When Carole Lombard handled publicity for a week at Selznick International Pictures in July 1938, most of her contacts were with columnists such as Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper or Jimmie Fidler. There were film critics in those days, to be sure, and a few had clout, especially at upscale New York papers (think of the Times or Herald Tribune) and a few elite magazines, but they had relatively little impact on the mass audience.
We may have reverted to something like that today; huge advertising budgets and simultaneous openings in thousands of theaters have certainly rendered most critics impotent. Even a perceptive critic and brilliant writer such as the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert doesn't have the influence he had before his health problems. But for a time, critics mattered. Several come to mind, such as Andrew Sarris, leading U.S. proponent of the auteur approach to film criticism, but perhaps the most controversial critic of her time was the daughter of a chicken rancher from the Bay Area who wrote for the New Yorker for roughly a quarter of a century.
We're referring to Pauline Kael.
Whether one agreed or disagreed with her observations, Kael's lyrical writing style was impossible to ignore. While she believed in quality cinema, she didn't suffer fools -- or pomposity -- gladly.
Not many are aware that before she joined the New Yorker, Kael spent several years as programmer for a repertory house in Berkeley in the 1950s and wrote program notes about the films she had selected. Someone apparently has a near-complete collection of these notes, and it would be fascinating to see them in print or online, comparable to the notes William K. Everson wrote for his film classes at the New School (http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/100352.html).
Fortunately, we do have the next best thing. Kael occasionally wrote brief, anonymous reviews for the New Yorker's "Goings On About Town" section, eventually expanding her coverage to include revivals. (Until the videocassette and DVD revolution decimated things, New York arguably had the liveliest film repertory environment in the U.S.) Eventually, these were compiled into a book, "5001 Nights At The Movies" (actually, only about 2,800 films are listed); it has had several printings since it first appeared in 1982. Moreover, just about all of these can be found online at http://www.geocities.ws/paulinekaelreviews/index.html.
A baker's dozen of Lombard films can be found in the book, and Kael is generally a fan of Carole's, though she doesn't hesitate to criticize her work at times. (Kael was born in 1919, and probably saw many of these movies at the time of their release.) Here are her thoughts:
Bolero (1934): George Raft, wearing pants that start at the armpits, and Carole Lombard (before she became a star comedienne), in clinging satin. The Astaire and Rogers pictures were making money for RKO, so somebody at Paramount got the idea of passing off Raft and Lombard as a dance team. The studio poured every sultry effect shameless people could dream up into this movie, and, almost incredibly, got by with it -- though it was low camp even then. In the big number, set to Ravel's Bolero, Raft and Lombard gyrate on a circular elevated platform while bare-chested black men sit around them, pounding on drums. Some of those who saw the picture in the 30s could never again keep a straight face when they heard that music. With Ray Milland, Sally Rand and William Frawley; directed by Wesley Ruggles.
Hands Across The Table (1935): Carole Lombard as a manicurist on the lookout for a wealthy husband meets Fred MacMurray, a fellow who grew up rich but is now broke and intends to marry an heiress. Cynical about romance, these two hang out together while waiting to land their prospective mates. Hers is to be a kindly millionaire (dreary Ralph Bellamy); his is the pineapple king's daughter (Astrid Allwyn). But what you expect to happen happens. As the manicurist puts it, in blunt, archetypal 30s terms-"Hardboiled Hannah was going to fall in love with a bankroll! You can't run away from love." This isn't one of the first-string slapstick romances of its period, but it's a pretty fair example of the second string. Basically uninspired, it's determinedly irreverent. You can see the jokes being set up; when the payoff comes, you're already tired. But MacMurray knows how to read a good line when he gets one, and though he isn't the subtlest of farceurs, that works just fine with Lombard because of her gift for uninhibited comedy. Lombard is the rare performer whose enjoyment of her own jokes adds to the audience's pleasure. Mitchell Leisen, directing his first comedy, had Ernst Lubitsch, the production chief at Paramount, guiding him. With William Demarest, Ruth Donnelly, Marie Prevost and Edward Gargan. From a Viña Delmar story, adapted by Norman Krasna, Vincent Lawrence and Herbert Fields. Cinematography by Ted Tetzlaff.
In Name Only (1939): Slinky Kay Francis is the cold-hearted wife in name only. All she wants of her husband, Cary Grant, is his wealth and social position, while he is so desperate for a divorce in order to marry the companionable Carole Lombard, a young widow with a small daughter, that he becomes ill and almost dies of pneumonia. This is one of the rare movies in which the robust Grant actually has sickbed scenes. John Cromwell directed this "mature" (Dodsworth influenced) view of marital incompatibility, which emphasizes the wife's shrewdness in manipulating her in-laws. It's a solemn, soapy picture, but with unusually good performances. With Charles Coburn as Grant's father, and Helen Vinson, Peggy Ann Garner, Katharine Alexander, Alan Baxter, Maurice Moscovitch and Nella Walker. Adapted by Richard Sherman, from Bessie Breuer's novel "Memory of Love." RKO.
Made For Each Other (1939): Carole Lombard and James Stewart as plain, ordinary struggling young married folk in New York, having money troubles. The film, written by Jo Swerling and directed by John Cromwell, manages to jack up a little excitement when the couple's baby gets sick and serum must be flown from Utah. The mercy plane goes through a storm, gales, blizzards, thunder, and lightning. You'll be relieved to know that the serum arrives in the very nick of time, and the husband gets a promotion. With Charles Coburn, Lucile Watson, Harry Davenport, Eddie Quillan, Esther Dale and Louise Beavers. Produced by David O. Selznick; released by United Artists.
My Man Godfrey (1936): In this entertaining (and hugely successful) screwball comedy about the Depression, Carole Lombard is a rich, gorgeous nit who goes to the city dump to find a "forgotten man." The man she finds -- a suave, bitter victim of the economic collapse -- is played by William Powell. When she tells him she needs to take him back to a party in order to win a scavenger hunt, he asks what that is, and, sighing, she says, "A scavenger hunt is just like a treasure hunt, except in a treasure hunt you find something you want and in a scavenger hunt you find things you don't want and the one who wins gets a prize, only there really isn't any prize, it's just the honor of winning, because all the money goes to charity if there's any money left over, but then there never is." Lombard has a delirious, breathless plaintiveness at a moment like this -- recognition dawning in her. The movie starts out with a promising satiric idea and winds up in box-office romance, but it's likable and well-paced even at its silliest. Lombard shrieks happily and Powell modulates impeccably. With Mischa Auer doing a simian imitation to amuse his patron, Alice Brady. Also with Franklin Pangborn, Grady Sutton, Jean Dixon, Gail Patrick, Alan Mowbray, Eugene Pallette, and, in a bit part, Jane Wyman. Directed by Gregory La Cava, from a screenplay by Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind. Like several of the Astaire-Rogers musicals, this film has a sleek and silvery Art Deco look; the black-and-white cinematography is by Ted Tetzlaff. Universal.
Nothing Sacred (1937): A screwball satire that was a huge success. What are generally sentimentalized as "the little people" are the targets of this famous 30s comedy. Ben Hecht, who wrote the script, has them dripping crocodile tears over a girl they think is dying of radium poisoning, and enjoying every minute of it. The audience may begin to wonder what makes the reporter-hero, Fredric March, and the girl, Carole Lombard -- who was by that time "the Duse of daffy comedy" -- any different. The answer can only be that they, like the author, hate phoniness. William Wellman's direction is more leisurely than usual; he has such good material here that he takes his time. There are classic sequences: March, the New York City sophisticate, arrives in a small town and learns how the natives feel about strangers when a small boy runs up and bites his leg; the swozzled Lombard passes out while showgirls impersonating the heroines of history parade in her honor. And a great slugging match between March and Lombard. With Walter Connolly as the dyspeptic big-city editor, Charles Winninger as the alcoholic small-town doctor, Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom in his acting début, and Frank Fay, Margaret Hamilton, Monty Woolley, Hattie McDaniel, John Qualen, Hedda Hopper and Sig Rumann. (The film spawned a Broadway musical, "Hazel Flagg," as well as a movie with Jerry Lewis in the Lombard role.) A David O. Selznick Production.
Rumba (1935): Paramount, having succeeded at the box office with the pseudo-primitive sexuality of "Bolero," pushed its luck the next year in this attempt at a follow-up. George Raft and Carole Lombard carry on some wriggling activity that is meant to be dancing. The film is beyond disaster. With Lynne Overman, Margo, Iris Adrian, Gail Patrick, Monroe Owsley and Samuel S. Hinds. Directed, in a spirit of hopelessness, by Marion Gering.
They Knew What They Wanted (1940): The Sidney Howard play was highly regarded in 1924, and Hollywood was drawn to this adulterous drama of the San Francisco waitress who agrees to marry Tony Patucci, an Italian grape grower in the Napa Valley, and then, in spite of herself, is seduced by the bridegroom's hired man. It was filmed in 1928 with Pola Negri and in 1930 with Vilma Banky. In this version, Carole Lombard sucks in her gorgeous cheeks and tries to look as if she's desperate to escape a life of poverty and drudgery; while Charles Laughton, as the goodhearted Tony, wears overalls and a droopy mustache, waves his arms ebulliently, and laughs with so much Latin gusto that even Anthony Quinn might be stunned. Lombard and Laughton work at their roles seriously, but who wants to see her in dowdy clothes thinking thoughts, and who wants to see him being earthy and simple and wise? (He has some ingenious moments but his "ethnic" acting isn't remotely Italian-American -- at times he might be playing Charlie Chan.) Directed by Garson Kanin, from Robert Ardrey's adaptation; edited by John Sturges. With William Gargan as the hired hand, Harry Carey as the virtuous Doc, and Frank Fay, in one of the least convincing performances of all time, as a purehearted padre. Everybody involved seems to be working against the grain. The picture, which is permeated with spiritual sentiments of the tackiest variety, is like a fake antique. RKO.
To Be Or Not To Be (1942): Some people have great affection for this anti-Nazi comedy-melodrama, with its knockabout seriousness. The stars are Carole Lombard and Jack Benny, bizarrely cast as a famous Polish actress and her actor-husband; the plot involves actors disguising themselves as Nazis in order to foil the Nazis. Ernst Lubitsch, who directed, starts off on the wrong foot and never gets his balance; the performers yowl their lines, and the burlesque of the Nazis, who cower before their superior officers, is more crudely gleeful than funny. With Robert Stack, Lionel Atwill, Stanley Ridges, Felix Bressart, Tom Dugan (as Hitler), Sig Rumann, Maude Eburne, Halliwell Hobbes and Miles Mander. Produced by Lubitsch and Alexander Korda, for United Artists. Edwin Justus Mayer wrote the script, from a story conceived by Lubitsch and Melchior Lengyel. Cinematography by Rudolph Maté. It was Lombard's last film; two weeks after completing it, she was killed in a plane crash while on a tour to sell defense bonds.
True Confession (1937): It rarely turns up, though it's one of the most affable of Carole Lombard's screwball comedies. She plays an extravagant, compulsive liar -- a young wife whose confession to a murder fools even her prim lawyer-husband (Fred MacMurray). John Barrymore, who had brought out Lombard's slapstick talent in "Twentieth Century," plays an eccentric, tippling criminologist and swipes the picture; "She'll fry," he chuckles to himself during her trial. The characters of the husband and wife are too simplified and their comic turns too forced, but the general giddiness and Barrymore keep the picture going. The director, Wesley Ruggles, was one of the original Keystone Cops; Claude Binyon adapted the play by Louis Verneuil and Georges Berr; cinematography by Ted Tetzlaff. With Una Merkel, Edgar Kennedy, Lynne Overman, Porter Hall and Fritz Feld. Paramount.
Twentieth Century (1934): A first-rate hardboiled farce about theatrical personalities. John Barrymore was a great farceur, and his performance as the egomaniac producer Oscar Jaffe is a roaring caricature of theatrical drive and temperament. It was Carole Lombard’s performance as Jaffe’s protégée, Lily Garland (nee Mildred Plotka), who has become a movie star, that established her as a comedienne. Lombard’s talents here are not of the highest, but her spirits are, and in her skin-tight satins she incarnates the giddy glamour of 30s comedy. Most of the action takes place on the crack train of the title -- the Twentieth Century, going from Chicago to New York -- which represented the latest thing in speed and luxury. The script, by Hecht and MacArthur from their play (which was a reworking of Bruce Millholland’s play "Napoleon of Broadway"), is freely, carelessly irreverent, with affectionate, corny ethnic humor and wisecracks about religion. Howard Hawks directed in a fast, entertaining style -- punching up the lines; it’s the style he later perfected in "His Girl Friday" (from Hecht and MacArthur’s "The Front Page"). With Ralph Forbes, and a batch of character actors whose faces were once as familiar to audiences as the faces with great names. Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Charles Levison, Etienne Girardot, Edgar Kennedy, Edward Gargan and Herman Bing. (The material was recycled in the 1978 Broadway musical "On The Twentieth Century.") Columbia.
Vigil In The Night (1940): This adaptation of an A.J. Cronin novel was a mistake from the word go, but the director, George Stevens, plodded ahead valiantly, dressing up the hopeless. Given the most resplendent makeup and lights, Carole Lombard glows with foolish nobility in the role of a trained nurse who takes the blame for a frivolous -- and fatal -- mistake by her student-nurse kid sister (Anne Shirley), also lighted phosphorescently; you expect the two girls to rise to Heaven by their cheekbones. After a solemn while, a busload of people are maimed, and eventually the beautiful nurses and Brian Aherne, as the doctor Lombard loves, become involved in an epidemic of cerebrospinal fever. With Robert Coote, Peter Cushing, Brenda Forbes, Doris Lloyd and Ethel Griffies. RKO.
We’re Not Dressing (1934): Light, easy-going Paramount musical comedy about the wreck of a yacht on a desert island, taken (very loosely) from J.M. Barrie's The Admirable Crichton, one of the most serviceable of screen sources. Bing Crosby is the sailor; the spoiled heiress is Carole Lombard; he doesn't bat her around the way the hero of Lina Wertmüller's shrill "Swept Away" does. The other passengers are lecherous Ethel Merman (who sings "It's Just an Old Spanish Custom"), and Ray Milland and Leon Errol as rich prigs. The island, fortunately, isn't deserted; Gracie Allen and George Burns turn up, as naturalists living there. Norman Taurog directed; the Harry Revel and Mack Gordon songs include "Love Thy Neighbor" and "She Reminds Me of You."