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Another 'what might have been'



When I ran items relating to Carole Lombard in January 1932 that I found at Google News earlier this week, I inadvertently left one out, perhaps because it's a brief with no accompanying illustration. It concerns something that ultimately never happened, but is fascinating to ponder, and is from the Spokane Daily Chronicle of Jan. 30, 1932:



That MGM was interested in Lombard at this stage of her career itself carries intrigue -- this presumably happened after the "Taxi!" fiasco, where Carole declined a loanout to Warners, only to have Loretta Young take the female lead opposite James Cagney -- but look at the property Metro was considering for Lombard: "Red-Headed Woman," which, as we all know, turned out to be the breakthrough for another flashy blonde whose hair took a crimson hue for the film...



...Carole's eventual friend, Jean Harlow. (At this juncture, they may have been acquaintances, but likely little more.)

What might "Red-Headed Woman" have done for Lombard? Would this have tapped her inherent comedic skills some two years before "Twentieth Century"? It's doubtful it would have led to her moving to MGM, inasmuch as she was under a long-term contract with Paramount, but it might have set her apart from the large pack of Paramount starlets and put her on more equal footing with the likes of Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins.

Could Carole have pulled off playing the gold-digging Lil the way Harlow did? Hard to say. While Lombard had already gained internal notice in the film colony for her ability to recognize good scripts, it hadn't yet translated into good performances. Then again, the programmers Paramount gave her weren't written by the likes of Anita Loos, so perhaps that would have elicited something heretofore unseen.

Now the question: Why didn't Lombard get the part? Hard to tell from this piece of industry gossip, probably from some syndicate or wire service (if the Chronicle somehow had its own Hollywood writer, his or her byline would have been attached). Jan. 30 was about the time Harlow -- up till now cast for her looks rather than acting ability -- proved her talent with a nice supporting turn in the gangster film "The Beast Of The City." That was made at MGM, as executive (and eventual Harlow husband) Paul Bern persuaded the studio to sign her to a contract. Once that was done, it likely sealed the deal.

There was another name in that Paramount-to-MGM item: Phillips Holmes, who the report said was going to appear in "The Wet Parade":



Holmes, born to an acting family in 1907, spent several years attending elite U.S. and European institutions, including a year at Princeton (where he was a member of the university's Triangle Club theater group). He was coming off a solid year in 1931, including roles in "The Criminal Code," "An American Tragedy" (an adaptation of Theodore Drieser's novel, playing a role reprised by Montgomery Clift in "A Place In The Sun" two decades later) and Ernst Lubitsch's World War I drama, "The Man I Killed" (aka "Broken Lullaby").

Holmes never worked with Lombard, though he had been slated to be her leading man in "The Beachcombers," the film that was briefly shelved because of Carole's illness and then finally made as "Sinners In The Sun." By that time, Holmes had signed with MGM, not making much of an impact there, and his career began to diminish. By the late 1930s, he was focusing on stage work, including "The Petrified Forest" and "The Philadelphia Story."

There is another, more tragic link between Lombard and Holmes. He would join the Royal Canadian Air Force in late 1941 (his mother was of Canadian descent). Holmes attended the Air Ground School in Winnipeg and graduated; on Aug. 12, 1942 -- nearly seven months after Lombard's death -- he and several of his classmates were being transferred to Ottawa when their plane collided with another over Ontario, killing all aboard.

(The 1931 film version of "An American Tragedy," directed by Josef von Sternberg, led to a crucial court case on adaptation rights. For this story, written by Richard Schickel, go to http://www.dgaquarterly.org/BACKISSUES/Summer2010/FeaturesJosefvonSternberg.aspx.)
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