Carole Lombard: The Profane Angel

Today is the birthday of the great American actress Carole Lombard (1908-1942), whose beauty, sense of humor and intelligence were onscreen in many of her best roles. Nicknamed “The Profane Angel” for legendary facility with cursing on set, Lombard’s premature death in a plane crash at age 33 ended one of the most cherished lives and careers in Hollywood, but her legacy endures thanks to her indelible screen performances. Although I have not yet seen the film for which she received her only Best Actress Oscar nomination, My Man Godfrey (1936), I can recommend ten other Lombard films that are worth watching both for dedicated fans and newcomers.

Virtue (1932) – This drama hits all the Pre-Code high notes: prostitution, the working class jobs of cabbies and waitresses, further economic issues (losing money thanks to scams) and murder. Lombard plays a former streetwalker who falls in love with taxi driver Pat O’Brien, a relationship which is complicated by the secret – and then revelation – of Lombard’s sordid past. The sauciness and smart mouth of the character comes easily to Lombard and she plays the romantic aspects with tenderness and understanding.

Twentieth Century (1934) – Lombard had perhaps her first great triumph with this screwball comedy co-starring John Barrymore and directed by Howard Hawks. Lombard’s madcap actress character, Lily Garland (formerly Mildred Plotka) gets into spars both verbal and physical with Barrymore’s Broadway director and noted Lothario, Oscar Jaffe. The two often duel in their contentious, no-holds-barred fashion, yet they cannot keep away from each other. Such is the symbiotic nature of show business.

Lady by Choice (1934) – As in Virtue, Lombard plays a scandalous woman (this time a fan dancer) who reforms her bad-girl ways. Here she “adopts” a mother (May Robson), initially only a publicity stunt but it eventually morphs into a real, caring relationship. The film gets too sentimental at times, but it shows off Lombard’s fine acting abilities.

Hands Across the Table (1935) – My favorite of all the Lombard films I’ve seen, as well as a favorite since childhood, here she is paired with another great star of the 1930s, Fred MacMurray. Lombard’s manicurist falls for MacMurray’s goofy millionaire, a romance that has its ups and downs since other characters are in love with Lombard and MacMurray (the latter being engaged to another woman). The film is probably the best example of gorgeous B&W cinematography by Lombard’s favorite cameraman, Ted Tetzlaff.

Love Before Breakfast (1936) – Lombard never looked better in Travis Banton’s costumes (they worked together often) than in this romantic comedy. (The outfit seen above also had an extravagant feather hat.) There are some elements of the narrative that I’m not crazy about – namely the part in which Lombard sports a black eye given to her by Preston Foster, whom she loves despite the attack – but there’s no doubt that her star quality adds luminous shine to a less-than-great plot.

The Princess Comes Across (1936) – Another childhood favorite of mine, Lombard does her best Garbo impression as a Swedish royal crossing the Atlantic, although in actuality she’s a down-on-her-luck actress from Brooklyn looking to cash in on the publicity stunt. Embroiled in a murder mystery on her ship, Lombard partners with concertina player Fred MacMurray to solve it. Once again the pair have delightful chemistry.

Nothing Sacred (1937) – Lombard has a ball as small-town girl Hazel Flagg in this early Technicolor feature. Yet again Lombard proves herself game with physical comedy, bearing the brunt of a punch from Fredric March and knocking him around a few times too. Politically correct it is not, but Nothing Sacred is still one of Lombard’s best films.

True Confession (1937) – Lombard plays the screwball type to the hilt in this comedy, which is not one of her stronger vehicles but which nonetheless has a good performance from her – a testament to her talents. Fred MacMurray, as her husband, is curiously humorless here, but Lombard’s efforts to make the material work are admirable.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) – Lombard entered film history as one of the many “Hitchcock blondes” in this odd little comedy, directed by the Master of Suspense in his early years in Hollywood. Teamed up with Robert Montgomery, Lombard displays her versatility as a charming comedienne (again with physical comedy) and as a more serious actress in the more gentle moments regarding the Lombard-Montgomery marriage.

To Be or Not to Be (1942) – Lombard’s final film is an Ernst Lubitsch dramedy which looks at the solemn and important topic of World War II through the lens of comedy. Lombard and Jack Benny do great work here; it is a film that deserves to be remembered as one of her finest showcases.

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