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carole lombard 02

The admirable Crichton (interview)

Posted by vp19 on 2008.03.11 at 00:52
Current mood: excitedexcited
Among the best-known interviews Carole Lombard ever gave was one that few people, at least in recent decades, have actually read.

It came in the Feb. 24, 1940 issue of Collier's, written by Kyle Crichton, a piece with the rather trite title of "Fun In Flickers." While many recent fans have heard of it, since several Lombard biographers (notably Larry Swindell) have made references to it, relatively few have been able to see it.

There's good reason why. Collier's, a popular general-interest magazine of the day (sort of along the lines of the Saturday Evening Post, but without the Benjamin Franklin heritage and the Norman Rockwell covers), folded in 1957. It probably hasn't been microfilmed much; even the Library of Congress, where I did my research, only has Collier's on microfilm through 1915.

Fortunately, a reading room at the Library had a rather musty, bound copy of the early 1940 issues, and I was able to photocopy the article there.

Before getting to the interview, which runs nearly 2,800 words long, some info on the interviewer, Kyle Crichton: Born in Peale, Pa., in November 1896, he graduated from Lehigh University in 1917. He decided to pursue a literary career in the 1920s, becoming a book editor at Scribner's.

Like many in the 1930s, he became disillusioned and politically drifted leftward, joining the Communist party for several years (and writing articles for the Daily Worker and a pair of books under the pseudonym "Robert Forsythe") before resigning from the party following the signing of the short-lived Hitler-Stalin pact.

At the same time he was writing as Forsythe, Crichton wrote many articles under his own name at Collier's, where he had become an associate editor in 1933. He remained there through 1949, conducting many interviews with entertainment and sports personalities. Crichton wrote a number of books as well, notably a 1945 biography of the Marx Brothers. He died in New York in November 1960.

Without further ado, Crichton's interview with Carole Lombard, a fairly vivid portrait of the lady. (It is in the style in which it was published, although I have put the titles of movies in quotation marks to better set them off from the rest of the copy.) Enjoy!



___________________

FUN IN FLICKERS

By Kyle Crichton

Carole Lombard rocketed to fame when she cut loose in the movies the way she does at home. She isn’t going to give up her screen career either -– not even for Clark Gable. She’s been in front of those klieg lights for too many years


During the recent goofy season when the nation was reaching the peak in Scarlett O’Hara excitement, Carole Lombard was playing mamma. She was racing around the country on the coattails of Mr. Clark Gable, pushing him into the limelight, pasting his clippings up in a scrapbook and acting for all the world like a woman who thinks highly of her spouse. Since she is a personage in her own right, this constitutes something remarkable in the annals of self-abnegation.

When she isn’t worrying about the cows and the ducks on the farm she is skeet shooting. Rigged out in a leather jacket, with a gun hanging in the crook of her arm, this skinny, knock-kneed dame goes around murdering skeets.

“Damn!” she has been known to cry in disappointment at missing one, and this has occasioned the lifting of brows in Hollywood. But any chance of chastisement by the Hays office is slight since her marriage to the man Gable and her consequent splurge of domesticity. She has made one picture, “In Name Only,” since that event, and there are signs that she is settling down in the old homestead.

As a matter of truth, although she has barely turned thirty, she is almost as old as the original custard pie, having spent thirteen years in the flickers and being one of the most mature actresses in Los Angeles County. She is a mime of such important that she could make “Fools For Scandal” with Fernand Gravet without being exiled. She is an outstanding example of the truth that perseverance, hard work and the ability to bawl out the right people will either bring an actress to the top of her profession or get her dumped in San Pedro harbor with a rock around her neck. At the present she is getting $150,000 a picture, and couldn’t get any higher in her craft if she bought out Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The idea that a young lady could reach this status only thirteen short years after leaving Fort Wayne, Indiana, bearing the name of Carol Jane Peters, is preposterous and also true. The flight from Fort Wayne included Mamma Peters and Carol’s two brothers. The virulent little germ known as movie madness was injected into the veins of Carol at the age of eleven when Allan Dwan used her in a picture called “The Perfect Crime.” This brought on a conflict between fame and education that found education steadily retreating. If she liked her teachers, she studied; if she didn’t, she hung around the studios. In that way she was seen and hired by Mary Pickford’s manager and just as promptly fired when Mary saw her. Carol was fifteen and wore blond curls and in no case was there ever going to be any young lady playing opposite Miss Pickford who looked like anything but a cow.

After Pickford gave her the heave-o, she managed to hook on with the Charlie Chaplin unit, which job immediately exploded in her face when Chaplin and his wife, Lita Grey Chaplin, staged one of their cataclysmic matrimonial disturbances and the studio was forced to suspend production until the squall blew over.

Her first real chance came at Fox where, without any preparation whatever, they threw her into a hot drah-mah as leading woman for Edmund Lowe. With the intent of doing justice to this magic opportunity, Miss Peters bought herself a pair of fake eyelashes of the kind that make a scarlet woman out of a saint and considered herself equipped to make love to Mr. Lowe in a manner calculated to burn him down to the ankles. She discovered that acting with Mr. Lowe was simple for beginners because Mr. Lowe saw to it that nobody else ever got in front of the camera. All that audience ever saw of her was the back of her neck, which was fortunate because of another mishap.

“The damned things stuck,” says Miss Lombard, referring to the fake eyelashes. “I played a whole scene blind; couldn’t get my eyes open.”

As a reward for her spectacular success, Fox hurled the sixteen-year-old sensation into cow-hand comedies, in which bucking broncos dumped her off on her rear and the cowboys, in fits of humor, took turns in dousing her in the creek. She wore a hat that was so big “it came down to my collarbone,” and was genuinely happy in her surroundings until option period came around. This began a feud with the producers which has continued to the present day. She was getting $75 a week and her option called for a raise after six months, but they offered her the same old $75, take it or leave it. She let out a screech of defiance –- and was only out of work a year.

It was in this period of leisure that her career was almost ruined by an auto accident. She was riding with Harry Cooper, son of a Los Angeles banker, when a car on a hill backed down against the Cooper car, smashed the windshield, which in turn cut Carole from the corner of her nose to her cheekbone. She happened to fall into the hands of a medico who sewed her up (without anesthetic) and left her with only a faint scar showing.

After recuperating she managed to get a job with Mack Sennett and considers that the turning point of her acting life. Prior to this she had adopted the name of her mother’s close friend, Mrs. Harry Lombard, and had tacked an “e” on the Carol to satisfy her belief in numerology (she is also much given to astrology). With that settled, she joined the Sennett crew, which had included such celebrities as Gloria Swanson, Marie Prevost and Phyllis Haver, and acquired the adeptness of action that was later to save her career. Sennett insisted on his actors knowing the business from the ground up, so Carole learned how a camera operated, monkeyed around with sets and lights and was encouraged to bean a director who mangled a scene. The matter of dignity was treated lightly at Sennett’s and she was soon being slapped in the mush with custard pies, whammed over the anatomy with fence palings and soused in horse troughs.

“Little touches like having a lobster tied on behind and a nose painted as red as a neon light,” she recalls. “Didn’t get that paint off for two weeks. Lost a perfectly good boy friend over it. Said he didn’t like girls who weren’t dainty.”

When Sennett closed up shop, she was out of work again. She filled in by doing a few nifties for Tram Carr and then caught on with Pathe, where Gloria Swanson and Constance Bennett were carrying on a vendetta that threatened to bring the Marines on the quick. As usual, Lombard got right in range and was blasted out of the joint. After that she went over to Paramount and stayed for seven years.

“Most of the time in the doghouse,” she adds wryly.

She walked out on pictures, refused to do “Bad Boy” with James Cagney on a loan-out to Warners, turned down “Exclusive,” wouldn’t touch “Spawn Of The North,” made seventeen turkeys in a row and finally ended on top of the heap.

“Rumba” was her last picture as a glamor girl, and when that was finished she waited around nine months for another assignment. Paramount was paying her $3,000 a week and showing no haste to use her -– which could only mean that she was about washed up. Observers maintain that the glamor nonsense arose from her marriage to William Powell, when she wanted to show that world that she was really a dignified human being and not a Sennett bathing girl. While she was in the doghouse a photographer named Hoyningen-Huene came out, took some pictures of Lombard and went back raving that she was the most vital, most exciting, most everything dame he had met in Hollywood. “Drop that stuffed-shirt stuff,” he admonished her. “Cut loose like you do in your own parlor.”

The Lady Demands

She was first seen emerging from the chrysalis in “Hands Across The Table.” Ernst Lubitsch, then in charge of the studio, held himself about the head when he saw the rushes. Lombard sobbed quietly in her dressing room. She thought it meant ruin. Instead the picture was a terrific success. She continued being the new Lombard in “My Man Godfrey” and “The Princess Comes Across.”

At this moment the studio wanted to sign her to a new contract and she, remembering those horrible nine months of idleness, made it as tough as she could for them. Aided and abetted by her agent, Myron Selznick, at mention of whose name picture executives totter and grow pale, she demanded $150,000 a picture and concessions such as had never before been heard of in the Western Hemisphere. She wanted permission to bring her car on the lot -– which you can’t do at Paramount without special dispensation from on high. She wanted certain hairdressers, electricians, carpenters. Whenever they would ask if she wouldn’t please come down and sign, she’d think up more things with which to harry them.

As a matter of truth, she is not daffy at all. She is never late for an appointment and is always first on the set for the day’s work. Ever her swearing is said to have a basis in good sense. She does it, they say, to relieve tension on the set, to put people at ease with her, to break up fights between the director and the staff. She has very refined parties at which her mother and old family friends are present, and never a profane word passes her lips the entire evening. Her charitableness and kindness are exceptional. It provides in all her contracts that Pat Drew must also be employed. Drew is a gaffer (electrician) who was in the Richard Wallace-Paul Wing party that crashed in a transport plane in Missouri about five years ago. He lost a leg. Lombard feels very sorry for people with handicaps, figuring life is tough enough without them. So unless Drew works in a picture, Lombard refuses to work.

What distinguishes her in Hollywood is her genuineness. If she hates you, she lets the secret come out. If she likes you, she’ll battle cops all up and down Hollywood Boulevard on your behalf. For years her closest friend and inseparable companion has been Madalynne Fields (“Fieldsie”), who was her pal in the old silent days when they were extras and slept in the same bed. For years Fieldsie ran the house, paid the bills, attended to the interviews (giving many of them herself) and helped with tearing up the mail, the girls being a bit careless with their correspondence. “Started a letter to Aunt Mary twelve years ago and it still isn’t finished,” admits Carole ruefully.

At first they had a house on Sunset Boulevard, but when the landlord hinted at raising the rent they decided to move. Fieldsie did the house-hunting and drove the bargains. They got another rented place out in Bel-Air with Fieldsie pretending she was renting it for herself. When they moved they had some new furniture made but got along with most of the old stuff by repainting it. Carole covered a sofa with the material that had been in the dining-room drapes of the old house.

She Likes To Pay Taxes

Fieldsie was married two years ago and is now Mrs. Walter Lang but she is still close enough in touch to have been involved in the Lombard tax payments, which brought the lady some little fame in the prints when she said she had no objection to paying taxes. Carole earned $465,000 in 1938 and gave up $285,000 to the federal government, $54,000 to the state of California and $45,000 to Agent Selznick. Taking out the regular expenses and the money that goes to her mother and Fieldsie ($10,000 each), Carole had $50,000 left for herself. She has been saving those little driblets for years and will never be on a Hollywood breadline. If she had to go back working for $75 a week, she could do that, too -– at least her friends insist she could.

As a way of getting something back from the government, Lombard built a house out in San Fernando Valley on an FHA loan. It cost $9,500 minus a swimming pool and guest rooms, and looks like a tourist cabin by the side of most Hollywood homes. She is not even extravagant when she appears to be, which is rarely. They tell of a cross-fox cape she once bought for $500. It was the only one in town. R-K-O heard about it and rented it for Katharine Hepburn to wear in a picture. Lombard collected $250 in rentals. Paramount rented it for $70. The thing finally cost her only $180.

She probably does more for young actors than anybody in Hollywood. When she saw Margaret Tallichet among the stenographers at Paramount, she annoyed everybody on the lot till she got the girl a screen test. Cheryl Walker was picked up by a screen company after being queen of the Pasadena Rose Festival but it was Lombard who saved her life. She insisted in taking the screen test with Cheryl and always managed to blow up in her lines just before Cheryl blew up in hers. By dint of this maneuvering, she got Cheryl through safely with a good test.

Her home is infested with pets. Clark Gable gave her Smoke, a cocker spaniel,. She has two dachshunds. There is a rooster named Edmund and a couple of hens. When she moved in (this was the Bel-Air house), she found an alley cat crying in a barrel. This is Josephine. Also a Pekingese named Pushface.

If there is anything distinctively Hollywood about her, it is her love of gags. It’s something like a disease. She is always giving Gable a dead cat or he is giving her a stuffed nanny goat. After “Nothing Sacred,” she and Frederic March gave director Bill Wellman a strait jacket (very humorous). The Selznick wits gave her a burro named Scarlett O’Hara (awfully amusing). She gave Gable a ham with his picture on it, as indicative of his style of acting.

Shoot The Works!

Because she has a habit of falling over everything, he gave her a pair of old shoes as big as a motorman’s boots (how do they think of such things?). She once gave him an antediluvian auto tied up in ribbons for his birthday. Mr. Gable had the car fixed up with gadgets such as are seen only on the swankiest cars, aluminum and nickel all over the thing, and they still drive it whenever whimsey casts its spell. Also there was a little business about a bear, a gift from Carole to Bill Howard, the director. It had some marvelously comic meaning, now forgotten. Howard sent the bear to a zoo and the zoo sent Lombard a bill for keep, all very hilarious.

The Gable-Lombard romance is said to have started when Carole arrived at a “white party” (everybody to be dressed in white) in a white ambulance, with nurses and internes in white and Lombard herself being carried in on a stretcher, looking as delicate and pathetic as a lily. Before that she had divorced Bill Powell, had run around for a time with Robert Riskin, the writer.

Lombard’s tastes are simple, she is the best woman tennis player in Hollywood, her manner is frank, and she will undoubtedly end up in Madame Tussaud’s wax works posing for a study of Tactlessness.

She has stood up to anything the movies could do to her and seems no worse for the experience. Her new ambition is to get some sense into the profession by making it a sporting proposition. If they think $150,000 is too much for her services, she’ll gamble with them on percentage, either cashing in big or standing part of the losses.

She insists on passing on her scripts but admits that her judgment isn’t infallible. She once kept Paramount upset for months over a picture on spiritualism. She refused to act in it, was threatened with guillotining if she didn’t, started in it, said the director should be running a delicatessen, and was only held to her post by thugs standing around with clubs.

“It only made a million and a half,” she comments sourly.

The domestic stuff is certainly not a gag and it is also not an end in itself. The skeet gag is also a bit on the corny side, everybody knowing that a skeet is a clay pigeon, which loves being shot. Carole concedes she could just as easily get along with something else as a target.

“Producers,” she suggests. “They’d be just as good.”
___________________

As stated earlier, a pretty good interview, although there are a few noticeable errors or omissions, among them:

* Crichton appears to have bought into the belief that Lombard was born in 1909, not 1908.

* The James Cagney film Carole wouldn't be loaned out for was "Taxi!", not "Bad Boy" (did Cagney ever make a film of that name?).

* Lombard resided on Hollywood Boulevard, not Sunset.

* She was sidelined due to the accident, not over a salary dispute with Fox.

* At the time this came out, "Vigil In The Night" was in some theaters, although it still hadn't reached full national exhibition (unlike today's movies, which are sent to thousands of theaters simultaneously). However, Crichton doesn't mention it, and in fact, states that "In Name Only" was the only film she had made since marrying Gable. This leads one to believe the article had been held for some time. Why? See below.

As I said, a pretty illuminating interview. But according to Swindell, it could have been even more so. Crichton later called the Lombard interview the best one anyone ever gave him, but said some editors eliminated much of the piece.

What was cut out?

* She said she went braless and rarely wore panties.

* She said she rejected the sexual double standard, adding strayings by partners should be forgiven accordingly.

* She called sex both pleasurable and therapeutic, saying most unmarried girls she knew were too obsessed with either keeping their chastity or trying to get rid of it.

* She discussed a few of her past affairs, including one with John Barrymore. She said she got him through "Twentieth Century" by promising him sex only if he kept working on the film...and once it was finished, she then delivered. He indeed was a "great lover," she said.

Of course, Lombard knew the standards of journalism at the time, realizing what she said would never see print. (One can imagine the public reaction in 1940 had much of this seen the light of day, and perhaps Carole would have become more tight-lipped to the press.) Still, it would be fascinating to somewhere find a completely unexpurgated version of this interview.

Comments:


themurcurytree at 2008-03-11 07:59 (UTC) (Link)
where on Hollywood Blvd did Carole live, do you know?
vp19
vp19 at 2008-03-11 13:15 (UTC) (Link)
It was on the far western end of Hollywood Boulevard, west of Fairfax. (And while rent may indeed have played a part in Lombard's decision to move, another, more likely reason was that the house's location was too public for her to invite Clark Gable there once their romance began.)
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