A question for you: How many people have you had contact with in one form or another (met in person, wrote, talked on the phone with, etc.) who knew Carole Lombard? (Yes, this is sort of the Kevin Bacon "degrees of separation" parlor game.)
I can think of probably five, which sounds like a lot after all these years and may well be a good total for someone outside the movie industry. (Someone like Peter Bogdanovich, who's not only a director but a writer and film historian, must have met dozens if not hundreds.)
In 1969, I and my family met Jack Benny while we were at a hotel in Niagara Falls, N.Y.; he was performing in the area. In 1990, I wrote a fan letter to Myrna Loy, who autographed and returned the photo I sent her. I once talked on the phone with Alice Faye while doing some movie research (not about Lombard), and while I've never seen a photo of her and Carole, I can't imagine their paths didn't cross at one time or another.
I met Garson Kanin, who of course directed Lombard in "They Knew What They Wanted" and described her so vividly in his book "Hollywood"; he signed a paperback copy of it for me at the short-lived Biograph revival house on West 57th Street in New York, at which time I told him I was jealous of anyone who knew Carole. (I still am.)
And there was one other person who knew Lombard whom I met, shook hands with and received his autograph:
He's Douglas Fairbanks Jr., whom I met in 1995 at Film Forum in New York, when it was showing a retrospective of his father's films and he personally introduced them one night (if I recall correctly, they were a few of his dad's comedies of the teens, before his career veered towards swashbuckling adventure). After the films, I met him -- he looked every bit as distinguished as you recall him from those wool commercials he made in the '80s and '90s -- shook his hand, and he autographed my Film Forum schedule program (which I still have today).
Being the son of an icon -- much less sharing his name -- couldn't have been easy, but Doug Jr. had a fine career in his own right, carving out his own identity as an actor, a writer and raconteur. In his first autobiography, he mentioned knowing Lombard in the 1920s (the second book was about his exploits during World War II). That I was aware of, but according to a noted Hollywood columnist, his ties to Carole could have run far deeper.
The other day, I mentioned that a thread at a Turner Classic Movies message board is examining Hollywood's halcyon year of 1939, day by day, through the Minneapolis Tribune. That newspaper, although not part of the Hearst chain, did carry its popular film columnist, Louella Parsons, and on Jan. 12, here's what she had to say:
Louella opens her column by saying:
"Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., will have to tear himself away from his favorite charmer, Zorina, and return from New York to Hollywood. Young Doug, you see, has big business in two of our important movies. Not only has he been chosen to play opposite Carole Lombard in 'Memory Of Love' at RKO, but he has a later date with Paramount studios for the role of Lancelot in 'Knights Of The Round Table.' I reckon the older Doug will get a kick out of his son donning doublet and hose in the King Arthur epic, for it's the very type of swashbuckling role that Fairbanks senior likes best..."
(Parsons' column also noted that Luise Rainer had signed to do a New York stage play, fulfilling a longtime goal. Jan. 12, 1939 was her 29th birthday, and yesterday she celebrated her 101st. Hope you caught her interview with Robert Osborne last night, which was done at the inaugural TCM Classic Film Festival last April.)
So Doug Jr. was set to be a Lombard leading man...but what was this "Memory Of Love" Louella was writing about? Well, this trade ad from later in 1939 provides an answer:
It's mentioned in the fine print as the novel adapted for this film, "The Kind Men Marry"...what?
Actually, the co-stars shown with Lombard give it away. Carole, Cary Grant and Kay Francis were the leads in Lombard's first film for RKO, "In Name Only." As recently as two years earlier, Grant and Fairbanks Jr. may have been viewed at the same commercial level, but hits such as "Topper," "The Awful Truth" and "Holiday" had since elevated Grant to higher ground.
Initially, this drama was seen as yet another Grant teaming with Katharine Hepburn, but poor box office for their previous film ("Bringing Up Baby"!) led RKO to make Lombard the leading lady. (She, in turn, successfully lobbied to make her friend Francis, then struggling at Warners, the third part of this romantic triangle. Today is the anniversary of Francis' birth, and TCM in the U.S. is showing 10 of her films during the day, although "In Name Only" isn't among them.)
As for "Knights Of The Round Table," Paramount apparently shelved it; a film by that title wasn't made until 1953 at MGM, starring Robert Taylor as Lancelot, Ava Gardner as Guinevere and Mel Ferrer as King Arthur. That was probably a disappointment to Anglophile Doug Jr., but far sadder news occurred later in 1939, when Doug Sr. passed on.
I should add that this list almost had a sixth member; unfortunately, I never got the chance to talk with Robert Stack when he appeared on a New York radio call-in show in 1986.