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James and Jill as Clark and Carole

The film biography, or "biopic," has been part of Hollywood production since silent days. They've resulted in some classic portrayals: Gary Cooper as Sgt. Alvin York in 1941 and as Lou Gehrig the following year, George C. Scott as George Patton in 1970, or Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in 2004.

Every now and then, Hollywood turns the biopic spotlight on itself, and unfortunately, the results rarely reach the heights cited above. In the late 1950s, there were biopic on Lon Chaney and Buster Keaton that drew middling reaction. And in the mid-1970s, with a renewal of interest in the '20s and '30s, similar pics were attempted. One was called "W.C. Fields & Me," told from the viewpoint of the comic's longtime mistress. Another dealt with the subject of this community and her second husband. It was called, appropriately, "Gable And Lombard"...



Universal released the film around Valentine's Day of 1976, sensing it had a winner on its hands. The story of the romance between two of Hollywood's icons and beloved personalities seemed like a "can't miss" proposition.

But it missed -- big-time. Reviews were devastating, audiences stayed away and instead of a winner, Universal was left with a turkey.

What happened with "Gable And Lombard"? All sorts of bad things. First, there was the casting. Producers made no bones about their zeal to have the hot young star Burt Reynolds play Gable; he had much of Clark's charm, and with the mustache, he resembled him somewhat. But Reynolds repeatedly turned them down, saying, "I'll play Tom Mix, because Tom Mix is dead. I only play dead people. But at night, when I turn on the television and I see Gable - he's alive."

Steve McQueen was also offered the chance to play Gable, with his wife at the time, actress Neile Adams, playing Lombard, but they rejected it, too. "Neile's no Lombard and I'm no Gable," he said. (One actor who wanted the Gable role, but was never offered it, was David Janssen.)

Finally, a young actor named James Brolin was cast as Gable, and another relative unknown, Jill Clayburgh, was cast as Lombard.



Physically, they don't quite resemble Clark and Carole, although no one expected complete verisimilitude. And they try their darndest to capture the spirit of these two cinema icons. But they fall short...and to be fair, the fault isn't entirely theirs. (Each moved on to better things -- the TV series "Hotel" for Brolin, a series of hit movies for Clayburgh.)

No, the problem is primarily due to the direction and the script. Director Sidney J. Furie, who first gained prominence with "The Ipcress File" in 1965, had directed another biopic, "Lady Sings The Blues," in 1972, with Diana Ross as Billie Holiday, and it was a big success (although many musicians who worked with Billie said the film didn't accurately capture her spirit). This film has many of the same problems. (Furie, who's been directing films since 1959, is still active at age 74. His later credits include "Superman IV: The Quest For Peace," generally considered the weakest of the Christopher Reeve "Superman" films.)

But the chief culprit in "Gable And Lombard" is the script, written by Barry Sandler (apparently no relation to Adam). He got his big break by showing up at Raquel Welch's front door with a script he'd written for her -- which she liked. It was filmed as "Kansas City Bomber" in 1972. This was his next assignment. (And contrary to popular belief, the script was not derived from Warren G. Harris' fine book "Gable & Lombard," issued the previous year.)

If Sandler has a feel for Gable, Lombard or Hollywood history, it certainly doesn't show here. Instead, you sense the story of Clark and Carole has been shoehorned into a cliched romance script -- not tailored to fit what actually happened. And while no one expects complete historical accuracy in a biopic, the errors here are numerous -- and embarrassing:

* Carole is shown as a bigger star than Clark, something that never happened. (While Lombard was indeed popular, her highest box-office rating was #12 in 1937; for much of the thirties, Gable was consistently in the top ten.) At her peak, she did have a higher salary than Clark's, thanks to her shrewd business sense.

* Clark and Carole are here shown meeting for the first time at a party in 1936 (and in cliche terms, they "meet cute," with her damaging his car). Actually, they initially met filming "No Man Of Her Own" when Gable was loaned to Paramount in late 1932, while Lombard was married to William Powell; they got along well on the set, but no sparks flew. From all accounts, they didn't keep in touch.

* Perhaps most inexcusably, Gable was shown in uniform at the time of Carole's death in a 1942 plane crash returning from a war bond rally in her native Indiana. Lombard was far more interested in world affairs than Gable, and many believe Clark enlisted out of guilt for what had happened to his wife -- something that would have been far more poignant than what was shown on screen. (Gable was known to have cried publicly at a 1944 ceremony christening a Liberty ship named for Lombard; one wishes that had been used.)

There's also little texture to the lead characters. Gable is presented as a simpleton who likes to hunt and fish (that part may have been true, but he was no dimwit), while Lombard comes off as a foul-mouthed harridan. Her intelligence is ignored, as are the human qualities that made both Clark and Carole so popular within the film community.

As it turned out, the critics were merciless.

Vincent Canby in the New York Times:
"As written by Barry Sandler and directed by Sidney J. Furie, 'Gable and Lombard' recalls not 'Gone With the Wind,' 'Honky Tonk,' 'Twentieth Century,' 'Nothing Sacred' or 'To Be or Not to Be,' but clichés culled from the worst movies of that period. The actors don't help. James Brolin and Jill Clayburgh look a little like Gable and Lombard and a little more like Hamilton (George) and Lynley (Carol)."

Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times:
"The witty and sensual Lombard of 'Twentieth Century' and the sly Gable of 'It Happened One Night' would hardly recognize themselves as the innocents portrayed by Furie and his actors, Jill Clayburgh and James Brolin...we don't get a notion of their private lives, and we don't even remotely learn from this movie what made them great stars and personalities. Brolin does, indeed, look a lot like Gable -- but imitation here has nothing to do with flattery."

Pauline Kael:
"Limply raunchy, meaningless picture, with nothing to say about the movies, about love, or about stardom. The moviemakers couldn't come up with any subject but the sex drive of its hero and heroine, who keep hopping on each other like deranged rabbits. One of the most famous quotes in Hollywood history is Lombard's 'My God, you know I love Pa, but I can't say he's a hell of a lay.' Their love affair must have had a great many things going for it besides sex, but this movie can't imagine what they might be."

In 1976, many major cities still had repertory houses, so moviegoers could discover Clark and Carole's charms on the big screen. And, of course, many of their films were also regularly seen on television. So to audiences, this portrayal of an ersatz Gable and Lombard didn't come off well and soon faded into oblivion.

One wonders what this project might have been like in other hands, at other times (with a better, more accurate script, of course). Imagine a late-eighties "Gable And Lombard" with Tom Selleck (assuming he didn't go the Burt Reynolds route and decline) and Michelle Pfeiffer (perhaps the one actress of the past few decades who rivals Lombard in sheer luminosity).

The '76 "Gable And Lombard" showed a final image of the real Clark and Carole from the only movie they made together, "No Man Of Her Own." So let's do likewise and close with the real thing:

Tags: barry sandler, biopic, burt reynolds, carole lombard (liberty ship), clark gable, gable & lombard (book), gable and lombard (movie), james brolin, jill clayburgh, michelle pfeiffer, no man of her own, pauline kael, roger ebert, sidney j. furie, steve mcqueen, tom selleck, vincent canby
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