Lombard—As She Sees Herself
By Gladys Hall
Motion Picture magazine, November 1938
Miss L. is not in the habit of “giving out” about herself but when she does—oh boy! Here’s where she tells things you never knew before. So here she is—the real Lombard.
I had a date to interview Carole, at one o’clock sharp, in her dressing-room bungalow on the Selznick lot where she and Jimmy Stewart are making Made For Each Other. The picture in which, for the first time in two years, Carole gives up comedy antics and turns serious, even dramatic, playing the mother of two children; the part of a woman who, when she laughs, laughs through tears. (Are you wondering which comes easier to Carole, to laugh or to cry…to be grave or gay?…)
Suddenly, from without, just on the stroke of one, came the grind of car wheels, war whoops, cymbals of loud laughter and as at a summons, a stimulant, heads raised and voices shouted. “That’s Lombard!” And Lombard it was, to be sure. On time to the minute, as I said. Undaunted by the heat of an “unseasonable” California day. Constitutionally undaunted by anything. That’s Lombard, too.
Yes, indeed, Lombard arriving in her two-year-old Ford coupe, the only car she owns and driving it herself, as usual. Laughing about it later when I said to her, “No foolin’, is it really the only car you own? What about when you and Clark go to premieres, or to the Troc, to dinner parties at houses encircled with limousines as long as the Queen Mary and other glittering, chauffeur-driven equipages?”… and Carole said, “When we go to premieres, et cetera, we go in my Ford. What’s the matter with it? Gets us there, doesn’t it?”
So there was Lombard, having a day off, wearing firemen red crepe de chine slacks, a careless beige pull-over, careless pale hair, windrough; no make-up. No make-up coating her lively mind, either. No make-up artificing her fearless, life-living spirit.
Carole is a provocative figure. Carole and Bette Davis are the only two women I have ever met who house vigorous, brutally frank minds in bodies as feminine as filigree and fine lace. Carole evokes imaginings of many kinds. But it would be totally impossible for the most vivid imagination to imagine her saying anything she doesn’t mean, doing anything posey or phony. Carole has never learned to assume a false front, never has learned to conceal her likings or disliking. And her sound instinct has taught her that to be a human being, without hokum, without affectations is a far, far better thing than to be a Prima Donna wearing a false face that deceives no one.
Carole stares life smack in the face and laughs. Slender as a willow sapling, made with the fine-boned delicacy of a Sevres figurine, fragile lines and white skin and, seemingly, breakable to the touch, Lombard is as healthy-hearted as a peasant, as sturdy-spirited as the rich earth because, like a peasant, she stands rooted in realities, is at home with realities and a stranger to sham.
We walked over to her bungalow, Carole and I. At least, I walked. Carole got there by executing a few spirals and curves and a leap upon her scooter-bike which stands in front of her bungalow handy for her excursions around the lot. Lombard-wise, her fellow workers in the studios think nothing of seeing Lombard streak by them upon her scooter-bike, wearing a pair of slacks or a formal so exquisite and perishable you would think it would be—ah, Mr. Selznick—gone with the wind…She is “almost forever” laughing, is Carole. She is like something wound up at high tension. But as high tension is her natural métier it is natural.
In the bungalow Carole dunked her very slim length in a chair, legs over the arm, ran her hands through her hair, ordered iced coffee and sandwiches for the two of us. And said that she had been skeet-shooting, that she is “nuts about skeet-shooting,” that skeet-shooting “gets you,” that you keep saying “just one more round” and keep ON saying it until old Sol has run round the clock, likely as not. She didn’t say that she had been skeet-shooting with Clark. And maybe she hadn’t. But Clark has often told me that he spends a good part of his between-the-scenes time skeet-shooting. And so I became a master mathematician and put two and two together and it totaled up to Carole and Clark skeet-shooting the morning away and what of it.
Carole continued her rave out about skeet-shooting and wound up saying, “—but it’s the same with everything I do. I love everything I do. I’m immensely interested in and enthusiastic in everything I do, everything. No matter what it is I’m doing, no matter how trivial, it isn’t trivial to me. I give it all I got and love it. I love living. I love life. Eating, sleeping, waking up again, skeet-shooting, sitting around an old barn doing nothing, my work, taking a bath, talking my ears off, the little things, the big things, the simplest things, the most complicated things—I get a kick out of everything I do while I’m doing it.
“If I don’t love what I’m doing I don’t DO it. But if I have to do something I’m not nuts about now and then, as who doesn’t, I DO it and get it over with. I never anticipate trouble. I never worry, never fret. I can’t duck issues. Ducking issues causes more grief than the issues themselves ever do. I never sit around and clutch my head and moan, ‘I HAVE to do so-and-so, alas Lo, the poor Lombard!’—I just say, ‘Let’s DO it’ or ‘Okay, let’s GO!’—and it’s done and there’s nothing to it.
I considered Carole, lopping there in her chair, throwing her arms wide open to life, knowing it to be good, exulting in it….and I thought back to the time, not so long ago, when Hollywood called her its “Play Girl,” its “Good Scout;” when Lombard stood upon the Midway and Lombard and a laugh were synonymous, one and the same thing. And still are. Though the Play Girl plays, now, and within a more restricted circle of friends and the Good Scout is no longer pranking on the Midway where all who run may see.
For the seemingly heedlessness of Lombard, the quality of recklessness which she wears as casually as a cloak of many colors, has never made her sacrifice the essential to the unimportant, duty to pleasure, the grave to the gay. Not a girl in Hollywood has Done Better than Lombard, has attained her special stardom more fairly and squarely, with less ado about nothing. For all her seeming heedlessness, you know, Carole has never offended Good Taste, has never used nonsense where good sense is indicated, has never appeared, unseemingly, in the Public Prints.
When Carole and Bill Powell were married and later divorced, for an instance, the divorce was quiet, done with dignity and civility. And friendship, mutually firm, remains…When Clark and Carole began to go about together, for another instance, and it was wiser and also kinder for Carole to keep silent about this phase of her life, Carole kept silent about it and it—and she—are respected for it.
The truth about Lombard is that she takes the serious things in life seriously, the light things lightly, laughs at a joke, weeps at a sorrow, enormously loves the whole of it, as a mother loves a child, its faults as well as its virtues, its tantrums and its talents.
There is no better craftswoman in all Hollywood than Lombard. Nor any star who takes her work more seriously, is more painstakingly familiar with the tools of her trade. If you have an idea that Lombard larrups through a picture, how wrong you are! No guesswork, this, for I’ve heard it from every director, cameraman, actor, actyress, or extra who has ever worked with her. She studies a script until the ink absorbed right off the page. She knows good writing. She has a critical faculty second to none when it comes to detecting weaknesses or appreciating strength and fine characterization in a script. She knows her own part inside out before she steps foot on a sound stage. And she knows everything there is to be known about everybody else’s parts, too. When she is working she is on the set at nine o’clock sharp. She knows her lines. She knows her business. She has made it her business to know it.
“I LOVE my work and I take it seriously,” Lombard told me…and when I said to her: “How about playing the dramatic part in Made For Each Other? Do you like it or would you rather continue to play film flutterbugs like Irene in My Man Godfrey, the loony lady in Nothing Sacred and others? What comes easier to you?”
She said: “They’re not really so different. You know the old thing, comedy and tragedy are akin? Like lots of old things, it’s the truth. Back of all comedy, there is tragedy; back of every good belly-laugh there is a familiarity with things not funny at all. There must be. You laugh with tears in your eyes, don’t you?” demanded Lombard, “most of us do. And Irene in Godfrey was, I’d say, the most difficult part I ever played. Because Irene was a complicated and, believe it or not, essentially a tragic person…”
When Carole said, “Back of every good belly-laugh there is a familiarity with things not funny at all,” I knew that she could well be speaking of herself, of her own childhood, of the first seven years of her life which might well have blunted a less shining spirit, years when her father was so dangerously ill that Carole had her mother lived in a constant strain; years when Carole and her mother lived in small, ground-floor flats, strangers to to the over-privileges of Hollywood stars. And when I spoke to Carole of her early childhood and what it might have done to her she laughed and said: “Being poor didn’t matter a bit. I didn’t mind a bit. Wouldn’t mind living in a ground-floor right now—you can get out the back door faster!”
Then we both laughed. Because it wasn’t funny and we both knew it wasn’t funny. And that’s Lombard, too…
“I had a lot of fun doing the screwy comedies,” Carole went on, “but I was getting pretty tired of them. Hollywood has done too many of them. The old ‘sheep’ angle, you know. Now, I’d like to do two dramatic pictures, then another comedy and so vary the ingredients a bit. As you know, Bill and I are going to do a picture together, co-starring for the Ernst Lubitsch Productions, the company started by Myron Selznick and Lubitsch. We haven’t found a story yet but when we do it will probably be comedy-drama, ‘arf and ‘arf. It’ll be starting within a couple of months, I think. It’s a grand idea, this idea of Selznick’s. It’s pioneering. It’s what should have been done from the beginning. For the Lubitsch company is the first of a series of units to be formed by Selznick in partnership with stars, directors, writers, all of the creative talent forming the units. And all of is will be on a profit-sharing basis, accepting no salaries. We’ll be in partnership with our producer. If any one of us makes a smash hit we’ll get paid accordingly. If any one of us falls down on the job the profits will fall down on us, too. And that’s the way it should be. We’ll get ours for what we do NOW, not for what we may have done seven years ago.
“Yep,” said Carole. “I love my work and I take it seriously. And I love everything I do and give everything I’ve got to whatever I’m doing. But I do not go about clutching my Career to an otherwise naked bosom. If my work were to be taken away from me tomorrow I wouldn’t be stopped. I’d go on living, and still love it. There are a thousand things I could do, would do, would want to do. I’m like old Solomon. If he’d lost one of his wives he wouldn’t exactly have been a widower. I couldn’t be widowed by the loss of any one facet of my life. Because it’s too rich, life is too abundant. There are too many things to want to do, to have, to get, to love, to find out about…”
I said, “You know yourself pretty well, don’t you?”
“Good person to get acquainted with, yourself,” laughed Carole.
I said, perceiving that Lombard was running true to form and making a game of the interview, having fun doing it in spite of hell and high water and the fact that she doesn’t specially like to give interviews…I said, “Okay, what’s your worst fault, then? Riddle me that one.”
“Too much energy,” said Carole promptly.
“Your best trait next?”
“My disposition. It’s veddy good. I was born that way. I’m always happy. I never get mad at little things, trifles. It takes a terrific thing to make me mad. Then, when the terrific thing gets me I do a beautiful job of it.”
I said, “Are you temperamental? You know, walk off sets and things?”
“No-yes, a hyphenated answer,” said Carole. “I do walk off sets but not for the reasons you might suppose. I’m not temperamental about myself. I can take care of myself all right. But I do get temperamental when I hear some little would-be Napoleon of a director, some little killer-diller of a petty czar cursing out extras, grips, electricians. I’ve walked off sets when things like that happen. And will again, if and when they happen again. I’ve said to the pettifogging Nappies, ‘Why don’t you bawl me out if that’s the way you feel about it? You don’t dare to bawl the stars out, do you? They could bark right back at you, couldn’t they? So you have to light on the little fellows, the ones who can’t talk back, don’t you?’ It’s an obsession with me,” said Carole, savagely, “the bullying of men not necessarily stronger, are in stronger positions. I’ve tweaked more than one nose, twisted more than one ear until it rasped for that sort of thing.”
“Any other pet hates?” I quizzed, professionally, “like lizards, you know, or pencils scratching on blackboards?”
“Affectations,” said Lombard, “I can’t STAND affected people—or snobs. And I don’t stand them. I do something horrible to them to break them down. I hate to be yessed, too. If someone doesn’t like me in a picture, for instance, I don’t want them to purr over me, I want them to TELL me so.”
I said, “Do you take people on faith or are you apt to be cynical about them?”
“On faith,” said Carole, “then, if they prove to be wrong, I’m through.”
“Any fear of anything? Old age, for instance…?”
“I don’t like height,” said Carole, laboring visibly to dig up a sizable fear for me. “I fly, I don’t mind that. But I can’t stand on high buildings or high places and look down. Apart from that, no. There is nothing I am afraid of. Least of all, old age. I NEVER want to be sixteen again. I think that eighteen is the DULLEST age in the world. If ever I was unhappy, it was when I was in my teens. That’s because you don’t understand anything when you’re that young. You’re puzzled and so you’re hurt. For only the things you don’t understand have the power to hurt you, like the Power of Darkness. With age there comes a richness that’s divine. Age takes on a beauty everyone can’t see, perhaps. But I see it…I don’t know of anything in the world more beautiful, more fascinating than a woman ripe with years, rich and lush as velvet with experience, her humor as tangy and flavorous as sunripened fruit. If women wouldn’t get so self-conscious about getting old they wouldn’t get old mentally and then they wouldn’t be old at all, only wise and simply divine. I LOVE the idea of getting old,” said Lombard, thus loving one aspect of life which is nightmare to nine women out of every ten and the Bugaboo, certainly, to every celebrated beauty.
“Clothes…shopping…how much part do clothes play in your life?”
“So-so,” said Carole, “clothes don’t stimulate me very much. I buy good things but not a great many things. Two or three outfits a season and let it go at that. I like sports things, sweaters and slacks and suits…”
“I save my dough, I’m no fool,” grinned Carole. “The terribly important thing to me is a home. I have a lot of fun out of having a home. And I know exactly the kind of a house I’m going to build one of these days, probably in the San Fernando Valley. It will be terribly small but every detail will be exactly as I want it. I’m not the type to say it’s my Dream House,” laughed Carole, “but IT IS!”
Carole was having fun when she said “I save my dough, I’m no fool.” But, matter of fact, it was one of those many-a-true-word-spoken-in-jest things. For Carole is one of the few who doesn’t figure her income in terms of what you may read she gets paid for a picture. She figures her earnings in terms of what she has left over after she has deducted her income tax. Her living expenses, the amount she sets aside and labels “Savings.” She is an excellent business woman, La Lombard. You can mark that down on her slate. She knows exactly how much she earns, exactly the numerals she must put on her check for income tax, exactly how much she must “set aside.” She says, “I get 13 cents on the dollar and I know it. So I don’t figure that I’ve earned a dollar, I figure that I’ve earned 13 cents. And that is all right with me, too. We still don’t starve in the picture business after we’ve divided with the Government. Taxes go to build schools, to maintain the public utilities we all use, so why not? But I live accordingly, that’s all. I’ve had girls show me diamond bracelets, say, ‘I bought this little thing the other day, such a bargain, only $20,000!’ If I bought a little trinket for $20,000—and I never have yet—I’d say, ‘There goes my profit for the year, in a hunk of diamond!’ It’s my disposition again,” said Carole happily, “I was born without costly cravings!” (There was not, I may add, a jewel to be seen upon Miss Lombard.)
“I run my house economically. I live comfortably. I loathe the miser in man or mouse. Detest skimpers and hoarders. I just don’t cut paper-dolls out of greenbacks, that’s all. I use my head before I whip out the checkbook. I’ve rented a house in Bel-Air. By paying three years rent in advance I was able to get a deduction of $300 on the whole term of the lease. That’s the kind of thing I like to do. I have the one car, my Ford. I have no personal maid, not even here at the studio. I’ve got a pair of hands and know how to use them. I’ve got one extravagance—giving people things. It’s a form of self-indulgence. I get more out of the giving than the recipients do out of the getting, no doubt.”
I said as Lombard laughed again, “Are you always gay? I mean, don’t you ever get low in your mind, feel depressed?”
“Not for more than five minutes at a time,” said Lombard. “I’m very seldom depressed. Never morbid. I wouldn’t let it get that far. And the only time I’m depressed is when I’m bored. And when I’m bored, it’s always with myself, no one and nothing else. And when I get bored with myself, find myself uninteresting, it’s because my vitality is low key. And when that happens I just strap on a sandal and DO something about it. I never sit and brood.
“The whole thing is,” said Carole, “I never blat ‘I HAVE to do it,’ I say ‘Let’s get it done!’ I believe, too, that we bring to the screen the same qualities we bring to living…”
And Carole brings to the screen positiveness, directness, a great enthusiasm for living.
And God pity liars, snobs, poseurs, phonies, poor-mouths from coming under the scrutiny of the Lombard lens…!