It Looked Good for a Laugh at the Time
By Elizabeth Wilson
Silver Screen magazine, January 1941
There isn’t a better ribber in all of Hollywood than Carole Lombard, but here are some of her gags that missed fire
If I were a Mexican, which I’m not, I would declare a fiesta with hot tamales, tequila, and a bull fight on those rare days when I get a letter from an editor saying why don’t you write a story on Carole Lombard. I won’t name names because they are probably your best friends, but there are stars in this town I can get along without very well. They may be the world to their mothers, and to themselves, but to me they are only a paragraph, full of bad grammar.
I could hardly believe my luck the morning I drew Lombard, via the New York airmail, in the monthly Silver Screen lottery. When I think of the fuddy duddies I might have drawn. And those dull jerks, long of face and short of manners, who go around Hollywood giving very bad impersonations of Atlas. I must have been a better girl than I thought I was.
No one knows better than Carole that there is a weary world at war, no one has a heart that breaks more easily, no one responds more quickly, more generously, and certainly more quietly, to the sufferings of others. But Carole prefers to carry the world in her heart, not on her shoulders. Good hearty laughs, and robust gags, are needed now more than ever before, and Lombard is just the gal who can dish it out. Because of her gay camaraderie, and her never failing sense of humor, she is probably loved by more studio people in Hollywood—loved in a nice way of course, but of course—than any other star.
A raucous, rowdy girl, who even in dungarees looks lovely enough to eat with a spoon, Carole is the best stimulant you can take. Too bad doctors can’t bottle her up and sell her at five bucks a prescription. She speaks in the easy idiom of a stevedore, and she conducts her life on the basis of a twenty-four hour carnival. She’s never been known to sulk, she’s as honest as the day is long, and she’s allergic to phonies and heels. Decidedly, Lombard is my cup of tea.
With all possible speed I made it out to the Gable ranch in San Fernando Valley, hoping that my luck would hold out and that I would bump into the idol of American womanhood. I didn’t even bump into the idol’s wife. Except for the dogs and the chickens and a seedman counting the seeds (Clark is a pushover for a new seed) there weren’t any signs of life until I reached the kitchen. And there I did a double take. Before me stood Louella, the Gables’ cook, who is colored, weighs slightly less than two hundred, and fries chicken that is out of this world. It was a hot day, another one of those “unusual” spells that California is famous for, and there stood Louella with a tight knitted cap pulled down over her ears, and done out in a fuzzy sweater, baggy pants, a woolen scarf, and heavy crocheted mittens.
‘Louella,” I gasped, “are you practicing up for Sun Valley?”
“No’m,” said Louella with a sad smile, “I just got to get the butter out of the icebox. If you’re looking for Mrs. Gable she’s at the studio.”
In case this sounds a bit baffling I’ll explain. Clark likes to hunt, as you know, and when he bags big game he brings it home to keep in the refrigerator, so naturally he has to have a refrigerator that’s big enough for a person to stand in. Louella is subject to aches in her joints and never goes into the refrigerator until she wraps herself up good. Well if it isn’t Carole it’s Clark and if it isn’t Clark it’s Louella—never a dull moment at the Gables. Who, incidentally, are the only young couple in America who have a cook who goes for the butter in a skiing costume.
Over at the studio on the “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” set I found Miss Lombard giving of her art to the cinema. She finished the scene and turned to Director Alfred Hitchcock, the fat little English director, who did so well by “Rebecca” and “Foreign Correspondent”. I got my second shock of the day.
“Don’t tell me that’s on film,” said Director Alfred Hitchcock. “Throw it in the ashcan. Don’t let anybody see it. Miss Lombard, you remind me a little of Donald Duck.”
Now that’s no way to talk to one of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars and the wife of What-a-Man! Would Carole burst into tears and run sobbing from the set? Hell, no. You don’t know Carole. “Well at least I’m improving,” she said gayly. “Every scene I’ve done this morning I’ve looked up to find you snoring in my face.”
“Look, old boy,” said Hitchcock wearily to Bob Montgomery, “get in there and help Miss Lombard stink this one up.” Now Bob Montgomery has acquired, though I don’t think justly, the reputation of being “pretty difficult” on sets. But to look at his beaming face you’d think he had just been handed an Academy Award.
Alfred Hitchcock, called “Hitch” by Carole who always gives people pet names, her best being “Cuddles” for Charles Laughton, I soon discovered is a ribber deluxe. That’s why he and Carole get along as cozily as ham and eggs. On the “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” set the Number One lady ribber of Hollywood has met in her equal in the Number One gentleman ribber. Anyone on that set without a sense of humor, and inclined to be sensitive, has my very deepest sympathy. They must be as happy as a lamb at a convention of wolves.
“Carole”, I said getting down to a little work quickly, so as I could get it out of the way and have time for a little innocent gossiping—Carole is a grand person to gossip with—“Carole, you have acquired the reputation of being the best ribber, or gagster if you prefer, in Hollywood. I have dined out in seven cities, including Honolulu, on your gags. But you must have been guilty of a few misses here and there. You must have had the humiliating experience at some time or other of seeing your attempts for a laugh fall flatter than yesterday’s beer. Surely some of your practical jokes have laid an egg. Even as mine.”
“Well, how do you like that,” Carole snorted, stretching herself out on a studio couch (not because she wanted to lie down, she hastily explained, but because “Hitch” insisted that she not get the knees of her ski pants baggy. Carole in ski clothes, I decided, looked more chic than Louella). “There you go belittling me again. I’ll have you know, Madame, that my ribs never—“
“Birthday girl,” called Mr. Hitchcock dreamily. “Tut, tut. Did I interrupt? You were about to say–?”
“That my ribs never laid eggs until I met you dear,” she continued with a laugh. “All right, all tight, I’ll tell her about my birthday last week. If I don’t, I know you will.”
Well, it seems that the week before Carole had a birthday. She had a hunch that Hitchcock would send her a Western Union singing boy, so she decided to top his gag by having ten Western Union singing boys arrive on the set at five o’clock and sing birthday greetings to everyone on the set except herself.
It was a swell gag, she almost broke herself up thinking about it, but it didn’t quite come off. “Hitch”, it seems, can smell Western Union singing boys a mile away, so he tipped off the entire cast and crew to ignore the boys and not let them sing a note. The boys arrived, and following Carole’s instructions, gathered around Mr. Hitchcock, who immediately awoke from a sound sleep and said, “Get away from me,” in his most directorial manner, thereby frightening them out of seven years’ growth. When they approached Bob Montgomery he simply put on his hat and walked off the set. Then they gathered around Gene Raymond, but Gene pushed them aside with a “Sorry, boys, I’ve got to make a phone call.” All the company gradually walked off the stage. “Miss Lombard,” the boys wailed, “no one will let us sing to them. Can we sing birthday greetings to you now?”
“No,” snapped Carole, with a distinctly dirty look in the direction of “Hitch’s” broad back.
That night Carole had invited “Hitch” and eight of her close friends to have dinner at Chasen’s. She called Dave Chasen that morning and asked him to reserve a table for eight at seven, a very good table because it was her birthday. But “Hitch” happened to overhear Carole’s phone conversation, so as soon as he could slip away from the set he too called ever agreeable Dave and told him as a gag to cancel Miss Lombard’ reservation, and be as disagreeable to her as possible about it. And reserve him a table for eight. And if Miss Lombard’s Western Union singing boys appeared to pay them generously, but bar them from the restaurant.
At seven sharp—Carole’s probably the promptest person in Hollywood—Carole and Clark arrived with several of their friends and Carole, grinning from ear to ear when she thought how embarrassed both “Paw” and “Hitch” would be when the Western Union boys started singing to them in front of Chasen’s very upper crust clientele, sweetly asked for her table reservation.
“But Mrs. Gable,” said the suave headwaiter with great dignity, “you have no reservation.”
“Yes, I have too,” said Carole, getting hot about it, no table on her birthday, what a place, “I made the reservation with Dave myself this morning. It’s my birthday dinner and I want my table.”
But the headwaiter was discouragingly adamant. “There must have been a misunderstanding, Mrs. Gable. Mr. Chasen has not been in the restaurant all day. Are you sure you talked to him?”
“Of course I talked to him,” stormed Carole. “Do you think I’m crazy!”
The headwaiter shrugged his shoulders annoyingly as if to be saying, “Could be.”
“Now, honey,” said Clark soothingly, with his tongue in his cheek, “you’ve been working hard and you’re tired. Dave’s been out of town for several days. All the tables are taken so we can just go over to a drive-in and get a hamburger. Your guests won’t mind—much.”
Just then a little fat man rose from a big empty table across the room, and bowed politely to Carole.
“Why Mrs. Gable,” he said, “there seems to be some kind of mix-up. Fortunately, I have a table. I made my reservation this morning, and I shall be most pleased if you and your friends will be my guests for dinner.”
Don’t ever mention birthday dinners and Western Union singing boys to Carole, if you value your profile.
The Gables ran in bad luck for Carole’s birthday this year when it came to gags. Clark presented Carole with one of those birthday cakes that has a record inside of it. On the cake had been written in icing, “To Maw on her 75th Birthday.” When Carole cut the cake, the knife was supposed to release a spring, and a record inside the cake would play birthday greetings sung by Mr. G. But something went wrong with the mechanism, and Clark’s gag went flat.
Another of Carole’s recent ribs that didn’t come off had to do with an elephant. She has some friends, a Mr. and Mrs. Fred Dillard, who recently bought a forty acre ranch in Encino, near where the Gables live. The Dillards have two boys, ages twelve and fourteen. There’s a large empty barn on the ranch which was not being used by the Dillards as they were new to farming and as yet had acquired no livestock. Carole decided that the Dillards were getting into a rut and she must do something to dismay the daylights out of them. Now there’s nothing quite so colossally dismaying as an elephant. When Mr. Dillard awoke on his birthday morn he found a great big pachyderm nibbling away at the morning glory vine on top of his garage, just a little token of regard from Carole. But instead of being filled with dismay the Dillards were delighted. They had the barn to house it in, and plenty of hay in the hayloft, and two young boys to look after it. To Carole’s disgust it turned out that the Dillards simply loved elephants.
Which reminds me of the time that Carole sent Norman Taurog a bear after he had finished directing her in “We’re Not Dressing”. There was a bear in that picture who just didn’t like Carole at all, and would snap and growl at her every time she came near him, which was as little as possible. Carole had to play several scenes with that disagreeable bear, and every day she’d announce to Mr. Taurog that either the bear went, or she went. But Mr. Taurog said that the bear was the best actor in the picture, and what if he did want to chew on her and Bing Crosby occasionally. When the picture was over Miss Lombard bought the bear and sent it to Mr. Taurog, since he loved bears so much. But the gag fell flat as a pancake when Mr. Taurog blithely sent the bear to the local zoo with instructions to send Miss Lombard the monthly feed bill. Poor Carole was just about to be caught with a hungry bear on her hands when the assistant director on the picture said he’d take care of him. He dyed the bear white, made a polar bear out of him, and rented him out to the studios for years.
Carole, who used to give gag parties at the drop of an eyelash, only gave one that turned out to be a flop. It was her Hospital Party, given shortly after she divorced Bill Powell. The idea of the party was to have guests met at the front door by nurses and internes, and after very amusing consultations with pseudo doctors, led away to regular hospital cots, where their clothes were taken from them, and they were forced to put on those horrible open-down-the-back hospital gowns. Food and drink were served to them in hospital gadgets.
Well, Carole happened to throw the party during the white lie, white drawing room, white tie period of Hollywood Society. People wanted to dress to their eyebrows—and stay that way. After spending hundreds of dollars for a new dress to wear to Miss Lombard’s party, they didn’t want to hang it up in a closet for the evening. Carole’s timing on her Hospital Party was bad, the only time she has ever been guilty of that. The gags were wonderful, but they just weren’t appreciated. If she had given that party five years later it would have been a howling success.
Carole’s latest rib can neither be called a success nor a failure—as a matter of fact it went along quite nicely until the Law stepped in. The ski scenes of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” had to be taken at the old Pathe studio in Culver City, where Carole Lombard and Clark Gable crossed each other’s path for the first time, more than ten years ago, and thought nothing of it. When Carole arrived at Pathe she found a huge streamlined trailer driving up and down the street in front of the studio. There were banners on the trailer that read, “Mrs. Rhett Butler, Welcome to Culver City,” and a loudspeaker announced to the amused populace that Mrs. Rhett Butler had condescended to make a picture in Culver City. Lou Smith, Clark’s stand-in, climbed down from the trailer as Carole’s car approached the studio gate and presented her with a bouquet of scallions.
Now Carole couldn’t let Clark get by with that. She’d have to top that. Good-natured, easy-going Clark can’t be easily ruffled, but there is one thing that never fails to get his goat—mention of a little epic he made called “Parnell”, in which he was quite bad, and which proceeded to lay an egg at the box office, something that a Gable picture has never done before, or since. Carole tried to hire a plane to fly over Lot 2 at Metro, where Clark was making a picture with Hedy Lamarr, and drop handbills that read “Remember Parnell.” But no pilot would take a chance on losing his license when there is a balloon (which means “quiet please we’re working”) in the air. But Carole had had 5,000 handbills printed and she wasn’t going to be caught with them, so she hired some boys to hand them out in front of the studio. But before Clark had a “Remember Parnell” handbill handed him, somebody recalled that there was a city ordinance against handing out handbills. So the boys were paid off and sent home. As far as ribbing Clark was concerned the gag pretty well flopped, but it turned out to be a dandy rib on L.B. Mayer, Clark’s boss, who just happened to produce “Parnell”—and who got a handbill stuck right in his face.