A Pep in Her Step
December 13, 2017
On Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey and Twentieth Century
Carole Lombard (1908-1942) was made for comedy. High-foreheaded, platinum-haired, UFO-eyed, believably dizzy when she had to be, and with a penchant for saying her lines faster than a cheetah lunges at its prey, she was a silver screen comedienne you couldn't forget once you were introduced to her. She wasn’t afraid of making a fool of herself; getting physical was never daunting. Unlike other top comic actresses of her era, like Katharine Hepburn or Roz Russell, you got the feeling that she’d throw herself into a vat
of lava if a laugh was promised. Few actresses of the period defined comedy as significantly as Lombard; from Nothing Sacred (1937) to To Be or Not to Be (1942), all the trends popularized by genre heavyweights Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges seemed best amplified, aside from maybe a pivoting-from-drama Barbara Stanwyck, by the quirky blonde.
And yet only the most dedicated cinephiles seem to know who she is as of 2017; she hasn't entirely remained a household name. Because she died tragically at age 33, and because it’s hard to get one’s paws on a lot of her films, the unusual Lombard remains an eternal discovery-in-the-making for new generations of filmgoers, unlike, say, the other blonde who was great in comedies, the ubiquitous Marilyn Monroe. And that’s a shame: for all intents and purposes, Lombard should be as big as both Monroe and Lucille Ball, who now seems to be most often cast as the classic Hollywood's era's comedy doyenne.
However arguable this conclusion may at first seem, watch her best vehicles — Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century
(1934) and Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey (1936) —
and you might be convinced that such is not so much an opinion as it is an objective observation. In both, she plays giddy blondes with a proclivity for meltdowns and body flails. While we watch, we do not just watch her — we marvel. How breathtaking comedy can be when its physical dares and linguistic crackles are so effortlessly — and intrepidly — executed.
In Twentieth Century, Lombard plays Broadway actress Lily Garland, muse to the controlling playwright Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore). When we first meet her, she's a nobody — a lingerie model named Mildred Plotka Jaffe found on the street who declared she wanted to be an actress. In early scenes, we see her fumbling with her lines, doubting herself when she's finally given a chance to be somebody. She sees a star in herself, but she doesn’t know how to bring her out. Jaffe does. Jump a few scenes into the future, and she’s the talk of the town.
Then Twentieth Century leaps another couple of years. Garland’s a legend-in-the-making, Jaffe an artist who can
do no wrong. The professional and romantic partnership has been beneficial. But after realizing that not a thing about her life and career is really up to her — Jaffe’s an unashamed Svengali — Garland decides she can’t take it anymore. She packs up her bags, leaves the man who made her in a kindly-fuck-off sort of way, and hops aboard a train bound for hopeful stardom in Hollywood. Jaffe chases after her. Hilarity, mostly confined to the couple of cars comprising the locomotive, ensues.
In My Man Godfrey, Lombard’s also playing silly, but this time the vapidness she embodies is infantile rather than steeped in divadom. The film opens as she (playing a wealthy young woman named Irene) and her sister in the movie, Cornelia (Gail Patrick), descend on a Hooverville located next to the Hudson River. The loaded siblings are going to a party later, and each guest is required to bring an unconventional guest to win a quasi-competition. Some people have been tasked with bringing goofy items, like a goat, for instance. But the sisters’ mission isn’t so easy. They’ve been prompted to find a “forgotten man,” which they figure they’ll find at this Hooverville.
They persuade a wise-cracking subject, Godrey (William Powell), to come with them. (Though it’s Irene who does the persuading — Cornelia’s so condescending that Godrey would likely spit in her drink if he had the chance.) Moments into the get-together during which he’s turned into a spectacle, he’s brought center stage but uses the opportunity to call everyone a “nitwit.” Most are taken aback by his audacity. But Irene admires his spirit, and soon afterward is he hired as the family butler. Hilarity also ensues here, but this time there’s a dash of romance, too — an unlikely kinship between Irene and the sardonic Godfrey seems plausible.
In these movies, released so close in proximity to one another, we see Lombard at the peak of her powers; she’s as sharp as a dagger all the while playing characters ostensibly duller than No. 2 pencils after a final. In the satiric skies of both — Twentieth Century parodies the egoism rampant in the entertainment industry; My Man Godfrey is both a social commentary and a subtle diss targeting the gratuitous extravagances of ‘30s Hollywood and the upper-class milieu
— Lombard’s meteoric.
In the 1934 romp, she’s embroiled in a diva-off with the exceptional Barrymore, whose disposition is as askew as his salt ’n’ pepper mane and who insists on rolling his Rs and speaking with the level-four volume of a Shakespearean great. She holds her own, and is arguably even better than her co-star. In their scenes together, it’s like witnessing a tug of war whose end game is concluding who is better at generating painful belly laughs. In the 1936 masterstroke, Lombard is a tornado of emotions — an amalgam of childish pouts, bursts of elation, romantic yearning, and genuine warmth. She’s like a kid trying desperately to prove her maturity but can’t. She’s so eager to please — and to get attention — that her desperation reads as sweet.
Lombard tries on several comic personae in these features combined (a slapstick great, a screwball heroine, and a conversational spitfire among them). And that versatility, combined with the actress’ ease with that versatility, helps make these movies more than crowdpleasers. While they’re shining examples of the screwball comedy subgenre that defined most of the 1930s and ‘40s, there’s an additional intelligence in Twentieth Century and My Man Godfrey,
whether it’s found in the performances or in the writing or the direction. The level of wit is high and so are the ambitions. Yet these movies are so breezily enjoyable that you almost take for granted how good they are at doing what they do.
The performers surrounding Lombard are worth the price of the rental, too. Twentieth Century co-stars Barrymore and Walter Connolly smartly undermine the grandeur inherent in
their roles, making fun of themselves before we can. They know what we know. But they can hardly compare to the ensemble of My Man Godfrey: it makes for arguably the strongest of the screwball-comedy era. As Irene’s mother, Alice Brady is among the funniest cartoon ditzes to ever make her way onto a celluloid strip as Irene's mother. Using a fizzy giggle as the period stopping all her sentences, she turns every insult into a compliment, every negative turn of events into an interesting detour in one’s life. Powell’s an icy cocktail infused with suavity and deadpan delivery; Eugene Pallette, as the family patriarch, is a hilariously gruff, tuxedoed potato who sounds like a Hennessy bottle smoking a cigarette. Patrick’s an ice queen who conflates a glance in any direction with a downsizing.
But no one is as good as Lombard. Though the actress would more seriously test her dramatic abilities in the years following (with mixed success), she ultimately was, first and foremost, a comedienne. How fitting it is that To Be or Not to Be was her untimely swan song: comedy practically belonged to her. After watching Twentieth Century and My Man Godfrey, we're reminded that that isn't very much an overcomplimentary distinction.
Twentieth Century: A-
My Man Godfrey: A