January 28th, 2008

carole lombard 01
  • vp19

Lombard's early edition

In yesterday's entry, we noted that more than a decade before "His Girl Friday," a film in which Carole Lombard was sought for a role but didn't accept, she played a newspaper reporter in another film. Here's more about it.

It's called "Big News," and was released by Pathe in September 1929. She plays Margaret Banks, a reporter, and is shown above with co-star Robert Armstrong, who portrays her husband, Steven Banks. Best remembered today as the male (human) lead in "King Kong," Armstrong was a reliable character actor renowned for his rapid-fire delivery.

In "Big News," Steven Banks runs afoul of a gangster who pushes narcotics -- and is an advertiser in his newspaper. He's subsequently fired, but is restored to his position when he secures a confession implicating the gangster in a murder. Angry, the gangster meets the editor, fatally stabs him and tries to pin the murder on Steven. We won't give away the twist, but apparently there is a happy ending.

The word "apparently" is used because I've never seen the picture; the reference is to a synopsis of the movie in Frederick C. Ott's "The Films Of Carole Lombard." She made three all-talking films for Pathe before being let go in late 1929, and of the three, this is probably the most difficult to find. "High Voltage" has been available on video since the late 1980s, and "The Racketeer" is periodically shown on Turner Classic Movies.

Thr irony here is that "Big News" may be the best of the three. Truth be told, that isn't saying much; "High Voltage" and "The Racketeer" are your typical stilted early talkies, and anyone watching them today would likely find their slow pace unbearable. However, "Big News" received good contemporary reviews. Film Daily said it ranked with the "best newspaper stories filmed since sound arrived."

Another reasnn one would want to see "Big News" is for the director, someone who years later would coax one of Carole's best performances. Gregory La Cava got along well with Lombard from the outset, and that eventually paid off when he directed her in "My Man Godfrey" in 1936. At that time, Carole recalled working with him on "Big News," and Lombard biographer Larry Swindell found those comments and used them in his book, "Screwball":

"Greg said, 'Well, I've read the script and I'll tell you what I think. I think it stinks. And when something stinks you try to do anything to distract people from the smell. So let's be very distracting about this. If we rattle the dialogue real fast people won't be able to reflect on how rotten it is. And even if it isn't very exciting, you can pitch your voices a little higher and they'll think it's exciting. I guess the main thing to do is to be busy all the time, just keep moving. Stand still and the picture might doe.' And you know what? It turned into a game, and I think we won it ... because Bob Armstrong had a good knack for fast talk, and I rose to the bait to keep up with him."

A far cry from the pedestrian Howard Higgin, who directed "High Voltage" and "The Racketeer," the latter of which also co-starred Armstrong.

A pair of reviews issued just after Lombard's 21st birthday had some nice things to say about her.

* Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times wrote that "Lombard, as the female reporter, is a step above the ingenue film heroine and manages her part with sufficient restraint."

* And according to Variety (only a few weeks before its famous "Wall Street Lays An Egg" headline), "As Mrs. Banks ... Carol Lombard steps before the camera just often enough to provide the necessary touch and not spoil a good job."

Sounds like an interesting picture. If only more of us could see it.