In my three-plus decades of Carole Lombard fandom, I've seen many fascinating things regarding the career of my all-time favorite actress. And last night, I crossed one more thing from my Lombard "to-do" list:
I finally saw "I Take This Woman," her 1931 pairing with fellow Hollywood legend Gary Cooper.
For decades, viewing this movie was deemed impossible, as it was feared lost. But in 1998, a 16mm print was found at the home of author Mary Roberts Reinhart, whose 1927 story "Lost Ecstasy" was adapted into a film. The print, acquired by Lombard fan Tom Toth (who died this past December), was restored and was shown in June 2001 at New York's Film Forum, then made the rounds of the revival circuit and a few other venues. Nevertheless, relatively few have seen it.
But not many knew that a 35mm print existed -- and because rights issues with the Reinhart estate apparently had kept the title out of circulation, it was in close to pristine condition. The UCLA Film and Television Archive got hold of the print, upgraded and restored it...and Friday, it was shown to the public in 35mm form for the first time since the 1930s on the opening night of UCLA's Festival of Preservation.
First, let's get technical: This restored print is in fabulous shape, with all the visual and aural subtlety you'd want from a 35mm film. (In one closeup of Carole, the scar from her mid-1920s automobile accident is clearly visible.) Kudos to the restoration and preservation people.
Now to the movie itself -- is it worth watching? Artistically, it wasn't anywhere in the league of the other half of the double feature, Ernst Lubitsch's elegant masterpiece, "Trouble in Paradise." (This was such a popular film, even into the television age, that UCLA archivists had to use all sorts of sources to create a restored version.) It was duly noted that at this stage of their careers, neither Lombard nor Cooper had fully grown into their cinematic personas.
It's more a programmer than a masterpiece, but still valuable viewing for fans of both Carole and Coop. He's the laconic westerner who hadn't quite developed the depth that would make him a favorite of both Lubitsch and Frank Capra; she hadn't established herself yet, playing an earnest eastern heiress not that far removed from the Irene Bullock of her "My Man Godfrey" half a decade later (minus Irene's comic magic). They have genuine chemistry in their love scenes.
Sent to a stay at her family's Wyoming ranch following her latest escapades, Lombard's Kay Dowling bets she can conquer Cooper's cowboy Tom McNair. But something about Tom has piqued Kay, because she decides to stay with him when her train heads back. They marry and build a life together in a small shack without her fortune, but the isolation drives her nuts and she returns east, planning to secure a divorce. Tom, now a trick-riding star in a circus, sees her with his new troupe and Kay comes to the conclusion he was right for her all along.
Paramount initially envisioned the property as a starring vehicle for Nancy Carroll before she fell out of favor with the studio (according to the Internet Movie Database, Ann Harding and Fay Wray also were considered before Lombard drew the assignment). It premiered at about the same time Carole married William Powell, and the marriage plus her illness following their honeymoon may have prevented Lombard from taking advantage of the good reviews she got at the time.
So what's next for this upgraded "I Take This Woman"? More reperatory playings? A video or DVD release? An airing on Turner Classic Movies or some other channel? We'll have to wait and see -- but let's hope many more Lombard (and Cooper) fans have the opportunity to see this title and judge it for themselves.