Above is a group portrait of Carole Lombard and 16 other Paramount notables which ran in the July 1931 Photoplay. It's an intriguing mix of stars alongside her -- one genuine legend (Gary Cooper), a few other long-term stars (Kay Francis, Sylvia Sidney, Jack Oakie), and many who achieved only fleeting success and are barely remembered today. A month later, Motion Picture ran another Paramount group shot, this one showing Carole with Groucho Marx and Fay Wray, among others (judging from Lombard's outfit in both pics, they may have been taken on the same day):
Now, let's pretend we've traveled back to 1931 and can have either or both groups of stars join us in 2014, in a universe where they somehow don't have their previous identities (we're not trying to do a Second Coming-style resurrection here, folks). Who'd succeed in today's Hollywood, and who wouldn't?
Someone recently asked this question to San Francisco Chronicle film critic and syndicated columnist Mick LaSalle, author of the invaluable pre-Code tomes "Complicated Women" and "Dangerous Men":
Dear Mick: Is a great actor a great actor regardless of the time period, or are there actors you feel only "worked" because of the time period? Would, for example, Carole Lombard or Tyrone Power find work in Hollywood today, or would Tom Hanks be popular in the '20s?
Tom Torriglia, Ravenna, Italy
It's every bit as fascinating a question as whether Ty Cobb or Rogers Hornsby in their prime could star in the major league baseball of 2014, or if Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera could have cut it in the deadball era (assuming the color line wasn't a factor)
Here's the opening part of LaSalle's reply:
Dear Tom: To become world famous before the age of 30 (which usually is the case with movie stars) requires incredible luck, the equivalent of rolling sevens over and over and over, so it's very possible that removing any career from its time period would prevent its happening at all. But just for the sake of argument, let's imagine that the same stars have the same luck -- as in, the same opportunities - in another era to show what they have to offer. Would they have the same appeal? I think most would. Obviously, they would have to adjust, but they had to adjust to the tastes and fashions of their own time, too. Most would manage our era just fine.
Anyway, in some cases, we don't have to guess. For example, we know that Carole Lombard would succeed in any era because she does succeed -- show her in a movie from 75 years ago, and everybody still falls in love with her. I'm less sure about Tyrone Power, but he looked a lot like Zac Efron, and Efron's career is doing just fine, so maybe Power would be like him.
(Somehow I can't picture Power starring in "High School Musical," or Efron doing "Nightmare Alley." But I digress. Oh, and speaking of Tyrone Power, here he is with Carole and Clark Gable...)
Later, LaSalle adds this qualifier:
As for Tom Hanks, it's hard to imagine this phenomenon in reverse. By that I mean, I can easily imagine Carole Lombard if she knew about our world, but I can't imagine who Tom Hanks or George Clooney or anyone modern would be if they knew less than they know, as in nothing of our era -- although I have said before that Jennifer Aniston would have made a very good silent film actress.
(Methinks Mick is using a bit of sarcasm here -- I doubt he's trying to compare Jen to Constance Talmadge or Colleen Moore.)
I've long maintained that if that aforementioned time machine could thrust classic stars into today's world, Lombard -- with her sense of modernity (she was a feminist by 1930s standards) -- would have less difficulty adjusting than most of her peers...that might not be true for the 1931 Carole, who still was a work in progress, but it certainly would have been for the more fully formed actress of mid-decade. (A Lombard born in October 1988 instead of October 1908, shaped by our environment and her own personal history, would of course feel right at home.)
However, Tom from Italy asked would the 2014 edition of Carole find work? With her talent, she certainly would, but it would be a different sort of work than she'd have found 80 years ago.
The entertainment industry has drastically changed from that of the so-called golden age of Hollywood, before television arrived and developed (not to mention cable, satellite and the multitude of media available to consumers). The motion picture industry Lombard so loved during her brief lifetime isn't very female-friendly; few big-budget features starring women get the green light today. It's a far cry not just from the '30s and '40s, but only a few decades ago. Think of Goldie Hawn, a box-office giant at the start of the '90s who not only starred in, but produced her own films:
A current-day Carole might show more interest in television, though one wonders whether she'd be happy playing one role on a series that might be a long-running success rather than being able to explore different facets of her acting personality.
But Mick was right about one thing -- Carole Lombard has the power to make us still fall in love with her more than 105 years after she was born, more than 70 years since she left us. And that kind of magic transcends time machines.