Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Carole Lombard’s Divine Lunacy

One of the last photos of Carole Lombard before her sudden death

From The Criterion Collection:

She was also a perfect fit for the thirties, when verbal acrobatics and fast-talking heroines had displaced the sultry divas of the twenties, that decade of postwar libertinism, contraband booze, flappers, and suffragettes, when movies were as racy as they would ever be, or at least until the sixties when censorship faded. The Depression and the Hays Office ushered in a new conservatism—marriage was sacrosanct, women’s true vocation was wife and mother. The advent of sound had lured some of the wittiest of East Coast writers to Hollywood. Men like Ben Hecht, Robert Riskin, Morrie Ryskind, with wise-guy newspaper or Broadway experience, would circumvent the new prohibitions with delicious innuendo and some of the wittiest dialogue ever to grace the screen. The sexually explicit became sensually implicit, and as avatar mouthpieces for this often rapid-fire dialogue, actors with Voices and razor-sharp timing were in the ascendance.

Lombard was getting her footing in pre-Code movies and is quite believable as a prostitute (no euphemisms used) in Virtue, a proletarian never-trust-a-dame melodrama with Pat O’Brien as her taxi-driver husband. Misunderstandings and a false imprisonment ensue until the movie concludes not with the usual kiss and fadeout of romantic comedy but with a perfect Lombard ending: the exonerated fallen woman pumping gas at a filling station recently acquired by the couple. 

The comedy that propelled not only Lombard but Hollywood itself out of the Sturm und Drang of melodrama and into the inspired silliness of the screwball comedy was Howard Hawks’s Twentieth Century. That grand showcase in which two hams—Lombard’s lingerie model turned actress and John Barrymore’s Svengali director—go at each other with relentless comic savagery was remarkable for, among other things, the sheer nonstop physicality of Lombard herself. The scissor kicks she levels at the egomaniacal Barrymore in a train compartment were the opening volley of no-holds-barred intramural warfare. Lombard serves notice: from here on in, the screwball heroine would give as good as she got. (Read more.)


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