At times, attacking the 1976 film "Gable And Lombard" can seem as pointless as kicking dachshunds in the street -- something that actually happened in the U.S. during World War I as an expression of anti-German sentiment (as if the dogs were acting as agents for the Kaiser).
But putting down "Gable And Lombard" (and by that we mean criticizing it, not euthanizing it) isn't as cruel as puppy-kicking...or how the film inaccurately told the tale of two Hollywood legends on a scale unusually bad for even a biopic. We've roasted this cinematic turkey before (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/47604.html), and now someone else has joined the fun. Don't look at it as piling on.
The book is called "Starring John Wayne As Genghis Khan," and is written by Damien Bona, co-author of "Inside Oscar." (The title refers to Wayne's role in the 1956 film "The Conqueror," a part he was ill-suited for. Worse, much of the film was shot in Utah, near an area where some fallout from atomic testing was still extant, and it is believed this eventually led to cases of cancer among Wayne and other cast and crew members.)
There is a bit of snark to Bona's book -- when describing examples of ludicrous casting, how can you avoid it? -- but the tone never overwhelms the book. Every entry he cites has an introductory headline; for "Gable And Lombard," it's "Pretenders To The Throne."
Bona begins with this perceptive comment: "One shouldn't come down too hard on James Brolin and Jill Clayburgh for their performances in 'Gable And Lombard.' Nobody could have been seen to good advantage under those circumstances. What they need to be castigated for is their hubris in thinking they could approximate two incomparable movie stars."
Bona blasts Barry Sandler's script for making Gable's character "sheepish, shambling," minus the sly confidence that made men wish they could be him and women wish they could be with him. But Bona adds that if the script
"...neuters Clark Gable, it does just the opposite to Carole Lombard. Having heard about her reputation for salty language, Sandler turns Lombard into a lowlife vulgarian. By most accounts, she had as much class off the screen as on, but the film's facsimile is a trollop who chatters endlessly about getting laid."
The film's emphasis on the Gable-Lombard sexual relationship diminishes them as characters, Bona adds:
"The worst aspect of this crass enterprise is its smarminess about the pair's sexual relationship -- all you need to know about the quality of 'Gable And Lombard' is that Carole Lombard is shown to be so fixated on her lover's penis that she knits it a stocking cap."
Well, at least the real-life Lombard could knit, as shown above. (We presume she is not knitting a penile stocking cap.)
Bona discusses the search to find actors to play the title roles, noting that columnist Joyce Haber asked her readers to make suggestions. For Gable, they wanted Robert Redford, followed by David Janssen (who not only openly sought the role, but believed Gable might have been his father since both possessed large ears). The top vote-getters for Lombard were Barbra Streisand(!) and Faye Dunaway (who, as we all know, ultimately ended up playing Lombard's Cocoanut Grove dance rival, Joan Crawford).
Universal saw things somewhat differently before winding up with Brolin and Clayburgh. It first wanted Burt Reynolds, who to his credit wanted nothing to do with playing Gable (or maybe he read the script), then turned to Steve McQueen. Warren Beatty showed a bit of interest, but only if the characters' names were changed to fictional ones. (Then again, the characters he and Dunaway played in "Bonnie & Clyde" weren't at all similar to the real-life criminals.)
An early candidate as Carole, according to Bona, was Valerie Perrine, who had the sex appeal necessary for Lombard and who'd won an Academy Award nomination for "Lenny." (Perrine's iconoclastic attitude might have worked well for playing Lombard; many years later, it was reported her license plate read "RATS" -- "star" spelled backwards. She still gets work in character parts.) Also considered was Sally Kellerman, who played Hot Lips in the 1970 "M*A*S*H" movie, but at 5-foot-11, she likely would have been far too tall for the role. (Then again, in Sandler's script, Lombard was initially -- and erroneously -- a bigger star than Gable; you might as well make her taller than him, too.)
Bona said Clayburgh "resembled Carole Lombard not in the least (as thirties movie comediennes go, she looked more like Jean Arthur), nor did she have Lombard's breathy vocal quality. ... Mannered and shrill, Clayburgh simply lacks the effervescence that flowed so naturally from the real article."
For proof, here's Clayburgh on the left, then the "real article":
It's a testimony to the goodwill Clark and Carole won over the years that their reputations survived this debacle. Now if only someone would do a biopic about them, and do it right...