Second in line in this week's Universal Glamour Collection releases is Carole Lombard, that terrific dramatic actress and comedienne known for perhaps the best screwball comedy, My Man Godfrey. The collection groups five interesting pictures (four by Paramount and one from Universal) with a variety of leading men. Besides Godfrey's William Powell, there are two titles with Fred MacMurray, one with Robert Preston and one with Bing Crosby. The inimitable Ms. Lombard is the attraction here, as only two of the pictures are 100% winners. But each is delightful in its own way, as the actress seems able to handle every kind of role.
The majority of the films are script-driven with Lombard excelling at putting across excellent dialogue by big-time writing talent. In every film, even the silly ones, her character is always complex, warm and believable. She also conveys the idea that she's there solely to entertain and delight -- although she's the star, she doesn't demand the usual star prerogatives - the show's the thing. Along with Irene Dunne, Carole Lombard is one 1930s actress who never disappoints.
Man of the World
1931 / 74 min.
Starring William Powell, Carole Lombard, Wynne Gibson, Guy Kibbee, Lawrence Gray
Cinematography Victor Milner
Written by Herman J. Mankiewicz
Directed by Edward Goodman, Richard Wallace
MIchael Trevor (William Powell) is an expatriate working a confidence blackmail racket in Paris. Aided by his partner Irene Hoffman (Wynne Gibson), Trevor collects compromising information on rich Americans for a tabloid they print together. He then pretends to play a helpful intermediary and offers to hush publication of the scandal. But he falls for the niece of one of his marks, Mary Kendall (Lombard). Michael is overjoyed when Mary accepts his full confession and returns his affection in kind, but a jealous Irene tells him that she'll never let him escape the racket.
This fairly early Paramount talkie comes before Lombard's celebrated comedies, although she'd already been in pictures for eight or nine years. It's known mostly for its writer, Herman J. Mankiewicz of Citizen Kane fame, and for the fact that Lombard and William Powell were married in the same year. Powell is the focus of the story. His complicated, refined outlaw is provided with excellent Mankiewicz dialogue. Michael Trevor had a different name as a reporter back in America but made "a young fool's mistake," the nature of which is only hinted at. Disillusioned by his years of petty crime, he's a sad character indeed -- charming and urbane yet lost to the world.
Man of the World is a pre-code movie that carries a strong moral despite the fact that the guilty don't pay for their sins in conventional ways. As directed by Edward Goodman and Richard Wallace, it's a bit slow but never predictable. A surprisingly thin Guy Kibbee is the uncle being blackmailed, and Wynne Gibson is the depressing woman Trevor is stuck with as a partner in crime. Carole plays the changes in Mary Kendall with a minimum of fuss: Spoiled heiress, fascinated girlfriend and committed lover. She receives a powerful shock of disillusion in the subdued climax.
Man of the World leads off the collection with a good choice of 'serious' drama. Image and sound quality is excellent on all the titles, even this 75 year-old show.
We're Not Dressing
1934 / 77 min.
Starring Bing Crosby, Carole Lombard, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Ethel Merman, Leon Errol, Ray(mond) Milland
Cinematography Charles Lang
Art Direction Hans Dreier, Ernst Fegté
Film Editor Stuart Heisler
Original Music Mack Gordon, Harry Revel
Written by Benjamin Glazer, Horace Jackson, George Marion Jr., Francis Martin from the play The Admirable Crichton by J.M. Barrie
Produced by Benjamin Glazer
Directed by Norman Taurog
A yachting party sets the stage for songs, comedy and a lot of drinking. Capricious heiress Doris Worthington (Lombard) can't choose between two attentive swains, Prince Alexander and Prince Michael Stofani (Jay Henry and Ray Milland) but gravitates toward crewmember Stephen Jones (Bing Crosby). He sings and makes merry while taking care of Doris' pet bear. Guest Edith (Ethel Merman) wants Doris to make up her mind so she can claim whichever Prince is left over, while the drunken Hubert (Leon Errol) invades the pilot house and helps wreck the yacht. Lost on a tiny island, the party slowly converts to a new order when Stephen teaches his wealthy friends how to survive. Doris discovers that a pair of naturalists, George and Gracie (George Burns and Gracie Allen), are working nearby. She hides the information from Stephen, just so she can continue to admire how well he organizes the castaways.
Based loosely on the frequently filmed The Admirable Crichton, We're Not Dressing shows Carole Lombard fifteen films later in a silly, almost plotless Paramount musical that plays as an extended comedy sketch like those seen on the Cavalcade of Comedy:
The Paramount Comedy Series 1929-1933 disc. Top-billed Bing Crosby sings most of the songs, with Ethel Merman contributing only a couple. Her tunes are reminiscent of the light novelty numbers given to Martha Raye in later Paramount musical extravaganzas. Leon Errol's unfunny mugging is the most dated aspect of the picture.
Crosby and Lombard carry on an amusing half-romance with a bad case of the cutes: He's a quietly proud sailor and she's tries to provoke him with a slap when she thinks he's out of line. Crosby responds with a peck of a kiss. Comedy filler runs to lowball ideas like having Lombard's pet bear slalom around the deck on roller skates. If that doesn't sound like a laugh riot, there's always Lombard's tuxedoed playboy suitors, fortune hunters more in love with each other than Carole. In case we don't get the context, Errol calls them "a sin against nature." The handsome one is none other than Ray Milland, looking very young and smiling very brightly.
A handy shipwreck puts We're Not Dressing on a tropical island for more songs about the moon and romance. The love-hate lovebird nonsense between the two leads continues, making us think that the picture might be the inspiration for Lina Wertmüller's Swept Away, without the sexual degradation. Tack on fifteen extra minutes of cute George Burns & Gracie Allen routines, add another song, and it's a movie!
Viewers accustomed to the skit-based nonsense of 30s Paramount comedies will have a good time. Bing Crosby does some fancy singing and goes about acting in his relaxed, non-committal style. Ms. Lombard pitches her comedic clowning nicely -- she allows herself to be a spoiled ninny but reserves some respect for her character. By comparison, most everyone else seems to be taking up screen space.
Hands Across the Table
1935 / 81 min.
Starring Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, Ralph Bellamy, Astrid Allwyn, Ruth Donnelly, Marie Prevost
Cinematography Ted Tetzlaff
Film Editor William Shea
Original Music Sam Coslow, Jean Delettre, Frederick Hollander
Written by Norman Krasna, Vincent Lawrence, Herbert Fields from a story by Vińa Delmar
Produced by E. Lloyd Sheldon
Directed by Mitchell Leisen
Overworked manicurist Regi Allen (Lombard) loves it when the salon receptionist Laura (Ruth Donnelly) sets her up with wealthy hotel guests, as she figures her only route from poverty is to marry rich. She hits it off well with not one but two potential millionaire husbands. Gentleman Allen Macklyn (Ralph Bellamy) is restricted to a wheelchair and loves Regi's company. Obnoxious Theodore Drew III (Fred MacMurray) is more Regi's speed, but he's the irresponsible type. Thwarting her own gold-digging aspirations, Regi falls in love with Theodore only to discover he's actually penniless and depending on his own marriage to money for his future happiness. Theodore and Regi swear they'll stick to their plans to be rich, but as they say, the best laid plans ...
In his fine book Talking Pictures Richard Corliss pointed out that Hands Across the Table was an almost perfect synthesis of creative contributions: Paramount's new production head Ernst Lubitsch enlisted writer Norman Krasna, director Mitchell Leisen and actors Lombard and MacMurray in a remarkably successful movie. It's easily the best of the six in this collection. The second-hand Lubitsch touch dodges some powerful censor problems and has so much charm that it survives a rather cruel attitude toward its romantic loser, Ralph Bellamy).
Is this the first time Bellamy played the third wheel in a romantic comedy? Here he's a veritable paraplegic being compared to athletic Fred MacMurray, who plays hopscotch in the hallway. Bellamy gets his hopes up only to have them dashed - the winning lovers leave him empty handed with barely a how-do-you-do. The general goodwill of the movie somehow makes Bellamy's defeat seem like a happy thing.
Better than that, Lombard and MacMurray flat-out share an apartment while strongly attracted to each other and trade mild double-entendre dialogue lines while meeting on the rooftop in their pajamas, etc.. The excellent dialogue gives MacMurray plenty of snappy lines and opportunities for Lombard to parade her full contingent of exasperated faces. None of the comedy has dated. Lombard looks particularly beautiful and perfectly proportioned in this role -- it's hard to believe that she was only five feet four inches tall.
Astrid Allwyn is MacMurray's fiancée, who we know will be thrown over no matter how much money she has. Ruth Donnelly, the queen of the pre-code naughty comedy, is just as good with non-frisky material, and Marie Provost is Lombard's best friend and fellow manicurist. A youngish William Demarest has a good bit as a prospective date who becomes a victim of Carole and Fred's shared practical joking -- they also get a malicious kick out of telephone games.
Hands Across the Table is one of the better movies dealing with Depression-Era New York. The population seems split between the have-nots scraping by and the fabulously rich. Lombard's determination to score a rich husband is emphasized when she blows her bank account (all of $179) in the attempt to gussy herself up, only to find that she's baited the hook for a guy as broke as she is. Billy Wilder must have been partially inspired by this picture when he dreamed up the ultimate show about getting ahead in the rat race, The Apartment.
Love Before Breakfast
1936 / 70 min.
Starring Carole Lombard, Preston Foster, Cesar Romero, Janet Beecher, Betty Lawford
Cinematography Ted Tetzlaff
Art Direction Albert S. D'Agostino
Film Editor Maurice Wright
Original Music Franz Waxman
Written by Herbert Fields, (Preston Sturges) from the novel Spinster Dinner by Faith Baldwin
Produced by Edmund Grainger
Directed by Walter Lang
Wall Street tycoon Scott Miller (Preston Foster) can't pry Kay Colby (Carole Lombard) away from her businessman boyfriend Bill Wadsworth (Cesar Romero), so he buys Wadsworth's company and has him reassigned to Tokyo! Scott then proceeds to woo Kay with every advantage his money can buy, which infuriates her. Kay's mother (Janet Beecher) appears to be giving Scott inside tips on his matrimonial pursuit. Worse, when Bill discovers that he's been shanghaied, he's still more interested in playing loyal to the company than coming home to Kay. The final blow to Kay's pride comes when Scott admits defeat and backs off from his romantic campaign: She realizes that she misses him.
Love Before Breakfast's clever and unusual script plays as if it was meant to be given a much more satirical spin. The central romantic triangle has an awkwardly forced conflict that reverses expectations: The big boss scuttles Kay's relationship almost like the story of David and Bathsheba, by exiling his competition. He then forces himself upon Kay in a manner that today plays as harassment plain and simple -- showing up where he's not wanted and pursuing her around town like a bloodhound. He even gets Kay's party date drunk so he can take his place.
The point of all this unwelcome aggression seems to be that powerful men know best and silly women like Kay need to know when to give in. The script gives her no help whatsoever. When her boyfriend Bill does come back, he's a spineless fool much too easily pushed around. The final act plops the two of them into a sinking sailboat, while Kay stubbornly refuses to be rescued by sailors from Scott's yacht. Scott remains cool and in control. A crazy ending has them being married at his insistence, while she screams and argues -- but illogically says yes.
Preston Sturges is said to have made an uncredited contribution to the script. Love Before Breakfast might have become the basis for a brilliant Sturges comedy, yet is subverted into a normal romantic farce. Whatever point was intended, the final one is that women are hysterical clods who need to be corralled by strong men. The stronger the woman, the tougher one has to be. I don't think I'll be trying that philosophy at home.
The script doesn't play on a level field character-wise, either. At this time Cesar Romero specialized in gigolos and toothy seducers, and he makes Bill Wadsworth seem completely unworthy of Kay's devotion. One might see some wisdom in trying to keep one's job or staying loyal to one's company even when given a disagreeable work assignment, but poor Bill is cast as a loser for not throwing his career away by punching Scott in the nose. Are we to believe that Kay would follow him, and go live in a cold-water tenement?
Preston Foster is practically devoid of charm in a role that, to be appealing, would require a Cary Grant. Scott Miller manipulates Kay with the same self-confidence he uses to buy and sell companies, with the result being that we keep hoping for some deserving man, any man, to walk into the movie to take her away.
As for Lombard, she's consistently good as usual. She must have been a highly intelligent actress who "got the joke" and required little explanation to make a character work. In this film she seems to know that her only recourse is to play the part as a near-hysterical ditz ... and she's very good at it.
Walter Lang directs smoothly, if invisibly. Betty Lawford has a few moments as an insignificant romantic threat, and Joyce Compton has one scene as a party guest made the butt of a joke just for being sweet and having a Southern accent. In one scene Lombard gets Preston tangled in a fight with five or six college athletes, among them a young Dennis O'Keefe.
The Princess Comes Across
1936 / 76 min.
Starring Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, Douglass Dumbrille, Alison Skipworth, George Barbier, William Frawley, Porter Hall, Lumsden Hare, Sig Ruman, Mischa Auer, Tetsu Komai
Cinematography Ted Tetzlaff
Art Direction Hans Dreier, Ernst Fegté, A.E. Freudeman
Film Editor Paul Weatherwax
Original Music Phil Boutelje, Jack Scholl
Written by Philip MacDonald, Frank Butler, Walter DeLeon, Don Hartman, Francis Martin from a novel by Louis Lucien Rogger
Produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr.
Directed by William K. Howard
The imperious Swedish Princess Olga (Lombard) boards an ocean liner bound for America, to star in a Hollywood movie. That kicks bandleader King Mantell (Fred MacMurray) out of the liner's royal suite, but not before he decides that the princess is the girl for him. The boat is also carrying an escaped killer, five international police experts on a vacation (Douglass Dumbrille, Lumsden Hare, Sig Ruman, Mischa Auer, Tetsu Komai) and a professional blackmailer (Porter Hall) who has three potential customers to corner -- and two of them are Mantell and the Princess.
The boat captain (George Barbier) tips us off in which direction the movie will go when he grumbles that there's bound to be trouble with so many famous policemen on board. The Princess Comes Across is a snappy, polished entertainment combining a murder who-dunnit with romantic comedy. It's a great combination, even if Carole Lombard's leading character sometimes takes a back seat to the expertly crafted Charlie Chan-type mystery plotting. Handsome Fred MacMurray once again has excellent chemistry with Lombard, with his smart-talking but somewhat aloof concertina-playing (!) bandleader. One gets the idea that MacMurray's touch of blandness allows more room for Lombard's character. As he's not yet a big star, he won't break the studio budget either.
Carole Lombard does an all-out Greta Garbo imitation that's so good, it threatens to rob her of a character. She and her fake royal chaperone Alison Skipworth have a number of amusing run-ins with MacMurray and his agent William Frawley until the Princess' secret is revealed. It's tied up in the blackmail-murder plot with a body found in her royal suite.
The collection of amusing character actors are an under-used asset, with Mischa Auer pleasantly subdued as a stereotyped Russian sleuth (from Stalin's Soviet Union?) and Japanese detective Tetsu Komai obviously planted as a mild suspect simply because of his race. The identity of the true killer is deftly handled and the picture works up a good deal of suspense, although Lombard's character sits most of this part of the story out. Just the same, The Princess Comes Across is gets the prize as the second most entertaining picture in the collection.
1937 / 85 min.
Starring Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, John Barrymore, Una Merkel, Porter Hall, Edgar Kennedy, Lynne Overman, Fritz Feld
Cinematography Ted Tetzlaff
Art Direction Hans Dreier, Robert Usher
Film Editor Paul Weatherwax
Original Music Sam Coslow, Frederick Hollander
Written by Claude Binyon from the play Mon Crime by Louis Verneuil, Georges Berr
Produced by Albert Lewin
Directed by Wesley Ruggles
Habitual liar Helen Bartlett (Lombard) clashes with her lawyer husband Kenneth (Fred MacMurray) as she's forever humiliating him with her tall tales, most of which she tells because of their money problems -- the only clients Kenneth is offered are ridiculously guilty, and he's too honest to take them on. Against Kenneth's wishes, Helen answers an interview for a suspiciously high-paid job as a part-time personal secretary and runs out when her prospective boss chases her around his desk. But when she returns to fetch her hat and coat, the man is dead. Helen is a key suspect thanks to some terribly inconvenient coincidences. Even Kenneth thinks she's guilty and recommends that their defense be based on the idea that she did shoot the murder victim. Foolish Helen agrees to admit to a killing she didn't do. As their trial date nears, a barfly named Charley (John Barrymore) takes an unusual interest in the case ...
True Confession is truly a mess, a poorly constructed comedy thriller that isn't particularly funny. The story makes us to worry about whether Carole Lombard's truly ditzy heroine will go to the electric chair, which keeps what humor there is from taking hold. We also concentrate on the specifics of the murder that don't make sense -- where the murder gun came from, where it went, etc. The tone is all wrong, as we don't believe Lombard's Helen Bartlett can be so stupid. If she is, how can her husband have any respect for her? MacMurray's Kenneth is a humorless straight man, which leaves it up to best friend Una Merkel to get a joke in sideways every once in a while.
One of the few amusing scenes has the rather dumbbell detective played by Edgar Kennedy throw a hypothetical scenario at Helen to suggest that she's guilty. Helen has so little regard for the truth that she enthusiastically joins in, and then suggests several more scenarios that end up with her the guilty party -- she thinks he's making up stories, her favorite activity. In court, this nonsense is interpreted as Helen confessing, recanting and then confessing again. It certainly doesn't work as comedy but is at least psychologically consistent.
Finally, John Barrymore's unfunny character comes in out of left field, affecting a Charlie Chaplin walk and mumbling incoherent aphorisms. After some flat comedy business in a bar, his big contribution is to let air out of balloons during the trial for a series of lame flatulence jokes. And when he shows up in the third act to extort blackmail, what tension the story had just disappears. Helen and Kenneth are now rich because she's channeled her overactive imagination into writing. She's still impossible, but Kenneth cannot resist her.
What makes True Confession not only watch-able but fascinating is the Lucille Ball connection. Comedienne Ball is on record as idolizing Lombard as her idea of the perfect actress: Beautiful, smart and with a gift for comedy. Ball always said she modeled her I Love Lucy character after Lombard, and this movie must have been the template Ball was talking about.
Lombard's Helen is constantly inventing silly fibs and schemes to get around her husband's wishes. It's taken for granted that it's hubby's place to lay down the law, but Helen repeatedly sabotages their relationship out of innocent enthusiasm -- she always means well but she's an immature loon. That description fits Lucy and Ricky Ricardo to a "T." Helen Bartlett does more subtle versions of Lucy's trademark schtick, even reacting to being caught red-handed with a crybaby exclamation once or twice. Lucy makes her eyes dart gleefully back and forth as she plots her next mini-crime, while Helen has a habit of sticking her tongue into her cheek just before she invents her next whopper of a lie.
True Confession is slickly made, as are all of these pictures, but it's really unsatisfying, the kind of show that would turn audiences against the idea of Screwball comedies. Comedy must be the toughest kind of movie to make -- on paper, this dog might seem just as funny as something like Bringing Up Baby. Every picture needs to be pre-visualized for its effect, but a really sophisticated comedy has to be a tight collaboration between like-minded writers and actors to even begin to have a chance.
Playing a bit in the courtroom scene is the beautiful Toby Wing, famous as the smiling blonde to whom Dick Powell croons Young and Healthy in 42nd Street.
Carole Lombard: The Glamour Collection takes us only up to 1937 but gives a good overview of the kinds of pictures she made in between her major hits Twentieth Century and My Man Godfrey. Mr. & Mrs. Smith and her last film To Be or Not To Be are now considered equal classics but were at the time overshadowed by Lombard's tragic early death at the age of 33. Her absence created a gap that was never filled by other actresses, as her versatility was unmatched. There's no doubt but that, had she lived, she would have continued making exciting pictures. Clark Gable's career probably would have been much different as well. They were devoted to one another and the loss seemed to take away some of his acting spark.
The collection is a fine re-introduction to a major talent's lesser-known films. The bargain disc set may have no extras, but the transfers, audio and digital encoding is very good on all of the titles. Someone at Universal's DVD branch is making excellent choices with these Glamour Collections.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Man of the World rates:
Movie: Very Good
We're Not Dressing rates: