May 15th, 2008

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Photoplay, March 1938: The smiler with a knife



That's Carole Lombard on the cover of Photoplay in April 1938, not long after the magazine -- taking advantage of the improved technology of color photography -- changed its covers from paintings (or drawings) to photos. But the month before, Photoplay ran an article on Lombard, which is what we're concerned with.

And I hope the subject title isn't confusing -- this has nothing to do with the book that Orson Welles supposedly wanted to adapt into a film with Carole; that proposal came a few years later (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/53545.html). But "smiler with a knife" connotes another phrase, "getting away with murder." Appropriate, because the title of the March 1938 article we're reprinting is..."She Gets Away With Murder." (In a figurative sense, of course!)

This article by Janet Bentley deals with the power Lombard had amassed behind the scenes -- rare for an actor at the time, almost unheard of for an actress. It goes over how Carole accumulated such power, and reviews what she's done with it.

It provides pretty good insight into how the industry worked at the time, and shows that not only was Lombard a superb actress, but a businesswoman of solid foresight. Indeed, many believe that had Lombard lived several more decades, she would have complemented her own acting career with one in producing -- including films she solely produced, not acted in.

All in all, some nice insight into Lombard at the peak of her career. (Below is a photo of Carole on the set of "Swing High, Swing Low"; that's director Mitchell Leisen in the chair.)


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She Gets Away With Murder

That Lombard girl, who has all of the gravy and none of the grief – has she earned those rare privileges?

By Janet Bentley


In Hollywood they say that Carole Lombard gets away with murder -– that’s what they say.

They say it because they think an actress should stick to acting, and they cite the cases of Gloria Swanson and Ruth Chatterton who learned the hard way, learned that even girls with divine histrionic talents aren’t fitted to run the show behind the camera as well as in front of it. “They” also point to Hollywood’s extra ranks which are replete with proof that artists often have extraordinarily bad business heads.

Of course, an actress’ attitude toward her career goes through a perfectly natural metamorphosis as she graduates from the leg-art class and works her way up to the top spot on the credit shorts. During her years as an embryonic celestial she was a thing of joy to the studio. She did as she was told. She was the studio Pandora when the publicity department was in a pinch. Ah, yes, she was an awfully good girl back in those days when she had little to do but look well in a drafty bathing costume.

But now -– now Crosby croons her love songs and Gable treats her tenderly; and she’s a big star who makes a lot of money; and –- well -– isn’t it about time she spoke up in meetin’ and set out to have a few things her own way?

It’s at this point that most Hollywood producers take to their crying chairs. It’s their contention –- their most definite opinion, in fact –- that actors are creative, and therefore are persons of highly combustible dispositions who should be pampered as little as possible.

When Jimmy Cagney decided he was making too many pictures a year at Warner Brothers, the studio went to court to squelch such an alarming display of independence. Warners lost on a technicality and Jimmy won his freedom -– but Warners’ was the moral victory because the redheaded actor is definitely not the box-office draw he used to be.

Girls like Joan Crawford and Claudette Colbert deserve every credit for their professional records, but it’s an interesting fact that in each of their cases the only pictures they made that fared really poorly at the box office recently were stories they both fought for. In Joan’s case it was “Rain”; in Claudette’s, it was “Maid Of Salem.”

Naturally, both producer and star have their just arguments (and I ain’t takin’ sides!). However, people can say what they like about “buttonhole-makers” when they refer to movie producers, but no executive is deliberately out to ruin his own product. After all, the Thalbergs and the Goldwyns were already guiding influences in a million-dollar industry, with their fingers firmly on the public pulse, when the Joan Crawfords were still winning beauty contests. And these same producers feel that the less control a star is given over her own career, the happier the whole movie family will be.

This policy has provoked many a producer-actor battle. It’s one of the things that lends excitement to the Hollywood scene. But, while the betting is usually even, the producers seem to have an edge on the victor’s side -– judging from the cases of Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, Ann Dvorak, Constance Bennett and Mr. Cagney.

Then -– along comes Carole Lombard who demands a lot of almost unheard-of privileges -– and gets them! Not only that, but she got them with a minimum of unpleasantness. There were no suits or sulks on either side. Not a sour grape was thrown.

Well, when that happened the Hollywood gang simply had to say something about it, and so they said -– “the gal gets away with murder.”

Indeed?

Facts, you know, are sometimes like horses -– they look entirely different when viewed from two different directions!

And so it is with the facts about Carole. Consider her particular state of stardom from one angle, and it does seem as though she might have a few of the boys buffaloed.

Let’s begin back in 1934 when the monetary compensation provided by Carole’s Paramount contract was already a four-figured affair. One fine fall day, shortly before that contract was to expire, Carole approached her bosses and informed them that she wouldn’t sign another contract unless they tripled her salary.

Well –- they laughed at her. But the determined actress stood by her thunderbolt. She thought she was worth that much to them. They would think it over.

They had cause to think. When they discovered Carole was serious they stopped laughing. They countered with offers of considerably less sums. They pleaded and cajoled, and one or two of her bosses were guilty of a few histrionics of their own –- but Carole got her salary tripled.

Two years later, we hit another high spot in her career: a spot at which we find her at odds with her producer over what was then her current picture. For obvious reasons, both the picture and the producer must remain unnamed.

The picture had been two weeks in production when the producer decided that it was all a terrible mistake, and that he’d best scrap the whole shootin’ match.

Carole differed. She went straight to the producer’s office and said so. Pardon her, but if they’d just make these few changes –- why –- the story would be as good as any they had on the lot.

In the end, Carole’s suggestions were put into effect and the picture was completed, which amounted to historic leniency on the part of a motion-picture producer. The success of that picture surpassed everyone’s wildest dreams –- except Carole’s.

A few months later, the same situation occurred in reverse. Paramount assigned the blonde explosive to a picture, and this time it was Carole who wanted it scrapped. She refused to put on a single false eyelash unless the studio would assign her a gag writer (of her own choice) to go over the script scene by scene. Such adamant behavior does not usually enhance one’s desirability in the eyes of producers -– but again Carole’s demands were granted.

People also refer, quite colorfully, to Carole’s last contract with Paramount. On the strength of that agreement, Miss Lombard functioned more importantly in the guidance of her own career than any other contract-star in Hollywood, with the possible exception of Garbo. Again she asked to have her salary tripled, and it was. She named the number of pictures she would make a year. She had the privilege of making her own deal for one vehicle outside the studio every twelve months -– and usually most producers would cut off their noses rather than grant that request, particularly to stars like Carole for whom they could have demanded $250,000 on a loan-out deal.

Besides those items, Carole exercised a ruler’s control over almost every phase of her productions. She chose her own stories and sent scripts back to be rewritten.

She chose her own directors and okayed her own supporting casts. She named her own cinema photographer and her own “still” man. Whether she worked on or off the Paramount lot, Paramount’s Travis Banton designed her picture wardrobes. No one could ask her to work after six o’clock in the evening and she refused to begin a picture, any picture, unless the script was completed before the starting date. Not a single “still” picture of her could leave the studio until it had passed through her hands. She made no fashion sittings. Her attitude toward publicity was most strict, and while several Hollywood correspondents had a few things to say about it, no authority at the studio questioned it. She refused interviews right and left, she expressly instructed the studio publicity department to forget about her.

When that contract expired in March, 1937, Carole did not sign another. Now she has only a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Paramount to deliver her services for two pictures a year, and with David Selznick for one picture a year –- if they offer the right stories.

Today, then, Carole is her own free agent; virtually, an artistic dictator who doesn’t have to make a picture for anybody unless all matters are arranged to suit her. So it’s no wonder, really, that people are gasping.

But consider that other angle.

If Carole lacked anything between the ears, people could well accuse her of getting all the gravy and none of the grief. But the boisterous blonde from Indiana, the girl with the million horsepower personality is, in truth, a very extraordinary person, and that puts a new face on the facts.

Carole Lombard has the hardest business head of any actress in Hollywood, and, oh boy, how that girl works in return for what she gets!

No one could possibly accuse Carole of taking a tyrant’s advantage of her importance. She’s among the first on her sets in the morning. No director has ever had to send a bus boy looking for her when she’s wanted.

She doesn’t work after six o’clock –- no. But if the overhead is piling up, or if some member of the cast has only one more scene before finishing the picture, our star will be the first to suggest that she work beyond her time limit. Carole set that six o’clock deadline only because her vitality suffers if she works longer than nine hours a day –- as whose wouldn’t? And no one on her sets works harder than she.

No one can justly accuse the fair-haired lady of being a troublemaker, either. If she has any squawking to do she dies it before her picture starts, and, in so doing, she never makes it tough on the underlings. She never quibbles. She goes to the place where it will do the most good -– straight to the front office.

Once her picture is in front of the camera, nothing short of the plague will induce her to hold up production. It can be told now -– that when Carole was away on location at Arrowhead for “True Confession,” she suffered terribly from the altitude as a result of those strenuous scenes in that ice-cold mountain lake. She finished the sequence under a doctor’s care, and it’s characteristic of Carole that she asked the studio not to make any heroics out of it.

She okays her supporting casts -– yes. But no actress gives the people who work for her a better break. Hollywood’s supporting players cheer lustily when they’re signed for a Lombard picture -– they know Carole won’t muscle in on their best lines.

No actress has ever been more generous to her leading man than Carole was to Fred MacMurray in “Swing High, Swing Low.” As the star of that picture, Miss Lombard allowed Fred the hog’s share of scenes –- and you know how often that happens.

Before it went into production, she sent the script of the same picture back to the scenario department, not to have her own part ballooned, but to have two pages of dialogue added to Dorothy Lamour’s role.

Smart girl that she is, Carole knows that her picture will be better if her supporting cast appears to its best advantage.

Another point in Carole’s favor is this. People hereabouts often forget that no one has any right to accuse an actress of getting away with murder unless her bosses do -– and Miss Lombard’s bosses don’t accuse her of anything of the sort.

Producers respect her because she is the only actress in Hollywood who looks at the business of making motion pictures from a producer’s point of view. For instance, “True Confession” received a wonderful public reception, but when I asked Carole to name the thing about it that pleased her most, she beamed and said, “Why, we brought the picture in under its budget.”

You see, Carole isn’t interested in making “prestige pictures,” or being featured in press columns. She’s interested only in enhancing her own value to producers by making consistently good pictures that will make consistently good money.

That she has done. Today, there isn’t a major executive in Hollywood who, if he had the chance, wouldn’t put Carole under contract at her own price.

So, no matter what she gets away with –- she can’t be wrong.

The day I talked to Carole she was ensconced in one of Warner’s rococo suites, waiting for a call to the set of her latest picture, which she is making with Fernand Gravet. It was rather difficult to keep on our tracks, what with all the visitors and telephone calls that kept butting in between commas, but you’d have enjoyed it just the same. There’s always fun when Carole, and her loyal friend and buffer, “Fieldsie,” are around.

However, if you are looking for a foolproof formula for success, take a tip from this dynamic young person who is considered Hollywood’s foremost comedienne:

“It’s important to be cooperative,” said Carole. “I’ve never fought unless I honestly believed I was right, and that the thing I was fighting for was really important.”

Then she smiled –-

“You know?” she observed, “the reason that more people don’t get more things they feel they deserve is because they’re afraid to ask for them.”

So, all told, it appears that the only thing Carole Lombard really gets away with -– is being Carole Lombard.
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(Above is Lombard taking a break on the set of "True Confession" with fellow actors Fred MacMurray and Una Merkel, director Wesley Ruggles and screenwriter Claude Binyon.)

One surmises that the two films Bentley refers to, but won't name, in the first half of the story are "Swing High, Swing Low" and "True Confession." The former was a much bigger hit than anyone anticipated, and in fact was Paramount's top-grossing film of 1937. The latter turned out to be Lombard's last film for Paramount, despite her "gentlemen's agreement" with the studio.

Tomorrow, we'll move to the month after that Photoplay cover ran, May 1938, for a view of Lombard's life from another perspective: her romance with Clark Gable.
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