The decision we're referring to likely didn't cost Carole an Oscar, or even a nomination. If it set back her career, it did so only marginally. But for years, it may have nagged at her over what might have been.
That's because she missed out on a chance to star opposite one of Hollywood's most charismatic actors. His name? James Cagney, shown below in a George Hurrell portrait. The film? "Taxi!" released by Warner Bros. through its First National subsidiary in January 1932.
The winds of change swept the film industry in 1931. With the stock market crash of October 1929 finally mutating into a full-blown economic depression, public sensibilities changed -- especially for millions of men who were thrown out of work as their companies collapsed. Cynicism understandably took center stage. Cagney defined this new era for men in movies every bit as much as Clark Gable did...although their personalities were distinctly different.
Both Gable and Cagney were brutish in their early screen roles, and both had a magnetism that drew you to their side anyway. But Gable was a big man, clearly middle American (Ohio), tailor-made for a studio such as MGM which liked its stars big and middle American. In contrast, Cagney was small, pugnacious, intense, urban to the core (he was a native New Yorker) -- ideal for Warners, the upstart studio which had gambled on sound a few years before, won big and was now one of Hollywood's top dogs.
In late 1931, Warners apparently approached Paramount about borrowing Lombard to star opposite Cagney in "Taxi!", a story about independent cab companies in New York trying to make ends meet. Earlier in the year, Cagney had rocketed to stardom in "The Public Enemy," and his star continued to ascend with "Smart Money" and "Blonde Crazy."
Carole, who had been at Paramount for a little over a year, had heretofore not been loaned out to another studio, and perceived it as a demotion of sorts. Moreover, two people in her life -- her husband, William Powell, and her agent, Myron Selznick -- both suggested she decline, according to Lombard biographer Larry Swindell. Powell reportedly didn't see "Taxi!" as a significant picture. So when Carole told Paramount production head B.P. Schulberg she didn't think the film was "right" for her, he acceded to her request and did not loan her out.
As a result, Warners stayed in-house and gave the female lead to an attractive brunette still in her teens, Loretta Young (in what turned out to be her only film with Cagney). And "Taxi!", much to Carole's chagrin, was a decent hit, especially in the northeast urban markets where Warners product was strongest.
"Taxi!" isn't quite a classic, but if you wanted to show the proverbial man from Mars what pre-Code Warners house style looked like, this would be as good an example as any. It's fast, wisecracking (but in a tough urban way, not the fey wisecracking of William Haines a few years before) and you even get to see Cagney speak Yiddish -- what's more New York than that? (He grew up in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, where he learned to speak several languages.)
In the Cagney oeuvre, "Taxi!" is also important as the first film in which he dances, showing off his '20s stage roots. Two actors who would later each appear in a pair of Lombard films have uncredited appearances here, George Raft and Nat Pendleton.
Before the end of 1932, Lombard, who apparently had learned a lesson, did agree to being loaned out -- and ironically, it was for a film about a cab driver played by an actor of Irish descent. It wasn't Cagney, but Pat O'Brien, and the studio wasn't Warners, but Columbia. The film was "Virtue."
It's tantalizing to wonder what Lombard might have been like working at Warners in the early thirties, and whether the studio's rapid-fire style might have hastened her rise to stardom. Lombard eventually wound up at Warners...in 1938, when the studio had lost much (but not all) of its pugnaciousness. Warners was hoping that Lombard, who had just finished her seven-year contract at Paramount, could be its comedic equivalent of Bette Davis. Alas, Warners had no feel for romantic/screwball comedy, as her lone film there, "Fools For Scandal," makes painfully clear.
Here's the only picture I know of Lombard with Cagney; Bing Crosby's in it too, and it reportedly was taken in mid-1933:
Cagney is always a fascinating actor to watch, and last week Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. began a month-long series of Cagney films on Wednesdays. The good news is that there are five Wednesdays in January this year, so you still have four more chances to check him out (some sessions lasting well into Thursdays). The schedule (all times Eastern), which includes "Taxi!":
8 p.m. -- "The Mayor Of Hell" (1933)
9:45 p.m. -- "Each Dawn I Die" (1939)
11:30 p.m. -- "Angels With Dirty Faces" (1938)
1:15 a.m. -- "G-Men" (1935)
2:45 a.m. -- "Blonde Crazy" (1931)
4:15 a.m. -- "He Was Her Man" (1934)
8 p.m. -- "Footlight Parade" (1933)
10 p.m. -- "Something To Sing About" (1936)
11:45 p.m. -- "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942)
2 a.m. -- "Love Me Or Leave Me" (1955)
4:15 a.m. -- "Taxi!" (1932)
5:30 a.m. -- "Other Men's Women" (1931)
6:45 a.m. -- "Picture Snatcher" (1933)
8:15 a.m. -- "Frisco Kid" (1935)
8 p.m. -- "The Fighting 69th" (1940)
10 p.m. -- "The Gallant Hours" (1959)
midnight -- "Captains Of The Clouds" (1942)
2 a.m. -- "Devil Dogs Of The Air" (1935)
3:30 a.m. -- "Here Comes The Navy" (1934)
5 a.m. -- "The Oklahoma Kid" (1939)
6:30 a.m. -- "Tribute To A Bad Man" (1956)
8:15 a.m. -- "These Wilder Years" (1956)
10 a.m. -- "The Irish In Us" (1935)
11:30 a.m. -- "Jimmy The Gent" (1934)
12:45 p.m. -- "The St. Louis Kid" (1934)
8 p.m. -- "Lady Killer" (1933)
9:30 p.m. -- "One, Two, Three" (1961)
11:30 p.m. -- "The Bride Came C.O.D." (1941)
1:15 a.m. -- "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1935)
3:45 a.m. -- "The Time Of Your Life" (1948)
5:45 a.m. -- "The Strawberry Blonde" (1941)
7:30 a.m. -- "Torrid Zone" (1940)
9 a.m. -- "Boy Meets Girl" (1938)
10:30 a.m. -- "Hard To Handle" (1933)