November 8th, 2007

carole lombard 04
  • vp19

Lombard, Sturges and Stewart: A star and two scribes

Chances are that when this picture was taken, Carole Lombard wasn't writing a script. And yet, the relationship between her and screenwriters was as warm and appreciative as that of any between star and scribe in Hollywood's Golden Age. Here's the story of her work with two of them.

We know that one of the loves of her life was fabled screenwriter Robert Riskin, who wrote many of Frank Capra's classics (, but did you know Lombard also had a brief dalliance with another filmland literary legend? We're referring to Preston Sturges, who wrote many excellent comedies in the thirties and forties, eventually directing his own films in the latter decade. Here's what he looked like in 1941:

In 1930, Sturges was among an array of writers from New York who had headed out to Hollywood to script the new art of talking pictures; as Herman J. Mankewicz had written to Ben Hecht, "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots." Arriving at Paramount at roughly the same time Lombard signed a contract, the bachelor Sturges began dating her. Did their relationship reach the intimate stage? Perhaps it did, because Sturges soon began talking to others at the studio about his conquest, which infuriated Carole. According to Lombard biographer Larry Swindell, "Stewart said she taught him a lesson, and soon they were good friends again but nothing more than that."

Another top-flight writer and Broadway emigre also had the hots for Carole. His name was Donald Ogden Stewart, part of the 1920s' famed Algonquin Round Table, whose screen credits include "The Barretts of Wimpole Street," "Love Affair" and "The Philadelphia Story" (for which he would win an Academy Award). There was just one problem with Stewart's lust for Lombard: he was married -- and happily so -- to Beatrice Ames, who would soon be a good friend of Carole's. (The couple divorced in 1938.) Lombard had no interest in being a married man's paramour, and bluntly let him know it. Here's a photo of Stewart, typing away:

Like Sturges, Stewart remained on friendly, albeit not romantic terms, with Lombard. He became involved in anti-Nazi causes in the late 1930s; in a noted anecdote, Lombard and Clark Gable visited Stewart and his new wife, Ella Winter, and Clark -- who was, for the most part, oblivious to politics -- told Winter, "Don't worry, little lady, we'll protect you from Hitler." Stewart's leftist leanings made him a target for the postwar Red Scare movement, and in 1950 he was blacklisted. The following year, he and Winter moved to England, where he lived until his death in 1980, five years after writing his autobiography, "By A Stroke Of Luck."

In 1930, Stewart and Sturges also vied for Lombard in a professional sense, as both wanted to cast her in scripts they had written. Stewart used Lombard as sort of a sounding board for his script, called "Laughter"; if she liked a line, it remained. Other screenwriters on the lot also used her as a resource for dialogue. Considering Carole's relative lack of formal education, this was remarkable -- although perhaps not having a Broadway background helped her. It took a while for many in the film community to learn that writing for the screen was an entirely different animal than writing for the stage.

Stewart's work with Lombard helped him win that battle, but Sturges won the war for her services when Paramount decided to cast Carole into his script, initially called "The Best People." It wasn't deemed as "big" a production as "Laughter," but Lombard's part there would be bigger, giving her more of a chance to shine.

If you've never heard of "The Best People," it's because Paramount changed the title somewhat late in the production process to "Fast And Loose." New posters for the film also altered Lombard's first name from Carol to Carole, or so the story goes. Miriam Hopkins had the female lead in her first feature film, while Lombard played a chorus girl. Here's a lobby card:

What about "Laughter"? It was made with Fredric March and Nancy Carroll (then riding the peak of her popularity) as the leads, and the female supporting role -- the one Stewart likely envisioned Lombard in -- instead went to her old Pathe companion, Diane Ellis. Sadly, Ellis couldn't enjoy her success for very long; she was married later in 1930, caught a rare disease while honeymooning in India, and died before the year was out. Here are an ad and a poster from the film:

Sturges tried in vain to get Lombard into one of his later films (it'd have been fascinating to see her take on "The Lady Eve," for example), although perhaps had she lived longer it might eventually have happened. "I liked her, that's all. Everybody did," he later said. Of "Fast And Loose," he said of Lombard's role: "I wrote a part for her because I always liked to have someone in mind. When she almost walked away with the picture I was taken quite by surprise. I had no idea she could dispense smart-ass remarks with such authority for the screen, although the part was very much like her, you understand."