July 15th, 2007

carole lombard 03
  • vp19

When Carole couldn't handle "Dynamite," and a surprising first affair

Had things turned out a bit differently in 1929, Carole Lombard's professional -- and personal -- life might have changed considerably. The characters in this tale include one of filmdom's most renowned directors and one of Hollywood's famed eccentrics...a name you rarely associate with Lombard.

Early in 1929, one Cecil B. De Mille was interested in having Carol (then without the "e"; that would come a year later) be the lead in his first sound picture. The famed director of epics, now with a three-film deal at MGM after leaving Paramount, was making the transition to talkies with an adventure extravaganza called “Dynamite.” Pathe head Joseph P. Kennedy subcontracted Lombard to De Mille, a move that promised to deliver big things for Carol.

Unfortunately, Carol didn’t deliver.

Unable to remember her lines, Lombard was fired after a few days’ shooting, with assistant director Mitchell Leisen, who’d later direct a few of her star vehicles, giving her the bad news, "much to my disappointment, since Carole and I were already close friends and this was her big chance," Leisen said many years later. Lombard's role was recast and she received no billing, although she can be seen in a shot or two.

If Lombard ever held a grudge against De Mille, it evaporated, because she later made several appearances on the “Lux Radio Theater” program he hosted. In fact, De Mille noted their earlier encounter when introducing Carole on her first "Lux" appearance, "My Man Godfrey" in May 1938.

Who took Lombard's place? A Broadway actress named Kay Johnson, who would also star in De Mille's next film, the bizarre "Madam Satan," before her movie career began to fizzle out. She's now probably best known as the mother of actor James Cromwell.

Carol's not the only person of note who is unbilled in "Dynamite." Randolph Scott can be spotted in a scene, and a guitar-playing Mexican prisoner is played by none other than...Russ Columbo. (His ill-fated romance with Lombard wouldn't begin until 1933.)

Why did Carol mess up this big chance? Well, she was only 20 at the time and possibly overwhelmed at the opportunity of starring in a De Mille movie. But there may have been another reason. At about this time, Carol was reportedly in her first serious affair, according to one of her biographers.

At the time Larry Swindell wrote “Screwball” in 1975, legal reasons prevented him from writing the man’s name because he was still alive, so Swindell danced around it: “When he entered into his brief liaison with Carol Lombard, he was still linked romantically (for the popular consumption) with a reigning beauty of the late silent period named Billie Dove.”

Anyone with a good sense of motion picture history would know that Swindell was referring to legendary millionaire, inventor and aviator Howard Hughes, who by 1975 was an eccentric recluse and would die the following April. (Remember that several years before “Screwball” was written, there was an infamous hoax perpetrated by Clifford Irving over a purported Hughes autobiography. It’s no wonder Swindell’s publisher, William Morrow & Co., didn’t want to take any chances.) Here's what Hughes looked like in the late 1920s, a bit different from the Hughes with a mustache we know from the 1940s:

Infatuated with the film industry, Hughes, less than three years older than Carol, moved to Los Angeles from his native Houston in the fall of 1925, moving into the Ambassador Hotel; perhaps he first met her there at one of the Cocoanut Grove’s dance contests. (Swindell, however, claims Hughes first became aware of Lombard through a photograph.)

Hughes has been associated with many legendary actresses over the years, so why is his relationship with Lombard so obscure? Perhaps because he wanted it that way. According to Swindell, they made certain they were never seen together; trysts were held at appointed times and places, and only the closest of either person’s friends were aware of some sort of relationship.

At the time of their affair, Hughes had completed work on an aviation film called “Hell’s Angels” which threatened to be wiped out by the transition to sound. The movie itself had a victim, as Swedish actress Greta Nissen, who played the love interest to give the production some sex appeal, was deemed unworthy for the talking version due to her accent. Was Lombard considered for the reshoots? That’s lost to history. What we do know is that Nissen’s replacement was also blonde, with a background not dissimilar to Carol’s; she had even done comic bits in silents, although her mentor was Hal Roach, not Mack Sennett. Her name? Jean Harlow, whose brief life would cross paths with Carol’s on more than a few occasions. Here's a still of Jean, in two-strip color, from "Hell's Angels":