I must admit that I love Carole Lombard. In everything that I've read and in all her performances she appears to be a fun loving, up for anything kind of person. The fact that was widely known in Hollywood as one of the most gracious and giving actresses only solidifies my feelings. Her movies are often joyous, even the mediocre ones, and her effervescent performances elevated the more mundane with a lightness unequaled in the 1930's and beyond. She is rightfully credited as the screwball comedy queen, for performances in Twentieth Century, Nothing Sacred & My Man Godfrey, among others. In fact, it was her performance as Hazel Flagg that helped coin the 'Screwball Comedy' sub-genre name, when a critic wrote that her character was "a real screwball kind of dame."
In the pantheon of comedies no one would deny that My Man Godfrey deserves it's place among the giants. Lonbard's daffy Irene Bullock is the perfect mixture of goofy drama queen and sexy innocent to balance William Powell's straight man Godfrey. The story of a carefree society girl who drafts a "forgotten man" to be the families butler, My Man Godfrey pokes fun at the differences between rich & poor, the self righteous & the humble alike, all while set and made in the teeth of the Great Depression.
Lombard spent most of her career at Paramount, but in a somewhat ironic twist a good chunk of her Top 10 movies were made on loan out, including the aforementioned My Man Godfrey, as well as the movie that really launched her into stardom, Twentieth Century. Made on loan out to Columbia Pictures and ostensibly a vehicle for John Barrymore, Twentieth Century was the first film to capture the madcap energy of Lombard's personality on a grand scale. She cut her teeth in silent shorts for the Mack Sennett company, but her beauty always hindered the types of movies she was offered at Paramount in the early Thirties. In Twentieth, she is a spoiled actress, taken under the wing of master thespian Oscar Jaffe, himself on the down side of his career. The scene chewing and ridiculous plot devices give free reign to Lombard & Barrymore to push the limits of comedy into a new frontier, which is why Twentieth Century is often cited as Screwball Comedy's birthplace.
Nothing Sacred cemented Lombard as the undisputed queen of screwball because in her performance she distilled to it's essence what it meant to be the comedic sun to the zany universe orbiting around her. She had taken what was a looser style of physical comedy and refined it to include more subtle facial tics & gestures, while keeping the slapstick physicality of her Sennett days. Hazel Flagg makes national news when she is diagnosed with radium poisoning in the small town of Warsaw, Vermont. When the diagnosis proves to be false it doesn't stop her from accepting a trip to New York from a muckraking newspaper report out to redeem himself. As the lie spirals further & further out of control, Lombard attacks the madness for pure comedy gold.
To Be or Not To Be was released posthumously, just months after Lombard died in a plane crash near Las Vegas while returning from a war bond rally in Indiana, her home state. While in a supporting role to radio legend Jack Benny (who gives his finest film performance), Lombard still shines in her limited screen time. Combining Lombard with Benny & director Ernst Lubitsch (Design for Living, Trouble in Paradise, Ninotchka) created a dream team of comedy innovators where the results were clearly evident on the screen. Lubitsch, known for "the Lubitsch touch" of elegance, sophistication & a healthy dash of sexual innuendo was the director Lombard always wanted to work with while at Paramount. Here they tell the allegorical story of a Polish theatre troop caught up in the Nazi takeover of Warsaw. Benny plays a ham actor, so full of himself he can't see that his wife (Lombard) is having a fling with a soldier. In a laugh riot of mistaken identity, WW II intrigue & inside theatre jokes, To Be or Not To Be works as a brilliant satirazation of Nazism on par with Chaplin's The Great Dictator.
True Confession & Hands Across the Table both paired Lombard with Fred MacMurray and wonderfully illustrated the sophisticated nature of Lombard's comedy chops. Not so much in the material itself, but in the way she approached both rolls revealed how she had taken the raw slapstick of the silents and transformed it into her own style. In both these movies, and in any other Lombard movie, good or bad, there is always several 'moments' that are pure Lombard. Sometimes it's a arch of her eyebrow, sometimes it's the quick twitch of her neck, but it's always striking and magnifies her beauty, while making us laugh. In fact, that is one of the keys to her humor; that she is so beautiful you can forget first how silly she makes herself look, never being afraid to go all in for a gag. In True Confession she plays a pathological liar, so intent on helping her husband she allows herself to be tried for murder. Lombard has the perfect affect for Helen Bartlett in fact, planting her tongue firmly in her cheek as she crafts one whopper after another. In Hands Across the Table she is a gold digging manicurist in pursuit of playboy MacMaurray, who just happens to be broke.
Virtue & In Name Only are unlike the majority of the other movies on this list in that there is really no comedy to speak of in either movie. They do, however, show Lombard's strength as a semi-serious actress, albeit in Virtue somewhat less refined than in In Name Only. In Virtue she plays a prostitute trying to go straight and marrying a regular Joe cabdrvier, but her she cannot escape her past & is accused of murder. Her tough talking Brooklyn broad is a striking contrast to her sing song voiced comedy roles, but Lombard pulls it off. Paired with everyman Pat O'Brien also helps give the performance the added weight it needs. In Name Only is her only pairing with Cary Grant and while a solid movie, there is a sense of what could have been in a full on comedy. She is widowed mother who falls in love with the married Cary Grant, who is in a loveless marriage with the gold digging Kay Francis. In several scenes, although not together, both Lombard & Grant try to slip in a little zaniness to the proceedings, but only in small moments.
Finally, No Man of Her Own makes the list as the only pairing between real life soul mates Lombard & Clark Gable. Although made more than 3 years before their love affair began, No Man of Her Own crackles with sexual tension as the 2 charismatic actors go toe to toe. The scene in the library is one of my favorite for both the witty repartee between them, both verbally & physically.
If someone had to make a list of the Top 10 comedies of the 1930's (future list!) Carole Lombard might appear in as many as 3 of them! In addition to dazzling audiences during her short career she was also instrumental in influencing a generation of comediennes who followed, including Lucile Ball among others. Her unmatched blend of beauty, charm and spirit went along way in making her a fan favorite and one of the greatest comic actresses in Hollywood history.