If you accept the world of screwball comedy as an alternate universe, with a logic inside its seeming illogic, then the idea that Carole Lombard is screwball’s Garbo is a natural one. There was a whisper of a physical resemblance, in the high forehead and finely arched brows, in the gaze that could seem both sleepy and alert at the same time. But it’s the way in which those faces were apposite that’s most revealing. Garbo’s could appear implacable, but her dreaminess lay just beneath the surface, evident in the flights of her lyric voice.
Lombard could look lost in daydreams or fanciful schemes. But screwball, born of the Depression, was too practical to support dreaminess (kookiness, yes), and at the core Lombard is nothing if not practical. Even when she’s breathless and harried and distracted, she’s super-sharp. In movie after movie, you can feel her brain trying to keep at least one step ahead of the forces threatening to undo her best-laid plans. It’s no accident that she became a star at a time when American movies liked toughness and disdained folderol (and no accident that Garbo became less popular as her films became more exotic).
The Princess Comes Across is one of six lesser-known pictures in the new “Carole Lombard: The Glamour Collection.” You won’t find her great triumphs— Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey, Nothing Sacred or her last film, To Be or Not to Be (she was killed in a plane crash a few months before it was released). But these pleasing programmers manage to capture the contradictory coherence of Lombard’s essence as the most pragmatic of screwball denizens.
The Garbo comparison is explicit in The Princess Comes Across. Lombard is Princess Olga, Swedish royalty on her way to Hollywood, where she’s secured a movie contract. She tells the reporters covering her dockside departure that her favorite star is “Mickey Moosey.” That’s Lombard’s Garbo parody in a nutshell. She makes the mistake of swapping “v” for “w,” but she gets the elongated vowels and the stately swooniness that stood for the (admittedly reductive) popular image of Garbo.
She isn’t Princess Olga, of course: She’s Wanda Nash from Brooklyn, who hit on the Princess Olga bit when she was on her uppers in Europe, and she’s hoping to get by with it in America. What really goes over big in America, though, is exactly the no-nonsense shrewdness we see in Lombard, both when she’s Wanda Nash and when Wanda is playing at being Princess Olga.
In the wonderful silent comedy Show People (1928), Marion Davies plays an actress who learns that the audience likes her better as herself, Peggy Pepper, than in her dull dramatic outings under the nom de cinema Patricia Pepoire. Wanda Nash opts for being herself over being Princess Olga, as well—and she does it before facing an audience. And so this slight shipboard murder mystery, with Fred MacMurray as a band leader (he plays “Flight of the Bumblebee” on a concertina), and Sig Ruman and Mischa Auer as cops hunting down an escaped killer, becomes an offhand demonstration of what grounded screwball comedy: the lack of pretense that made the swanky, silvery Art Deco surroundings seem like a swell place to end up instead of just a place for swells.
Lombard wasn’t a tough broad, like Joan Blondell (or a tough broad posing as a kewpie, like Una Merkel, who plays Lombard’s best pal in 1937’s True Confession), and she wasn’t a patrician like those occasional emissaries to the world of screwball, Katharine Hepburn and Irene Dunne. Most of all, Lombard wasn’t a cynic. When Hollywood tried to cast her as one, in Hands Across the Table, where she’s a manicurist pursued by and pursuing a rich boy (MacMurray again) who’s just as broke as she is, it doesn’t work. But it’s a tribute to how believably grounded Lombard came across: Her character’s determination to marry for money feels born of hard experience, while MacMurray is just playing out a privileged kid’s fantasy of mooching. (When she winds up with him, you realize the movie never understood her worth in the first place.)
It’s an irony that Lombard is best known as the spoiled rich girl in My Man Godfrey (1936), perhaps her least representative role (a wised-up presence, she was not the obvious choice to be so good as a ditz). The schemes Lombard’s characters concoct can be crazy, but they’re always born of real need, real wanting. Time and again, Lombard’s characters are convinced that they deserve their share of the luxury and ease swirling around them, and if they have to tell a lie or two here or there to get it, then that’s just too bad.
That’s what she does in the 1937 True Confession, in which she admits to a murder she didn’t commit to further her husband’s struggling law career. He (once more, MacMurray) is so honest and principled and decent that the only clients he’ll take are innocent ones. In other words, he’s a sap.
The picture is stolen by John Barrymore in his scenes as a wild-eyed dipso convinced he’s a crime-solving genius. (“She’ll fry,” he keeps saying of Lombard, with all the satisfaction of a Salemite who’s secured a front-row seat for this week’s burning.) But Lombard gets at something essential in the screwball spirit. Her lying keeps landing her in one pickle after another. But none of her lies do any real damage (she never lies about her emotions), except to her Boy Scout hubby’s romantic notions of how the world works. It’s her fancies, not his hard work, that give them the better life they dream of. And the movie doesn’t make the mistake of making them miserable in their newfound luxury—in fact, it regards MacMurray as a dope for fretting about the ethics of it all.
This isn’t a celebration of crassness or greed—it’s about realizing life is too damn short and too damn precious to waste breaking your back and killing your spirit. As a picture about craving material comfort, it’s a lot more honest than the current Friends with Money, a Restoration Hardware catalog posing as a comedy of manners. In True Confession, Lombard is a great chivalric in reverse. She’s the woman who saves the man—from the purgatory of honest hard work and its paltry reward: no fun. No wonder audiences went wild for her.
[“Carole Lombard—The Glamour Collection”: Hands Across the Table, Love Before Breakfast, Man of the World, The Princess Comes Across, True Confession, We’re Not Dressing; MCA Home Video; $26.90.]
Follow Charles Taylor via RSS.