“Personally, I resent being tagged ‘glamour girl’. It’s such an absurd, extravagant label. It implies so much that I’m not.” — Carole Lombard

It’s her birthday today!

Carole Lombard played ditzy and impulsive, but she didn’t play dumb. One of her greatest gifts as a comedienne is her craftiness, how well she creates cunning and sometimes selfish women, women who are heedless, sometimes 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, as expressions of annoyance and panic and “A-ha!” flutter across her beautiful face. She was un-tameable, as a person, as an actress.

Lombard hit her stride in her short career, finding her place in the world of screwball (after some years in the trenches of melodrama and drama). She is stunningly beautiful, with a perfect face, really, porcelain skin and huge eyes … But when she was cast as “the beautiful girl”(TM), as she inevitably was early on, her performances are often un-distinguished. Not sloppy or bad, just … generalized, cliched. She’s not given enough to do, she’s not allowed to just go OFF. And Lombard, more than anyone else I can think of in that era, needed to be given space to just GO OFF.

She doesn’t know who she is in conventional material. Conventional material put a lid on her. She suffered more under unimaginative direction than other actresses. Howard Hawks (and others) helped take that lid off and release the zany girl. Hawks had seen her in full tilt at a party, tipsy, hilarious, profane, nobody’s fool, a girl’s girl and a trash-talking sailor, simultaneously. Nobody had captured that. Hawks perceived that her talent could express itself when she was 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.

Lombard was incapable of phoniness and incapable of being shy and/or ingratiating. If the project wasn’t right for her, she went down with the ship. She couldn’t stoop down to bad material. Either she was totally natural as her crazy self, or she was almost invisible, unsure of where to put her energy. More than other actresses, Lombard needed a vehicle, a vehicle very specifically designed for her, and her alone. Every actor needs a break, a visibility-heightening project, but that’s not really what I’m talking about here. Screwball arrived, and Carole Lombard took to the slopes like she was born on skis. Unleashed. She could express her talent to the fullest in that context.

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, and nobody would have remembered her as anything other than a footnote. Perfectly plausible way it could go. Or, it could have gone the way it actually went. There was no in-between with Lombard. She could have been in the biggest picture in the world, but if the movie didn’t “get” her, it wouldn’t have been a “vehicle”. It’s quite precarious! It might not have happened!

Side note, related: Julia Roberts is a similar type of actress. She needed a vehicle. She needed a vehicle where her sense of humor and her self-pleasure and self-confidence could freely express it. She needed to be set FREE, which Garry Marshall did for her in the highly improvisational Pretty Woman. Think about it: Before Pretty Woman came out, she was making Sleeping With the Enemy, pretty conventional where she had to fit into a genre-context – and before that, she had been in ensemble dramas, where she was fine, often good, but no doubt about it: her natural milieu was to be a GIGANTIC STAR. She just doesn’t fit in otherwise.

That’s the difference between Julia Roberts and other stars of her (my) generation. And trust me: you had to be there. Julia wasn’t there and then she was and she took over the WORLD. Pre-social media. She was huge. FAN-chosen, too – not industry-chosen. Nobody was prepared for Pretty Woman and the reaction to HER. The world went nuts. The status given to her from that lingers to this day. There were other big actors, but nobody became a star on the level she did. It was an explosion. That has to do with HER, not some industry-generated “buzz”. But if you compare Roberts to her contemporary Gwyneth Paltrow (pre-Goop Gwyneth): Paltrow seemed to have had stardom thrust upon her, by the Weinsteins, basically, and in her Oscar speech she seemed almost cowed by all the industry power behind her. Up until that point, she had done small independent films and stage productions – she could have had a very satisfying career as a character actress, or even a stage actress (following in her mother’s footsteps). I think Paltrow is more suited to that kind of career, less pressure, less attention, and she would be more comfortable in her own skin than she seems now.

All of this being said: Lombard was not limited in any way, it’s just that comedy allowed her to express EVERYthing, whereas straight dramas or melodramas forced her to leave stuff OUT. You feel me? She was a fantastic dramatic actress – and you saw it in silly stuff, in rom-coms, in dramas (I wrote a whole piece about how female comedians are often better dramatic actors than “straight” dramatic actors.) Everything is real. Her swoon of love in My Man Godfrey is HILARIOUS but she doesn’t seem to play it explicitly for laughs. It’s funny because it’s REAL to her.

I love watching her. You never know what’s going to happen. She thinks fast. Lightning quick. She doesn’t “act on” her impulses so much as she feels the impulse firing up and her body/spirit/intelligence is already up to speed. She’s FAST. It’s like improv. You don’t have time to THINK about what you’re going to do, you have to just trust yourself and DO it. Lombard does. This is true with her slapstick business AND with her emotions. A rare blend!

So many movies to mention but let’s talk about 1936’s Love Before Breakfast. First of all, there’s the famous poster, which not only graces my wall but is also my Twitter avatar:

Walker Evans captured this poster in one of his photographs:

In Love Before Breakfast, Preston Foster and Cesar Romero are rivals for Lombard’s affections. Lombard was so feisty and strong that she needed to be man-handled a bit, that was the fun of it, watching a strong confident man (like Godfrey) take this bucking pony in hand. However, Foster and Romero are not up to the task. At all.

Foster plays Scott Miller, a successful businessman (so successful he can buy his rival’s oil company in order to send the rival off to Japan). Scott hangs out with a snooty Countess in his spare time, but has the hots for Kay Colby (Carole Lombard). Kay, though, is already engaged to Bill Wadsworth (Cesar Romero, better than Foster here). Scott sends Bill off to Japan, leaving Kay unprotected, so Scott moves in for the kill, following her around town, buying her drinks, popping up everywhere. Lombard does her best with these actors (although you watch her with William Powell and you can see the difference). Kay is torn between two loves, and Lombard is very VERY funny in how much WORK she puts in to her own denial. She is sure, SURE, that she loves BILL, not Scott. She finds Bill amusing, but she is only interested in his money, or so she says, and she jumps through fiery hoops to keep up her attitude of scorn and condescension. Foster is a bit stuffy, he doesn’t have the right arrogant attitude. Clark Gable – Lombard’s future husband – would have been maddeningly good in the role. You would have wanted to wring his neck, and he would have turned everything sizzlingly hot. You should be dying for the two to leap into the sack.

There are a couple of great scenes where Lombard gets to show her stuff. One is a costume ball. She does the entire scene in this get-up …

… and it gets funnier and funnier the longer the scene goes on. 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. She is irresistible. Especially in that totally outrageous outfit.

There’s also a very well-written scene where Scott proposes to Kay. He presents her with three enormous engagement rings. Kay, beleaguered by now, beaten down, 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?
Scott: Definitely.
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.
They kiss.
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.

This plays out with no pauses except for the business of taking out the rings. It’s rat-a-tat-tat, machine-gun style.

Lombard plays that great dialogue with the perfect amount of exhaustion and annoyance (but again, imagining Scott’s dialogue in the mouth of Clark Gable makes me ache to see THAT scene.) Lombard doesn’t have much to buck up against here.

But her talent is always in operation. She’s so clever, so inventive, and so RESPONSIVE to what is generally called in acting circles “the given circumstances”. If all you have is your emotional state, and you have no sense of the given circumstances, then it doesn’t matter how beautifully you are crying. You are doing bad acting. The given circumstances is ALL, whether you’re in a surrealist play or Ibsen. What is happening right now. Here’s a good example of that from Love Before Breakfast:

She’s on a sailboat with Bill, her ex-fiance, who has returned from Japan. 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 Love Before Breakfast. She feels dominated, and afraid of more domination. She senses (correctly?) 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 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, Lombard lies on a couch below-deck, annoyed, exasperated. Bill takes out a champagne bottle and pops the cork. The sound startles her. She jumps.

It’s one of those subtle sometimes unnoticed pieces of behavior that Lombard did like nobody else. She doesn’t make into a “bit” – she doesn’t scream, there is no dialogue referencing it, she doesn’t “act” it, even – it’s just Lombard’s comedic sensibility tuned in, ALWAYS, to the potential in every moment. The slight jump she gives, startling her out of her depression, is hysterical: it is these moments that I treasure most from Lombard, and it never stops with her. She is a runaway freight train, hurtling into the reality of every moment, into the given circumstances, all pistons churning, and she vibrates with life and feeling and responsiveness.

Other actresses would have missed the cork-pop. They would be too taken up with their emotional state to jump at the cork-pop. It wouldn’t have even occurred to them to include a little scared jump at the sound. That’s not what the scene is “about” after all. But Lombard’s startled jump – so funny, so real – is what separates the men from the boys in an acting career. The women from the girls, more like. And Lombard from everyone else.

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13 Responses to “Personally, I resent being tagged ‘glamour girl’. It’s such an absurd, extravagant label. It implies so much that I’m not.” — Carole Lombard

  1. Bill Wolfe says:

    This is the best analysis of Lombard’s acting I’ve read. Like Bogart, she has only a small number of movies that really show us “Carole Lombard,” as she is remembered and loved. But in each case, that handful of movies is so exquisite, it’s enough. I haven’t seen Love Before Breakfast – which is odd, since I love screwball – but the movie where I long to substitute Gable for the actual lead is Nothing Sacred. No disrespect to Fredric March, who I admire and enjoy, but he lacked the madcap spark to play off Lombard. Gable had lots of it. (I also would like to sub in Hawks for Wellman as director and replace the bleary color with glorious black and white. A lot of changes to be made to a likable movie, but it could have been one of the greats. When you’ve got Ben Hecht writing for Carole Lombard, the results ought to be fantabulous, not just likable.)

    • sheila says:

      Thank you so much for your comments on my analysis!!

      Hawks for sure was the guy who “got” her. Her FRIENDS got her, her boyfriends got her – but directors had a rougher time. She was just so dang pretty! She needed screwball. She came along at just the right time.

      Something like To Be or Not To Be – which I think is a masterpiece – bridged that gap – a movie ahead of its time. She is adorable and funny in it, but the larger world – and Hitler and war – looms. Many 1930s actresses couldn’t make the transition into the more serious 1940s (and, of course, they grew older and grew out of those zany heiress roles). It would have been interesting to see what happened to Lombard had she lived – what kind of career she might have had after screwball passed.

  2. mutecypher says:

    I watched My Man Godfrey last night. Very funny. Screwball just hits such a sweet spot! I hadn’t realized how of-the-moment the phrase Forgotten Man was. I knew it from your writing about Gold Diggers of 1933, but was surprised to see how it was used here in a condescending way. Along with prosperity being just around the corner, I imagine the phrase had become a cliché by 1936.

    // Screwball arrived, and Carole Lombard took to the slopes like she was born on skis. //

    The drummer Vinnie Coliauta says “Thought is the enemy of flow,” and there is so much flow in what she does. Alice Brady as the mom was also way into the flow. It’s way beyond technique, it appears to me.

    I was impressed that William Powell didn’t want to do the movie without her, and he and Carole had just divorced a few years prior. What a dizzying thing it must have been for the two of them to play people falling in love. Or they were just pros who knew they were going to be perfect in those parts.

    • Jessie says:

      I so vividly remember the astonished pleasure of watching Lombard’s lovelorn dramatics in MMG for the first time….”What is food?” was one of those wait….this is allowed? moments for me haha. And the dishwashing scene is honestly swoonworthy. I didn’t realise they had recently divorced!

      • mutecypher says:

        “What is food?” I was dying. Like she’s 14 and it’s her first heartbreak. But she also gets drunk enough to ride a horse into the library.

        I think The Nice Guys is the only movie I’ve seen made in the last decade that gave me that flavor of joy.

        • sheila says:


          I also love the “protege” terrifying her when he turns into a gorilla. I saw it at the Film Forum with a friend who had never seen it before – it was a packed audience – and when Carlo the protege went all gorilla, my friend was literally flopping out of her seat into the aisle. The whole audience basically missed the whole scene because the laughter was too loud!

      • sheila says:

        What is food!!! lol!!!!

    • sheila says:

      I also love the dad. Just trying to make it through the day in his crazy family, bolstered by a tray of martinis.

      William Powell was a Real One. He clearly had excellent taste in women – Lombard – Harlow – and he paid for the upkeep of Harlow’s grave, even though when she died she was an “ex” too. He liked the women he loved. He cared for them. He remained good friends with them.

      besides, you could not pin Carole down – and the men who loved her kept loving her.

      Some of the quotes she made to the press are insane! Basically saying of her new husband Clark Gable that he was horrible in bed, but she loved him anyway. Carole!! She just did not care.

      • sheila says:

        Clark’s response when he heard her comment? “It’s true.”


        You had to be tough to hang with Carole, but she was obviously worth it.

        I often wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t died so young. :(

  3. Shawn says:

    Thanks for the recommendation. I’m gonna look for Love Before Breakfast. The word love here is clearly meant as sex, since the more general meaning of the word doesn’t have a daily time slot. So that grabs me right away.

    I’m a lover of To Be or Not to Be. It’s one of my favorite films. While Jack Benny stealthily gives a Rosetta Stone performance for comedy, Lombard’s acting is perfectly pitched, and as you say, no one else could have done what she does in it. She is never anything but in the moment, always in forward motion, reactive to the pressure cooker of events forcing her into situations. Her body language even expresses a tension as if she isn’t aware of it. Lubitsch was one of the directors who understood her natural grace.

    I like Nothing Sacred but agree with you about her costar. And you are right, Gable would have sizzled. I find him so attractive anyway. He got better looking as he aged. Now I’m gonna have to watch a Gable film, though right now I’m obsessed with the Criterion’s 80’s horror films they feature this month. Just watched Tobe Hoopers The Funhouse. Loved it, as flawed as it is. Sylvia Miles as never seen before. Haha.

    • sheila says:

      To Be or Not to Be is a masterpiece!!

      When idiots say stuff like it’s “too soon” for this or that movie to address a real world problem I always think of To Be or Not To be. Puh-leez. Art can comment on whatever it wants to comment on when it feels appropriate. An audience may REJECT it but you can’t impose a “too soon” rule on things.

      The scene where “Hitler” is standing there on the sidewalk!!! and people are like “wait …. what?”

      Gable is always fun to watch. The films he made with Joan Crawford are great – it’s almost a role reversal. She’s so butch it turns him into the chaser. It’s very interesting – almost more interesting than the Hepburn-Tracy pairing, which was more conventional. I like Hepburn-Tracy movies but am not as enamored of them as onscreen partners as a lot of other people are. I like them separate from one another best.

      Early Clark Gable is great. It Happened One Night of course, where he appeared in his undershirt and a national emergency was declared.

      • Shawn says:

        I have read that S Tracy was deeply closeted. Which matches up with the scarcity of sexual chemistry between him and any one of his costars. And when you place that alongside Gable and the palpable chemistry he shares with so many of his costars…

        You are so right to call out the morality police. No one has a timetable for shock and trauma and when things can be viewed through humor. Often it is a part of healing.

        A related example, recently, my aunt got bit on her upper lip by a 4″ centipede while drinking a fresh coconut. We were in Hawaii. We took her to an urgent care clinic. And while she was in pain, laying on the hospital bed, my brother decided to take a selfie next to her. His expression is one of mischievous glee. My aunt wasn’t aware of what he was doing. He posted the pic online and went around proud of the pic. I did not find it funny and was embarrassed for him. So I suppose I had a moment where I felt the “too soon”-ness of humor. But everyone has their own limit. My brothers apparently is much sooner than mine. Haha.

        • sheila says:

          I mean, I think Hepburn and Tracy had great chemistry – I just don’t find those particular stories as fun as I do the earlier pairings – Hepburn and Grant, Grant and Irene Dunne, William Powell and Myrna Loy. I just like the vibe there better. Hepburn and Tracy paired up later and so their stories – while entertaining and they’re great together – re-affirm the status quo, even if the two of them were wild enough to make up their own rules. Hepburn being a bad bumbling cook, etc. I mean, it’s not egregious – or a turnoff – but they’re much more domesticated films. The 30s romances are the opposite of domesticated. It’s pure anarchy. Carole is pure anarchy.

          I think, ultimately, the Hepburn-Tracy pairing are very clearly post-WWII – very 1940s – Carole was very very 1930s. It’s a big difference. It’d be interesting to consider what would have happened if Carole had lived. A lot of the 30s stars couldn’t segue into the more domesticated 1940s. Hepburn was different. Hepburn broke every rule. So did Bette Davis. They really weren’t “tied” to one era. They would be DAMNED if they were going to be relegated to just one era.

          So who knows. Carole Lombard could only have risen the way she did in the 1930s. She was just too wild, she really NEEDED screwball to set her free. and she helped invent it.

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