July 17th, 2018

carole lombard 02
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Lombard and 'what if,' part 2: Ignited by 'Dynamite'?

In our previous entry, we tried to imagine how Carole Lombard's career would have changed had her automobile accident in late 1925 or early 1926 had never occurred. This time, we're conjecturing a few years ahead, to the start of 1929. It looked to be an auspicious year for the actress, who had turned 20 in October; witness this notice from the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 4, 1928:

Lombard in a Cecil B. DeMille production, playing a modern high-society wife...much the same territory Gloria Swanson -- one of Carole's idols, now in the employ of her current studio Pathe -- had trod a decade earlier. No wonder what Lombard's actual height was (anywhere from 5-foot-2 to 5-foot-6), she probably felt considerably taller as she spent the holiday season and awaited 1929.

But Cecil B. soon would cut her down to size -- though it was hidden in this Jan. 22 report from the Times:

Lombard may have been "returned" to Pathe, and perhaps she had been tapped to appear in "High Voltage" all along, but the truth more likely was that she was fired from "Dynamite." It probably wasn't anything personal; in May 1938, Carole made her "Lux Radio Theater" debut (a CBS series DeMille hosted), and discussed her dismissal without rancor. Lombard retained the beauty she had shown from earlier in the decade, and perhaps it led the director to cast her ahead of schedule.

Our alternate history here is: What if Carole had been ready for such a role? What might have success in "Dynamite" led to?

One thing to consider is that "Dynamite" was DeMille's first production for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and it's possible that studio might have been interested in Lombard. Conjecture, to be sure -- Metro had what it deemed a major blonde star on its roster in Anita Page:

However, Page quickly grew out of favor as the '30s began, and Carole might have moved up Louis B. Mayer's totem pole. With Lombard on Metro's roster, Mayer, Irving Thalberg and Paul Bern might have passed on a Howard Hughes property in late 1931, a lady named Jean Harlow:

Also note in this scenario, Lombard doesn't return to Pathe, so she isn't dismissed by the studio for the "crime" of being blonde when Constance Bennett joins the roster in 1929. (Good friend Diane Ellis doesn't suffer a similar fate.) It's thus highly unlikely either winds up at Paramount in the spring of 1930. While Ellis would die on her honeymoon that December, Lombard would be at the studio through 1937.

If MGM showed no interest in retaining Carole in our alternate history, who picks her up, if not Paramount?
* Warners? Perhaps Lombard replaces Glenda Farrell as Joan Blondell's prime pre-Code buddy.
* Columbia? We know Harry Cohn liked Carole's directness, and gave her good scripts.
* A return to Fox? That studio was in decline in the early '30s, and its rural Americana tone would've been ill-suited to her.
* RKO? A possibility, though its merger with Pathe would have led to a clash with Connie she avoided in 1929.
* Universal? I'm not sure where she would've fit in.

As things turned out, the leading lady who replaced Lombard, Kay Johnson, wasn't vaulted to stardom either, though DeMille tried her once more in 1930's campy "Madam Satan." (Neither are considered in the top tier of DeMille movies.) She married director John Cromwell and their son James became a respected actor late in the 20th century.

Perhaps Lombard would have suffered the same fate had she made the film. We'll never know.
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