Friday, June 19, 2015

Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3

 All was not well in the cosmos with Carole Lombard. Forever immortalized on celluloid, she is perhaps best known for To Be or Not to Be, a satire that was released two months after her untimely death. “I believe that everything that happens is determined by an inflexible Fate,” Lombard later remarked. Ironic when you consider that her life was struck down by a number of hardships, including a life-changing auto accident. On January 16, 1942, returning home from a war bond our, Carole Lombard perished in a plane crash 30 minutes outside Las Vegas. Like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, Lombard became iconic as a result of a pre-mature death and the public’s never-ending question: “what would she have accomplished had she not died so early?”

To Be or Not to Be was a brilliant satire of the times. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, an acting troupe becomes embroiled in a Polish soldier's efforts to track down a German spy. Doesn’t sound much like a comedy and at the time the film was released, neither critics nor public were in the mood to laugh, finding the picture tasteless and callous. Over the years, however, the movie has been re-evaluated and has since become a classic.

Carole Lombard
Miriam Hopkins was the original choice for Maria Tura. She turned the role down when she realized Jack Benny had all the laughs and her part would largely be his straight man. Lombard saw the overall quality of the material and took the part. Lombard took the female lead despite the strenuous objections of her husband, Clark Gable. After the shooting of this film was finished, Lombard told many people that To Be or Not to Be was the happiest experience of her career from start to finish.

This week I finished reading Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3, by Robert Batzen. A fresh look at Hollywood's "Queen of Screwball Comedy," Carole Lombard, presents a thorough examination of the events that led to the shocking flight mishap that took her life on the side of Mt. Potosi in 1942. It also provides a day-by-day account of the struggles of Lombard's husband, Clark Gable, and other family, friends, and fans to cope with the tragedy.

In effect, having just completed the first sale of war bonds and stamps in the nation following its entry into World War II, Lombard became the first Hollywood start to sacrifice her life in the War (40 days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor). The War Department offered Gable a funeral service with full military honors, but he refused it, knowing that his wife would not approve of such spectacle.

Lombard was a tomboy with athletic prowess and spirit far exceeding her size (she was petite and stood 5' 2", with shoes). She became good friends with many in Hollywood, never let fame get to her head, and contributed both time and money to help further the careers of others. Jack Benny was so taken back by Lombard that two days following the plane crash, he was unable to attend his weekly Sunday evening radio program.

Based on extensive research rather than gossip, Fireball further explores the lives of the 21 others on the plane, including 15 members of the U.S. Army Air Corps, and addresses one of the most enduring mysteries of World War II. On a clear night full of stars, with TWA's most experienced pilot at the controls of a 10-month-old aircraft under the power of two fully functioning engines, why did the flight crash into that Nevada mountainside?

She was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the first woman killed in the line of duty in WWII. FDR greatly admired her work for the war effort

Looking back, very few of her films are above average but among my favorite is a quick guilty pleasure titled Supernatural (1933), in which Lombard co-starred with pre-screen cowboy star Randolph Scott. The story dealt with ghosts and possession, a woman ala Roxy Hart executed for her crimes and her spirit invading the body of an innocent woman, taking possession of her senses only to seek revenge against the man responsible for her execution. Lombard found director Victor Halperin so vexing that at one point she reached out her arms and shouted to the heavens, “Who do I have to screw to get off this picture?” Since that day in 1933, that line may have been the most quoted on-set line in Hollywood history.

She portrayed a hooker in a risqué pre-Code drama called Virtue, which featured a tawdry plotline and women in stockings and garter belts who “would do anything to get ahead.” Understanding what sold tickets at the box office, Lombard gained a reputation for going braless onscreen, acquiring cult status at the grindhouses for nipples poking through silky dresses and displaying lots of leg. Before takes she would apply ice cubes to ensure her perkiness caught on camera.

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard
“I've lived by a man's code designed to fit a man's world, yet at the same time I never forget that a woman's first job is to choose the right shade of lipstick,” Lombard was once quoted. Sex sold and Lombard had no problems defending her honor behind the camera. She was known for swearing like a sailor but many theorize it was a defense mechanism against the wilds of male testosterone. Besides, she had competition. Jean Harlow was so sexy that she made nearly every line of dialogue into the Kama Sutra.

Her first husband was William Powell. Sparks flew between the two from the first rehearsals, and a healthy infatuation catapulted them to the nearest bedroom. He was almost 40; she was 22, making pictures by day and playing the field by night. After their divorce, Powell romanced Jean Harlow and the rest is history.

No Man of Her Own became the only picture both Lombard and Gable co-starred together. Both were married at the time to other people and neither seemed to be interested in a “test drive,” but they respected each other and their talents. If anyone tells you it was the movie that they met and fell in love and got married shortly following, you can debunk that myth.

Lombard performing on stage on January 15, 1942.

It was during filming of Twentieth Century that Howard Hawks and John Barrymore discovered that the fun-loving Carole Lombard was stiff and cardboard when the cameras rolled. This is one of the reasons why film buffs do not regard her as a great actress – not like Bette Davis and Greta Garbo. “She couldn’t act for a damn,” Hawks later remarked. “She just became completely phony.”

Before Clark Gable, she contented herself with sex and adoration, with doubts about marrying again after William Powell. There were other loves – George Raft, Russ Columbo – but the death of the latter came back to haunt her many times over. She was linked romantically to the crooner and his death traumatized her.

Recovery attempts of the plane wreckage. 
Lombard was the inspiration for actor Robert Stack, then a youth who taught her how to hold a gun and shoot skeet. Stack appeared in To Be or Not to Be on the recommendation of Lombard and until the day he died the actor never hid his admiration for the actress.

Lombard helped urge Lansing Brown toward self-forgiveness when a freak accident caused the death of Russ Columbo, and participated in subterfuge for Columbo’s frail and incapacitated mother, who was never told of her son’s death. Instead, a lavish European tour was dreamed up, and Russ would send her letters from exotic locations that spoke of his latest successes, while his remains settled into a crypt in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Glendale.

Lombard threw herself into redecorating her Hollywood Boulevard house and brought in “Billy” Haines, a leading man in the silent era who could not crack into talkies. He was gay and his effeminate speech patterns brought his orientation to the forefront. He became one of Lombard’s causes and her notoriety that accompanied her support of a gay actor meant more than cash and helped to launch a 40-year decorating career.

Lombard was responsible for the successful career of Alice Marble, tennis player, who was down on her luck. When Marble suffered a number of health issues, Lombard found a general practitioner and paid the bills. A few years later Marble would claim the California state singles title, the U.S. Open Women’s Singles title at Forest Lawn and a clean sweep at the Wimbledon in 1939.

The plane crash that killed her took place less than a month before the Oscars. Despite her mother's premonition of the disaster, she refused to take a train to Los Angeles. She was reputedly in a rush after getting wind of an alleged affair between her husband Clark Gable and a young actress named Lana Turner, who at the time were filming Somewhere I’ll Find You (1942). The decision for Lombard to take the plane was decided literally by the flip of a coin, with Carole winning the toss.

Fireball is a great read. If you don’t have time to read a biography about Carole Lombard, of which there are a more than eight (half of them amateur 40-page print-on-demand cheapies sold through and cut-and-pasted from Wikipedia), I recommend this book. Lombard’s life is summarized properly with great prose. Who knew that retired movie actress Clara Bow, residing fifty miles southeast of Mt. Potosi on a sprawling ranch called The Walking Box, witnessed the plane crash? I learned someone new with the turn of every page.


Anonymous said...

Insurance policy from 1939 shows her at 5'3" and 118 lbs. Light brown hair with blue eyes. scar on left cheek and upper left lip.overall health:excellent.

Steve D said...

Carole Lombard was typecast (as were most actors in Hollywood) as a screwball comedian. While she could be funny, if you want to see the dramatic side of her, check out the excellent 3-DVD set of her restored films "Carole Lombard in the Thirties".

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