Carole Lombard was a major film star, but that wasn’t the only medium where she found success. True, television was in its embryonic stages at the time of Lombard‘s death in early 1942, but its predecessor for mass home entertainment -– radio –- gave Carole a chance to show off her talents in a somewhat different way than she did in the movies.
On radio, her status as one of filmdom’s great beauties meant nothing; it didn’t matter how well her makeup was done, how tightly her gown clung or how shiny her silk stockings were. Here, it was all in the voice, the delivery, the timing.
Save for one short-lived show, Lombard never regularly appeared on a radio series -– movie work precluded that. However, there were a number of programs that featured film actors in radio dramas, either original stories or movie adaptations. Carole and many other stars supplemented their studio incomes by appearing on these shows.
Radio and Hollywood had a somewhat delayed marriage once sound arrived for good in the late 1920s. For the most part, film studios were suspicious of the new medium (although Warner Brothers started a radio station in Los Angeles, KFWB, even before establishing Vitaphone). And though the radio industry had matured by the early 1930s, the costs of coast-to-coast transmission were too prohibitive to allow the eastern-based NBC and CBS networks to regularly broadcast from the Pacific time zone.
But in early 1936, AT&T lowered its transcontinental land-line rates after an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission, and a struggling two-year-old program took advantage of it. Since its debut in October 1934, the “Lux Radio Theater,” had been based in New York -- first on NBC, then on CBS -- with adaptations of Broadway plays.
On June 1, “Lux” made its debut in Los Angeles with something called “The Legionnaire And The Lady,” a retitled adaptation of the 1930 film “Morocco.” The star of that movie, Marlene Dietrich, appeared on air, with Clark Gable -– one of several movie stars who had guested on the show in its New York days -- taking the male lead that Gary Cooper had played onscreen. (Gable is shown above on a later "Lux" adaptation of "It Happened One Night" with fellow cast members Claudette Colbert and Walter Connolly.) Famed director Cecil B. DeMille was dubbed the show’s producer in its new home, though he actually had little to do with the series other than serve as host.
Many in the radio business thought J. Walter Thompson, the advertising agency working with Lever Brothers, makers of Lux, was taking a costly gamble by moving the show to Hollywood and increasing its budget –- including paying $5,000 to the lead actor and actress on each broadcast. But the move paid off; ratings more than doubled, giving CBS dominance of Monday night.
“Lux” showed it was now economically feasible for radio networks to go west and tap Hollywood’s star power, as other programs took to the air featuring film notables in adaptations or original dramas. And a number of radio stars with movie careers moved their series, too. NBC and CBS each built studio complexes in Los Angeles where the likes of Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen and others could host programs.
Okay, Lombard fans, here’s where Carole comes in.
The precise date of Carole Lombard’s first radio appearance isn’t known, although it has been documented she and other Paramount stars took part in syndicated promotional recordings called “The Movie Parade” as far back as November 1933. She is also said to have appeared on Bing Crosby's radio series in April 1934, not long after they made the film "We're Not Dressing." It's known she made an appearance Jan. 7, 1937, in an hour-long program, “Paramount’s Silver Jubilee,” a tribute to its founder, Adolph Zukor. Lombard was one of many studio stars to take part in the show, hosted by Jack Benny.
Less than a month later, on Feb. 1, she was one of many stars –- including Gable -– to take part in a benefit program for the Red Cross on NBC to aid victims of recent floods in the Midwest. Originating from Hollywood, New York, Chicago and Miami, the stars included Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Ben Bernie and Dorothy Lamour.
Carole’s first bona fide guest star appearance on a network entertainment program came on May 16, 1937, on NBC’s Red network, the second-ever episode of “The Chase & Sanborn Hour.” While the host was Don Ameche, a radio veteran on his way to film acting fame, the lead performers were ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his puckish wooden alter ego, Charlie McCarthy. Lombard worked with both acts on the show, doing a scene from her breakthrough film, “Twentieth Century” (with Ameche in the John Barrymore role) and Charlie doing his darndest to woo Carole in a skit. Bergen and McCarthy solidified their presence on the show over the years, and Lombard made four subsequent appearances on the program through 1940; however, if recordings of those other four were made, they have yet to be found.
Many years later, Ameche noted that Lombard was understandably reluctant to appear on the air. “She knew that I had to make her look bad –- not because I did it intentionally, I never did –- I just did the best that I could. But she was that smart; she knew that she couldn’t master that medium in one quick time.” Keep in mind that in radio, you didn’t have multiple takes, and so actors such as Lombard whose stage experience was minimal felt at a disadvantage. And some, such as Joan Crawford, were even more terrified of the medium than Carole was.
Perhaps this was why Lombard came relatively late to “Lux” -– a show where she would command far more airtime than on a variety program. One guesses she studied the radio medium with the same concentration she used to become an expert on lighting and cinematography. She didn’t make her debut on the series until May 9, 1938; by that time, more than 90 “Lux” episodes had aired from Hollywood, and some stars with comparable stature in the industry such as Dietrich, Colbert and Barbara Stanwyck had appeared on the show multiple times. And for her first appearance on “Lux,” Carole played it safe, appearing in an adaptation of her 1936 smash hit, “My Man Godfrey,” with former husband William Powell also reprising his role from the film. (One of the supporting cast members, David Niven, played Godfrey in a rather pointless Technicolor remake in 1957, with June Allyson portraying Lombard’s character, Irene.) To add further comfort, one of the guests interviewed during intermission was Madalynne Field, Carole’s friend since silent days and now her business manager.
Lombard apparently gained so much confidence in her radio skills that in her next “Lux” appearance, she tackled a role performed on screen by none other than Bette Davis. “That Certain Woman,” a rather soap opera-ish tale about a one-time gangster’s moll now having an affair with a lawyer before her past comes to haunt her, made the screens in 1937 and frankly wasn’t one of the finer film moments for either Davis or co-star Henry Fonda -– which may be why neither participated in the “Lux” adaptation. (Basil Rathbone took the Fonda role.) This aired on CBS on Oct. 31, 1938, some 25 hours after Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater, on the same network, had scared many Americans out of their wits with their contemporary adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “War Of The Worlds.”
In early 1939, Carole decided to join several other stars in a new NBC series, “The Circle,” a modern-day audio version of the 1920s Algonquin Round Table. Unlike that fabled group, this bunch lacked Harpo Marx (who never spoke in character and thus had no value for radio) -– but it did have Groucho and Chico, along with Ronald Colman as host, Cary Grant, Madeleine Carroll, Jose Iturbi and others. NBC and its sponsor, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, invested a lot of money into the show and put it on a prime Sunday night slot. So what happened? It flopped, becoming one of radio’s major disappointments, and Lombard left long before its single season concluded. Only one episode of hers is currently available, the Jan. 22, 1939 broadcast in which she tells what it would be like if women ran the world. (This was not extemporaneous; the entire show was scripted, possibly another reason for its demise.) Oh, and on that episode, Cary Grant sings -– yes, sings -– FCC radio station identification regulations!
One other “Circle”-related story: After one broadcast, Groucho -– who had known Carole when he and the Marxes were also at Paramount –- asked her how she and Gable were getting along. Lombard replied, “He’s the lousiest lay I’ve ever had in my life.” Would that “The Circle” had been anywhere near as candid.
The remainder of Lombard’s radio career will be discussed in an upcoming installment (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/4082.html).