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Carole Lombard, Comedienne

January 25, 2011

by John Farr

The star of this week’s Reel 13 Classic, Carole Lombard, left us tragically, but she made her mark with comic genius.


Twentieth Century (1934)

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WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) creates a star in the beautiful Lily Garland (Carole Lombard), then alienates her, causing a decline in his own fortunes. He happens upon Lily (now embarked on a Hollywood career and on the luxurious Twentieth Century Limited train) and while she is a captive audience, attempts to woo her back into the Jaffe fold.

WHY I LOVE IT:

One of the great early screwball comedies, and an opportunity to see Barrymore in his funniest performance as the desperate, histrionic Jaffe. As Lily, Lombard is leading lady gorgeous, but also possesses unmatched comic flair. The screenplay, by partners Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, moves as fast as that train. Get on-board.


My Man Godfrey (1936)

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WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

Through a contest only the idle rich could invent, a daffy family hires a forgotten man from skid row to become the new butler in their zany household. Younger daughter Irene (Lombard) proceeds to fall in love with him. Godfrey (Powell), however, is not precisely who, or what, he seems.

WHY I LOVE IT:

Gregory La Cava’s sublime “Godfrey” blends screwball elements with more serious overtones on Depression-era class injustice, to create a wildly entertaining yet thought-provoking movie that holds up beautifully. The term debonair was indeed coined for Powell, and Lombard makes for an adorable ditz. (Trivia note: the two stars had been married briefly several years earlier, but had divorced amicably, and remained good friends). Highlights: comic actor Mischa Auer as Mrs. Bullock’s “protégé”, along with the rotund Pallette as Mr. Bullock, the family’s frustrated industrialist father, who appears more like an impotent keeper at an asylum.


To Be or Not To Be (1942)

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WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

Husband-and-wife thespians Maria and Joseph Tura (Carole Lombard and Jack Benny) are minor stage celebrities in their native Warsaw, where they’ve been rehearsing an anti-Nazi play in addition to nightly performances of “Hamlet.” Then Hitler invades, and the house lights go dark. But when an ardent fan of Maria’s, Polish fighter pilot Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), secretly returns from the Allied side in England, he sets in motion some juicy off-stage intrigue, whereby the Turas and their troupe must outwit a Gestapo spy with plans to crush the Resistance.

WHY I LOVE IT:

Criticized for satirizing the raging war in Europe on its release in 1942, Lubitsch’s clever, spirited, often side-splitting farce doubled as a tribute both to the Polish resistance and, quite ingeniously, to the mighty art of play-acting. Benny, in his best-remembered film role, is terrifically funny as “that great, great actor” Joseph Tura, especially playing opposite Sig Rumann (as a Nazi colonel), and a young Robert Stack, the love-struck lieutenant whose cue to tryst with Maria is the first line of Hamlet’s soliloquy. Tragically, this marked Carole Lombard’s final screen appearance (she was killed in a plane crash flying home from selling war bonds later that same year). This gifted comedienne gives a grand farewell performance under Lubitsch’s inspired direction.


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