“That twinkle in your eye,” Clark Gable marvels at Carole Lombard in No Man of Her Own. “Wrap it up for me, will you?” It’s a moment of unguarded onscreen thirst, and watching the film now, as part of KL Studio Classics’ new “Carole Lombard Collection I,” it functions on multiple levels. It’s easy to focus on the backstory – that film is the one and only onscreen collaboration between Gable and Lombard, who would fall in love and marry years later, in one of the great Hollywood romances (and tragedies). But that scene, in which Gable’s cardsharp first meets and falls for Lombard’s small-town librarian, would be riveting even if the relationship ended when the picture wrapped. Gable’s character is clearly beguiled by Lombard’s – and so is the actor. And so was pretty much everyone who watched her, in any of the films she made before her death in a plane crash in 1942, at 33 years old.
KL’s new collection is by no means comprehensive, though the “I” in its title is a hopeful indicator that there will be more. It includes three Pre-Code comedy/dramas from her early days as a contract player for Paramount – not yet billed above the title, but stealing each handily from their ostensible stars with her sheer magnetism and charisma.
Fast & Loose is a sophisticated 1930 comedy from director Fred C. Newmeyer (one of Harold Lloyd’s go-to guys), adapted by an up-and-coming Preston Sturges from the play The Best People. The plot is pure hokum, in which the patriarch (Frank Morgan) of an upper-crust family is horrified that his young adult children may marry normies and blow the family’s blue chip stock. As the (gasp) chorus girl his wealthy young son wants to marry, Lombard is stuck in what’s decidedly a supporting role, only appearing in a handful of scenes; the female lead is Miriam Hopkins, then a stage star making her film debut.
Hopkins is a more than serviceable leading lady – she would later star in Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living, and Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, among others – but here she comes off like a drip. Or maybe she just seems like one next to Lombard, who is such a light, right off the bat. You just can’t take your eyes off her. The suits at Paramount apparently agreed, keeping Lombard crazy busy; they’d put her in five pictures the following year. One of them was the short, snappy romantic comedy Man of the World, starring William Powell as a newspaperman and con artist (the screenplay, unsurprisingly, is by newspaperman turned screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz); Lombard is the niece of a mark whom Powell falls for.
It’s hard to blame him. In this larger role, she’s able to unleash her specific, playful energy; she’ll put a kick into a line sometimes that’ll just sock you in the jaw. And her chemistry with Powell is bonkers. In their first scene, they lock eyes like a starving man looking at a steak, and after one day, she’s drafting Dear John letters to her fiancé. You don’t second-guess her.
The energy between Powell and Lombard was genuine. The actors married three months after the picture’s release (and only a month after their second film, Ladies’ Man, hit theaters), and while the union was brief, they remained close after their divorce, co-starring in the magnificent My Man Godfrey in 1936. Though a Pre-Code picture, Man of the World isn’t terribly naughty – but it does indulge in the kind of bummer ending that would become increasingly rare in major productions. The pair is so good together that the outcome is genuinely shocking, though it does allow them the opportunity to go out on a bittersweet note, and the things they’re both doing, in their eyes and faces, in their final scenes are genuinely remarkable.
No Man of Her Own, released the year after, is definitely the naughtiest of the bunch, in both subject matter and her jaw-dropping costumes. Gable stars as a cardsharp and ladies’ man: “I’m a hit and run guy,” he brags to the latest dame he’s leaving behind. “I’m free, see! And ankle chains gimme the jitters!” It’s the kind of set-up where you know he’s going to meet his match.
Potent as it was, the chemistry Lombard generates with Powell pales next to what she’s doing with Gable here – you can power a small city with the electricity they’re throwing at each other. She’s resistant at first to the advances of this New York slickster: “Sorry, I’m very busy,” she insists, and he immediately replies, “I’m very sorry too!”
But soon enough, they’re exchanging a scorching first kiss in the stacks, and when he asks, “What do you do with all the hearts you break,” he means it. But point Gable; when she hurries away with a dismissive, tossed off, “See you in church,” he shows up at her church. And while No Man of Her Own may not be one of the all-time great Lombard comedies, her panicked, labored breathing after he slides into the pew next to her is a great comic moment.
Lombard was still married to Powell when she made this, her only film with Gable, though they reportedly not only kept the romance onscreen, but didn’t even spark much off; they would reunite and eventually marry years later. So it’s perhaps too easy to chalk up the sparks of these movies to her partners. That was all Lombard, in the spin she’d put on a line like “You wouldn’t ruin a lady’s reputation, would you,” where she could manage to sound both careful and hopeful. Would you? “Carole Lombard Collection I” isn’t filled with the kind of classics you’d expect from a box with that title (Twentieth Century, Hands Across The Table, Godfrey, To Be or Not To Be). But it offers up something more valuable: a chance to watch a promising actor finding their footing, exploring their style, and turning into a movie star before your very eyes.
“Carole Lombard Collection I” is out this week from KL Studio Classics.