Neither Carole Lombard nor Clark Gable had anything to do with the MGM film "Marie Antoinette," but when it premiered at the Carthay Circle Theater on July 9, 1938, they were among the invited guests -- and some 25,000 fans jammed the area near the theater to see Carole, Clark and many other screenland notables arrive.
There were many film fanatics in those halcyon days, people for whom Hollywood meant everything. And thanks to a former actress turned columnist, we've learned the surprising background of one of them.
The writer was Hedda Hopper of the Los Angeles Times and its syndicate; as we've previously noted, her Sunday columns provided in-depth discussions of Hollywood topics, whereas her weekday pieces tended to be more this-and-that. Her column of Dec. 10, 1939 focused on a fan -- and what a fan:
Her name was Elizabeth Bergin, and she lived not far from Hollywood Boulevard Since arriving in town from Rock Island, Ill., in the early '20s, she estimated she had attended some 500 premieres or previews; that would have been about 30 per year. A pretty enviable total. There's an excellent chance she was part of the record-breaking throng for "Hell's Angels" in 1930, and for Frank Capra's "Dirigible" a year later, both at Grauman's Chinese:
What's more amazing is that Bergin was hardly a lifelong film fan, because when she was born, motion pictures didn't exist. According to Hopper, Bergin would turn 70 in January 1940, thus making her some 6 1/2 years older than Lombard's mother, Elizabeth Peters. (Records later showed she was actually born in 1869.) Thomas Edison didn't make his first films until Bergin was in her mid-twenties, and by the time she had turned 40. motion pictures were evolving into a business, but the star system had yet to be created (http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/268617.html).
To say that Bergin diligently followed the industry would be an understatement. Here's what Hopper saw once she entered Bergin's house:
"At first glance I thought I was in the office of one of the production executives of a picture company. Clipped to the walls were charts showing pictures in the making, casting notes, autographed pictures of Mary Pickford, Mae Marsh and other old-timers."
Bergin noted the stars by now recognized her, noting that "I was at a movie ball once and when Clark Gable came along I shouted over: 'Here comes my boy friend.' But I apologized later to Mrs. Gable and said, 'I hope you didn't mind, did you?'" (We presume said "Mrs. Gable" was not Lombard, though Bergin called Carole's first husband, William Powell, the best actor, with Bette Davis as best actress.) While Lombard isn't mentioned in the story, I'm almost certain Bergin was at several of her premieres.
But times were changing, much to Bergin's dismay. She noted she had actually passed up a recent premiere, for "We Are Not Alone," and she apparently harbored no grudge against its star, Paul Muni; rather, it was the subject matter: "I knew it had something to do with war and there's such sadness on the air and in the newspapers I wish they wouldn't remind us of it on the screen."
My search for additional information on Bergin, such as an obituary, proved fruitless, but a check of California death records by William M. Drew discovered she died Oct. 5, 1946; if or when she stopped attending premieres, or what happened to all the film-related material she accumulated, is unknown. It was fans such as her who made the movie industry so profitable, so special to the hearts of millions. I'm certain both Clark and Carole appreciated seeing this "regular" at virtually every Hollywood premiere they attended.
Oh, and speaking of premieres, when "Citizen Kane" opened at the El Capitan in May 1941, Lombard was likely curious about Orson Welles' creation, but didn't want to attend for fear of alienating the Hearst press. So the invitation she received was instead used by a surrogate -- her mother. (Carole finally caught "Kane" at a private screening later in the year.)