Carole Lombard went "collegiate" in a number of Mack Sennett two-reelers, such as in "Run, Girl, Run," a frame of which is shown above...but in real life, her formal learning stopped in high school. Her grades were adequate, and few doubted her innate intelligence. However, she was getting all the "education" she wanted from life on movie studio lots.
It might surprise her -- indeed delight her -- to learn that she has become an object of study at many colleges. Of course, Lombard's most notable genre, the screwball comedy, and the period she worked in, the classical Hollywood era of the 1930s, have become notable areas of film instruction, as moviemakers and budding actors try to learn from her films and her work. To many, she's still the standard by whom comic actresses are measured.
And at least one college professor is going beyond those parameters, examining Carole Lombard as a person, someone whose actions and comments embraced feminism perhaps more than any actress of her time. It's a thought-provoking perspective, and in some ways not a surprising one to many of us who cherish Lombard's timelessness.
The professor, Christina Lane, teaches at the University of Miami. She's writing a book about star couples in classic Hollywood...and as you might guess, one of her examples is that of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Here's an excerpt from her chapter on them, which she has graciously given us permission to reprint. I think you'll be as enthralled reading it as I was:
The Outspoken Politics of Carole Lombard
Christina Lane, Ph.D.
She has been remembered for her sharp wit and general outrageousness (most notably her skill her physical comedy and use of profane, “unladylike” language). But because of her premature death, and the way that it abruptly ended her idealized marriage to Clark Gable, the iconic imagery of Lombard was immediately romanticized in the early forties. Only a decade earlier, in 1933, she had been a vocal and political star -— an actress seen as “anti-romantic” at a time when many female stars were professing their faith in marriage and motherhood in the public space where they most often had a voice off-screen, which was on the pages of Hollywood fan magazines.
Lombard’s major opportunity for discussing the politics of love and marriage came when she announced her divorce to the dapper (and relatively older) William Powell. From 1933 to 1935, which were crucial years in her own rise to fame, she spoke to countless fan magazine reporters about her views on “modern womanhood.” It is important to remember that feminism (often linked to suffrage at that time) was not in vogue, but rather seen as outmoded, dating to the mother’s generation of most Hollywood fans. Yet Lombard invoked more radical feminist discourses of the 1910s constantly, returning them to 1930s popular culture for contemporary consideration. In a 1935 article in Motion Picture magazine, she declared that the “modern, wage-earning woman” was at a “moral and emotional crossroads.” She went on to say, “For today, every woman must grow to keep alive ... Women leave behind a series of selves which are very much like cocoons from which butterflies emerge.” Lombard often invited her female fans -— through her interviews -- to reflect upon their own moral and political positions, regarding work and marriage.
In a Movie Mirror magazine article published at the same time, the actress proclaimed: “Look about you and you will see for the first time since the ancient rule of the Amazons, a colony of economically independent women. Here they are rulers of a fantastic kingdom where the wealth is a product of the women. Contrast such a state with other times. Women in kitchens, subservient, mental and physical slaves…with all that went with the so-called double standard contrived by the lordly male. Well, Hollywood with women emancipated from masculine domination is changing all that.” She called for a new moral code, but then paused, deciding that it was necessary to go even further. The solution, she said, was “a different social order brought about by women’s economic independence.” At the end of the interview, she concluded, “We must make marriage serve us. We cannot be enslaved by it.” Lombard was different than many Hollywood actresses of her day because of the kind of political language she tended to use, such as her references to female economic slavery and the ancient rule of Amazonian women. While Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and even Katharine Hepburn provided distinct models of feminist independence in the 1930s -— even by today’s Hollywood standards -— the kinds of words and images that Lombard used, simply speaking, set her apart from other stars.
Lombard’s political identity was not merely defined through her feminism. She was heavily identified with the New Deal economic policies promoted by President Franklin Roosevelt. She was an ardent supporter of the President, as were many Hollywood stars, but she went further than most. Audiences who wanted to know how she spent her time at home were told that she enjoyed “discussing current events -— war, [Roosevelt’s] third term, and the price of potatoes.” She was the first Hollywood star to take a stand (for publicity, yes, but that was the point) and pay 80% of her annual income to the government. When Lombard married Gable in 1939, she voiced less and less concern about the politics of marriage —- and slowed down her talk about women’s issues. But she increased her focus on economic disparity as well as international human rights issues, especially labor concerns and fascism. She had, in fact, been one of the very first actors in Hollywood to get involved in the war effort after Pearl Harbor, which is what spurred her involvement with that bond campaign of 1942.
Perhaps it was the fact that she jumped into the cause with such determination and spirit that resulted in the Hollywood community’s response -— the tendency of studios, trade press, and individuals to immediately mythologize her upon her death. In the mystification process, some of Lombard’s hard edges were lost—a little bit of who she was, historically and politically, was written out of her official biography. But there are places in Hollywood history where the star’s voice still speaks loud and clear, as an advocate for social change, and as someone who apparently liked to imagine new worlds for women ... whether as butterflies, or Amazons, or rulers of fantastic kingdoms, or as the ordinary women to whom she spoke everyday in the pages of fan magazines.
© Christina Lane, Reprinted from "Faculty Quarters," Bill Cosford Cinema Newsletter, Premier Edition
Dr. Christina Lane is Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of Miami. She is writing a book entitled THE STATE OF THE UNION: MARRIAGE, POLITICS, AND THE STAR COUPLE IN CLASSICAL-ERA HOLLYWOOD. This is an excerpt from her chapter on Carole Lombard and Clark Gable.
Anyone familiar with Carole Lombard's life is aware of her feminism, which she likely inherited from her mother. She talked about living by a man's code in an illuminating 1937 Photoplay article (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/111181.html), the opening page of which is shown above. Had Lombard lived longer, she would have been celebrated more for these traits, just as Katharine Hepburn was (although Lombard's approach to life was far less patrician).
It's intriguing that while many feminists of the past few decades, such as Gloria Steinem, have looked to learn from the life of Marilyn Monroe, they have more or less overlooked Carole Lombard as an example; she was as much a victor as Monroe was a victim (although, to be fair, actresses exerted far more influence in the Hollywood of the 1930s than they did in the 1950s). Of course, time also made Monroe a more accessible subject than Lombard for feminists of the '60s and '70s.
We thank Dr. Lane for granting us permission to run this excerpt. The concept for her book sounds fascinating, certainly worth exploring upon its release.