Why is Carole Lombard Hiding Out from Hollywood?
By Frederick McFee
Screenbook magazine , October 1938
Big-hearted Carole Lombard has all of Hollywood worried. What happened to change the happy girl it once knew to the recluse she has now become?
Hollywood’s greatest paradox of the moment is one that has the entire film city wondering.
And you’d wonder, too, if one of the favorite daughters of your town, without any warning, suddenly decided to get away—oh, far away—from It All. That’s what happened when Carole Lombard, who has long been synonymous with good fellowship and popularity, decided to go into the Great Silence.
Popular night spots of the film town no longer ring with the beautiful lady’s hearty laughter (and that’s a great loss, because that guffaw of Carole’s can do more to instill happiness than anything else I know of!). Reporters, once Carole’s boon companions, are greeted with politeness if not cordiality (for over a year she has refused to give interviews—even on the most abstract of subjects).
Of course there have been a lot of rumors about Carole’s sudden and voluntary retirement from public life. Some of them have been unkind—some tempered with tolerance. But all rumors come back to the same moot point—why is Carole absenting herself from the Hollywood scene?
Carole’s romance with Clark Gable is perhaps one of the most publicized in the world today. The gossips have it that Mr. G. himself is responsible for Carole’s “I won’t talk” attitude. They hint darkly at dissention between the present Mrs. Gable and her spouse that prevents the usual divorce and the expected happy ending of the Carole-Clark romance. But whether it’s true or not, Hollywood resents the fact that the happy-go-lucky Lombard that it once knew is no longer part of its colorful present.
You see, Hollywood knows the girl as she really is—a big-hearted, cheerful gal who began her career over a decade ago as a Mack Sennett bathing beauty. On the screen, she may put across the idea that she is a giddy, partly irresponsible, always-wisecracking blonde. Off the screen, she has a famous—and volcanic—vocabulary; but in a town where selfishness is a synonym for self-preservation, she goes out of her way to do things for people. Gratis—impulsively—instinctively.
You have had inklings, perhaps of the Lombard big-heartedness. So have I. They led me to look for definite evidence. And the evidence accumulated not only makes a case. It makes an untold story.
This doing-things-for-people isn’t a new facet of the Lombard personality, like her recent elusiveness toward the Press. She simply has never talked about anything she has ever done for anybody. She couldn’t be bludgeoned into confessing. But if you know people close to her, and can get them to talk (you have to promise not to mention their names), you hear some amazing things about Carole. Things that have been going on for years—ever since she was a bathing girl.
That’s how she started in this movie game, as a kid in her early teens. Most people know that. But what they don’t know is this:
One of her pals on that old Sennett lot was another bathing girl, named Madalyne Fields. As insiders tell the tale today, Carole’s option was picked up and Madalyne’s wasn’t. Perhaps Madalyne would have connected somewhere else; perhaps not. But Carole wasn’t going to let down her best pal…
They were together until recently, when Madalyne became the wife of that fine movie director, Walter Lang. But as “Fieldsie,” Carole’s pal became a Hollywood legend. Anyone who knows Carole knows she seldom moved without consulting her secretary friend. And the steady sureness of Carole’s rise and the extent of her success, made the shrewd observers suspect that Fieldsie is one of the smartest girls in Hollywood.
Carole would deny heatedly that she has ever done anything for Fieldsie. She would insist that she hasn’t done Fieldsie any favor, having her around; Fieldsie has done her the favor, staying around!
Her habit of befriending people has paid her dividends like these only this once. But Carole never has thought of that angle. She wouldn’t.
There was what she did for Margaret Tallichet, for example. Margaret had come to Hollywood to try to get in the movies, had had no luck, and, determined to stay close to them, if not in them, had got a job as a stenographer at Paramount. She landed in the publicity department.
The legend has it that Carole first saw her there. That isn’t true. One day an interviewer (this was back in the good old pre-elusive days!) had an appointment with Carole. Margaret’s boss, who was busy, sent Margaret to sit in on the interview. Carole said afterward, “I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t keep my eyes off that girl.”
She found out the girl’s name. The next day, she walked into the surprised secretary’s office and took her off to meet Adolph Zukor, head of the studio. Without any ballyhoo (Carole was against it), Margaret was enrolled in the studio’s acting school. Two months later, she was given a test. Nothing came of it. One broken-hearted girl saw herself going back to a typewriter for keeps. Carole saw something else.
She persuaded Zeppo Marx, a friend and an agent, to make an exception just once and have an unknown for a client. He interested Producer David O. Selznick in testing Margaret. Weeks passed afterward, with no word. Carole, herself, talked Selznick into making an elaborate second test.
To get “the right clothes” for Margaret, Carole raided the Paramount wardrobe department. That appealed to her sense of humor. Wouldn’t it be ironic for one studio, which hadn’t been interested, to help another to find a new star? She also bought clothes for Margaret. She talked to her by the hour, and had Clark Gable do likewise, giving her tips. Margaret was signed after that second test, given a “bit” in A Star is Born, then sent East by Selznick for a year’s training in little theatres and a year’s study in glamour, poise, and everything else a star should have. Margaret Tallichet is in for a big build-up—and all because of Carole!
Then, there is Alice Marble. Carole knew the pretty Californian long before Alice became a great women’s tennis champion. She tried to talk her into a screen career then. Alice, whose greatest ambition was to be the foremost net star of the country, couldn’t be interested. She’s still striving. If she does attain her ambition, then perhaps there’ll be time for a movie career—and Carole may attain her frustrated ambition to see Alice Marble on the screen!
Ambitions like that aren’t usual in Hollywood. Far from it. Few stars ever go out of their way to help, or even encourage, girls who might develop into screen rivals. Self-preservation argues against it. But does Carole think of that angel? The evidence says: “No.”
Three years ago, a picture crew was flying East for location work when their plane crashed. Some were killed. One electrician almost died, was in a hospital for months, finally recovered with a leg amputated. Under workmen’s compensation, the studio had to pay his medical expenses. But the studio went farther—it promised him that when he was able to get about again, he could have his job back. He learned how to walk with an artificial leg. Then, somehow, no one seemed to remember the promise of work. Carole heard about it. She saw red. She had one of her impulses.
At that time, she and the studio were in the throes of contract talk. She went to the Front Office and said, “I want that man kept on the payroll, given work. I won’t sign, if he isn’t.” The studio said that it was an oversight that he hasn’t been re-hired, and put him back to work.
A couple of days later, a radio gossiper broadcast the story—and the studio told the electrician, “You’re through.” Even though Carole publicly denied the story, he was idle four or five months. Now, by saying nothing, doing nothing to add fuel to the fire, he finally has his job back. But, as the studio executive who told me this inside story (in whispers) pointed out: if Carole had signed that contract, she would have seen to it that that electrician was never was fired—no matter what happened. But she had decided to become a free-lance instead. She had no weapon with which to continue the fight.
P.S. She didn’t know the electrician, except by sight.
She’s the same way, if anyone she knows is sick. She doesn’t take the simple, easy way of remembering. She doesn’t just call up her florist and have him send around a basket of flowers and consider her duty done. She’ll send flowers, yes. But she will also rack her brain to think of some present that will be really useful, something that will last.
Travis Banton, the designer of all of Carole’s clothes, can tell you. When he was in the hospital not so long ago, she took the trouble to find out what was the most annoying thing about his slow convalescence. It was the fact that he couldn’t seem to get warm. She sent him a blanket.
There was a hairdresser (not Carole’s own) who was struck in the eye in an accident. Her eyeball was punctured. Carole heard about it. Whether or not she helped with the hospital bills, no one will ever know. But I happen to know that she can be suspected of it. I know of her taking time out to think of what might be useful to that blinded girl, in that hospital bed. She went downtown, herself, to get a bed jacket for her.
When someone is sick, she doesn’t content herself with one thoughtful gift. She spends hours, thinking of gag presents—things to make even invalids laugh. Dr. Lombard believes in the medicine of laughter.
Everybody knows Carole’s love for animals. Everybody knows, also, that her favorite pet of all times was her dog, Pushface, which played in Love Before Breakfast, and in whose behalf Carole at the time took out full-page ads in the local trade papers. But few people know what has happened to Pushface.
“Push,” as she called him, was very fond of her maid. The maid was crazy about the dog. So what should Carole do but give Pushface to the maid—who is the “day” variety and lives “outside.” It wasn’t easy to part with Pushface. But giving him to the maid appealed to her as aw way to make both the dog and the girl happy. That’s typical of her.
Any interviewer who has ever talked to Carole for five minutes about her career has heard her say, “In Twentieth Century, in six weeks, I learned more about acting from John Barrymore than I’ve learned from other people in all the years I’ve been in films.” She isn’t afraid to acknowledge her debts. And she has a long memory.
A few months ago, John Barrymore was let out by MGM. He went over to Paramount, doing a series of Bulldog Drummond pictures. Everybody felt sorry for “America’s greatest actor,” reduced now to featured billing—in B pictures. Everybody, that is, but Carole. To her, he wasn’t through. All he needed was a chance.
She saw a spot for him in True Confession. It wasn’t a typical Barrymore role. All the better. It would prove how much acting he still had in his system. She saw to it that he was given the role. Result: every other one of the comment cards from the sneak preview mentioned Barrymore. He all but stole the picture! And Carole is tickled silly. It’s A pictures for John from now on!
You won’t get Carole to admit that she had any hand in his getting the role. You won’t get the Front Office to admit it. But let me point out that he wouldn’t have been in the picture if Carole hadn’t wanted him there. She has a voice in the casting of her pictures.
At Paramount, making a strong comeback, is Evelyn Brent—who was a star when Carole still was pretty much of an unknown. She has had some good roles recently, but she could do with some better ones. Carole saw a spot for her in True Confession. She promoted Evelyn for the role. Director Wesley Ruggles argued for another girl. He finally won—for reasons that don’t need detailing here. The important point is: Carole Lombard tried to give Evelyn Brent a break.
Few stars go in for impulses like that. Most stars, if they ever think of onetime stars trying for comebacks, think, “They’ve had their day. Why don’t they give up?”
Carole, you see, can put herself in the other fellow’s place. It’s an uncommon talent, in this everybody-for-himself town.
She learned that her stand-in for a recent picture—a new girl—was planning to be married during the picture. Twice the wedding had to be postponed, because of the picture schedule. The girl set a third date. For a Saturday night. Director Ruggles, early that afternoon, decided to have the company work that night. About 5:30, Carole suddenly—and very conveniently—fell ill, couldn’t go on working. Her stand-in had her wedding.
Two other incidents, typical of Carole, happened on this set.
There was a bit player, a man, who had one line to deliver. On take after take, he muffed it. Ruggles was really a paragon of patience. He saw about six takes spoiled. Finally, he said he was going to get someone else for that “bit.” Carole took Ruggles off to one side and persuaded him to keep this player, give him six more tries, if necessary.
Few stars would have done that. Most of them would have blown up after the second take, demanded a replacement. I know; I’ve seen it happen. But Carole knew what the loss of that bit would do to that man. Even bit players’ reputations get bruited around Hollywood. He would have found it hard to get another job. Carole thought of that angle. Carole would.
Then, there was the day that two of her leading men had a difficult scene together, with Carole sitting on the sidelines. Time after time, they tried it. Time after time, something happened to spoil the take. Finally, it looked as if they had it when—somebody coughed. A prop man, somewhere behind Carole.
Ruggles whirled around, with dire in his eye. Somebody was going to get a verbal blistering. Maybe somebody was going to lose his job. Maybe somebody was going to be murdered!
Carole spoke up, to say: “I’m awfully sorry, Wes. I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t hold it any longer.”
There have been rumors of late that Carole is beginning to come out of her shell. As a publicity gag for her new David O. Selznick picture, Made for Each Other, she became head of the publicity department, and had herself a grand time planting yarns with all the leading columnists and writers. According to rumor, she was all set to call up such varied personalities as Mrs. Roosevelt, the Duke of Windsor and George Bernard Shaw to find out what they thought of the casting of Gone with the Wind (also a Selznick production) until forcibly called off. When, for another publicity stunt, she was made mayor of Culver City, Carole promptly called a public holiday for all studio employees. Selznick tried to remonstrate with her, whereupon the original Miss Lombard, emulating that famous Eastern mayor, said forcibly, “I am the law!” (And she got away with it!)
That would indicate that eventually Hollywood will soon see the return of the gay, laughing Carole that it used to know.
Maybe she’s learned that she shouldn’t hide away from the town that loves her!