"I've lived by a man's code designed to fit a man's world, yet at the same time I never forget that a woman's first job is to choose the right shade of lipstick." ~ Carole Lombard
"Marvelous girl. Crazy as a bedbug." ~ Howard Hawks
“With her, it was like music, it was completely natural.” ~ Clark Gable
Carole Lombard was not only one of the great beauties of Hollywood's Golden Age, but a top class comic actress. A wonderful combination of glamor, wit, brains and beauty, she was blonde dynamite in a petite 5' 2" package. Tragically killed in a plane crash at the age of 34, she might have left this world too early, but, by all accounts, she packed a whole lot of living in that brief span, and managed to star in a slew of films, too - several of them comic gems. In her filmography, 1936 stands out as a banner year, featuring one sizzling screwball (Love Before Breakfast), one fun, oddball comedy/mystery (The Princess Comes Across) and one out-and-out masterpiece (My Man Godfrey). In each of these, Lombard shows her impressive comic range, expert timing and facility with rapid-fire dialogue, and an ability to inhabit varied types of characters. She also displays terrific chemistry with her three leading men, suave fellows all: respectively, Preston Foster, Fred MacMurray and ex-husband Willlam Powell.
Love Before Breakfast
Powerful business mogul Scott Miller (Preston Foster) has his eye on socialite Kay Colby, but Kay is engaged to Bill Wadsworth (Cesar Romero). Scott, used to getting his own way in all things, decides to clear the field of opposition by buying the oil company Bill works for and promoting him to a new position - in Japan. Scott may be a bit of a rascal but he's an honest one, and after Bill sails away on an ocean liner, Scott promptly tells a tearful Kay what he's done. Offended and annoyed by his cocky presumption, Kay tells him to get lost, but all that does is set Scott off on a full-court press pursuit over the ensuing months. Kay keeps spurning his (very funny and clever) advances, but just when Scott decides to throw in the towel, she has a change of heart. What ensues is the typical battle of the sexes, 1930s screwball style, between two stubborn people plainly meant for each other. It's all served up with plenty of flair by director Walter Lang and a lot of amusing, rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, courtesy of a screenplay credited to Herbert Fields, based on the short story, "Spinster Dinner," by Faith Baldwin.
Preston Foster's Scott starts out as a bit of a controlling cad, but his urbane wit and perseverance quickly win the audience over. (Melvyn Douglas was apparently slated to star originally, but for whatever reason, Foster got the gig. While Douglas would have been undeniably great in the part, Foster brings a lot of charm and presence to it.) I'm not particularly familiar with Foster's other film work, but based on this film alone, found him quite engaging. He appeared in a lot of westerns later in his career (generally in lawman or military officer sort of parts), as well as playing Roddy McDowell's father in My Friend Flicka and its sequel.
The always enjoyable Cesar Romero has some fun moments as Kay's supposed paramour, Bill, and Janet Beecher gets several good, droll lines as Kay's mother, who does what she can to steer her daughter in Scott's direction. The remainder of the supporting cast doesn't register much, though Richard Carle is amusing in the small part of Scott's friend and fellow boardmember, Brinkerhoff.
The character of Kay dances just this side of annoying in her stubborn refusal to give even one little inch despite her true inner feelings, but of course this is where the vein of comedy gold lies in this sort of flick. Lombard expertly treads the line, keeping Kay sympathetic and strong, while remaining alluring enough to convince us that a hard-charger like Scott would keep up the chase. Lombard was the type of woman who could seemingly generate chemistry with a two-by-four, and so connected easily with nearly all of her leading men. Foster's no exception; sparks fly convincingly between them, the 6' 2", broad-shouldered Foster towering a good foot over his diminutive co-star. We're left with no doubt at the movie's fade-out that these two crazy kids will keep on fighting the good fight for years to come (though perhaps in some doubt as to what, exactly, the movie's title is supposed to mean).
The Princess Comes Across
Like Love Before Breakfast, The Princess Comes Across starts out with various characters boarding a Transatlantic ocean liner...but in this case, the entire film takes place during the voyage.
Hard-boiled ex-con turned concertina player-cum- bandleader King Mantell (Fred MacMurray) is displeased to give up the royal suite on the good ship Mammoth, especially to a snooty Swedish princess - that is, until he gets a gander at the blonde bombshell.
Princess Olga (Lombard) is actually a wannabe starlet from Brooklyn named Wanda who, together with her older confidante Lady Gertrude (Alison Skipworth), has devised a bold scheme to pass herself off as royalty and parlay this into a big studio contract. Mantell, with the aid of his cronie, Benton (the great William Frawley), tries his best to woo her, and just as Olga's icy demeanor is starting to thaw, things get even more complicated as a slimy blackmailer named Darcy (Porter Hall) ends up murdered in the Princess' stateroom.
Turns out there's a vicious escaped killer on board, Merko, a master of languages and an adept actor. But just whose identity has Merko assumed? A conclave of five master sleuths also happen to be onboard: Cragg of Scotland Yard (Lumsden Hare), the German Steindorff (Sig Ruman), Lorel of the Surete (Douglas Dumbrille), Russian Morevitch (Mischa Auer) and Japanese secret service agent Kawati (Tetsu Komai). On top of that, a suspicious stranger (Bradley Page) is also seen skulking about the ship. When another body crops up, both Mantell and Princess Olga come under scrutiny from the detectives, and to clear himself and Olga from suspicion, eventually King decides the time is ripe for a desperate gambit - to set himself up as bait to flush the murderer into the open.
While The Princess Comes Across can't quite make up its mind if it's a romance, a comedy or a murder mystery, the mix all comes out pretty smooth anyway, thanks to the wonderful supporting cast, some nice, atmospheric direction (by William K. Howard) and Lombard's blatant and very funny parody of Greta Garbo in her Princess Olga persona. ("Have you a favorite movie star, Princess?" asks a reporter. "Oh, ja, ja," she replies. "Would it be a male star?" "Oh, sure." "If the question isn't too personal, his name?" "Vee tell you. Mickey Moosie.") Lombard has a ball, slouching and vamping around in aloof Garbo fashion, breaking out in streetwise New Yorker banter with Gertrude when they're alone in their room. Fred MacMurray is believable as the tough cookie who falls for the Princess once he finds out who she really is (which is pretty quickly, as he's a sharp customer).
Sig Ruman, Dumbrille, Auer and the others have some gentle fun at the expense of generic movie detective types (Auer gets the best lines of the group as the morose, chain-smoking Morevitch.) Best of all is Alison Skipworth as dowdy, redoubtable, acid-tongued Lady Gertrude, who quickly sizes up King Mantell with one gimlet eye and knows trouble is on the horizon: "My dear, I am an old woman. I have traveled at home and abroad, and never, never have I known any good to come out of a concertina."
Fans of classic Hollywood murder mysteries and mistaken-identity comedies should have a good time with this one.
My Man Godfrey
Lombard finished up 1936 with a delightfully ditzy turn in Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey - surely one the finest, if not THE finest - screwball comedy ever made, and no matter how you slice it, a film for the ages. Partly why it works so well is down to William Powell, as the calm, still, Zen center amidst all the craziness. Unlike the eventually wearying, shrill Bringing Up Baby, where everyone is just completely bonkers and Katherine Hepburn works hard at being nails-on-chalkboard irritating, My Man Godfrey still brings the crazy - but Powell (and to a lesser extent, Eugene Pallette) keeps things grounded, and underlying all the zaniness is a serious message about the wastefulness of the irresponsible rich and how people are treated when the economic chips are down, the specter of the Great Depression haunting the film's corners. As Godfrey says, ""The only difference between a man and a derelict is a job."
When kindhearted but space cadet socialite Irene Bullock (Lombard) "borrows" derelict "forgotten man" Godfrey (Powell) from the city dump in order to beat her snooty sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick) in a scavenger hunt, she quickly takes a shine to him and brings him home to be the new butler for her wacky family household, which includes kooky, absentminded mother, Angelica (Alice Brady), long-suffering pop, Alexander (raspy, bullfrog voiced Pallette, wonderful as always), sarcastic maid, Molly (Jean Dixon) and hanger-on, sponging "protege," Carlo (Mischa Auer).
Despite the jealous, suspicious machinations of Cornelia, Godfrey proves a dab hand as "buttling," his innate dignity and intelligence weathering all storms, eventually putting the Bullock household in order and making all the young women living there - Irene, Cornelia and even hard-bitten Molly - fall hard for him.
Lombard demonstrates her versatility here, playing a complete loony in an adorable and offhandedly sexy fashion, spending most of the movie following Godfrey around like a lovesick puppy, but with her obvious intellect peeking through in subtle ways via her expert comic timing. She and Powell had been briefly married a few years prior to making My Man Godfrey and remained good pals - their effortless chemistry sings.
Everyone here does excellent work, but this is Powell's movie through and through and he saunters off with it with that rare aplomb that was a signature of his star power. This is arguably Powell's best known film after The Thin Man and its sequels, and it clearly displays his very unique gifts. No one could do debonair and droll quite like William Powell, especially in the 30s. Unfortunately, Powell's star seems to have dimmed over time...perhaps his particular brand of sophisticated, urbane charm has become increasingly rare and less valued in our coarser modern age; a shame, as he was, and is, one-of-a-kind.
Also one-of-a-kind was Carole Lombard, who made another ten films after Godfrey, including another screwball classic, Nothing Sacred (with Frederic March), the melodrama Made for Each Other opposite Jimmy Stewart and her last film, To Be or Not to Be, a sharp satire of Nazi Germany with Jack Benny. Her marriage to "King of Hollywood" Clark Gable was sadly cut short after only a few years, by her premature death in 1942, leaving Gable and her legions of fans desolated. But the light of her talent shines on in these three films and the many others she graced us with in her short but prolific career. She remains one of those rare actresses who seemed even more interesting, likeable and funny in real life than on the silver screen.
For more on La Lombard, head on over to the always pictorially splendid Carole & Co.
DVD Note: Both Love Before Breakfast and The Princess Comes Across can be found on the 2-disc, 6-film Carole Lombard Glamour Collection (along with Hands Across the Table, We're Not Dressing, True Confessions and Man of the World). My Man Godfrey is available on numerous public domain DVD releases of dubious to so-so quality; the Criterion Collection put out a handsome - if expensive - edition in 2001, which remains the definitive release of this classic to date.
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