July 11th, 2007

carole lombard 05
  • vp19

Hail Carole, hail Columbia!

If you had somehow been able to place a tracking device on Carole Lombard during her career as an actress, chances are you would have frequently found her on North Gower Street in Hollywood. Not only was the street the western boundary for Paramount Pictures (whose actual address is 5555 Melrose Avenue around the corner), with RKO Pictures next door, but North Gower, specifically 1438, about 12 blocks north of Paramount, was home of Columbia Pictures -- a studio where Carole was never under contract, but which nonetheless played a key role in her development. The place has been in the news recently, but more on that later.

Lombard made five feature films at the Columbia lot, four for the company and one released under its auspices. Only at Paramount did she make more talking pictures (she acted in six each for Fox and Pathe, but those included silents).

Some background on the origins of the studio: Brothers Harry and Jack Cohn, along with Universal studio manager Joe Brandt, bought and built the lot and founded the company in 1920; the firm was first known as CBC Film Sales for their three last names, but some in the industry disparingly referred to the outfit as "Corned Beef and Cabbage." That understandably didn't sit well with Harry Cohn (below), the creative man of the outfit, so in January 1924 it was renamed Columbia Pictures Corporation.

Columbia, deemed a "poverty row" studio, was still struggling throughout much of the 1920s -- unlike larger rivals such as Paramount, Fox, Warners and MGM, it didn't own theaters, putting it at a frequent disadvantage for bookings -- but Cohn, a tough mogul who won few friends in the industry, persevered. His hiring of Frank Capra, a creative and innovative director, put Columbia on the map, first with effects-driven adventures such as "Submarine" (1928), then with perceptive dramas such as "The Miracle Woman" (1931). Columbia also struck gold with a successful short subjects department whose most famous performers would be the Three Stooges (though they didn't arrive at "Gower Gulch" until 1934). However, Columbia itself possessed little feature starpower, and those it had under contract, such as Barbara Stanwyck in her early years, tended to move on to studios that could offer higher pay once their time under Cohn was up. So Columbia specialized in acquiring lead players on loan who were either in between assignments or in hot water with their home studios. Below are two pictures of Columbia in the 1930s, the motor entrance on Beachwood Drive and the lot:

Carole's first feature at Columbia was in the 1932 film "Virtue," discussed in an earlier entry on Robert Riskin. That worked out so well that Cohn again borrowed Lombard from Paramount -- but this time he put her name above the title, an honor her home studio had yet to give her. Cohn suggested it be titled "Roses For Annie," and Carole -- who had been billed as "the orchid lady" at Paramount, to middling reaction -- reportedly replied, "Call it any flower except orchids -- I'm ready for some other angle. No more orchids for me." And so the film was titled "No More Orchids," sort of a backhanded slap at Paramount.

One of Carole’s more obscure post-1930 films, the rarely revived “No More Orchids” stars her as Anne Holt, a young woman from a wealthy family who wants to marry a penniless bachelor (Lyle Talbot). Her banker father has no objections, but her uncle is insistent she marry a foreign prince – and when the bank Anne’s father runs falls into financial hardship, it appears the uncle holds all the cards, and Anne reluctantly agrees to marry the prince. However, her father – aware his life insurance policy will provide funds for the bank and keep it solvent – flies off by himself and purposely crashes his plane, leaving his daughter free to marry the man she really loves.

Such a plot description makes “Orchids” seem rather turgid, but two people who would later play key roles in Lombard’s career help make it slightly more than that. Director Walter Lang drew out some of Carole’s comedic skills, thus lightening the tone of the production without subverting it. Lang became a friend of Lombard’s, eventually marrying her old Sennett buddy and castmate Madalynne Fields, and would direct Carole again in the 1936 comedy “Love Before Breakfast.” Lombard’s father was portrayed by Walter Connolly, a noted stage actor before heading west to appear in talking pictures in 1930 (he had acted in two silents in the mid-teens). One of the great character actors of his era, Connolly would make three more films with Lombard – “Twentieth Century,” “Lady By Choice” (both 1934) and “Nothing Sacred” (1937). He died in 1940.

Carole returned to Columbia in mid-1933, wiggling her way out of Paramount’s “Girl Without A Room,” an assignment she had no love for. Cohn, who appreciated Lombard’s frankness and willingness to go toe-to-toe with him (he initially wanted to buy her contract from Paramount, but her salary there was out of his league), gave her a project he had initially intended for Gertrude Lawrence – the film version of the Broadway play “Brief Moment.”

Lombard portrays nightclub singer Abby Fane, who falls in love with and marries playboy Rodney Deane (Gene Raymond). He won’t earn a living, much to his new wife’s dismay, so she has his father cut off his income. He takes a job with his father’s firm, but Abby learns he’s gambling his money away and leaves him. Eventually there’s a happy ending, of course. Below is a still from the film; note the fake issue of the newspaper near Carole was one that actually existed in 1933, the New York World-Telegram.

The film was released in September 1933 and garnered respectable reviews for both Lombard and Raymond; one reviewer said the pair treat the story “as though it were entirely new.” Something that was new about “Brief Moment” was the photography of Ted Tetzlaff, who would become Lombard’s favorite cinematographer and would work on nine more of her films.

Carole’s fourth movie at Columbia, released in May 1934, would be the one that transformed her entire career, drawing excellent reviews – although at the time it was considered a bit of a commercial disappointment. We’re referring to “Twentieth Century,” of course, the Broadway play adapted for film by its creators, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and directed by Howard Hawks. Most Lombard fans are aware of the story – Carole portrays Broadway star Lily Garland, formerly lingerie saleswoman Mildred Plotka, who dumps her Svengali, Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore), for a Hollywood career. It just so happens that Lily is aboard the Twentieth Century train from Chicago to New York, and Oscar pulls out all the stops to woo her back.

Lombard was already a beloved personality in the film industry, but much of the time those qualities hadn’t emerged on screen. Barrymore and Hawks helped coax Carole into acting better by “acting” less. One reviewer wrote, “When you see her, you’ll forget the rather restrained and somewhat stilted Lombard of old. You’ll see a star blaze out of this scene and that scene, high spots Carole never dreamed of hitting.”

However, for all the acclaim Carole won from critics, “Twentieth Century” wasn’t that big a hit. It was nowhere as popular as another Columbia comedy from earlier in the year, the sleeper “It Happened One Night.” Perhaps the backstage angle simply didn’t register well with moviegoers, particularly in smaller markets. It nevertheless cast Lombard in a completely different light...although it wasn’t for another year and a half before her home studio, Paramount, took full advantage.

Carole would make one more film on the Columbia lot, although it wasn’t a full-fledged Columbia picture. “Lady By Choice,” released in October 1934, was a “Robert North Production” released through Columbia (sort of along the lines of William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Production issued by MGM).

Despite its title, “Lady By Choice” isn’t a sequel to Capra's earlier hit “Lady For A Day,” although it does feature one of its stars, May Robson. She plays Patsy, an alcoholic who “adopts” fan dancer Alabam’ Lee (Lombard) on the advice of her press agent. Patsy attempts to improve Alabam’, and encourages her to start a romance with a wealthy son of an old boyfriend – who will be disinherited if he marries her.

The movie did okay business and isn’t that well remembered today, although Lombard drew respectable reviews. (Earlier in the year at Paramount, she worked alongside an actual fan dancer, Sally Rand, in “Bolero.”)

Lombard would make no more films at Columbia, but the studio continued to grow in stature. It struck gold in the 1940s with one of the decade’s biggest stars, Rita Hayworth, and had its first colossal hit in 1946, “The Jolson Story.” Harry Cohn remained loathed by many, but Columbia continued to be profitable – and it was one of the first Hollywood studios to aggressively pursue television production through its Screen Gems subsidiary.

Cohn died in early 1958, and while the company thrived for a while thanks to TV series, it gradually lost influence as a film studio. By 1972, Columbia had abandoned Gower Street to join forces with Warner Brothers in Burbank. (One wonders how Harry Cohn would have reacted to sharing a facility with Jack Warner – and vice versa.) After an eighties buyout, Columbia eventually evolved into Sony and moved to Culver City, assuming the old MGM lot. (Harry would definitely have appreciated his once-humble studio taking over Louis B. Mayer's old turf!)

As for the Gower Street lot, it evolved into a rental facility for film, television and music. Stages 12 and 14, where Cohn’s memorial service had been held, briefly became indoor tennis courts. Still a rental facility, a six-story post-production building for Technicolor is being built on the lot.

We bring this all up because earlier this month, Sunset Gower Studios was sold to a venture capital group for some $200 million. Some city officials are worried about much of the 16-acre site’s future, opposing residential development and instead calling for “intensified studio use” or more commercial development. However, one Los Angeles real estate expert says “land values eclipse sound stage income,” noting that old-line studio sites grew up in what were then considered “suburban” locations.

It remains to be seen what will ultimately happen to a lot where Carole spent a significant part of her career. Stay tuned.