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)

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?