Tuesday, October 6th marked the 107th anniversary of the birth of Carole Lombard, the famed motion picture actress who marked an ounce of distinction in Hollywood with her inimitable flair for screwball comedy that later earned her the nickname of the Queen Of Screwball.
In the years following her premature death in January 1942, Carole Lombard has become a legend. She might not be as well known as some of the other renowned cult figures of the day, but with her youth, beauty, vitality, wit and the sweeping presence she exhibited on screen, she has transformed into a beloved icon that is adored by legions worldwide.
For Carole Lombard fame and eminence was a stroke of luck. Having been born into a family who knew nothing about acting, and spending the first six years of your life in Indiana miles away from Hollywood, it would be considered merely impossible to metamorphose your average existence by becoming a reputable name in motion pictures, but for Carole Lombard stardom proved to be feasible.
The creation known as Carole Lombard may have it happened overnight, but to reach the status that she attained entailed years of disappointments and rejections. Once the artistry of young Jane Alice Peters was revealed, it didn’t take long for her to evolve into a virtuoso of the film industry in which she became.
Jane Alice Peters made her star studded debut in this world on October 6th, 1908 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The beautiful baby with the golden blonde hair and ocean blue eyes was the prized possession of Frederick Christian Peters and Elizabeth Jayne Knight, the wealthy parents of two older sons who they called, Frederick and John. From the moment Jane was born their dreams of having a close knit family were fulfilled.
The first few years of Jane’s life were spent in comfort. She had a mother who adored her, a father who cared for her well being and two brothers that she maintained a close relationship with. However the marriage between her parents were strained and often resulted in altercations when the children were not present.
After enduring years of a turbulent marriage which was hidden from the children, her parents permanently separated. In October, 1914, Elizabeth took Jane and her brothers and relocated to Los Angeles, where they resided in an apartment situated near Venice Boulevard. Even though they were living in California, Frederick provided them with considerable financial support to ensure that they lived in a congenial environment without worry.
Growing up Lombard excelled in sports and was passionate about movies. Her dedication to recreation came to a fore when she enrolled at Virgil Junior High School and engaged herself in Tennis, Volleyball and Swimming, which often garnered her trophies in athletics.
In 1920, when Lombard was twelve years old, her life would change forever. It all happened while she was playing Baseball with friends. Minutes later she attracted the attention of Allan Dwan, who was immediately enamored by the cute little tomboy, and approached her about playing a small role in a movie. After discussing it with her mother, Jane eagerly accepted the offer.
In 1921, young Jane Alice Peters, an average girl who hailed from Fort Wayne, Indiana, made her film debut in The Perfect Crime, playing the sister of Monte Blue. After spending two days on the set, Lombard came to relish the attention she was receiving, and from that moment on it was determined that she was going to be a future actress on the horizon.
The Perfect Crime wasn’t a triumphant success, nor was it widely distributed, but it did provide Jane with a career path; A journey that would one day lead to future acclaim as an actress.
Sadly for Lombard it was a long road of fruitless auditions or opportunities that never led to anything. When Lombard was fifteen, she was noticed by an employee of Charlie Chaplin, who observed her appearance as the queen of Fairfax High School’s May Day Carnival, and offered her a screen test for a role in The Gold Rush. In the hopes of securing a part in the movie, Lombard accepted to take the test, but unfortunately she was not given the part. However the audition raised Hollywood’s awareness of the aspiring actress, and before she knew it, Jane Alice Peters would be fully cemented as an actress.
In October 1924, the tiring journey of rejection came to a cessation when Fox Film Corporation signed Carole Lombard to a contract. There are conflicting stories of how this eventuated, but the more recent evidence points to Lombard’s mother Elizabeth Knight who supposedly contacted Louella Parsons to arrange for a screen test.
Now that she had attained a contract with Fox Film Corporation, Carole quit school to embark on a film career. With a new profession, a new name was needed. Shortly after Jane Alice Peters became Carole Lombard.
Carole Lombard was now under the helm of Fox Studios, and on her way to super stardom. After a few weeks of examining other stars at work, Lombard started to make appearances as a bit player in low budget films, which she became dissatisfied by. Even though she found these brief, unrecognizable parts tiring, she enjoyed the other aspects of the profession, and relished in the Charleston Dance at the Coconut Grove, where she won competitions.
Carole Lombard’s first leading role came in March 1925, when Fox chose her for the main part in Marriage In Transit, in which she starred alongside Edmund Lowe. The film only received moderate results, but Lombard garnered positive accolades for her performance with Motion Picture News stating that she displayed “good poise and considerable charm”.
Even though Lombard was well received for her first leading role, Fox didn’t consider her to be leading lady material and as a result her one year contract was not renewed.
After her contract expired, Lombard spent a year unemployed. This was an unhappy period for Carole. She loved work and yearned for a victorious career in motion pictures. Twelve months later she attained a screen test for Mack Sennett, and was immediately offered a contract. At first Lombard expressed reservations about performing in slapstick comedies, but after much discussion she joined his company as one of the Sennett Bathing Beauties.
Between September 1927 and March 1929, Lombard appeared in fifteen short films. It was here where she gained her first experiences in comedy, which not only helped her skills, it provided valuable training for her future work in the genre.
After gaining enough experience, the company began casting Lombard in feature films. Carole’s acting prowess shined through in all the roles she was given, and months later her status exalted, which meant that Carole was now starring in leading roles instead of supporting players.
In 1929, she starred in her first talking picture, High Voltage. The film was a considerable hit, but it wasn’t until she appeared in her next film Big News that she would garner wide encomium.
As time progressed, Lombard’s success elevated. After appearing in The Arizona Kid, Paramount became intrigued by the young stars appeal and signed her to a contract. Her first film with Paramount was Safety In Numbers, where a critic praised her for her ace comedic skills.
Carole Lombard’s years at Paramount were a blessing. Not only did she start acting alongside William Powell, the two fell in love and started a relationship which led to marriage on June 6th, 1931.
Marrying William Powell was one of the best things that Carole done. He was Hollywood’s top male star, and she was still rising up the ladder, but with Powell her fame increased.
While married to Powell, Lombard appeared in an array of films which include, No More Orchids and No Man Of Her Own in which she starred alongside her future husband Clark Gable.
No Man Of Her Own garnered Carole critical acclaim with critics noting that it was her finest film to date. At the time of filming no romance between Gable and Lombard were evident. Gable was still enduring a tumultuous marriage with Rhea Langham and Lombard was happily married to Powell, though they would be divorced a year later in 1933.
Carole Lombard and William Powell divorced in August 1933. Although they were officially separated, the two remained lifelong friends. Following the divorce, Lombard still managed to star in a string of films that earned her laudable acclamation, one of these films being Supernatural, Carole’s only horror production.
After Lombard and Powell’s divorce was officially finalized, Carole’s status ascended to great heights. By 1934, Lombard was an established star in Hollywood. At the start of that year she was cast in the musical drama Bolero, a film that provided her with an opportunity to disseminate her skills by showcasing lavish dance steps to an extravagantly staged performance.
Bolero opened to warm reception with audiences praising Lombard’s performance. For Carole this was the start of a long pattern of exaltation and achievements. In mid 1934, Carole Lombard made her breakthrough role in Howard Hawk’s screwball comedy Twentieth Century, where she starred alongside acting veteran John Barrymore.
The final results for Twentieth Century were encouraging and commendable. Lombard was praised for her unexpectedly fiery talent and different persona.
Twentieth Century was not only Carole’s breakthrough role, it molded her career, and automatically turned her into an overnight sensation. Following the films success, Lombard was cast in a myriad of meritorious productions which garnered her critical acclaim.
Lombard’s most notable film from this period was Hands Across The Table in which she co-starred alongside Fred MacMurray in their first of four collaborations. The production was a hit among critics and Photoplay reviewer stated that Carole had reaffirmed her talent for the genre.
The year 1936 proved to be propitious from the start with Carole Lombard enthralling audiences with her creditable performance in Love Before Breakfast. With the films exemplary results Lombard was cast alongside Fred MacMurray for the second time in The Princess Comes Across. The film is not regarded as Carole’s most memorable movie, but it sure did garner acclaim on it’s release with audiences stating the fact that Lombard succeeded in a satire of Greta Garbo.
This success continued and Carole’s popularity was escalating. In 1936, Carole Lombard reached the pinnacle of her career when she starred in My Man Godfrey alongside her ex husband William Powell in what is now considered her most memorable role. On it’s release the film opened to critical acclaim and triumphant results, garnering nine Academy Awards including Best Actress for Carole Lombard.
In 1937, Carole Lombard was voted one of Hollywood’s most popular actresses. With this rating she continued to pioneer her way through an array of well regarded films which include Nothing Sacred, a lush production shot in Technicolor that Lombard considered to be her favorite.
That same year she starred in True Confession alongside Fred MacMurray and John Barrymore, who was cast in the role because of Lombard’s strong implores. At this point in his career, Barrymore was severely swept into the abyss of alcoholism and hiring him was considered risky, but Lombard who worked with Barrymore in Twentieth Century still witnessed potential in Barrymore and demanded that he be given the part.
True Confession also marked the final film on her Paramount contract. For the rest of her life, Carole Lombard remained an independent performer. Shortly after she made Fools For Scandal with Warner Brothers. Sadly for Lombard, the film was largely panned at the box office.
At the cessation of Fools For Scandal, Carole Lombard took a hiatus away from movies and devoted her time to her blossoming relationship with Clark Gable, who she began to romance in 1936. Gable was now separated from his wife Rhea Langham and was amid getting a divorce. Once the divorce was finalized, Carole Lombard and Clark Gable traveled to Kingman, Arizona and married on March 29th, 1939.
For Carole Lombard and Clark Gable, life couldn’t be more joyous. They purchased a twenty acre ranch in Encino, California, and owned barnyard animals. By now, Lombard had plans of retiring and wanted to settle down with a family, but her attempts at having children resulted in two miscarriages and numerous trips to fertility specialists where it was determined that Lombard was unable to have children.
This greatly upset Lombard, but she decided to continue on making movies with a slower work rate. Having been mainly cast in screwball comedies, Carole yearned for parts that would really epitomize her acting prowess so she followed a different path that led to heavy dramatic roles.
In 1939, Carole starred alongside James Stewart in Made For Each Other. Even though Lombard was praised for her dramatic ability, the film appeared to be a financial failure. This set back didn’t stop Carole, and not long after she appeared opposite Cary Grant in In Name Only.
Carole Lombard was eager to obtain an Academy Award, and in the hopes of acquiring a trophy she selected Vigil In The Night for her next project. Unfortunately most of the films reviews were scathing, which meant no reward for Lombard.
As time progressed, Carole Lombard continued to showcase her indelible talents in They Knew What They Wanted and Mr. And Mrs. Smith, a comedy directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Considering Hitchcock adapted an entirely different approach by placing his directorial efforts in a comedy the film turned out to be victoriously acclaimed.
After the success of Mr. And Mrs. Smith, Carole Lombard never committed to another picture until almost a year later. Instead she spent the time maintaining ambiance in Encino for Clark, and focused on her home and marriage.
Carole Lombard’s final film role came in 1941, when she chose to star in the Ernst Lubitsch vehicle To Be Or Not To Be, a dark comedy that satirized the Nazi takeover of Poland. Filming took place in the fall of of 1941, and even though this was a smaller part than what she was accustomed to, it was reported to be the happiest experience of Lombard’s career.
At the end of 1941, the United States entered into World War II. With the world at war, Carole Lombard decided to travel with her mother to her home state of Indiana for a War Bond Rally. Accompanying the two on their journey was Clark Gable’s close friend and press agent, Otto Winkler, who assisted them during their trip in every way possible.
The War Bond Rally was triumphant. Lombard was able to raise over two million dollars in defense bonds in one evening. After the success of the rally, Lombard, her mother and Otto Winkler were scheduled to travel back to California by train, but Lombard insisted that she wanted to reach home sooner, and implored her mother and Winkler who were terrified of flying to fly back. Even though they were petrified of flying they agreed to toss a coin, and Lombard won the toss.
On the morning of January 16th, 1942, Carole Lombard, her mother and Otto Winkler boarded TWA Flight 3 to return home to California. After refueling in Las Vegas, the plane took off at 7:07pm, on Friday, January 16th, 1942. Less then twenty minutes later, TWA, Flight 3, crashed into Potosi Mountain. All 22 passengers on board the plane were killed instantly.
Following the catastrophe that took Carole’s life, Clark Gable suffered immensely and never got over the tragic death of his wife. Gable spent the rest of his life searching for another Carole Lombard, but nobody ever came close. In November 1960, Clark Gable reunited with Carole Lombard.
Seventy three years after her untimely death at the age of 33, Carole still remains one of the brightest and most effervescent stars to ever grace the silver screen. Even though her time on mortal coil was only short, Carole Lombard left a huge impact and lasting impression in this world that the legend herself is immortal.
Happy Birthday Carole Lombard.
The following article is an interview by Carole’s photographer Myron H Davis during the War Bond Rally. This interview originally came from my close friend and founder of the Carole And Co Blog, and was published on my blog on the anniversary of Carole’s death.
It’s January 15th, the anniversary of the eve of Carole Lombard’s tragic death from the airline crash on Potosi Mountain on Friday, January 16th, 1942. I thought I would post a tribute to commemorate the 73rd anniversary of the day that Carole Lombard fulfilled her patriotic duty as an American citizen by leading the nation’s first War Bond Rally in her home state of Indiana. My friend Vincent Paterno, who is the host of the renowned ‘Carole & Co’ blog, was kind enough to let me share this interview with Myron H. Davis, Carole’s photographer at the War Bond Rally. Myron was one of the last people to see Carole alive, spending three days with her during the tour. The article was originally published in ‘B&W magazine’.
Can you talk about the context in which these images were made?
Well, you have to remember that there was a huge amount of patriotism at that time. People were shocked about Pearl Harbor and believed that we were an innocent country that had been viciously attacked. Lombard was very patriotic herself, and was, I believe, the first big Hollywood star to sell raise money for the war effort. Later, of course, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were noted for traveling to overseas bases and putting on big stage shows for the soldiers. But this was the first war bond rally in the country, and I think Lombard’s death inspired other Hollywood stars to follow her example.
Take me through some of her activities on this tour.
Lombard didn’t like flying, and had taken a train from Los Angeles that was bound for Chicago. The train made a brief stop in Salt Lake City on January 13, where she spoke to people waiting on the platform and sold some war bonds.
A photo of Lombard with two servicemen in Salt Lake City on Jan. 13.
Then she got back on the train and proceeded to Chicago, where she sold more bonds and did some interviews. From Chicago she flew to Indianapolis on Wednesday evening, and met her mother at the train station the next morning.
Her first official appearance that day was at the Indiana statehouse. Also attending were the governor [Henry F. Schricker], the publisher of the Indianapolis Star [Eugene C. Pulliam] and Will Hays, who was responsible for the notorious Hays Code of film censorship. The governor made a speech while Lombard stood on a stepstool and personally performed the flag-raising ceremony. She was wearing a fur coat, on account of the cold weather, but she was very down to earth. She didn’t have any “actress” airs about her. After the flag-raising, she signed the first shell fired by the United States in World War I, gave a short speech and then signed autographs for the crowd. I remember that she and the governor and Hays stood in a row at one point and gave the “V for victory” sign for a newsreel camera crew.
Lombard raises the flag as Indiana Gov. Henry F. Schricker addresses the crowd.
Then everybody went inside the statehouse building, where Lombard sold war bonds for about an hour or so. She was very good with the crowds, and very spontaneous. She handed out special receipts to everyone who bought a bond. These receipts had her picture and signature printed on them, plus a special message. I still have one, in fact. It read: “Thank you for joining me in this vital crusade to make America strong. My sincere good wishes go with this receipt which shows you have purchased from me a United States Defense Bond.”
The Lombard war bond rally receipt.
She was then driven to the Claypool Hotel, where she was staying, for another flag-raising event. I think it might have been to commemorate the opening of an armed forces recruitment center. After that she went to the governor’s mansion for a big formal reception — busy day! And then that evening, she appeared at another war bond rally at the Cadle Tabernacle, where she gave a patriotic speech to get the crowd fired up. The last thing she did was to lead the crowd in singing “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Did you have much personal interaction with her during the tour?
I was with Lombard for three days, traveling all around. She put in a lot of long hours, and I tried to go wherever she went. We passed a few words here and there, but she knew enough about photography to just let me do my job, and I just let her do her thing and documented it.
Your most famous shot of Lombard is the one in which she’s singing the national anthem onstage.
I knew that the Cadle Tabernacle was the last place that she was to perform publicly before heading back to the West Coast. It was this huge auditorium that was standing room only and filled with patriotic signs put up everywhere. When I got up on the stage I saw way back on the far wall this big sign that read, “Sacrifice, Save and Serve.” That pretty much summed up the mood of the country right then, and I said to myself, “Wow. I’ve somehow got to get that sign as part of the image.”
What equipment did you use for this image?
I used my Speed Graphic and Eastman Kodak Double XX film. I had a battery-powered Heiland flashgun on my camera fitted with a reflector and a #3 Wabash Super flash bulb, which was the most powerful one on the market back then. I framed the shot to illuminate both Lombard and part of the audience to her left. I also had a couple of stagehands point flashtubes with #3 flashbulbs at the front and middle rows to help light what was a really large crowd. Fortunately I got a pretty good negative, but when I had to make an 11 x 14 print for Life magazine, I had to dodge and hold back some of the sign in the background to make it legible.
I understand you had a close encounter with Lombard at the airport before she got onto her plane.
I was pretty doggone tired after taking that last picture of her, not realizing what a historical moment it was going to represent. I had to catch a plane at the Indianapolis airport at around three or four in the morning. I took a cab there and arrived early. I was practically the only passenger there. So I’m sitting on this wooden desk, half-asleep, when I sensed somebody come in and sit next to me. I felt a fur coat pressing against the side of my leg. Well, of course I knew it must be a woman, but I was so surprised when I opened my eyes and here was Carole Lombard sitting right next to me! We were so close together it was almost like we were boyfriend and girlfriend. I was so startled that it made her laugh, and then I laughed, too. I guess both of us were the kind of people who tried to see the sunny side of life.
Davis captures Lombard’s ability to connect with people from all walks of life.
I had sensed from the start of working with her that she was a wonderful, down-to-earth lady. Being in Hollywood and being a star and being married to Clark Gable hadn’t gone to her head. So we just sat there and talked about a few of the day’s events. I thanked her for being so cooperative and letting me follow here around and do my thing. And she said, “Well, I was happy to do it, Myron.” I don’t think I called her by her first name. I probably called her Miss Lombard. Being the kind of lady she was, she said early on, “Just call me Carole.” It was a very sincere personal exchange between the two of us thanking each other for working on a job that we both thought was necessary for the country at that time.
Her mother and a Hollywood press agent [Otto Winkler] were also there, standing in front of me. Neither of them spoke much. Carole and I were doing all the talking and laughing until they called her plane. We weren’t there together very long. I would say I talked to her for about five to ten minutes. Her plane was called shortly before mine, and then I got on my plane and fell asleep right away.
Did she talk about her fear of flying?
Yes. She told me she was really afraid of flying, but that she didn’t want to spend three days — and she used this expression — on a choo-choo train to go back to California. So this is another tragic part of it. It was almost like she had a premonition of some kind.
Ever the professional, Lombard held this V for Victory pose until Davis could make the shot.
You didn’t take any photographs of her at the airport?
No, my equipment was checked in, except for my Leica, but I wasn’t going to bother her anymore. I’d been following her around with my camera for three days and nights, and it was obvious that she and her mother were tired, like I was. I always tried not to impose on people.
So your Cadle Tabernacle pictures are the last ones that anyone took of her.
Yes, I’m convinced that’s true. I don’t remember seeing any other photographers at the auditorium. And I don’t think anybody else was at the hotel waiting to take her picture after the event wrapped up. I’m certain that the “Sacrifice, Save and Serve” picture Life ran was the last one taken of Carole Lombard while she was alive.
It must have been quite a shock to hear the news about her death.
I was married at the time and living on the south side of Chicago. We hadn’t been married all that long. I was still in bed trying to get some sleep from all this round-the-clock stuff, when my wife comes in, shakes me, wakes me up and says, “New York is on the phone. They want to talk with you.” It turned out to be Life magazine calling. They said, “Myron! You’re sleeping? Where are your Lombard pictures?” I said, “Well, they’re here with me. What about them?” “Oh, you don’t know? There was a plane crash and she was killed. We want those pictures here. Go downtown, develop the negatives and make four 8 x 10 prints. We’ve arranged for you to go to the Associated Press offices, and they will transmit the pictures to us. We’ll look at them and tell you which one we want. Then go back to the darkroom and make an 11 x 14 print, and then go down to the Donnelly printing plant — which was on 22nd Street just off the lake — and deliver this personally. And you’ve got to do that as fast as you can.” So that’s what I did.
Lombard puts on the charm at the governor’s mansion prior to her final public appearance.
Once the editors in New York knew that the plane had crashed and that Carole Lombard, her mother and her agent had all been killed, they stopped production of the issue they were working on. At that time the editions for the entire country were printed here in Chicago at the R.R. Donnelly printing plant, and then shipped to the New York and the East Coast and the West Coast. They stopped production on that entire issue until I did what they wanted me to do. That may be the one and only time that Life stopped production on an issue.
As it happens, Life ran just the one image of Lombard. Did you try to do anything else with the pictures you took of her?
Some time after it had happened and after I had gotten over the shock of it, I went to the Life darkroom on the fifth floor of the Carbon and Carbide building on Michigan Boulevard. I spent hours making 11 x 14 prints that I had taken during her tour, maybe 25 or 30, boxed them up and sent them to Columbia Studios with a letter addressed to the top executives. The letter read: “This may not be the time to deliver these to Clark Gable. There may, in your opinion, never be a time to deliver these pictures to Clark Gable. But I’m leaving this up to your decision. If you think he might want to have these sometime, please deliver them to Mr. Clark Gable.” I never found out whatever happened to them. I never got a response, not from the studio, and certainly not from Gable. But I don’t believe these shots would have been tossed out.
* It’s fascinating to hear Davis say Lombard was concerned about flying by air. particularly since we know she had regularly flown with Gable and, in the mid-thirties, even taken flying lessons. She may have been concerned about flying without Clark by her side, or perhaps it was because she was with her mother, who had never flown before.
* I’m not sure why Davis would have mailed the prints to Columbia, where Gable hadn’t worked since making “It Happened One Night” in early 1934. Might Lombard have been discussing her upcoming film, “They All Kissed The Bride,” a Columbia production?
* In Larry Swindell’s biography “Screwball,” he maintains this was the last photo ever taken of Lombard (with her mother):
I do not know whether Davis took this photo; it may have been taken at the Claypool Hotel after the rally and before they left, which would mean it wasn’t taken by him.
Dean Brierly interviewed Davis in 2009. Like Lombard, Davis would be victim to an accident, dying on April 17, 2010 from injuries incurred during a fire at his apartment in Hyde Park, Chicago. He was 90 years old.
Carole Lombard leads a packed house in singing “God Bless America” at the Cadle Tabernacle in Indianapolis on January 15th, 1942. The last full day of her life. Sadly Carole was killed alongside her beloved mother the very next day after this photo was taken. They boarded the TWA, DC3 plane, to return home to Los Angeles, but they never made it. The plane crashed into Potosi Mountain, and all 22 passengers on board the plane were killed instantly.