Timelessly beautiful, sexy, and funny, Carole Lombard left an indelible mark on the silver screen during her 17-year career in films such as Twentieth Century, Nothing Sacred, My Man Godfrey, and To Be or Not to Be. Truly one of Hollywood's golden girls and married to Hollywood royalty, Clark Gable. Sadly, the world was deprived of Lombard's gifts when she became a casualty of World War II.
Carole Lombard's Early Years
She was born Jane Alice Peters in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on October 6, 1908. During a trip to the west coast, her divorced mother decided to settle in Los Angeles. At the age of 12, Lombard was discovered by a film director Allan Dwan and signed to appear in a 1921 film, A Perfect Crime. It was four years before she got another part. At 15, she quit school and joined a theater company.
Lombard's Bumpy Road to Stardom
Lombard took a screen test when she was 17 and was signed by Fox Films as Carole Lombard. At Fox, she made four feature films and several short films.
Then, in 1926, Lombard was in a horrible auto accident that left her with facial disfigurement. She had reconstructive surgery without anesthetic, so the muscles in her face could not relax. Fox canceled her contract, and the deep scar on the left side of her face left her with no career. During a difficult recovery, in which she had to keep her face as immobile as possible, Lombard studied photography books. Eventually, plastic surgery minimized the scar.
Cameraman Harry Stradling later remarked, "She knows as much about the tricks of the trade as I do... I wanted to cover her scar by focusing the lights on her face, so that it would seem to blend with her cheek. She was the one to tell me that diffusing glass in my lens would do the same job better, and she was right!"
Once recovered, Lombard went to work as a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty, which taught her about comedy. When talkies came in, Lombard's breathless, sexy voice was an asset. She went to work for Pathe in her first sound film, High Voltage.
Lombard moved over to Paramount and became a top star there, but true superstardom came in 1934 with her hilarious performance as a movie star in the film Twentieth Century, which paired her with John Barrymore. After filming, Barrymore gave her an autographed photo inscribed: "To the finest actress I have worked with, bar none." She credited his advice to "let go" with her success in the film, and later, when his career was in decline, she had him cast in True Confession (1937).
In 1936, Lombard received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in My Man Godfrey, another enduring classic. She was known for choosing just the right film, and it paid off - at one point in her career, she was making $35,000/week. Nevertheless, she turned down some real gems: It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday, and an Orson Welles film that he would not make without her.
Personal LifeLombard was married twice, first to actor William Powell and later to Clark Gable. She met Powell in 1931, on the set of Man of the World. Divorced in 1933, they remained friends. "Bill Powell is the only intelligent actor I ever met," she said. Against the wishes of her studio, Lombard was involved with singer Russ Columbo. Columbo, however, died in a freak accident in 1934 at the age of 26.
Gable and Lombard first met in 1924 as extras on the set of Ben Hur (1925). They would make three films together as extras and costarred in No Man of Her Own (1932), but did not become involved until 1936. They married in 1939. "I think marriage is dangerous," Lombard commented. "The idea of two people trying to possess each other is wrong. I don't think the flare of love lasts. Your mind rather than your emotions must answer for the success of matrimony. It must be friendship -- a calm companionship which can last through the years."
She was infamous for her salty language -- taught to her by her brothers to ward off unwelcome advances! It's said that during her years of stardom, she never had a dressing room, preferring to spend breaks and lunches with the film crew. She was known for her kindness, generosity, and friendliness. "I've lived by a man's code designed to fit a man's world...[but]...I never forget that a woman's first job is to choose the right shade of lipstick," Lombard once said.
Carole Lombard's Tragic EndIn 1942, Lombard made what was to be her last movie, To Be Or Not to Be, with Jack Benny. After the U.S. entered World War II, she went to her home state of Indiana for a war bond rally, selling over $2 million worth of war bonds. She wanted to return home quickly (it was rumored that she had heard Gable was having an affair) and refused to take a train, though her mother and MGM publicist Otto Winkler, were afraid of flying. Carole flipped a coin, and the plane won. During the flight, Lombard's group was asked to deplane at the next stop to make room for more military personnel; Lombard argued that she had just sold $500,000 worth of war bonds and should be allowed to stay on the plane. Her determination would prove her undoing.
On January 16, 1942, Lombard, her mother, and 20 other people were killed when the plane crashed outside of Las Vegas. She was 33. In editing To Be Or Not to Be, the producers omitted her character's fateful words: "What can happen in a plane?" Today, she is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery; Clark Gable is beside her.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt posthumously awarded Lombard the Medal of Freedom as the first woman killed in the line of duty in WWII.
Strangely, Lombard's dachshund Commissioner had always ignored Gable, yet became his devoted companion after her death.
A gifted comedienne and dramatic actress, Carole Lombard was known for her elegant blond, blue-eyed beauty, undiminished by the occasional pie in the face - or by time. A photo of her was recently used in a GAP ad, demonstrating her natural, modern look in khakis. She was gorgeous wearing gowns or jeans, and despite her tragically short career, her screen presence continues to shine in her films. Lombard movies like Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey, Made for Each Other, and To Be or Not to Be, will ensure that Carole Lombard will always be seen as one of the great Hollywood screen legends.