April 15th, 2008

carole lombard 02
  • vp19

Carole's taxing comments

"Let me tell you how it will be,
There's one for you, nineteen for me,
'Cause I'm the taxman,
Yeah, I'm the taxman..."
-- "Taxman," composed by George Harrison, performed by the Beatles, 1966

As we show the first Form 1040, from 1913 after the federal income tax was instituted, along with a more recent form from 2005, we 1) remind all American citizens to have their income tax returns sent with a postmark (or filed online) before midnight (especially since those rebate checks will be issued this summer as part of the economic stimulus package); and 2) remember how taxes helped Carole Lombard garner some of the best reviews of her career...and it wasn't for a movie.

How this came about is perhaps a tribute to one of filmdom's greatest publicists, Russell Birdwell (1903-1977). A former Texas newspaperman, Birdwell was imaginative in getting his clients publicity -- and since few actors were better aware of the value of good publicity than Lombard, they had a splendid working relationship. It was Birdwell who suggested Carole try a week's work in the publicity office at Selznick-International Pictures, and Lombard (shown below with Birdwell) went into the assignment with aplomb and her usual flair for humor (as the sign behind her makes clear).

Birdwell's sense for news paid off in August 1938 when he was privately chatting with Lombard in her dressing room. A well-known (and well-paid) director had recently complained publicly about a recent increase in the income tax rate. This angered Carole, and Birdwell immediately stopped her and called a United Press reporter. He let her resume her harangue when the UP writer was taking notes on the other end of the line.

Lombard, whose salary was one of the highest in the film industry, was quoted as saying: "I gave the federal government 85 percent of my wages last year, and I was glad to do it, too...Income tax money all goes into improvement and protection of the country...I really think I got my money's worth."

A few hours later, the UP story was sent to hundreds of newspapers, and Carole received many plaudits for her egalitarian comments, including a piece from liberal columnist Heywood Broun, who wrote: "The United States Chamber of Commerce [which had railed against the tax increases] might well profit by a little lecture from Miss Carole Lombard." President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent Lombard a letter praising her support; they would meet two years later when Carole visited Washington. Several years later, writer Alva Johnston noted that "probably no other news item ever did so much to increase the popularity of a star."

So how much was Carole sending to Uncle Sam? In 1955, as part of a long article about taxes, Time magazine said Lombard made $465,000 in 1937, and paid $397,000 in taxes. (However, at the time, government experts said she was overstating her payments by $70,000.)

Carole, who wasn't hurting for money by any means, found ways to make a little extra cash, such as by loaning out parts of her wardrobe for other actresses to use while filming.

We'll leave you with this poster, a reminder that for many years, the tax deadline was March 15, not April 15. Beware the ides of March, indeed.

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