Carole Lombard plays ditzy and impulsive, but she doesn’t play dumb. One of her greatest gifts as a comedienne is her craftiness, how well she creates cunning selfish women, heedless, manipulative, who do not know their own minds (or, to put it more accurately, lead from the mind, and ignore the heart). It’s most fun to watch her do battle with herself, expressions of annoyance and panic and “A-ha!” moments flicking across her beautiful face. She was un-tameable. Lombard was able to hit her stride in her short career, finding her rightful place in the world of screwball, but there were certainly some bumps along the way. She is so stunningly beautiful, a perfect face, really, blonde and porcelain skin and huge eyes … But when she was cast as “the beautiful girl”, as she inevitably was early on, her performances often feel artificial. She doesn’t know who she is in conventional material. It put a lid on her. She suffers more under unimaginative direction than other actresses do. It was Howard Hawks (and others) who helped take that lid off and release that zany girl, who realized that she needed to be always on the verge of either a panic attack, a temper tantrum, or some horribly crafty scheme to get what she wants. Traditional female roles were not for her. One other thing about Lombard, and my only evidence for this is watching her performances: she is incapable of phoniness. When she’s in a bad project, not right for her, she is bad too. She can’t “pretend”. She can’t stoop down to bad material. She goes down with the ship. Either she was totally natural as her crazy self, or she was almost invisible, stilted, unsure of where to put her energy.
Garson Kanin in his gossipy book Hollywood writes:
Has there every been such a laugh? It had the joyous sound of pealing bells. She would bend over, slap her perfect calf, or the floor, or a piece of furniture. She would sink into a chair or to the ground. She would throw her head back. And you would be riveted by that neck. That throat.
Lombard, more than other actresses, really needed a vehicle. Her talent was very specific. Of course every actress needs a break of some kind, to be seen in a project that heightens her visibility, but that’s not really what I’m talking about here. It could have gone one of two ways with Lombard: She could have been pigeonholed as a pretty young starlet, and she would have had a short career, placed in weepy melodramas, merely because she was so beautiful to look at. Or, it could have gone the way it actually went. There was no in-between with her. She could have been in the biggest picture in the world, but if it didn’t “get” her, it wouldn’t have been a “vehicle”. Not every actress is so specific, so in NEED of the right type of part, and director, and script. It’s really actually quite precarious when you think about it. I think Julia Roberts is a similar type of actress, in the fact that she needed a vehicle. She could not be strapped down in conventional parts. She needed to be let GO, which Garry Marshall did in the highly improvisational Pretty Woman. Think about it: Before Pretty Woman came out, she was making Sleeping With the Enemy, and before that, she had been in ensemble dramas, where she was fine, often good, but no doubt about it: she had to be a giant star. She just doesn’t fit in otherwise. My impression of the difference is in someone like Gwyneth Paltrow, who had stardom thrust upon her, by the Weinstein Brothers, basically – but who had been in independent films up until then, and could have had a very satisfying career as a character actress, or even a stage actress (following in her mother’s footsteps). As a matter of fact, I think Paltrow would be more suited to that kind of career, she would seem more comfortable in her own skin than she does now. But Roberts? No. If Pretty Woman hadn’t happened, (or something similar), she would have been stuck in a nothing career. This is my sense of her, anyway. Carole Lombard is a similar case. Without the screwballs, nobody would remember her name, as talented and wonderful as she is. She is not limited. She could do dramatic parts as well. But she is a persona, a natural STAR, and she needed the vehicle, she needed to be steered into the limelight, and once she was there, it was so obvious that she should never leave.
Love Before Breakfast, from 1936, is quite uneven, with two uninteresting men in the lead roles (Preston Foster and Cesar Romero), who play rivals for Lombard’s affections. Lombard was so feisty and strong, so individual, that she needed to be man-handled a bit, that’s part of the fun of it, but these are not the guys to do it.
Preston Foster plays Scott Miller, a successful businessman (so successful that he can buy the oil company of his rival for Lombard’s heart, just so he can send the rival off to Japan), who hangs out with a snooty silly Countess in his spare time, but really has the hots for Kay Colby (Carole Lombard). He pursues Lombard like crazy, even though she is already engaged to Bill Wadsworth (Cesar Romero, better than Foster here, in his part). Bill is sent off to Japan, leaving Kay unmoored, so Scott moves in for the kill, following her around town, buying her drinks, popping up everywhere. There’s something missing in their dynamic, as actors, although Lombard does her best. She is torn between two loves, and very funny in how much WORK she puts in to her own denial. She loves BILL, not SCOTT, she is sure of it. She finds Bill amusing, but she is only interested in his money, or so she says, and she jumps through great fiery hoops to keep up her attitude of scorn and condescension. Preston Foster is a bit stuffy, he doesn’t have the right arrogant attitude for Scott, a man with such grand presumptions that he moves people around like chess pieces, and expects to be thanked for it. Clark Gable would have been maddeningly good in the role. You would have wanted to wring his neck. It also would have been sizzling hot, as these screwballs always should be. You should be dying for the two to leap into the sack.
In one scene in a nightclub, a fight breaks out between every male patron there, and Lombard gets stuck in the middle of it. The lights are low, and the melee is insane, and in the midst of it all, Scott punches Lombard in the eye, giving her a shiner. Oh, the comedic possibilities in this, that sadly do not come to fruition. It is automatically amusing to see Lombard staring at herself in the mirror with an enormous black eye. It is also funny to think of the man she loves socking her one. But it’s a thread that isn’t really followed, or maxed to its potential. It’s sort of left there. Obviously it’s a good enough image that it made it to the poster (a poster I now have on my wall), but what a lost opportunity. She goes to the beauty parlor to have her eye covered up, she wears a hat tilted over her face, and that’s the end of it. A true screwball would have realized what it had in that situation and milked the sucker until we were falling off the couch.
There are a couple of great scenes where Lombard gets to show her stuff. One is a costume ball (her costume below the jump. She does the entire scene in that get-up, and it gets funnier and funnier the more you look at it), where she sets up Scott to dance with a visiting Southern belle, and she tells both of them (secretly) that the other one is deaf and “you have to shout” at them to be heard. So poor Scott and the visiting Southern woman needlessly shout banalities at one another on the dance floor, as Lombard, in that crazy costume, laughs until she almost falls down on the sidelines. Kanin was right. She laughs, and we laugh. It is irresistible. Especially in that totally outrageous outfit.
Kay and her mother have a Japanese maid named Yuki, and there’s a very funny scene when Yuki reads the tea leaves for Kay. Kay, still convinced she’s in love with Bill, not Scott, hovers over Yuki, asking her anxious questions about who she sees, who is her date, is there a man beside her … and Lombard, always funniest when she is most serious, listens with an urgency that is very comedic, her face showing the roller-coaster of her emotions, second by second. When she doesn’t get the answer she wants to hear, she becomes dejected and cynical and Yuki tries to cheer her up. Yuki tells Kay that it is obvious she is “in love with Mr. Miller”. Kay balks at this. Yuki says in her Japanese accent, “In Japan, when a Japanese girl loves a Japanese man, she says to him, ‘I love you, Mr. Miller’, and everything right away fine.” Lombard says, disgruntled, “Yeah. Everything right away great. The Japanese girl is shoved around for the rest of her life.” The comedy is in the disgruntled manner in which Lombard says “everything right away great”, which is, for me, the funniest moment in the movie.
There’s also a very well-written proposal scene, between Scott and Kay, where he presents her with three enormous engagement rings. Kay is beleaguered by now, beaten down, and she accepts the proposal, but listen to this dialogue:
Scott: You’ll be sorry to hear my feelings haven’t changed. I’m still going to marry you.
Kay: You’d better be careful. One of these days I might take you up on that.
Scott: Couldn’t make it today, could you?
Kay: If I did it would only be for your money.
Scott: I never look a gift horse in the mouth.
Kay: You want me anyway?
Kay: All right. But this isn’t going to be any Taming of the Shrew, you know. I’m not going to come crawling after you’ve broken my spirit.
Scott: I’ll take my chance.
Kay: It’s a long one.
Scott: I like ‘em that way.
Kay: I guess that settles it.
Scott: Oh, no, there should be a kiss to seal the bargain.
Kay: Is that necessary?
Scott: It’s pretty standard.
Kay: All right.
Scott: Can you spare it?
Kay: I think so.
Kay: Well, goodbye.
Scott: Oh, no, there’s one more detail.
Kay: What happens now?
Scott: Come on, I’ll show you.
Kay: I warn you, I won’t sign anything without a lawyer.
Scott: You won’t have to sign a thing. Just one minute.
He takes out a small box.
Kay: What’s this?
Scott: The customary engagement ring.
Kay: Oh, you were all prepared.
Scott: Oh, yes, yes, indeed. Well prepared.
He takes out two more boxes.
Kay: When did you get these?
Scott: The day after you turned me down.
Kay: Sure of yourself, weren’t you.
Scott: Just a gambler.
Kay: A gambler who knew he’d win. The fact that I don’t love you doesn’t spoil your victory. Well, I’m glad we understand each other. Which one of these little knick-knacks would you like me to wear?
Scott: Oh, they’re all for you. I thought you might like to change off.
Kay: How romantic.
Scott: Now that we’re engaged, I hope we’ll see each other occasionally.
Kay: Whatever is customary, Mr. Miller.
Lombard plays that great dialogue with the perfect amount of exhaustion and annoyance, but imagining Scott’s dialogue in the mouth of Clark Gable, as opposed to Preston Foster, makes me ache to see THAT scene. It falls a bit flat, as is. Again, she is funny, and specific, but without the right scene partner, she doesn’t have anything to buck up against.
But her talent is always operating. She’s on a sailboat with Bill, her ex-fiance who has returned from Japan, and she is annoyed because Scott is on a boat across the bay, and naturally, things are not going as she wants them to go. Lombard is perpetually cranky throughout this film, she feels dominated, and afraid of more domination – she senses that Scott would demand something more of her than she would have to give (like her heart, like love), and she wriggles out of those chains the second they are on her. Bill (Cesar Romero) is not a bad guy, but he’s had it with being used as a pawn in the love-game between the other two. At one point, during the argument on the sailboat, Carole lies on a couch below-deck, annoyed, and he pops a cork out of a champagne bottle, and it startles her. It’s one of those subtle sometimes unnoticed pieces of behavior that Lombard does like nobody else. It’s not even made into a “bit” – she doesn’t scream, there is no dialogue referencing it – it’s just Lombard, her comedic sensibility tuned in, ALWAYS, to the potential in every moment – and the slight jump she gives, startling her out of her depression, is hysterical: it is these moments that I treasure most from Lombard. It never stops with her. She is a runaway freight train. Hurtling into the reality of every moment, all pistons going, and she vibrates with life and feeling and responsiveness.
Other actresses would have missed the cork-pop, it wouldn’t even have occurred to them to decide to be scared of the sound – and that’s what separates the men from the boys in an acting career. The women from the girls. Lombard from everyone else.