Carole Lombard's "what might have been" stories usually concern what she would have done had there been no fatal plane crash on Jan. 16, 1942. Imagine Lombard living a typical American female lifespan, existing into the 1970s or 1980s -- heck, perhaps witnessing the dawn of the 21st century. (Whether that would be on Jan. 1, 2000 or Jan. 1, 2001 is up to you.)
But as is the case for all of us, a simple twist of fate can send one into an entirely different direction. So it with Lombard, specifically the automobile accident she suffered as a teen. It caused a scar on her left cheek requiring cosmetic surgery, still a fairly new operation in the mid-1920s. A decade after the accident, its effects were there if you examined Carole closely:
Compounding matters is that more than 90 years after it happened, we don't yet know the particulars of the auto accident, such as its precise date (late 1925 or early 1926) or location. All we know it that it happened.
Which leads us to our "what if": Suppose it hadn't happened? The photo at top gives us an idea of what Carole looked like before the crash, when she was a starlet working at Fox.
In yesterday's entry, we ran a writer's recollections of her from the November 1931 Motion Picture magazine. According to Malcolm Elliot, Jane Alice Peters (Lombard's birth name, one she officially retained until late 1936) was "naive and formal and quiet." Nor was she blonde, as we can see. He added her personality since 1925 "had changed completely."
One problem we have with conjecturing is that none of Lombard's half a dozen movies made before the accident survive, lost in a Fox archival fire in 1937. So we can't judge Carole's films firsthand. Moreover, since none of these were starring vehicles for the teen actress, those few reviews -- for the Edmund Lowe vehicle "Marriage In Transit" or the Buck Jones western "Hearts And Spurs," top and bottom, below -- gave no more than cursory notice of her:
Fortunately, Lombard did discuss it years later, and was largely self-effacing in the process. She was 16 or 17 during her tenure at Fox, and admitted being out of her league at the time.
The accident caused Carole to re-evaluate her career, knowing she no longer could solely depend on her youthful good looks. She studied lighting and other tricks of the trade -- not only to enhance her on-screen appearance, but to boost her knowledge of an industry she'd both come to love and was determined to continue work in.
It's entirely possible that a Lombard who continued unaffected might have tried to coast on her beauty. Would that have kept Carole employed as the film industry changed toward the end of the '20s? (Her voice might have been of sufficient quality to keep working, but could she have adjusted to the more naturalistic acting style sound films required? And what might have happened to her career if she didn't?)
In this scenario, Lombard might not have become a star, but perhaps merely a character actress at best, living comfortably but not lavishly. She might have found some other sort of studio work (fashion? makeup?), assisting actors whose breaks she didn't get...and perhaps secretly envying them.
We like to think Carole's stardom was destined to be, but any successful actor knows better than that. And we'll never know whether the 1925 Lombard -- minus the accident -- would've had the drive that would keep her in films by 1935, and beyond.
Tomorrow: Another Carole what-if.