TO BE OR NOT TO BE ( 1942 ) THE CRITERION BLOGATHON

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The following is my entry for the “Criterion Blogathon”, which is hosted by Criterion Blues, Silver Screenings and Speakeasy. Click here to read the other entries being exhibited during this event.

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The Criterion Collection is one of America’s leading video distribution companies. Since being founded by Robert Stein, Aleen Stein and Joe Medjuck in 1984 the company has licensed a myriad of classic and contemporary films from every genre imaginable and have become eminent for standardizing Letterbox format productions, bonus features and special additions for home release.

A year later after the firm was fully established, the Steins along with William Becker and Jonathan B. Turrell all joined forces to help form the Voyager Company, which would assist in publishing educational multimedia CD ROMS. During this time the Criterion moved closer and became a subordinate division of the company, but in 1997 the Voyager went defunct and the Criterion was in the possession of three of the original partners.

To a plethora of film enthusiasts worldwide, the Criterion is held in high regard for the considerable amount of classic films that the company have distributed through the years.

In addition to the many distinguished productions that have been released, the Criterion also has special connections with an array of prominent stars. While some actors might be featured in an innumerable amount of films released by the company, other actors may have a few films distributed by Criterion and in other cases not all stars are linked to the company in any formation.

Among the many pantheon of stars linked with the Criterion Collection is Carole Lombard, the highly acclaimed actress who is primarily remembered for her inimitable flair for Screwball Comedy, a genre that she was mainly accustomed to throughout the 1930’s.

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CAROLE AND CRITERION

Like most stars from the golden age of Hollywood, Carole Lombard has two films released under the Criterion Collection. The vehicles distributed are My Man Godfrey and To Be Or Not To Be, which are both deemed as two of Lombard’s most notable films. When purchasing these products from Criterion you are not only treating yourself to the movie you are spoilt with an array of special features and behind the scenes bloopers that are sure to impress Carole Lombard aficionados and ardent supporters of classic film in general.

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TO BE OR NOT TO BE ( 1942 )

Carole Lombard is one of the most inspirational stars to ever grace the silver screen. During the annals of her career, Carole enthralled audiences worldwide with her ethereal beauty, effervescent personality, vitality and wit that was spotlighted in a diverse body of work.

Even though her time on mortal soil was only short, Carole achieved more out of life than what most people do in a large spate of time. She was not only the Queen of Screwball Comedy, she was a cinematic icon, a legend who was married to the King of Hollywood.

By the fall of 1941, Carole Lombard had it all. She was at the zenith of her career, and things were only going to improve. After years of acting, Lombard had produced an illustrious resume of films that was abounded by her proliferating beauty and accompanied by her storybook marriage with Clark Gable.

For Lombard who had just garnered critical acclaim for the Alfred Hitchcock directed comedy Mr. And Mrs. Smith, success was imminent. She had just received acclamation and now she was about to reach a career goal.

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When it was announced that Ernst Lubitsch was directing a picture titled To Be Or Not To Be, Carole Lombard was eagerly determined to secure herself a part in the production. She had always admired Lubitsch and yearned for an opportunity to work with him, but at that point in time that goal was starting to look further on the horizon.

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Ever since the idea of To Be Or Not To Be evolved, Ernst Lubitsch automatically developed strong intentions of assigning Jack Benny the role of Joseph Tura. He often commended Benny for his indelible comedic talents and considered that he was the only one that could portray such a role to the effect that he had planned. On the other hand, Jack Benny was elated that a director of Ernst Lubitsch’s calibre would even think of him for the part. After the success of Charlie’s Aunt, Benny had an assembled crowd of followers but nobody was currently interested in hiring him as an actor except for Lubitsch who wanted him and no one else.

In addition to Jack Benny, Lubitsch originally requested Miriam Hopkins for the role of Maria Tura. At the time Hopkins was facing a career decline and with the large amount of films that were panned on their release she was considered a financial failure, but Lubitsch viewed this as a comeback vehicle for the actress. However Miriam Hopkins was not so enthusiastic. She had never developed a warm rapport with Jack Benny and left the production shortly after.

Once Miriam Hopkins abandoned the project Lubitsch was left without a leading lady until Carole Lombard heard word of the quandary that Lubitsch was in. Lombard who had dreamed of working with the master director heavily campaigned for the role and implored her new agent Nat Woolf to assist her in every way possible; he did and he secured Lombard the role of Maria Tura with a salary of $75,000 plus a net profit of 4.0837 percent.

Carole Lombard couldn’t be more euphoric with her current arrangement. She had just landed herself a role in To Be Or Not To Be, a film that was directed by Ernst Lubitsch who she highly esteemed and she was to star alongside her close friend Robert Stack whom she had known since his days as a teenager.

This road of success wasn’t going to stop there either. After To Be Or Not To Be, Carole Lombard was to embark on another auspicious journey into the world of her beloved comedy genre that would lead to her procuring roles in They All Kissed The Bride followed by a sequel of My Man Godfrey titled My Girl Godfrey, but sadly for Lombard this was not meant to eventuate.

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At the end of 1941, shortly after filming came to a cessation, Pearl Harbour was bombed and went down as a date in infamy and the United States entered into World War II. With the nation fighting endlessly in the blitz, Hollywood underwent changes to help support the war effort. During this time a plethora of stars travelled the country to raise money by selling War Bonds while others aided the cause by assisting with the Hollywood Canteen that was founded by Bette Davis and John Garfield in 1942.

Among the stars who went on tour was Carole Lombard. This event wasn’t easily achieved for every actress, but for Lombard timing was ideal. She had just finished filming of To Be Or Not To Be, and the production wasn’t due to sneak preview until Monday January 19th, 1942, so with that short hiatus, Lombard had ample time to travel by train to her home state of Indiana to sell War Bonds and arrive back the night before in time for the preview.

That was exactly what she did and nothing was going to stop her from doing patriotic duties for her country. Accompanying Lombard on the journey was her mother, Elizabeth Peters and Clark Gable’s close friend and press agent, Otto Winkler.

The cross country trip commenced on January 12th, 1942. Two days later Carole Lombard had endured a triumphant War Bond rally and raised over two million dollars in defense bonds in one evening. Following her success Carole and her entourage were scheduled to travel back to California by train, but Lombard insisted that she wanted to reach home earlier, so she implored her mother and Winkler who were terrified of flying to fly back with her. After much hesitation they agreed to toss a coin and Lombard won the toss, which meant that Elizabeth and Otto were to come in close encounter with one of their biggest fears called flying.

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.

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During the filming of To Be Or Not To Be, Carole was at her happiest. She looked forward to returning home to attend the preview and to reunite with her friends, Jack Benny and Robert Stack, but now her light that was once gleaming brightly over Hollywood was extinguished at the young age of 33.

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THE FILM

To Be Or Not To be was based on a story by Melchier Lengyel and adapted to the screen by Edwin Justus Mayer and Ernst Lubitsch who also served as the films director and producer. The production was released two months after Carole Lombard’s death.

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SYNOPSIS

Carole Lombard and Jack Benny ignite the screen in their roles as Maria Tura and Joseph Tura, two renowned stars who are part of a Warsaw theatre company satirizing the Nazi’s in a play before the Nazi German invasion of Poland in August 1939.

Along the way Maria becomes infatuated in Lt. Stanislav Sobinski ( Robert Stack ) a Polish airman who visits Maria during her husbands famous “To Be Or Not To Be” speech as Hamlet, but once the Nazi’s take over the Polish resistance the troupe are forced to implicate their theatrical skills in a game of cat and mouse as they find themselves hilariously embroiled in the bizarre search for a German spy.

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RECEPTION AND CRITIQUE

To Be Or Not To Be is a perennial classic that only received moderate reception on it’s initial release, but as time progressed the film garnered a multitude of accolades and now marks a trail of distinction for Carole Lombard, Ernst Lubitsch and Jack Benny. The main reason for this was the plot. While Lombard was more than adept at comedy, it was feared that a storyline that involves the Nazi’s might be considered dangerous for her career. Another aspect that went into account was the fact that the war had already destroyed other nations, and the main foundation of the vehicle was a satirical look at the Nazi’s. In real life the subject of war is a serious matter. Would audiences find this type production appealing was one of the main questions being asked.

Nobody could have determined how the film was going to pan out at the box office. Despite some of the scathing reviews about the dark comedy and the mocking of the Nazi’s, the production also amassed innumerable support and was soon regarded as a great farewell vehicle for Carole Lombard. Lee Mortimer from the New York Mirror executed an applicable remark when he stated that “Not even Carole Lombard could have asked for a finer or a more fitting farewell to a memorable career than the smooth and brilliant performance she leaves with us in this delightful comedy drama.”. Accompanying Mortimer’s thoughts was Newsweek who noted that “Carole Lombard has never been better. Her Maria Tura is an attractive, intelligently humorous characterization that is all too rare on the screen and will be rare from now on.”.

All of these reports were perfectly summed up. Carole Lombard was a virtuoso of the film industry, and with her masterful flair she exhibited for comedy she displayed a commendable character study of Maria Tura the beautiful actress who finds herself entangled in the face of unfathomable conflict with the Nazi’s in Poland. Only Lombard with her indelible talents could pull such a complex role off to considerable effect and appear charming and amiable at the same time.

Apart from Carole Lombard the film boasts a stellar cast with Jack Benny and Robert Stack who both deliver laudable performances. Like Lombard, Benny was another master of the comedy genre, and here he throws himself into his role with delectation and gusto that is completely infectious, but the main highlight in To Be Or Not To Be is Carole Lombard.

The film also spotlights exquisite gowns worn by Lombard that were designed by Irene who was prolific in creating costumes for Hollywood’s eminent stars in some of the worlds most notable cinematic staples.

Seventy three years since it’s release, To Be Or Not To Be stands as an artfully crafted masterpiece that employs plenty of astutely schemes and deftly metaphors that is abounded by an intellectual script, brisk, sagacious dialogue, a cleverly witty plot to Rudolph Mate’s superb cinematography.

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Trivia:

After Carole Lombard’s death death in a plane crash, the line “What can happen in a plane?” was deleted from the film.

When Jack Benny’s father went to see this movie, he was outraged at the sight of his son in a Nazi uniform in the first scene and even stormed out of the theater. Jack convinced his father that it was satire, and he agreed to sit through all of it.

Despite from Clark Gable’s rejections, Carole Lombard eagerly took the lead role.

Premiere voted this movie as one of “The 50 Greatest Comedies Of All Time” in 2006.

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Quotes:

Maria Tura: “It’s becoming ridiculous the way you grab attention. Whenever I start to tell a story, you finish it. If I go on a diet, you lose the weight. If I have a cold, you cough. And if we should ever have a baby, I’m not so sure I’d be the mother.

Joseph Tura: “I’m satisfied to be the father.”

Maria Tura: “Think of me being flogged in the darkness, scream, suddenly the lights go on and the audience discovers me on the floor in this gorgeous dress.”

Lt. Stanislav Sobinski: “I hope you’ll forgive me if I acted a little clumsy, but this is the first time I ever met an actress.”

Maria Tura: “Lieutenant, this is the first time I’ve ever met a man who could drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes.”

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Cast:

Carole Lombard: Born Jane Alice Peters on October 6th, 1908 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Died: January 16th, 1942 on Mount Potosi, Nevada. Age 33. Cause of death: Airplane crash.

Jack Benny: Born Benjamin Kubelsky on February 14th, 1894 in Chicago, Illinois. Died: December 26th, 1974 in Bel Air, Los Angeles, California. Aged 80.

Robert Stack: Born Charles Langford Modini Stack on January 13th, 1919 in Los Angeles, California. Died: May 14th, 2003 in Beverly Hills, California.

Please read below:

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The following article is an interview by Carole’s photographer Myron H Davis during the War Bond Rally.

INTERVIEW WITH MYRON H. DAVIS. CAROLE LOMBARD’S PHOTOGRAPHER FROM THE WAR BOND RALLY.

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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.

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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 her 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.
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Some observations:

* 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.

Lombard singing God Bless America

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.

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15 thoughts on “TO BE OR NOT TO BE ( 1942 ) THE CRITERION BLOGATHON

  1. Kristina says:

    Very nice look at a wonderful actress and film. Lots of interesting background that I didn’t know and appreciate that you included. It’s a classic that I love and quote a lot 🙂 Thanks for joining us in the blogathon!

    Like

  2. Silver Screenings says:

    Wonderful essay. Thanks for including all the background info, including some history on Criterion. Also, I didn’t know Jack Benny’s father stormed out on “To Have or Have Not” the first time he saw it.

    Thanks so much for joining the blogathon, and for bringing the marvellous Carole Lombard with you. 🙂

    Like

  3. aaronwest says:

    Yes, this was so comprehensive, above and beyond what I’d expect. The Criterion information was a nice tough. I’m a big fan of Lombard in both of her Criterion films, and Lubitsch was a great pairing for her.

    Like

  4. Mike says:

    great post!! very informative, learned many new things. Also, bittersweet= learning more about a classic film as well the premature death of a great screen actress.

    Like

  5. CineMaven says:

    Congratulations on winning The Criterio’ for Best Researched Essay, and for such a fun and serious movie. Lombard’s loss was devastating for movies…and for women IN movies. She was a force to be reckoned with in her own right, not just being Mrs. Clark Gable. ( Who am I kidding…nice work if you can get it. ) Lubitsch hadn’t lost his touch with this biting satire. Great job with your essay, Crystal!

    Like

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