There are many fine books on the art of Carole Lombard and other stars of the classic era of romantic comedy, and one of my favorites is a volume written by Maria DiBattista, a professor of English and comparative literature at Princeton University, called "Fast-Talking Dames." It looks at how Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck, Myrna Loy, Rosalind Russell (whose work in "His Girl Friday" defines the term) and others showed American womanhood in a new, liberated light -- one that inspires many women even today.
Lombard is one of DiBattista's favorites, and part of a chapter called "Blonde Bombshells" is devoted to her (along with Jean Harlow and Ginger Rogers)...but she also looks at the Lombard who couldn't talk on screen -- the one who was part of Mack Sennett's late twenties' bathing beauty troupe -- as a precursor to the fast-talking dame. "The heroines of slapstick comedies are not so much impertinent dames (as the heroines of talkies clearly are) as rambunctious hoydens."
DiBattista notes that the Sennett girls focus "on group antics that center around a boisterous ringleader" -- a role that usually went to Lombard.
One film she cites is "The Girl From Everywhere," which begins with a silhouette of a shapely female; a title card then asks, "Where does the bathing girl come from?" We see a pair of stockinged legs, which look glamorous -- but then we discover she's a short-order cook flipping hamburgers. Our next pair of gams are crossed, and belong to a typist. Then we see "a comely pair of slender horse legs, a hilarious visual gag in itself, but one that has a bonus shot when the camera pans upward to reveal Carole Lombard perched magnificently on the horse's back." A set of leggy girls are then shown dashing to a site off camera range; it's Sennett's studio wardrobe, a "fitting place" (get the pun?) to find a bathing beauty. In fetishizing the female leg, Sennett preceded Frank Tashlin by several decades.
This type of agile, comical movement was a key to the development of the fast-talking dame, DiBattista writes. "In Carole Lombard we can see how the slapstick training carries over into her dynamic physical performances in 'Twentieth Century' and 'Nothing Sacred.'"
So, in other words, this...
...eventually led to this...
One wishes Lombard's Sennett work (she made about a dozen shorts) was more readily available. Two of them, "The Campus Vamp" and "Matchmaking Mamas," from which the first and second Sennett stills above are derived, are extras on a budget DVD of "Nothing Sacred." Part of "Run, Girl, Run" was used in the compilation "The Golden Age Of Comedy" issued half a century ago. With Lombard's centennial on the horizon, someone should have the initiative to assemble several of these shorts on a DVD, giving fans a chance to view a side of Lombard that's often neglected -- but one that played a major role in her comedic maturation. In other words, the silent treatment helped turn Carole into a "fast-talking dame."