Carole Lombard is much lauded for her skills as a comedienne, but not as much so for her dramatic performances. Perhaps, it is for this reason, that it took a while for her to grow on me.
Screwball comedy is my favorite genre, and Carole is one of its’ heroines. But when I viewed her popular films, like My Man Godfrey, Twentieth Century and Nothing Sacred, I felt I must be missing something important. To me, her performances were shrill, occasionally manic and sometimes painful for me to watch. And yet, everyone raves about her talent.
That many people can’t be wrong. So, I kept at it. I continued to work my way through her films. And along the way I discovered something. I must be a bit contrary, because I appreciate Carole most in her dramatic roles and her less popular comedies.
A good example is Fools for Scandal. While I won’t dispute this one has it’s flaws, including a mis-cast leading man, Carole is rather delightful as the famous actress being stalked by an impoverished nobleman. Here her comedic performance is one I can appreciate. Her annoyance and perplexity over her friendly, gold-digging stalker still displays compassion and patience.
Lest you think I have no appreciation at all for her comedy chops, I should mention that Hands Across the Table is one of my favorite Lombard films. It’s the perfect blend of casting chemistry, a charming script, great timing and sweet performances. And though fans of Hitchcock rarely list Mr. & Mrs. Smith as an example of his best work, I also adore Carole and Robert Montgomery’s interactions in this marital comedy.
However, it was seeing Carole in dramatic roles which finally made me a fan. These performances bring out something remarkably tender and vulnerable in her. But they also highlight her inner strength, such as her roles in Virtue and No More Orchids. In the first Carole makes a newlywed woman, who is trying to leave her past street-walking life behind, incredibly sympathetic. And in the latter, she is fascinating as an heiress torn between love and duty. She even manages to make co-star Lyle Talbot somewhat interesting. In fact, No More Orchids ranks among my favorite of Carole’s films.
Who can deny that Carole wrings out the heart strings as a young newlywed and mother in Made for Each Other? Watching her and James Stewart navigate the challenges of life and parenthood together brings a tear to my eye every time. I want so badly for them to have peace and success.
In In Name Only with Cary Grant and Kay Francis, she wins my sympathy as a widow who falls in love, only to discover her lover is married and his cold-hearted wife refuses divorce. Rarely do I cheer for the end of a marriage, but Kay Francis makes the wife so despicable. Meanwhile, Carole glows with such inner goodness. These contrasting performances highlight the twist in the good versus evil battle of love. The dark, grasping Francis doesn’t love her husband, but also doesn’t want to lose him to the blonde, angelic Carole, who is willing to give him up to save his marriage.
I was also impressed with Carole in the film Brief Moment as a singer who marries into wealth. She is not your cliched gold-digger. Instead the new bride preaches the value of work to her socialite husband. She believes he can be more than a bank account and encourages him to become a man of moral substance too. Honestly, this is a magnificently understated performance by Carole. She gives what could be a stereotypical character depth and maturity. I admire and sympathize completely with her efforts and personal creed.
But it was Carole’s role as a nurse and big sister in Vigil in the Night which finally won me over completely. Many have complained about this slow-moving medical drama. Carole’s quiet, steady performance as a woman desperate to save her patients and her sister held me spell-bound. This may be one of the most physically restrained performances Carole ever gave, but still I feel every minute of her painful sacrifices, her resigned exhaustion, her passionate dedication.
I’m so glad I didn’t give up on Carole Lombard. I may be in the minority, but I believe her dramatic performances are vastly under-rated. She may be a screwball comedy legend for most, but for me, she is a now beloved as a drama queen.
Thanks to Vincent at Carole & Co and Crystal at The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood for honoring this remarkable actress with The Carole Lombard Memorial Blogathon. Don’t forget to stop by their sites to read more about Carole Lombard.