Capitol Records initially made one of the biggest blunders in pop music history -- because in 1963, it turned down the Beatles.
The Liverpool foursome had been signed in 1962 by Parlophone, a label owned by British music conglomerate EMI, which not long before had purchased Capitol (a label co-founded by the great composer Johnny Mercer). Capitol executives were more comfortable with pop and jazz, and had begun making inroads into the Nashville country market; rock wasn't a high priority at the label, and British acts such as Cliff Richard or Marty Wilde traditionally had a poor track record in the States.
So with Capitol's disinterest, Parlophone let other U.S. labels acquire the rights to the Beatles' first recordings. The Chicago R&B label Vee Jay, which had just hit it big with the white pop group the Four Seasons, took a chance on the Beatles, issuing a 12-track version of their first British album, "Please Please Me." The song charted in a few isolated American markets during the spring of '63, but it wasn't until 1964 that the Beatles -- by now massive hitmakers in Britain -- achieved similar success across the pond. Vee Jay and a few other labels that had acquired rights to isolated singles made a lot of money, and while Capitol was doing well with the latest Beatles releases, the initial stuff was temporarily out of their control.
By the end of '64, Capitol reasserted their legal rights to all Parlophone Beatles product, and in March of '65 issued the album above -- essentially identical to the Vee Jay "Introducing The Beatles" -- calling it "The Early Beatles." Even though it contained no new material, it reached the top 50 on the U.S. album charts.
What's this have to do with Carole Lombard? Sort of an analogy. On Monday night, Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. is continuing to have Carole as its "Star Of The Month" -- and for many of her fans, this night is the highlight of the schedule. Because the focus is on the early Lombard; of these five films, the latest is from 1933, before "Twentieth Century" elevated Carole to a higher tier of stardom. A few of these movies have never been shown on TCM before, and have rarely been seen at all in recent years outside of repertory houses.
So this five-course dinner is going to be a treat for many of us. Here's what's on the menu (all times Eastern):
* 8 p.m. -- "The Eagle And The Hawk" (1933). It's rather curious that TCM kicks off a night dedicated to Lombard with a film in which she plays a rather minimal, but pivotal, role. (How small is the part? In the cast, Carole is labeled "The Beautiful Lady"; we never do learn her name.) In this tale of World War I, Lombard's character spends the night with an airman on leave, portrayed by Fredric March (four years before they teamed up for the comedy "Nothing Sacred"). That's about the extent of her contribution, but it's a good film nonetheless, adapted from a story by noted aviator John Monk Saunders, who was married to Fay Wray at the time. Cary Grant, Jack Oakie and Sir Guy Standing are also in the cast.
* 9:15 p.m. -- "Brief Moment" (1933). Based on a popular play of the time, this was made at Columbia, a place Lombard felt comfortable being loaned out to. She portrays a nightclub performer who falls in love and marries an irresponsible playboy (Gene Raymond), who won't earn a living despite her pleading. She persuades his wealthy father to cut off her husband's allowance. He takes a job in his father's firm, but does little there; frustrated, she leaves him and returns to her nightclub. Not a great film, but a very solid one, with a Lombard performance that generally drew approval from contemporary critics.
* 10:30 p.m. -- "Virtue" (1932). Many Lombard fans call this her best pre-Code effort, and it's certainly a contender. Carole plays Mae, a woman of the streets who is ordered to leave New York City. However, before she does she meets a taxi driver (Pat O'Brien, shown above); they fall in love and marry. Mae reforms, but he is initially unaware of her past. When he finds out, he soon believes she has returned to her streetwalking ways. This was Lombard's first loanout, and this was Columbia's attempt to do make a film in the tough, urban Warners style. It has the same sort of feel as the Warners film "Taxi!", issued earlier that year, a movie Lombard turned down -- when she perceived a loanout as a demotion of sorts by her home studio, Paramount -- and subsequently regretted (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/65901.html). "Virtue" also features Mayo Methot (then married to Humphrey Bogart) as a friend of Mae's.
* 11:45 p.m. -- "No More Orchids" (1932). The Columbia tripleheader ends with this relatively little-seen film. I saw it at a revival house some years ago, and thought it at the least a good programmer. Carole plays the daughter of a wealthy banker (Walter Connolly); she's in love with a struggling bachelor (Lyle Talbot, shown above). Her father has no objection, but her uncle (C. Aubrey Smith) is determined to have her marry a titled foreigner. When the father's bank fails, the uncle agrees to loan him funds -- if his niece will marry a prince she doesn't care for. It's soap opera, 1932 style, but Carole is fetching and Connolly is always worth watching. Directed by Walter Lang, who would soon marry Carole's friend Madalynne Fields. Oh, and the title is sort of an inside joke; for a brief time at Paramount, Lombard was billed as "The Orchid Lady," a moniker she was tiring of, and so this is a subtle dig at her home studio, courtesy of Harry Cohn.
* 1 a.m. -- "The Racketeer" (1929). The earliest of the Lombard films TCM is showing the month, and also among the most lackluster. This was the last film Lombard made at Pathe before it let her go, and what can you say about a movie in which the most interesting thing about Lombard is her character's name, Rhoda Philbrooke (which, along with Penelope Newbold of "No One Man," is probably the oddest name in the Carole character canon). The racketeer of the title is Robert Armstrong, who some years later would gain fame with "King Kong." Variety was right in calling this a "hackneyed, stereotyped production built around the activities and love affairs of a suave bootleg king who drills people for less than a drudge." TCM has shown "The Racketeer," which is in the public domain, a few times in recent years. One wishes it was showing another film from Pathe with Armstrong, the little-seen "Big News," directed by Gregory La Cava of later "My Man Godfrey" fame (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/72707.html). Must be a rights problem.
All in all, Monday night offers a chance to see Carole before she became a screwball queen. Don't make a blunder -- check it out.