he fell out with Gable. She later fired her agent, another Selznick, and won a court case which he predictably brought against her.

The impression Morgan gives is that Lombard yearned for a normal life. She was planning to get out of movies before she faded away, and raise a family with Gable, but when you are a famous face, and married to the most handsome man of his generation (despite his infidelities or ‘dalliances’ which Lombard seemed to put up with as they did appear to have a good relationship together), it isn’t possible.

She could never have had an ordinary life, and an extraordinary and tragic death, seems horribly fitting somehow.

❉ ‘Carole Lombard: Twentieth-Century Star’ by Michelle Morgan is published by The History Press, RRP £20.00.  You can find out more about the book and its an author at www.MichelleMorgan.co.uk and via Twitter.

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