First of all, a Lombard TV alert: Wednesday at 8:15 a.m. (ET), Turner Classic Movies is showing “Swing High, Swing Low,” a pretty good film from 1937. It’d be nice if it was a good print, but don't get your hopes up too high – the absence of a first-rate print may be the reason it wasn’t included in the “Carole Lombard Glamour Collection” issued last year (the only collaboration between Carole and Fred MacMurray that didn’t make the cut). Ironically, “Swing High” was Paramount’s biggest money-maker for the year, which makes it puzzling that a decent print isn’t around, even though the film lapsed into public domain. Some more on that later in this entry.
The upcoming appearance of “Swing High, Swing Low” is as good a spot as any to discuss a facet of Carole’s career that gets little attention: Lombard, seen on screen, singing -– something that happened a few times.
Keep in mind that unlike many of her contemporaries, Carole had virtually no stage experience, and thus no background at all in musicals. Given her family’s relative affluence, there’s a good chance a piano was part of the household –- as it was in so many throughout America in the early 20th century -- when Jane Alice Peters grew up, both in Fort Wayne and in California. But when Jane became Carol Lombard in the mid-1920s, the type of acting she dreamed about was in movies...and at that time, you didn’t have to talk, much less sing, to have a film career.
The first time Lombard appeared in a musical was in 1930, not long after she appeared in what would be her only western, “The Arizona Kid,” at Fox. She was being considered there for the lone female part in an adaptation of Jack London’s tale “The Sea Wolf.” However, production was delayed, and by casting time Carol was over at Paramount for another one-shot, a contemporary musical romance called “Safety In Numbers.”
Lombard was one of those “numbers,” among several girls involved with the star, Charles “Buddy” Rogers. Carol even vocalized with Rogers on one of the songs, “(Young Man) You Appeal To Me,” written by Richard Whiting (Margaret’s dad) and George Marion Jr. (Well, sort of; film historian Richard Barrios, in his fine book on early musicals, “A Song In The Dark,” has written that she “undertakes to get through a chorus...without actually singing one note.”)
Whiting and Marion wrote five songs for the film, the best-known of which is “My Future Just Passed,” recorded by Annette Hanshaw and, much later, Shirley Horn, among others, but the funniest title is “I’d Like To Be A Bee In Your Boudoir.”
Carol’s character, Pauline, ultimately didn’t win his affection –- that honor went to Josephine Dunn, the ostensible female lead –- but she did garner the audience’s support, and notice. The director, Victor Schertzinger, recommended that Paramount sign her to a long-term deal, and others at the studio concurred. Studio head B.P. Schulberg gave in, and in the spring of 1930 Lombard signed a contract with options potentially lasting seven years at $375 a week.
As it turned out, she did last seven years at Paramount, and the next time she was seen singing was at Columbia, in the 1933 film "Brief Moment," where she portrays a nightclub singer. Note the phrase “was seen singing”; we’ll explain that shortly.
Later that year at Paramount, Lombard made the Asian jungle melodrama “White Woman” opposite Charles Laughton (her co-star in "They Knew What They Wanted," made seven years later at RKO).
The film required her character, Judith Denning, to sing, so that might well have been on Lombard’s mind in September 1933 -– a month after her divorce from William Powell -- when Robert Riskin, still in her romantic graces, took her to a club that night. She went home infatuated with the feature attraction, the nationally-known crooner Russ Columbo, and the feeling was mutual; he sent a dozen roses to her new home on Rexford Drive in Beverly Hills ths following morning.
Lombard quickly arranged for Columbo to coach her to sing the two songs in “White Woman.” Perhaps it was too late to learn, because she was ultimately dubbed by a radio singer named Mona Lowe (Lombard apparently was also dubbed in "Brief Moment"). But Russ and Carole continued seeing each other even after production ended.
Many are unaware that Lombard was dubbed for in “White Woman”; it’s not mentioned in either Larry Swindell’s book “Screwball” or Frederick W. Ott’s “The Films Of Carole Lombard.” But there’s a site, “Movie Dubbers,” that compiles a list of dubbers (and dubbees) in films, http://www.barbaralea.com/Dubbers/dubberslist.html, and research shows that Lowe sang for Lombard in “White Woman.” (The practice began at the dawn of talkies; in fact, according to the list, Columbo dubbed three films in 1929 and 1930, two of them for Gary Cooper.)
But who was Mona Lowe? The Internet Movie Database has no listing for her, and the “Movie Dubbers” list has her working one other film, singing for Marjorie Rambeau in “Ready For Love,” made at Paramount in 1934.
If you listen to the voice singing the songs in “White Woman” (“Yes, My Dear” and “He’s A Cute Brute,” both written by Paramount in-house composers Harry Gordon and Mack Revel), it doesn’t match Lombard’s timber or vocal qualities. It’s safe to assume it isn’t her.
Carole's next brush with vocalizing came in November 1936, when “Swing High, Swing Low,” a musical remake of the late-1920s Broadway play “Burlesque,” began production. (There were rumors that RKO wanted Lombard, who was a somewhat experienced dancer, to appear opposite Fred Astaire in “A Damsel In Distress,” his first starring vehicle at the studio without Ginger Rogers; however, co-starring honors ultimately went to Joan Fontaine.)
In David Chierichetti’s thorough book “Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director,” Leisen tells him that he insisted Lombard do her own singing – but perhaps, recalling “White Woman,” she was a bit gun-shy about it. “She didn’t think she could do it and she begged me to have somebody dub her numbers, but I said nobody could have the same quality of voice and it would be unbelieveable. So she did it and it came out beautifully.”
The song most associated with Lombard in this film is “I Hear A Call To Arms,” which was written by Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin, as was her other song, “Then It Isn’t Love.” Carole sings neither song in its entirety, but does them in snippets, enough to convince the viewer that her character, Maggie King, is indeed a singer. In “Arms,” she is memorably seen singing with her head resting on MacMurray’s shoulder as his character, trumpeter Skid Johnson, plays. (Ironically, MacMurray was dubbed here; while he had a background as a professional musician, even singing on a handful of records, before turning to acting, his instrument had been the saxophone.)
Ultimately, Carole's most important singing would be her version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" that took place at the Indianapolis war bond rally on Jan. 15, 1942, the next-to-last day of her life.
Now more on the mysterious missing high-quality print of “Swing High, Swing Low”: According to Chierichetti, when Fox bought the rights to the play “Burlesque” in the 1940s in order to stage its own musical version (“When My Baby Smiles At Me,” 1948), it may have obtained the original 35mm camera negative of “Swing High, Swing Low” from Paramount (a common practice in the industry). In the 1980s, the American Film Institute asked both studios to search for the film, and the best that could be found was an incomplete nitrate release at Paramount. The missing three reels were found from Leisen’s own 16mm print, which was blown up to 35mm, thus the inconsistent quality. Several public domain video versions were issued in the 1980s, of which the Goodtimes Home Video version has a 95-minute print; most copies found on DVD are only about 81 minutes long.