Throughout her dozen or so years of stardom, Carole Lombard had an uncanny gift for getting good press. Part of it was due to her larger-than-life personality, iconoclastic nature and good deeds, to be sure, but Lombard also had a genuine intelligence regarding how -- and how not -- to cultivate publicity.
This became evident in 1938, when Carole, apparently on her own volition, spent a week in the publicity department at Selznick International Pictures. To her mind, it was helpful to see how the "other half" lived, but it also helped further hone her sense of the process.
After her stint, she wrote a column about her experiences in the Hollywood Reporter, a leading industry trade paper. While publicity these days is a far cry from the filmdom of 1938 -- there was no TMZ.com back then, no YouTube or "Entertainment Tonight" -- much of what Lombard has to say about the process still applies today. Here's the piece:
Carole Lombard: “Every actor should take at least one week’s whirl at publicity”
Hollywood Reporter, Oct. 24, 1938
Publicity is one of the most important – if not the most important topic – under discussion in Hollywood today. The motion picture capital has come to a long overdue realization that its publicity, foremost among its contacts with the rest of the world, has the power to make Hollywood the most beloved place on earth or the most hated. That, of course, goes for all the personalities in Hollywood.
A lot of us have wondered what makes a publicity office tick and what goes on behind the scenes where the big sales ideas are born and developed. I’ve had many contacts with film press agents while working in pictures but only when I spent a week as a working publicist at Selznick-International was I able to see the wheels go ’round.
It was a six-day, full-time job. I worked every minute of it. Fun? Never had a better time in my life. There’s more romance in the everyday work of a publicity office than in the work of any other single department on a movie lot. And you can take that straight – without a chaser.
The fun, of course, is merely incidental. Any star knows, or should know, the importance of publicity. This is not exactly a recital of what I learned in a week at Selznick-International’s praisery, for you cannot learn much about publicity in that time. It has always been a prideful point with me that I have taken a personal and necessary interest in publicity, and believe I have come to know as much about it as any other person who has not made that branch of journalism a life career.
It is in the publicity offices of Hollywood’s motion picture studios that careers have been made – and cracked. Here, every day in the week, are men and women who have in their hands millions of dollars’ worth of careers. Theirs is the work of creating interest in players and pictures, jumping the value of an actor with every well-timed line of news or chatter. And in the same moment theirs is the power to blot a career with an ill-chosen idea that can ruin years of effort. Is it any wonder that stars must make it their business to know publicity from the ground up?
The business of putting all other interests aside for a week and doing publicity work myself, with my own hands, so to speak, was a new experience for me. Now that it’s over, I can say with complete conviction that all film players should try it. The idea that publicity consists simply of writing pieces for the papers has gone to the same limbo where silent pictures now roost.
In the first place, publicity is not a pursuit dedicated to the grabbing of all the free space the traffic will bear. Publicity, I learned, is journalism, plus salesmanship, plus diplomacy, plus showmanship. In the second place, the space itself does not mean a thing. In the third place, it is far better to never get one’s name in the paper than to have whole columns which say the wrong thing.
The entire workings at a well-ordered publicity department will teach one that every effort, even down to the smallest, is or should be directed along pre-conceived lines, with all of these dove-tailing into a definite sales campaign.
What features of a picture are to be sold heaviest? What angle will best convince the public the picture must be seen? How are the personalities in the cast to be handled? What is the best way to present them to the public, considering the type of roles they are playing? These are but a few of the basic questions you will hear around the office...
A common charge leveled against press agentry in general is that it lives on a diet of hokum. That may be true in too many quarters today, but it doesn’t hold among those who have kept pace with the technical improvements in other branches of the film industry. Hokum, one may learn in a publicity office, is as outmoded as the spinning wheel. Not only outmoded, but also outworn, ineffective and downright dangerous.
Your modern press agent believes that hokum is the resort of publicity men too lazy to dig for something truthful, which nine times out of ten makes a better story anyway. Remember, too, that the unseen welcome mat before the editor’s door is not nailed down, and may be hauled in on short notice. There’s a string attached to it for the man that tries to “put one across” the second time.
That leads us to another subject, which can be called...“the developing of news.” One of the quickest-learned (and most deflating) truths around the publicity office is that city editors do not swoon at the sound of the names that glitter in lights. Names that come popping at city editors every week cease to be news in themselves, unless there is news attached to them. That is why “developing of news” is important.
In using this procedure, your publicist goes out and makes news happen. He gets his idea first, then executes it. When completed, the idea makes a story. It’s all true enough, in the final analysis, because it did happen...and it has to possess the kind of newsworthy merit that practically cries out for printing.
We hatched a couple of such ideas...during my hectic week. One was for a round-the-world telephone poll of notables, getting their views on who should play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. The Duke of Windsor and George Bernard Shaw were a couple of the names on our list. Another was in connection with Titanic,* and included the dropping of a wreath by the first Pan-American Clipper plane over the spot where the Titanic sank, the flowers bearing the legend “To those who showed the way to safety on the high seas.”
The true test of publicity is not how much is said, but what is said, whether in a newspaper, a magazine, over the air or by word of mouth. President Roosevelt performed one of the best press agent services in months when, during the Birthday Ball in Washington, he called Janet Gaynor “cute as a button.” Just four words there, but how well he described our good friend, and how the newspapers and magazines snapped it up.
In my opinion, the time is coming when the field of publicity will have reached such heights that it well may be the toughest branch in the business to break into. I wonder how many people in Hollywood realize there are more than 400 correspondents of one kind or another in town, every one feeding the world Hollywood news. Each individual style, a special preference in news, a different audience for his material. A press agent has to satisfy these markets and write for them.
Every star in Hollywood ought to take the time to work a week in a publicity department. They would find six full days of surprises and, I might mention, hard work.
Besides, they would hear from the press itself what it wants and why, without any triple-play replays in between.
Try it yourself some time.
* No, Carole was not forseeing the Leonardo DiCaprio blockbuster of 1997 (or the Barbara Stanwyck film of 1953). In 1938, David O. Selznick was intent on making a film about the sinking of the fabled oceanliner. According to the Titanic Heritage Trust, here's what happened to that project:
"January saw the first sign of a Titanic project emerging from Culver City Studios. American producer David O. Selznick with an eye for profit, was drawn to the Titanic story as a subject for his latest film. He could see the potential of American audiences at the box office and the British and European markets too.
"In March with plans in the advanced stage, meetings were held with producers and directors, and early pre-production was progressing at Selznick International Pictures.
"But there was a serious problem, early in pre-production, Selznick had had the idea to acquire the S.S. Leviathan, as a giant film set, it had been laid up at Hoboken since 1934.
"His plan after purchasing the ship was to have it towed to California and then have it revamped to resemble the Titanic, film most of the scenes on board and then sink the ship for the final sequence, making it the most realistic sinking scenes ever put on film.
"Unfortunately that was not to be, Kay Brown his New York representative was instructed to contact the owners, the United States Line with an offer to purchase.
"She was told by a marine insurer that the Leviathan had been sold recently for $2,000,000. When she tried to explain the reasons for needing the ship, a rather skeptical voice on the other end of the phone replied: 'Miss Brown, it would cost two million to tow it to California so I suggest you tell your Mr Selznick to forget about it.'
"Needless to say without a cast, screenplay, director and now a ship the project was shelved."
Less than 3 1/2 years after Lombard's piece appeared, the Hollywood Reporter published on Monday, Jan. 19, 1942, paid tribute to Lombard after her death in a plane crash the previous Friday night. Also on the cover was MGM publicist Otto Winkler, a crash victim who had accompanied Lombard on the war bond rally trip, reportedly at Clark Gable's request (Lombard was not under contract to MGM).