In honor of Carole Lombard's 103rd birthday today, Carole & Co. is hosting the "Carole-tennial+3 blogathon." This is my meager contribution.
I'll be honest with you. When I signed up to write about Carole Lombard's career in silent movies—she made 36 between 1921 and 1929—I'd hoped to pass along to you a sense of a star in the making, a talent in training, that sort of thing. I figured I'd write something about how when we think of the transition from silent films to talkies, we focus on the careers that were destroyed—John Gilbert's, for example—but that there were also actors whose careers took off once the public could hear them speak (William Powell, Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper). And then I'd slot Carole Lombard into that list and go from there.
But after watching all of what little of her silent work is available, what I came away with instead was both a sense of frustration at the abysmal state of film preservation in this country and a wonder that Carole Lombard had a film career at all.
Born in Indiana as Jane Peters, Carole Lombard moved to Los Angeles with her mother at the age of eight when her parents divorced. In 1921, Alan Dwan (who would later direct Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood and John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima) spotted her playing baseball and cast her on the spot as a tomboy in A Perfect Crime. She was twelve years old.
The role seems in retrospect a presciently appropriate one—although she was one of the most beautiful actresses of her generation, Lombard was at heart a boisterous, small-town tomboy who swore like a sailor, and preferred duck shooting and fly fishing to fancy clothes and big parties.
"I can't imagine a duller fate," she once said, "than being the best dressed woman in reality. When I want to do something I don’t pause to contemplate whether I’m exquisitely gowned. I want to live, not pose!"
Lombard wouldn't appear in another film until 1924, when she signed a contract with the Fox Film Corporation where she languished in uncredited bit parts in forgettable movies. Few of these efforts survive and those that do don't tell us much of anything about Lombard's early career.
I watched her three surviving films from this period—Dick Turpin, The Plastic Age and the classic Ben-Hur—and I can tell you, she is completely invisible in all of them, playing roles that don't even rise to the level of a bit part. She was literally just a figure moving around in the deep background, less significant to the plot than a potted plant or a picture on a wall.
In fact, I must have blinked when she played these blink-and- you'll-miss-it parts, because despite my best efforts, I missed her in all of them. (Indeed, some Lombard fanatics have decided she's not even in Ben-Hur, based both on the absence of any still photos of her in the movie and her own assertion that she wasn't in it. You can't prove it by me one way or the other.)
In 1926, the eighteen year old Lombard was involved in an automobile accident that required multiple surgeries and left a permanent scar running from her nose to her left cheek. Fox canceled her contract, leaving her out of work and her career in jeopardy.
In desperation, she joined Mack Sennett's stable of "bathing beauties" that graced his low-budget comedies. Although by 1926 Sennett's career as the "King of Comedy" was in decline—he was notoriously cheap and stubbornly devoted to a style of comedy that had been out of date for a decade—he still had the unparalleled eye for talent that had led to his discovery of Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Gloria Swanson, and many others.
In the course of making nineteen two-reel shorts for the old master, Lombard learned to play comedy, a skill that would later define her. Potential disaster had turned out to be divine providence.
Although by and large these films survive, most are squirreled away in various archives and remain unseen by the public. Of course, we here at the Monkey tracked down what we could and this is what we learned:
Lombard tended to play athletic coeds who preferred—in the words of one title card—"Romeos, Roadsters and Rollerskates" to studying, serving in such films as The Campus Vamp and Matchmaking Mama as a distinct contrast to the good girl played by Sally Eilers, who at the time seemed destined to be the much bigger star. Top-billed in these comedies was usually Daphne Pollard, a 4-foot 9-inch, pear-shaped comedienne with a 6-foot personality who got laughs playing an authority figure while staring up at her younger charges.
Lombard features most prominently in Run, Girl, Run, in which she plays a "star athlete who once ran a mile in almost nothing—and was nearly expelled for it," while Pollard plays her oddly asexual coach who stops at nothing to keep her charge away from boys. The comedy mostly turns on coded references to lesbianism—homosexuality was almost always treated as a punchline in early Hollywood—with Pollard slipping into Lombard's bed to keep an eye on her and later kissing her on the lips when she wins a track meet (and then to prove how truly exciting the win is, Pollard kisses a boy, too).
I'll point out one other brief appearance Lombard made in silent films—Mary Pickford's My Best Girl, which I wrote about at length here and here—and then finish by saying that at this stage of her career, Lombard was just one of a parade of pretty girls who passed through Hollywood, nothing special. Without the benefit of her breathless voice, the stark contrast between her refined beauty and her raw, unaffected personality was largely lost, and it was only with the coming of sound that she blossomed into a star.
Even then, it's clear from her early sound films that Hollywood didn't have a clue what to do with her. Directors liked her personally, and I think they put her in movies because they liked having her around. But when it came time to cast her, they didn't think to offer her anything other than the role of a generically beautiful woman. Granted, she was never going to play the girl next door type—unaffected isn't the same as innocent—but the fact is, while Carole Lombard was a beautiful women, she never really figured how to play one on screen. She had no sense of entitlement, none of the slack indolence or rapaciousness, that was required to play the parts she was offered.
It was Howard Hawks who first had the wit to see that a beautiful woman who didn't mind making a fool of herself on camera was a rare commodity, and during the dark, bleak days of the Great Depression, a highly-marketable one. Lombard's breakthrough didn't come until 1934 when he cast her in Twentieth Century, the first of four classic comedies (including My Man Godfrey, Nothing Sacred and To Be Or Not To Be) that today largely define her screen appeal.