The queen of comedy

Rhoda Koenig celebrates the short life and brilliant work of Hollywood legend Carole Lombard

When asked the most important quality for great acting, the fabulous Tallulah Bankhead replied, "Bone structure, darling, bone structure." It was, indeed, the first thing one noticed about Carole Lombard, but the hollow-cheeked beauty had a great deal more.

When asked the most important quality for great acting, the fabulous Tallulah Bankhead replied, "Bone structure, darling, bone structure." It was, indeed, the first thing one noticed about Carole Lombard, but the hollow-cheeked beauty had a great deal more.

Queen of the 1930s screwball comedies (called "crazy comedies" in England), she personified the anxiety of a nervous age. Graham Greene praised her "neurotic elbows", "bewildered hands", and the "heartbreaking and nostalgic melodies" of her faster-than-thought delivery, as her sweet little cracked-china voice soared into regions only lucky dogs could hear.

But Lombard's dizziness was balanced by a no less intense femininity. Platinum blonde, with a heart-shaped face, delicate, impish features and a figure made to be swathed in silver lamé, she wriggled expressively through such classics of hysteria as Twentieth Century and My Man Godfrey, managing to make lovable even a spoiled, stupid rich girl and a vindictive prima donna.

Lombard entered films early - she was 12 when a director spotted her playing baseball, and she spent her teens in silent-movie slapstick. The experience was useful when sound came in: unlike the trainloads of stage stars who were hastily drafted for the new medium, she was used to physical comedy, to plastic features and emphatic gestures.

The critic James Agee gave her his highest praise by saying she was not a comedian but a clown. Two of her best-known comic sequences involve her going at her leading man with bare knuckle or ankle - following her invective at the treacherous John Barrymore, in Twentieth Century, with a swift kick, and, after being slapped around (for plot purposes) by Frederic March in Nothing Sacred, retaliating with a roundhouse right smack on the button.

When Lombard plays an actress, she is the kind who you could believe carries on acting in the bathroom, like the self-enraptured heroines of Twentieth Century and To Be or Not to Be, who address their husbands as if they were sitting in the gallery(perhaps the only way of making tolerable a union, in the latter, to, of all people, Jack Benny). Often her character is someone to whom lying is as natural as breathing.

In Nothing Sacred, Ben Hecht's classic of contempt, she pretends to have only weeks to live in return for money and fame, from a public voluptuously wallowing in crocodile tears. In True Confession she pleads guilty to a murder she didn't commit for what seems a good idea at the time. But these fantastic improvisations are never cynical. Like everyone else in Depression-flattened America, she is overwhelmed by events; grasping at the miraculous prospect of a good time, she gets carried away.

The crazy comedies, said Greene, belied their name, for they reflected the improbable nature of real life and the often eccentric behaviour of the confused and desperate. Her acting also conflated, as real life does, the touching and the absurd. When the plot of In Name Only requires her to give up Cary Grant, her reaction is not sighs or tears but an endearing cross between a yelp and a hiccup.

Off screen as well as on, Lombard was a manly man's ideal woman. An expert at hunting and fishing (a Hollywood in-joke, the opening shots of In Name Only show her fly-casting with spectacular incompetence), she could beat the boys at poker and win any swearing contest.

Though Lombard was always known for her astonishingly filthy talk, and her pragmatic approach to sex, she took up outdoor sports during her relationship with Clark Gable. (After an affair of two years, they married in 1939.)

The first time they went duck shooting, she suggested a better use for the duck blind than waiting. Gable, a far more phlegmatic lover than his fans imagined, complied, though he complained afterwards it hadn't been easy.

Nor was Lombard's physical courage ever in doubt. At 18, Lombard's face was slashed open by a car accident, and, in order to avoid the scarring that would have occurred if her wound had been stitched up under anaesthetic, she did without it.

Lombard at times played the tragedy queen - with spectacular lack of originality, director John Cromwell had her weeping in one film over a child dying of pneumonia and, in the same year, bravely restraining tears as her lover lay dying of pneumonia in another. But her more usual characterisation was the good sport.

In Made for Each Other, her husband, James Stewart, goes out on a bender when disappointed at his job and staggers home in the small hours. Smiling, she dispenses compassion and comfort as he weaves about their flat, then delivers in his stead his prepared, indignant speech about wives who nag their poor, overworked husbands.

In real life she was noted for practical jokes. Guests at her home were served dinner from bedpans, and at one Hollywood party she arrived in an ambulance, and, wrapped in a sheet, was borne in on a stretcher. Lombard played a more tasteful joke when filming began on Mr and Mrs. Smith, Alfred Hitchcock's only romantic comedy. The director, notorious for his remark that actors were cattle, arrived to find three pretty cows, each with a label identifying it as one of the stars of the picture.

Intensely patriotic, Lombard urged her husband to enlist as soon as war was declared against Germany and Japan at the end of 1941. Two months later, returning with her mother from a rally at which she had set a record by selling $2m-worth of war bonds, her plane crashed into the side of a mountain. She was just 33.

Gable at once enlisted, and 20 years and two wives later, was buried beside her. She had made 42 films, a third of which are well worth seeing. The Depression is long over, but in our Age of the Depressed, they are still a tonic.

The Carole Lombard season runs between 4 and 31 July at the National Film Theatre, London, SE1. The season includes 'No Man of Her Own', 'Nothing Sacred', 'In Name Only', 'Mr and Mrs Smith' and 'To Be or Not to Be' (020-7928 3232)

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