For those of you who don't remember the Johnny Carson era of the "Tonight Show" (and, as hard as it is for me to fathom, there are now people old enough to vote who were born after Carson left the air in May 1992), that was one of his more famed comedic characters, Floyd R. Turbo, a gun-toting redneck who replied on the air to local TV stations' editorials.
Back then, folks, there was something called the "fairness doctrine," where stations (and networks) were obliged to present opposing points of view. (Look at the backdrop behind the Turbo character -- a generic "editorial reply" sign.) In today's entry, we're paying tribute to opposing viewpoints by giving one on a topic we occasionally discuss...
...the 1976 film "Gable And Lombard."
In the past, we've made no bones about our lack of enthusiasm -- shall we say disdain -- for the movie (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/47604.html and http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/242909.html), a view we're hardly alone on. But in the interest of fairness, here's some more about the film, straight from the screenwriter whose script we've criticized, Barry Sandler.
While we may not view "Gable And Lombard" as his finest hour, Sandler had a successful career, coming up with "Kansas City Bomber" for Raquel Welch, "The Duchess And The Dirtwater Fox" for Goldie Hawn and "The Mirror Crack'd" for Elizabeth Taylor. In the 1980s, he wrote two of the decade's more intriguing films, "Making Love," the first mainstream industry film to realistically deal with homosexuality (Sandler is gay) and "Crimes Of Passion" with Kathleen Turner. He now teaches film studies at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
Sandler was recently interviewed for the website "Stone Cold Crazy," and among the works he discusses is "Gable And Lombard." In the interest of fairness, here is the segment of the interview dealing with that film. I'll run it verbatim, then present my comments. ("JC" is Jeff Cramer, who conducted the interview.)
BS: Well, I had been working on another original script, "The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox," which ICM actually put together with Melvin Frank. Melvin had just done "A Touch of Class" with Glenda Jackson and George Segal. He had an office at Warner Brothers and wanted to refer it to Warner Brothers, but it was put in turnaround at 20th Century-Fox. I had written "The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox" and worked with Frank on the rewrite. That film was made right around the same time as "Gable and Lombard."
And here’s how "Gable and Lombard" came about. My agent Jeff Berg also represented Sidney Furie, who had just scored a big hit with "Lady Sings the Blues," that wonderful Billie Holiday biopic with Diana Ross. Sidney was looking for a new project to develop and he wanted a writer. Jeff had sent him a script that I had written and Sidney liked it, so we met and hit it off really well. He’s a great guy and a terrific guy to work with. Before that he always wanted to do a movie about Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, and I said it was a great idea. I knew my mother was a huge Carole Lombard fan and talked about her all the time. I didn’t know too much about her. But I remembered Gable from when I was growing up and my initial reaction was, “How are you going to get an actor to be a believable Clark Gable?”
BS: And he said, “Don't worry about that right now. I made the world believe that Diana Ross was Billie Holiday,” which he did. “And I can do it with Clark Gable.” Not addressing the fact that the world knew what Clark Gable looked like, but anyway, I trusted him and just really liked him. So, we sat down and knocked out an outline for the story, and then I went off on the road to write a first draft in about 10 weeks. He was pretty sure, I was pretty sure, and so was our agent that since Sidney was a high-level commodity after "Lady Sings the Blues," that we could get a deal.
And it was one of those things, you know; we gave it to Universal late on Friday afternoon and by Monday morning, we had a deal. They wanted to do it. They liked the script and they said, “Let's do it.” Out of any movie I’ve done, this was the most fun.
Sidney was a major director, so Universal spared no expense. I mean, they just went hog wild and gave us whatever we wanted: sets and costumes, the Edith Head costumes, and the top of the line production designer. You know, we actually got Edward C. Carfagno, who did those movies in the 30s and 40s. Sidney brought in Jordan Cronenweth, a great cinematographer, but the casting was an interesting situation.
The script was very well received in the Hollywood community, and there were a lot of stars who wanted to do it, like Warren Beatty wanted to do it with Julie Christie. Beatty and Christie didn’t want to do it with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard because they wanted it to be fictionalized. They wanted to call it, like, you know, Joe Smith and Mary Jones, and Sidney didn’t want to do that.
Sidney wanted to stick to Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Universal tried to convince him. They said, “Hey, you’ve got Warren Beatty wanting to do this movie; give it some thought.” I also think Sidney wanted to maintain control.
JC: Yeah, because Warren Beatty sounds like if he was going to be involved, he was going to you know...
BS: …Yeah, he would have to be given a lot of control.
JC: He would take so much control that eventually, he would become the director and writer of the project.
BS: Yeah, exactly. You know, I remember that Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw were interested in doing sort of the same thing though; like, they wouldn’t do Gable and Lombard, but they would do a Hollywood couple. I really liked the script, because, you know, when I wrote it, I was trying to do it as sort of an homage to the screwball comedies that Lombard was famous for at Paramount, along with the kind of romantic melodramas that Gable was famous for at MGM, and I tried to recreate that spirit from some of those movies in this movie, and I think it worked.
And on paper, you know, you’re reading Clark Gable and Carole Lombard doing the dialogue, so your mind is already picturing the actual Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. So, we had a lot of interest in a lot of different actors, but everybody was afraid to portray this famous couple. But Sidney really wanted to do a movie on them.
Jim Brolin was far from an unknown; he was a huge TV star from "Marcus Welby." Sidney’s wife saw Brolin on TV one night and said, “There’s the guy.” We brought him in, and sure enough, he was the guy. I mean, he just really kind of…he walked in the room, and you knew this was a star; he had incredible charisma and he was a great guy -- a really nice guy and just a joy to work with. The key was finding Lombard, because we needed somebody that who the audience would believe had suffered a major loss when Gable loses her. So, I remember, there were a lot of actresses that wanted to do it, but Sidney was very particular. I mean, he knew what he wanted, but we couldn’t find her and we just interviewed, met and talked to so many different actresses. Sidney and I were talking about Susan Sarandon, Candice Bergen…
JC: You probably didn’t know at the time that Candice Bergen was capable of comedy.
BS: Well, that’s the point. We didn’t know at the time. In retrospect, I think she probably would have been great. I tried to push Natalie Wood, because I’ve always been a huge Natalie Wood fan. Nobody really clicked, and then one night, I remember I was watching a movie on TV called "Hustling," with Jill Clayburgh, who was a New York actress. She was playing kind of this floozy hooker, you know, and very far removed from Carole Lombard, but she was brilliant. I mean, she was really incredible. I called Sidney and I said, “Sidney, turn on channel 2.” And he turned it on and was watching her, and he said, “I’ll call you when it’s over.” Sure enough, at 11 o’clock, he called me and he said, “That’s the girl. She’s amazing. She’s just incredible.” We brought her up from New York, and she was just terrific. She’s nothing like the character that she played in "Hustling." You know, she’s just very sophisticated and intelligent. She went to one of those Ivy League colleges, and just had great spirit, and we just fell in love with her right off the bat.
However, the studio didn’t think she was attractive enough...I remember, we did a test on her, and Sidney was adamant about going with her. He said, “If you don’t go with her, I’m not doing the movie here. I’ll take it somewhere else.” And they said, “Well, OK. If you’re that certain about it...we’re going to give you, like, $50,000 to go and have her teeth fixed, her hair done, and do a whole remake of her. Then come back and convince us that she can be glamorous and dazzling.” So, he did and she did well.
Jimmy and Jill got along great. It was just a really terrific experience working on "Gable and Lombard." I’ll always cherish the experience of making that movie.
You know, the critical reaction was tough. I took certain liberties which you have to do when you’re doing a biography. You can’t stick to every specific detail. You have to shape it into a dramatic narrative that’s going to engage an audience even if you have to eliminate or consolidate or compress or rearrange whatever. So, you know, I got some critics criticizing me for that. I also took a more fun, sexual kind of approach to the relationship, and the critics thought that was being sacrilegious or whatever. Nonetheless, I’m very proud of the film. I had a great time making it and have some very fond memories of it.
JC: Since you took some liberties, I am curious, was the sock thing really true?
BS: Well, the sock thing was the truth.
BS: Was it like a cock warmer thing, you mean?
JC: Yeah, right, that whole thing.
BS: Yeah, that actually happened. I did a lot of research. I remember studying for hours in the Academy library, going over old newspaper articles and new stories, and just reading all the material I could read about that. So, you know, all of that is true: the paternity suit, the sock thing, and obviously the plane crash.
JC: Of course, I know that Clark Gable wasn’t fighting in World War II when Lombard’s plane crash happened, because Gable didn’t serve until after Lombard’s death. She was on the plane raising war bonds. I’ve heard he served because she died trying to support the war.
BS: That’s the thing about doing a biography. If you want to make characters sympathetic and likable, you have to sort of forge it a bit. If that had been the situation, he would have lost the respect of the audience. So in a way, it’s making him the one who decides that he wants to go fight. It makes him more admirable, I guess, in the eyes of the audience.
JC: Do you think if you’d gone with what Warren Beatty or Steve McQueen suggested about changing the names, that the critical reaction might have been different?
BS: Yes, absolutely, it would have been different; totally, because it would have been fictional. It would have been inspired by real people, not a biography. You can still do that and make it work, but it would have been totally different; absolutely. It would have been a monster hit, too. I’ll tell you why. We previewed the film in Hawaii. It was the first time the studio had ever had a preview in Hawaii. They wanted to get as far away from Hollywood as possible, and it was a packed house in Honolulu; like, a thousand people. The preview had a test screening and the reaction to that screening was the second best reaction in the history of the studio. "Jaws" was first.
The studio originally decided to release "Gable and Lombard" in a thousand theaters at one time. As a result of that test screening, they changed the release pattern to open it smaller and in smaller theaters and let word of mouth sell the film. I think that turned out to be a mistake, because I think the reviewers hurt the film. It did huge business at the end of opening week, but then it went down. I think if they had opened it in all the theaters at once, it would have done much better.
JC: Brolin didn’t do many films until he married Streisand but I noticed that right after "Gable and Lombard," Jill Clayburgh really started getting a lot of work.
BS: Here’s what happened. Paul Mazursky was at a particular screening of the movie somewhere in the San Fernando Valley and the reaction was great there too. He had been hearing all of these rumors about Jill, how great she was, and he went to that screening and on the basis of that, signed her to do "An Unmarried Woman." Alan J. Pakula signed her for "Starting Over," and then she did "Semi-Tough." She was a huge star; she turned down a lot too. Jill told me the biggest mistake of her life was turning down "Norma Rae" to do "Luna," the Bertolucci movie. I’m still in contact with her. In fact, we brought her up to UCF a couple of years ago. She spoke to the film department here. She was great.
JC: Right. And it’s funny that Universal didn’t think she was attractive enough, because a few years later, Jill would be playing opposite Burt Reynolds, Michael Douglas and Kris Kristofferson, and audiences bought her as the romantic interest.
What’s interesting in "Gable and Lombard" is that you have this happy relationship and these people can’t come out and tell the world about it. Later on, in "Making Love" and "Crimes of Passion," you wrote about married couples who are out to the public, and yet they’re not happy relationships, and they need to end.
BS: It's a theme that I’ve dealt with in all my work: the masks we wear, the facades we put on, and the games we play. In "The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox," Goldie Hawn’s character assumes the role of the Duchess because she’s a saloon girl and a dance hall girl on the Barbary Coast, and she wants to get out of the life she’s been leading. In my Agatha Christie adaptations, "The Mirror Crack’d" and "Evil Under the Sun," they are putting on facades and acts. I think it’s a consistent theme that runs through all my work, certainly in "All-American Murder," obviously in "Crimes of Passion," and "Making Love" too. I’m glad you picked up on that.
Now, my observations:
For me, perhaps the biggest revelation here was that Candice Bergen was a candidate to portray Carole Lombard. Today, thanks to the huge success of "Murphy Brown," Bergen is identified with comedy -- but that wasn't true in the 1970s, when she was known more for her beauty than for any particular acting persona. So it's possible she could have pulled it off.
However, there would have been another reason why Bergen might have made a fascinating Lombard -- family ties. While Candice was born in 1946, her father, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, knew Carole well and worked with her several times on his radio show (although apparently only one show's recording exists). Edgar was still alive at the time the film was made, and no doubt he would have given his daughter some tips on the nuances of Lombard's personality. (The other new name brought up, Susan Sarandon, might have succeeded as Lombard as well.)
And I still must criticize Sandler for what I deem the film's most unforgivable error -- having Gable already serving in the Army at the time of Lombard's death. I concur with his observation that for a film biography, "you have to shape it into a dramatic narrative," but I strongly disagree that having Gable enlist as a result of his wife's death -- as it happened in real life -- would have "lost the respect of the audience." If anything, it would've made him more sympathetic, as it did for Americans at that time. (One Minnesota critic noted when the film was released that a scene shows Lombard discussing the battle of Corrigedor, something that took place after her death.)
But as stated earlier, Sandler did succeed as a screenwriter, and this interview is really worth checking out in its entirety. To do that, go to http://jeffcramer.blogspot.com/2010/07/very-candid-conversation-with-barry.html.