The relationship between Carole Lombard and William Powell was indeed a special one. How many divorced couples not only keep in touch, but occasionally date for a while and later agree to work together? But Powell and Lombard did precisely that. Moreover, when Powell was laid low with colon cancer that kept him off the screen for more than a year, Lombard would take time out from her relationship with Clark Gable (a friend of Powell's, though their personalities were substantially different) and was among those who helped guide her ex back to health.
In 1940, Powell -- who never got over the death of Jean Harlow in 1937 -- surprised many in the film community by quickly falling in love with, then marrying, an MGM starlet named Diana Lewis. Nicknamed "Mousie," the petite (5-foot-1) blonde, who was more than a decade younger than Lombard, is probably best known for her work in the 1940 Marx Brothers comedy "Go West," to many Marxists the best of their later releases at Metro. Lewis only made a handful of films after marrying Powell, retiring from the screen in 1943.
I'm certain Lombard was happy Powell had found someone in his life, and when Carole died in 1942, Powell was affected deeply. And it's probably why Powell decided to pay tribute to Carole in January 1943 by appearing in a "Screen Guild Theater" radio adaptation of his ex-wife's final film, "To Be Or Not To Be." He portrayed Joseph Tura, while Lewis played wife Maria.
It's difficult to envision Powell in a screen version of "To Be Or Not To Be," certainly not due to his acting skills but because we perceive Powell as too good an actor. Ideally, Joseph Tura has to have some ham about him -- not so much that he becomes unsympathetic, but enough for the audience to know he's stuck up on himself. Jack Benny, whose popular radio persona was full of vanity (something he wasn't in real life), made an ideal movie Tura. Fortunately, Powell had enough acting chops for a radio version of Tura to work.
Incidentally, nowhere during the broadcast is Lombard's name mentioned, though the date of the program's airing (Jan. 18, 1943, one year and two days after her passing) likely wasn't a coincidence.
This broadcast is also unusual in that it is the only radio adaptation of "To Be Or Not To Be" that I know of. "Lux Radio Theater," the leading program of its type, may have deemed the humor a bit too dark for its audience, so it was left for the "Screen Guild Theater," a lesser series in the genre, to convert it from film to radio...and making matters trickier was that unlike "Lux," "Screen Guild" was a mere half-hour program.
But here's the surprise: it works.
The adaptation focuses on the "love triangle" involving the Turas and Polish flier Stanislav Sobinski (here, Jon Hall pinch-hits for Robert Stack). However, Sig Rumann reprises his film role as German Col. Ehrhardt. (And yes, the famous line "So they call me 'Concentration Camp' Ehrhardt" appears in the radio version.) The tone is a bit lighter in the radio version, as it incorporates the then-popular Spike Jones song "Der Fuehrer's Face" into the proceedings.
Old-time radio has become a very popular collectible, and literally tens of thousands of episodes of programs are available. Yet "To Be Or Not To Be" has proven to be one of the most difficult film adaptations for collectors to find. Thankfully, now that's changed, and you can hear this episode online. Simply go to http://ia340903.us.archive.org/1/items/ScreenGuildTheater/Sgt_43-01-18_ep127_To_Be_or_Not_to_Be.mp3 -- and hear for yourself.
Powell would remain married to Lewis until his death in March 1984; she died in January 1997.