“True Confession,” released in December 1937, marked the close of Carole Lombard’s seven-year contract at Paramount. As things turned out, it would also be her last film at the studio.
It also marked the end of an era for Lombard – her two-year or so run as a top-flight comedic actress. To be fair, “Confession” was sort of lost in the shuffle, as a more important film, “Nothing Sacred,” had been issued the month before by Selznick International; it had more ballyhoo, thanks to a bigger budget and its status as the first significant comedy issued in three-strip Technicolor.
At the time, Lombard was riding higher than she ever had before, and was the highest-paid actress in the industry. However, her momentum would be derailed in a few months by a misfire at Warners, “Fools For Scandal.” The next film she made after that, “Made For Each Other,” would show a different side of Carole.
In “True Confession,” directed by Wesley Ruggles, Lombard portrays Helen Bartlett, a woman with an overactive imagination who regularly stretches the truth; her husband Steve (Fred MacMurray, wearing a mustache atypical for him) is a struggling attorney. Helen takes a secretarial job with a man who is later found murdered. She didn’t do it, but no one believes her, including her husband, and she winds up in jail. There, she comes up with a scheme to aid her husband when he defends her in court – say she killed her boss to defend her honor. Trouble is, the couple then falls prey to a con man (John Barrymore).
Barrymore, whose career was on the skids only three years after playing opposite Lombard in her pivotal film, "Twentieth Century," was hired for a supporting role at Carole's insistence, and he's a delight as the mysterious man. Part of the film was shot at the southern California mountain resorts of Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake, enabling Carole to both show off her figure in a swimsuit and get wet in it.
“True Confession” inspires plenty of debate, both pro and con, among Lombard fans. Some consider it an overlooked gem; others, including Leonard Maltin (who generally admires Carole) deem it shrill and unenjoyable. No matter where one stands, the film was influential. Nine years after “True Confession,” Paramount remade it as a Betty Hutton vehicle, “Cross My Heart.” (For some reason, studios were into remaking ‘30s comedies in 1946 – over at MGM in Culver City, the ‘36 classic “Libeled Lady” was converted into a musical, “Easy To Wed.”) One of the stars of “Wed,” Lucille Ball, always cited her friend Lombard as an influence, and it showed when Ball played a wacky housewife on radio (“My Favorite Husband”) and, of course, television (“I Love Lucy”). Without Helen Bartlett, Lucy Ricardo might never have existed -- and that's not stretching the truth.