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 by the quirky blonde.
And yet only the most dedicated of cinephiles seem to know who she is as of 2017. 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 she remains an eternal discovery-in-the-making unlike, say, the ubiquitous Marilyn Monroe. And that’s a shame: for all intents and purposes, Lombard should be even bigger than Lucille Ball.
However arguable this conclusion may at first seem, watch her greatest vehicles — Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century (1934) and Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey (1936) — and you just might be convinced that such is not so much an opinion as it it a statement of a fact.
In both, she plays giddy blondes with a proclivity for meltdowns and body flails. While viewing, we do not just watch her. We also marvel at her. How breathtaking comedy can be when all the physical dares and linguistic crackles are effortlessly — and intrepidly — executed.
In Twentieth Century, Lombard plays Broadway actress Lily Garland, the muse to the controlling playwright Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore). Upon our first meeting her, she is 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 constantly. She sees a star in herself, sure, but she doesn’t know how to bring that star out. Jaffe does. Jump a few scenes into the future, and she’s the talk of the town.
Then Twentieth Century leaps a couple years. Garland’s a legend-in-the-making, Jaffe an artist who could do no wrong. The professional and romantic partnership’s been beneficial. But after realizing that not a thing about her life is really up to her — Jaffe’s an unashamed Svengali — Garland decides that she can’t take it anymore. She packs up her bags, leaves the man who made her in a very kindly-fuck-off sort of way, and hops aboard a train bound for inevitable stardom in Hollywood. Jaffe chases after her. Hilarity, mostly confined to a couple cars that help comprise the locomotive, ensues.
In My Man Godfrey, Lombard’s also playing dumb, but this time the vapidness she embodies is infantile. The film opens as she (playing a wealthy young woman named Irene) and her sister in the movie, Cornelia (Gail Patrick), descend upon 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 in order to win a quasi-competition. Some people have been tasked with bringing silly 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, Godrey’d likely spit in her drink if he had the chance.) Moments into the get-together in 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 closely 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 duller than No. 2 pencils after a final. But in the satiric skies of both — Twentieth Century’s a parody of the egoism of the entertainment industry; My Man Godfrey’s both a social commentary and a subtle diss targeting the gratuitous extravagances of ‘30s Hollywood — Lombard’s meteoric.
In the 1934 romp, she’s embroiled in a diva-off with the exceptional Barrymore, whose disposition’s 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. And 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 that’s end game is figuring out just who’s going to get the belly laugh.
In the 1936 masterstroke, Lombard’s a tornado of emotions, an amalgam of childish pouts, bursts of elation, romantic leanings, and genuine warmth. She’s like a kid trying desperately to prove their maturity, but can’t. Yet we love her anyway, mostly because she’s so eager to please — and to get attention — that her desperation’s incidentally sweet.
Lombard tries on about 50 different comedic personas 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 within Twentieth Century and My Man Godfrey, whether it’s found in the performances or in the writing or the direction. The wit’s high and so are the ambitions, yet these movies are so breezily enjoyable we’d never think to label them as highbrow entertainment, even though they certainly are.
The performers surrounding Lombard are worth the price of the rental, too. Twentieth Century co-stars Barrymore and Walter Connolly manage to undermine the grandiose underpinnings of their roles, somehow making fun of themselves before we can. But even they can hardly compare to the ensemble of My Man Godfrey: it makes for the strongest of the screwball comedy era.
As Irene’s mother, Alice Brady's the funniest ditz to ever make her way onto the celluloid strip: utilizing a fizzy giggle as the period to all her sentences, she turns every insult into a compliment, every negative occurrence 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 equivocates a glance in any direction as a downsizing.
But no one’s as good as Lombard. She’s indelible. Though the actress would attempt to 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. And after watching Twentieth Century and My Man Godfrey, it’s clear that she deserves the distinction.
Twentieth Century: A-
My Man Godfrey: A
1 Hr., 31 Mins.
Twentieth Century / My Man Godfrey December 13, 2017
arole Lombard (1908-1942) was made for comedy. High-foreheaded, platinum-haired, UFO-eyed, believably dizzy, and with a penchant for saying her lines faster than a cheetah lunges at its prey, she was a silver screen comedienne capable of doing it all. She wasn’t afraid of making a fool of herself. Getting physical was never daunting. Unlike other top comedic actresses of the era, like Kate Hepburn or Roz Russell, you got the feeling that she’d throw herself into a vat of lava if a laugh were promised.