If you're a science fiction fan, you probably recognize the picture above. It's from one of the best, and most thought-provoking, sci-fi films ever made, "The Incredible Shrinking Man" (1957). In the background is Grant Williams as Scott Carey, victim of a one-in-a-million chemical interaction that has caused him to slowly diminish a bit every day. Now he's barely three feet tall, slightly more than half the size of his wife, Louise (Randy Stuart, foreground), and trying to cope with a malady that's turned him into a self-loathing freak and for which doctors can't find a cure. The film was directed by Jack Arnold, who invariably brought some maturity to his sci-fi entries, and the script was written by the great Richard Matheson, who adapted it from his novel. (The book is slightly different from the film, with a few different characters and some situations -- notably Scott's sexual frustration as he dwindles -- that were perceived as too adult in tone for much of the sci-fi audience of the time.)
What's this have to do with Carole Lombard, you say? Well, watching some of her early '30s films recently, one notes that in this stretch of her career, Lombard had the power to cut any leading man down to size, to the point that he figuratively felt waist-high to her. And she frequently used that power to humble men when they got a bit too big for their britches.
One saw that Monday night when Turner Classic Movies presented "Brief Moment" (1933), with Gene Raymond as a playboy the Lombard character marries. He continues to lead a dissolute life, wasting away his family's fortune, going to the track when he's ostensibly at work. When she finds out he's not really earning a living, she's livid, telling him how little she thinks of him.
James Harvey, in his splendid book "Romantic Comedy In Hollywood: From Lubitsch To Sturges," perceptively noted this when summarizing the pre-screwball Lombard:
"...it seems appropriate that she should end up berating her leading men, as she does in scene after scene and movie after movie -- making dumb, empty dazzlers like George Raft and Gary Cooper and Gene Raymond feel foolish and ashamed. If there is a single kind of big moment that characterizes the early (and even sometimes later) Lombard film, it's that time when she rains on the hero's parade -- when he learns to see himself as she sees him."
Harvey adds, "She makes (Clark) Gable get an honest job in 'No Man Of Her Own' -- then does the same for Gene Raymond in 'Brief Moment.' She also has to deal with the latter's drinking, just as she must rebuke Gable for being nothing but a crook -- and Gary Cooper, too, in 'Now And Forever.' "
According to Harvey, Raft's moment of shame comes in "Bolero," when he tells Lombard that he didn't know he was a sharpie. Carole replies, of course that was true -- "How would you know anything but yourself?" She tells Gable's character that "my finding out you're a cheat" had to happen sooner or later.
And Cooper? In "Now And Forever," she already realizes he's a cheat, and since she's a little shady herself, she can live with that. But Cooper goes over the line when Carole discovers he's a liar as well, telling him, "You've lost your size...and I could never chase trains with a little man."
Why did this "censurious mode," as Harvey describes it, become such an integral part of the Lombard screen personality of the early '30s? I'm really not sure. One theory is that Carole's on-set style -- where she'd stand toe-to-toe with the male cast and crew in using blue language and good-natured insults -- sort of led screenwriters to design roles for her that had a modified, dramatic version of such putdowns. And yet, even though audiences liked Lombard and her characters, such actions didn't translate well to the screen and many never quite warmed to her.
Fortunately, "Twentieth Century" channeled Carole's popular on-set persona in a positive direction, although Paramount didn't instantly get it; "Now And Forever" was released some 3 1/2 months after "Twentieth Century." Eventually, her leading men could generally be assured they'd continue to stand tall.