Wednesday, May 26, 2010

As memorial day weekend approaches, and the mammoth summer blockbusters are lined up, tarted up, and beaconing us, (reviews of which will be forthcoming in next week’s paper) Cinema Siren thought it would be good to approach the holiday from a unique angle. Instead of reviewing the colossus-son-of-last-year’s-hit, i’ll be featuring a famous patriotic Hollywood actress who lost her life while doing important work to support the US during World War II.

Carol Lombard, a comedienne with gorgeous cover girl good looks, was once the highest paid star in Hollywood, earning more than $500,000 a year in the late 1930s. She was extremely involved in promoting war bonds and was flying back from a war bond rally on January 16, 1942, when her plane crashed, killing all 19 onboard. President Franklin D. Roosevelt posthumously awarded Lombard the Medal of Freedom as the first woman killed in the line of duty in WWII. A woman who showed herself a true patriot on the home front of World War II, her commitment and dedication was something to aspire to as a civilian in wartime.

Recommended movies:

Twentieth Century (1934): The breakout movie that rose Carole Lombard to star status, helmed by friend and master director Howard Hawks, the brilliant Twentieth Century is considered to be the first and one of the all-time best classic screwball comedies, and anticipated the later films His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby. It features Lombard as a rising acting diva and John Barrymore as the former lover and flamboyant Broadway director who discovered her. His career is flagging, hers has exploded since she’s moved to Hollywood. They meet again when they are both riding to New York on the Twentieth Century Limited train. The witty repartee and lightning fast pacing keeps viewers breathlessly entertained.

My Man Godfrey (1936): Lombard garnered one of the movie’s 6 Academy Award nominations for her role as spoiled rich girl Irene Bullock in what is considered to be the definitive screwball comedy, in which she plays opposite her ex husband and Thin Man film series actor William Powell (also nominated for an Oscar). Powell plays a temporarily down and out Harvard man who gets hired as butler by the Bullock family, teaching the family that nobility comes from more than money and position. At the time, the film carried important messages of morality and self determination for the survivors of the depression, but remains timely today.

Made for Each Other (1939) & In Name Only (1939): While husband Clark Gable was getting attention as Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind, Carole Lombard was playing sweet roles against two of the biggest actors in Hollywood- Made For Each Other with Jimmy Stewart, and In Name Only with Cary Grant, both for director John Cromwell (actor James Cromwell’s dad). In Made For Each Other, a heartwarming, complicated love story thoroughly devoid of saccharine, Stewart and Lombard are a married couple who struggle with life’s challenges. The mixture of comedy and drama was a rarity for its time, leaving you very connected to the characters and rooting for their success. In Name Only is a turgid melodrama, but rises above itself with Lombard and Grant’s lead acting. For those who can’t see it in a comedic context, Lombard playing a serious role shows she has real acting chops, and puts her opposite the rarely less than wonderful Cary Grant. The story is of the unhappily married Alec Walker who falls in love with widow Julie Eden, but they are thwarted by his devious, manipulative wife Maida, played to witchy perfection by Kay Francis. The actors elevate this black and white Douglas Sirk-esque spectacle to classic romance.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) While not one of his best movies, anyone who loves Alfred Hitchcock will enjoy this, his only American comedy, as it shows the romantic and witty side of the director. Created as a valentine for his very good friend Lombard, and co-starring Robert Montgomery, the story is based around the question Mrs. Smith asks, “if you had to do it all over again, would you still marry me?”. It turns out they aren’t officially married after all, and the rest of the movie is them separating and again discovering their love for each other. It’s a rom-com dressed as a classic screwball comedy, snappy, witty, and entertaining, and shows once again Lombard’s skill of perfect comic timing.

To Be or Not to Be (1942)–Lombard’s last movie, one she didn’t live to see released, this Ernst Lubitsch dark comedy co-starring Jack Benny shows the fearless willingness on the part of the filmmakers to satirize the Nazis, albeit to some at the loss of good taste. The story is of an acting troupe in Nazi occupied Warsaw that gets caught in the middle of political and occupational doings, winding up in mortal danger, heroically assisting in the resistance. Although seemingly played for laughs, there is a depth and multilayered meaning to much of the action and dialogue that led an audience newly involved to consider what part they might play in a world at war. Too forward for the time, (even now most film critics find the mockery in poor taste) it has since risen to the top of wartime classics. That Lubitsch was a German jew may or may not excuse him from some of the less tasteful jokes, but those of you who appreciate films like The Life of Brian, Dr. Strangelove, or Altman’s MASH will find it funny. Anyone interested in influential WWII films will find it edifying and very interesting.

Carole Lombard is listed as one of the AFI’s greatest starts of all time, having made over 70 movies before her career was cut short by her death at 33. Her husband, film star Clark Gable, of Gone With The Wind fame, attended the launch of the liberty ship the SS Lombard named in her honor on January 15th, 1944. Known as the queen of screwball comedy, loved by her friends for her straight shooting persona, and by her male leads and directors for her ribald humor and sailor’s mouth, Her perfect comic timing mixed with the subtlety of her acting have won her enduring fans and admirers, and she continues to be appreciated today. Watch one of her many films and see if you find her the luminous beauty and enduring talent many believe her to be.