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Carole and the quake -- a "Supernatural" thing?

One of the things that made Carole Lombard such a legend was her personality, and the anecdotes told about her, handed down from generation to generation by people who actually worked with or knew her, are legion. Perhaps my favorite came from director Sidney Salkow in Danny Peary's book "Close-Ups," a series of essays on Hollywood personalities. Salkow, who directed an assortment of horror films and eventually directed a few episodes of the dark sitcom "The Addams Family" (he also taught film for many years at Cal State-Northridge), was dialogue director on Lombard's 1933 film "Supernatural."



According to Salkow, Lombard wasn't happy working for director Victor Halperin, and promised -- through her famed inventive invective -- that she'd get back at him. Well, during shooting one day, an earthquake hit southern California, and the Paramount lot went into a frenzy; as the ground rumbled, people ran for safety. Soon after the quake stopped, Carole walked towards Halperin, pointed at him, and said, "Victor -- that was only a warning!" It's a wonderful anecdote, full of Lombard's iconoclastic humor; one easily can imagine her saying something to that effect.

First of all, some historical background: a major earthquake indeed struck southern California at about 5:54 p.m. on Friday, March 10, 1933. Its epicenter was offshore, near Long Beach, the city that bore the brunt of the damage. More than 110 people died. The toll could have been far higher had it occurred while school was still in session; many school buildings, such as Jefferson High School (below) suffered severe damage, and the state of California subsequently mandated that all school construction be quake-resistant.



The city of Los Angeles had its share of damage, although its effect on the film industry, largely based north and west of downtown, was relatively light. But it came at a time when people in the business were experiencing their share of jitters. While Hollywood had survived the Wall Street crash of 1929, experiencing a boom in 1930 thanks to the novelty of talking pictures, the economy suffered a major downturn in 1931, which is when the Depression began for good. By 1933, America was at its economic nadir (Franklin D. Roosevelt had been inaugurated the Saturday before the quake), and the movie biz was not immune. Box office receipts were declining, and studios asked everyone -- executives, actors, writers, technical people -- to accept salary cuts to keep the industry from collapsing. In fact, at the time of the quake, several stars, among them Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert and Jack Oakie, were meeting with industry officials about taking a 50 percent pay cut.

A sliced salary may have been in the back of Lombard's mind at the time of the quake. More likely, she was upset over this latest assignment from Paramount. "Supernatural" -- in which Lombard played a socialite (with a young Randolph Scott as her boyfriend) whose soul was possessed by a serial murderess (Vivienne Osborne) -- was a horror film, a genre Carole heretofore hadn't performed in (and, as things turned out, never would again).



Perhaps Lombard feared if this tale of spiritualism was a success, she might wind up typecast in such roles, along the lines of Fay Wray, or bound to obscurity, as what happened with Olga Baclanova after she appeared in "Freaks" at MGM. And this wasn't high-class horror, such as "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," in which Miriam Hopkins had appeared with Fredric March the year before. No, this was a programmer. Halperin had come to Paramount after directing the successful independent "White Zombie," and Lombard, who had yet to distinguish herself in any particular genre, was handed the lead role.



Despite her distaste for horror, Lombard is convincing portraying a possessed woman after a rather lackluster first half of the film. It helps that the movie is only about 65 minutes long, and thus never bogs down. All in all, an intriguing anomaly in the Carole canon.

But did Salkow's anecdote really take place? Apparently so, but it didn't occur while Lombard was filming a scene. According to a contemporary account in Time magazine, when the quake struck, she "was flung from a fitting stand in the wardrobe room." By this time, Carole had been a southern California resident for nearly two decades and had probably experienced her share of minute quakes, so the ground shaking wasn't a new sensation for her, albeit never to this degree. It's likely she sought out Halperin immediately after things subsided.

It's a great anecdote, just another part of the Lombard legend.
Tags: earthquake, supernatural
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