Monday, August 18, 2014

Lombard Was Too Screwy to Be Accepted in Soap Opera Roles

No wonder Clark Gable fell in love with Carole Lombard. She was a real live wire.

She was bright and pretty and vivacious. Professionally, she was the highest–paid actress of the late 1930s and is often mentioned as having defined the screwball comedy genre. (I don't know if that was completely true. There were a few other actresses who excelled in that genre, too.)

But by this point in her career, apparently, she was trying to show her range as an actress. Earlier in 1939, she played a dramatic role in "Made For Each Other" opposite Jimmy Stewart. Seventy–five years ago today, she appeared in "In Name Only" as a woman in love with a married man (Cary Grant) who couldn't get a divorce from his wife.

It was a more leisurely approach to film production than Lombard took only a few years earlier. In the early '30s, it wasn't uncommon for her to be in five or six movies a year. Perhaps the slower pace allowed her the freedom to spread her wings in search of an Oscar.

And that — winning an Oscar — seems to have been her goal at this stage of her career. If she hadn't died in an airplane crash at the tender age of 33 (while raising money for America's World War II effort), who knows? She might well have won one — at least one.

But she received her only Oscar nomination in 1936 for "My Man Godfrey." "In Name Only" didn't bring her a nomination, but its soap opera–esque plot probably seemed like it might have been the road map to a future statuette.

In 1939, though, audiences didn't seem to be ready for a new Carole Lombard — at least, one who was new to the audiences she so often entertained in her screwball comedies of the '30s.

She was certainly a different actress in the eyes of moviegoers who went to see "In Name Only" 75 years ago. Gone was the wisecracking actress with her rapid–fire rejoinders moviegoers had come to know.

In her place was a more serious actress in more serious roles. In "In Name Only," she played a young widow raising a daughter; she encountered Cary Grant on horseback while she was fishing. She wasn't really fishing, she explained, just using the fishing motion for exercise.

One thing led to another and, before you knew it, they were sharing her lunch. She had plenty — six sandwiches and a piece of cake. "I have a big appetite," she explained.

And, again, before you knew it, they were in love. Sometimes it happens that quickly, I suppose. (Well, not to me, but that really isn't the point. This is, after all, the movies, and you can't dawdle over deciding whether you're in love in the movies.)

Of course, there were a few obstacles to overcome. The most significant was Grant's wife (Kay Francis), who made it difficult for the viewers to decide how they felt, I suppose. From the first time they saw the movie, viewers must have struggled with that. I did the first time I saw it. Still do when I see it again. At times, Francis evoked empathy. At others, hostility. Talk about a juicy role.

It really was an intriguing performance. Her character was the kind of manipulative individual nearly all of us encounter at some time in our lives — the kind of person who, if caught telling a lie, will tell an even bigger one to confuse the issue.

It was a delicious part to play. Francis' self–absorbed character would change her mind on things at the drop of a hat — like whether to give Grant the divorce he needed so he could be free to marry Lombard.

She kept the audience guessing. At times, she seemed like a reasonable person — but then she seemed to remember what her true interests were, and she became a completely different individual.

Francis and Lombard had a confrontation in the hospital, where Grant's character was recovering from pneumonia. In that scene, Lombard's character came across as good and caring; she wanted Grant to recover, even if that meant she had to leave his life forever. She was generous and self–sacrificing, the kind of character the Oscars have always liked to honor.

Francis, on the other hand, was clearly self–centered. Francis' character had fooled everyone, including Grant's wealthy parents, and she told Lombard she intended to get what she could from them.

She didn't realize, as she was saying that, that her in–laws were standing right behind her. They heard every word, and her father–in–law told his daughter–in–law — of whom he had been supportive — to her stunned face that she would get nothing from him. Then the parents, with Lombard, left Francis behind and the audience watched as the door slowly closed on Francis in much the same way the door closed on Diane Keaton at the end of "The Godfather" almost 35 years later.

Lombard's attempts at dramatic performances enjoyed some moderate success, but, eventually, she returned to comedic roots in her final movies, and audiences seemed to be relieved, coming back to the theaters to see her. It was too bad that she got typecast like that in the public's mind. I thought she had a lot of talent — she was great in the screwball comedies, but she could give dramatic performances, too.

Maybe she just needed a script that rose above soap opera predictability.