It's hard to imagine that six calendar years, plus roughly three months, have elapsed since Carole Lombard's centenary in October 2008. As was the case for other cinematic legends, the anniversary appropriately was celebrated in all sorts of ways, including a 23-film Lombard festival at the fabled Film Forum in lower Manhattan that fall.
On Nov. 20, 2008, Terrence Rafferty of the New York Times wrote a long feature about Lombard and the secrets to her lasting appeal in a piece entitled "Forever Screwball, Forever Fearless" (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/23/movies/23raff.html?_r=0). For some unknown reason, we didn't write anything about Rafferty's article at the time -- but it's never too late to make amends, so here are some of the things he had to say, along with our thoughts on those things.
He initially examined the festival's first two films, the classics "Twentieth Century" (left) and "My Man Godfrey." He saw them as two sides of the same comic coin:
"In 'Twentieth Century' she plays a diva-like actress, Lily Garland, who is trying, with little success, to wiggle out of the clutches of her ex-lover and mentor, the flamboyantly manipulative theater director Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore). It’s one of her wildest, most assertive performances, and it has to be, because going up against Barrymore in full cry is a formidable challenge for a relatively unknown young actress: subtlety wouldn’t have gotten her very far. So she shouts and rolls her eyes and stamps her feet and generally flings herself about, and manages to fight Barrymore to a draw. (Lily isn’t as fortunate with Oscar.)
"But in 'My Man Godfrey' she’s quiet, distracted, almost wispy, playing a goofy Park Avenue socialite who has, to her surprise, fallen in love with her family’s new butler: for most of the picture she just follows suave Godfrey (William Powell) around their swanky digs, moonily, pausing only occasionally to meditate on the unfairness of life and/or the cruelty of fate. She glides soulfully, Ophelia-like, across the polished floors; her words come out in a soft rush, in breathy blurs of romantic nonsense."
Rafferty wrote Lombard's performances sometimes gave more conviction to her characters -- or their films -- than they deserved:
"It’s remarkable to watch her, for instance, impersonating a prostitute attempting to go straight in Edward Buzzell’s 1932 melodrama 'Virtue': her face is touchingly open when she’s with the man she loves, hard and opaque when she’s with anybody else, and her voice changes timbre too, from delicate to tough and back again. The movie is unworthy of the loving care she puts into her performance, but you can’t help feeling grateful."
One wonders whether Rafferty -- who has written about film for the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Village Voice and GQ in addition to the Times -- today would come to the same conclusion about "Virtue," which many now regard as Lombard's best pre-Code performance aside from "Twentieth Century."
Calling "brazen imposture" her special talent, Rafferty had this to say about Carole's career:
"She was a star, that is, at a time when make-believe was the order of the day, and movie audiences didn’t much care whether what was being put over on them was benign or, maybe, a little bit nasty. There was some strange pleasure to be had in the spectacle of people not being who they seemed to be, some comfort in the idea that you didn’t have to be who, in those stressful times, you actually were."
With that in mind, it's perhaps understandable why his favorite Lombard performance apparently is 1937's "Nothing Sacred":
"'Nothing Sacred,' written by the former Chicago reporter Ben Hecht (who, with Charles MacArthur, also wrote 'Twentieth Century'), is one of those superbly cynical Depression-era newspaper comedies in which the Fourth Estate is portrayed, with ambivalent affection, as the biggest con in town. Hazel Flagg fits right into this self-delusive world, the bright-lights culture of big-city tabs and their credulous readers.
"And Carole Lombard slips into this role like a model into a clingy haute couture evening gown, wears it as if she’d been born in it. Hazel fools everybody — even, at times, herself — and Lombard lets you see every tiny flicker of the character’s wavering belief in her own performance, and makes it all blissfully funny. Hazel’s stunt, like the extended stunt of Lombard’s career, is tricky, improbable. You’d have to be crazy to try it, and crazier still to pull it off."
Thankfully for us, Carole was sufficiently fearless to make her Hazel Flagg work.