Carole Lombard (1908 - 1942)

Carole Lombard (1908 - 1942)

Known as the Screwball Queen of the Screen, Carole Lombard, with her silky blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes, radiant smile and perfectly chiseled high cheekbones was one of the most classically beautiful actresses to ever grace the screen. A brilliant, bright comedienne, Carole Lombard had the rare quality of being as elegant drenched in water or with a pie in her face, as she was with her willowy figure draped in long, shimmering gowns. In retrospect, her distinctive, rapid-fire breathless delivery of dialogue makes it seem as though she was in a rush. It was almost as though she knew she would not be with us for long.

Carole Lombard was born Jane Alice Peters on October 6, 1908 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The Oscar nominated actress was the daughter of Frederick C. Peters and Elizabeth Knight. Lombard grew up the youngest of three children in a two-story home at 704 Rockhill Street in Fort Wayne. She had two older brothers, Frederick and Stuart, and enjoyed playing with them more than making paper cutouts or valentines. A childhood friend remembered that "every other afternoon this 5 year old blonde would come screeching across the street, demanding a chance to play one of the ends [in football]. She was always sent home again." All of Lombard's life, her mother, Bessie, remained her closest confidant. They died together on the airplane in 1942. In 1914, her parents separated and Carole moved with her mother and brothers, to Los Angeles where she would attend Virgil Mary Middle School and Fairfax High School. She left school after Junior High, and often participated in exhibition ballroom dancing at the Coconut Grove in Hollywood. It was here, in 1925, that a Fox Studio executive spotted her and gave her a screen test. Her career had begun.

Carole Lombard (1908 - 1942)

In fact, Carole made her first film at the age of twelve after having been "discovered" by director Alan Dwan while playing baseball out in the streets. He cast her as Monte Blue’s little sister in 1921’s A Perfect Crime. When she signed in 1925 the contract with Fox she changed her name and became "Carole Lombard." Her film career was interrupted when Carole was injured in a car accident. Her face hit the windshield and was cut from her nose to her left cheekbone. The doctor sewed 14 stitches into her cut without the use of anesthetic, so her facial muscles would not relax. Still, Carole was left with a deep, red scar. While recuperating, she studied motion picture photography. Eventually, she had plastic surgery which made the scar less noticeable. Carole still had to utilize her knowledge of photography. Cameraman Harry Stradling later said: "She knows as much about the tricks of the trade as I do! In close up work, 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!"

Over the next few years Carole made several low-budget westerns with Buck Jones and comedy shorts when she signed a contract with Mack Sennett in 1927. She made several two reel comedies with him, and told interviewers that she enjoyed working with him. He remembered her as a "scamp and a madcap."

Carole Lombard (1908 - 1942)

By 1929 Hollywood was beginning to take notice of the up and coming Lombard who was now leading lady in a string of successes starting with High Voltage that year. After leaving Sennett she appeared in various films for Pathe. One of them was Man of the World, with William Powell. In 1930, she began working for Paramount Pictures where she would go on to make a majority of her most memorable comedies. It was her performance in 1934’s Twentieth Century that really established her as a bon-a-fide star, earning her praise from fans and film critics alike. One critic wrote "Lombard is like no other Lombard you’ve seen before. When you see her, you’ll forget the rather stilted Lombard of old. You’ll see a star blaze out of this scene, high spots Carole never dreamed of hitting." Carole credited her co-star John Barrymore with her success in that film. She once explained: "It was Barrymore who taught me to "let go", to abandon myself to my part. When as Oscar Jaffee, the producer, he bellowed at Lily Garland, the actress, I found myself shrieking back at him. When he threw her in his arms and tore his hair, I clutched my throat and "hystericated" - forgetting everything except to live the character." Upon completion of filming Twentieth Century her co-star, John Barrymore, presented her an autographed portrait in scripted with "To the finest actress I have worked with, bar none." This moved Carole deeply. When Barrymore’s film career was later on the decline, Carole insisted he be cast with her in another breezy, lighthearted comedy True Confession (1937).

Director Howard Hawks, Carole Lombard and John Barrymore between scenes of Twentieth Century

Carole Lombard's own enchanting, spontaneous personality shined through in her screwball comedies such as: The Princess Comes Across (1936), the brilliant My Man Godfrey (1936), Nothing Sacred (1937) and the classic Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941). These films have provided merriment for audiences everywhere. Carole Lombard had no equal in the screwball comedy film genre. Carole did a few wacky things off screen, too. When she was made honorary mayor of Culver City, the first and only thing she did was to declare a studio holiday and send all the employees home, much to boss David Selznick's distress. Carole also tricked her agent, Myron Selznick, into signing over 10% of his earnings to her.

In her private life, Carole was married twice. Her first husband was William Powell. 16 years her senior, William Powell and Carole Lombard wed on June 26, 1931. Though their marriage would end in divorce two years later, the two remained friends. In fact, it was on the recommendation of William Powell that Lombard was cast in the film My Man Godfrey for which she would later receive an Oscar nomination for. Carole said later that "career had little to do with the divorce. We were just two completely incompatible people." Carole later saw Powell through a battle with cancer. Ironically, William Powell outlived almost all of his contemporaries. Carole was also in love with Bing Crosby's rival, singer Russ Columbo. In 1934 Columbo was killed in a mysterious shooting incident, that was eventually written off as accidental.

Carole Lombard (1908 - 1942)

In 1939 Carole married the great love of her life, Clark Gable. Lombard had known Clark Gable since 1932, but their romantic attachment began in 1936, when John Hay Whitney gave an elaborate costume party in Hollywood. The invitations requested the guests appear in something white. With her unfailing sense of humor, Carole arrived at the party in a white ambulance and was carried into the Whitney mansion on a stretcher. She and Gable renewed their friendship at "The White Ball," becoming constant companions. Gable was still married to his second wife at the time, Ria. On March 7, 1939 Gable was granted a divorce and he and Lombard married soon after on March 29, 1939.

In the summer of 1939, they settled on a 20 acre estate in the Encino section of the San Fernando Valley where they would live a happy life together as Ma and Pa, as the two would affectionately call one another. They loved the outdoor life and shared times hunting and riding together. Lombard was the ideal mate for Gable, a woman who could be glamorous and lovely, but who also could be as companionable as a pal. To this day, every one who knew Gable has declared that Lombard was the love of his life.

In 1941 the U.S. entered World War II and Carole returned to her home state Indiana. Gable was made chairman of the Hollywood Victory Committee. In January 1942, he arranged for Lombard to embark on a bond selling tour that would climax in Indianapolis on January 15. On Friday, January 16, 1942 at 4:00 in the morning, Carole and her mother boarded a Trans World Airlines DC-3 airplane to return to California. Before boarding, she spoke publicly for the last time. Lombard greeted her fans and said "Before I say goodbye to you all, come on and join me in a big cheer! V for Victory!"

Director Garson Kanin and Carole Lombard are obviously elated to be working together on 'They Knew What They Wanted'

Carole Lombard sold over two-million dollars worth of war bonds. Anxious to return home to husband Clark Gable, she wanted to take a plane instead of a train. Carole's mother and MGM publicity man Otto Winkler who accompanied her on their tour, were both afraid of flying. They begged her to take the train. Being the fair person she was, Carole said they would flip a coin, heads the train, tails the plane. The fatal coin came up tails.

After refueling in Las Vegas, the plane took off in the night and twenty-three minutes later crashed into a mountain side thirty mile southwest of Las Vegas. Dan Yanish, a watchman at a diamond mine near Las Vegas recalled: "It was a beautiful clear night and you could see for miles. It hardly seemed minutes before the plane faded away over the Charleston range when I saw a flash and then big tongues of flame rising from the mountainside. The plane cracked in two like a piece of kindling wood." All passengers, including 33-year-old Carole Lombard, her beloved mother, Otto Winkler and 15 young Army fliers were killed instantly.

Gable joined the search for her body and on the 18th of January, he brought back Carole and her mother to be buried at the Forest Lawn Cemetary in California. President Roosevelt awarded Carole Lombard with a medal as "The first woman to be killed in action, in defense of her country, in its war against the Axis Powers." At the time, the Army was offering to give Carole a military funeral and the Hollywood Victory Committee wanted to build a monument in her honor, but Gable refused both and all requests of the sort. Instead he followed the directions laid forth in his wife funeral instructions which stated:

I request that no person other than my immediate family and the persons who shall prepare my remains for interment be permitted to view my remains after death has been pronounced. I further request a private funeral and that I be clothed in white and placed in a modestly priced crypt in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California.
Carole Lombard and Clark Gable sitting at the lunch counter with the rest of studio's employees

Gable was devasted by her death and shortly after he joined the United States Army Airforce where he served as a gunner to a bomber on combat missons across Europe. He later commented that not only had he lost his wife, but he had lost his best friend.

Numerous biographical accounts depict Carole as Hollywood's beautiful tomboy, a tough-talking but vivacious charmer, adored by virtually all of her coworkers on both sides of the camera. She never liked to go to her dressing room while shooting a movie. Garson Kanin said she preferred to socialize with the cast and crew instead. She was called "The Profane Angel" because as director Mitchell Leisen said "she looked like an angel and swore like a sailor." In an industry for which a skew of actors and actress remain infamous for their untimely deaths, Lombard may be the rare exception. Rather than being remembered as the rebel, bombshell, sex goddess, or tragedy of unfortunate events, Lombard’s legacy comes from her compassionate character. A character who brought laughter in a period of Depression, morale in times of war, and who consistently delivers unity to the generations watching her films across the globe today.

Queen of the Screwball

With Walter Byron in 'Sinners in the Sun'

"A hard-working and ambitious actress from her early teens, Lombard was a thorough professional, having paid her dues in a wide variety of pictures by the time of her screwball breakthrough in one of the founding films of the genre, Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century (1934). The practical-joking, impulsively outspoken aspects of her personality had been confined to her offscreen life until Hawks merged them into her role of the hot-tempered actress who verbally battles her flamboyant ex-directorllover (John Barrymore) in the successful filming of Hecht and MacArthur's rowdy stage play. The winning combination of attractiveness and eccentricity which gave screwball comedy its fresh appeal has been repeatedly tracked back to Lombard's delightfully enraged performance as stage star Lily Garland, but it was not until five films later, in Mitchell Leisen's Hands Across the Table (1935) that another screwball opportunity, and a more restrained one at that, beckoned.

Lombard's portrayal of a money-minded manicurist who finds love in a garret was more screwball in its approach to gold digging than in her performance per se, but her polished skill at romantic comedy in general blended well with the story and proved a stepping stone to the triple triumphs of My Man Godfrey (1936), True Confession (1937), and Nothing Sacred (1937), which established her as the female embodiment of the screwball sensibility in movies. In fact, it was a critic's borrowing of a baseball term, in reviewing the first of these, which coined the "screwball comedy" designation responding to Lombard's portrayal of a spoiled heiress' screamingly funny, albeit dizzy, bratty, and thoughtless behavior when she brings home a supposed "bum" and installs him as the new butler in the family mansion. The second film scored with audiences in large measure due to her memorable performance as an endearingly compulsive liar, whose phony murder confession wreaks havoc with the justice system. The third picture gave Lombard a wide berth in which to shine as another truthless and wide-eyed "innocent," this time allowing a crass newspaperman to exploit ruthlessly the mistaken story of her impending death from radium poisoning.

Carole Lombard (1908 - 1942)

The busy actress surrounded these screwball masterpieces with several other fine performances in standard romantic comedy and drama of the late 1930s and the turn of the decade. Then she made what became her last screwball appearance, in a film surprisingly directed by thrill-master Alfred Hitchcock, Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941). While not on the dizzying plane of zany and impulsive behavior which typified the cycle at its height, Lombard's performance was nevertheless very effective in this sharp-edged Norman Krasna story of a couple's troubled re-courtship after learning their "perfect" marriage is not legal.

Lombard's subsequent and final performance was for the screen's master of sophisticated comedies of manners, Ernst Lubitsch. To Be or Not to Be, while primarily a mixture of political satire (a troupe of Polish actors trick the Nazis) and the director's unique style of clever sexual innuendo, benefited greatly from Lombard's screwball-honed sense of comic timing and line delivery. The grim realities of later war news, plus the picture's posthumous release following her tragic accident, cast an undeserved pall over the film which faded only with its widely applauded revival several years later.

Carole Lombarde's disappearance from the screen closely and symbolically presaged the departure of the very comedy style which, despite her success in other genres, she had come to represent. It has been nearly impossible for latter-day writers to invoke the memory of screwball comedy without mentioning her name, and anyone who takes the opportunity to view her best work, despite the passage of a half-century, will immediately see why." [1]


  • To Be or Not to Be (1942)
  • Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)
  • They Knew What They Wanted (1940)
  • Vigil in the Night (1940)
  • In Name Only (1939)
  • Made for Each Other (1939)
  • Fools for Scandal (1938)
  • True Confession (1937)
  • Nothing Sacred (1937)
  • Swing High, Swing Low (1937)
  • My Man Godfrey (1936)
  • The Princess Comes Across (1936)
  • Love Before Breakfast (1936)
  • Hands Across the Table (1935)
  • Rumba (1935)
  • The Gay Bride (1934)
  • Lady by Choice (1934)
  • Now and Forever (1934)
  • Twentieth Century (1934)
  • We're Not Dressing (1934)
  • Bolero (1934)
  • White Woman (1933)
  • Brief Moment (1933)
  • The Eagle and the Hawk (1933)
  • Supernatural (1933)
  • From Hell to Heaven (1933)
  • No Man of Her Own (1932)
  • No More Orchids (1932)
  • Virtue (1932)
  • Sinners in the Sun (1932)
  • No One Man (1932)
  • I Take This Woman (1931)
  • Up Pops the Devil (1931)
  • Ladies' Man (1931)
  • Man of the World (1931)
  • It Pays to Advertise (1931)
  • Fast and Loose (1930)
  • Safety in Numbers (1930)
  • The Arizona Kid (1930)
  • The Racketeer (1929)
  • Big News (1929)
  • High Voltage (1929)
  • Don't Get Jealous (1929)
  • Matchmaking Mamma (1929)
  • Ned McCobb's Daughter (1928)
  • The Campus Carmen (1928)
  • Hubby's Weekend Trip (1928)
  • Show Folks (1928)
  • Me, Gangster (1928)
  • Motorboat Mamas (1928)
  • Power (1928)
  • The Campus Vamp (1928)
  • Smith's Restaurant (1928)
  • His Unlucky Night (1928)
  • The Girl from Nowhere (1928)
  • The Divine Sinner (1928)
  • The Bicycle Flirt (1928)
  • The Swim Princess (1928)
  • The Best Man (1928)
  • Smith's Army Life (1928)
  • The Beach Club (1928)
  • Run, Girl, Run (1928)
  • The Girl from Everywhere (1927)
  • My Best Girl (1927)
  • Gold Digger of Weepah (1927)
  • Smith's Pony (1927)
  • The Fighting Eagle (1927)
  • The Johnstown Flood (1926)
  • The Road to Glory (1926)
  • Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)
  • The Plastic Age (1925)
  • Durand of the Bad Lands (1925)
  • Hearts and Spurs (1925)
  • Gold and the Girl (1925)
  • Marriage in Transit (1925)
  • Dick Turpin (1925)
  • Gold Heels (1924)
  • A Perfect Crime (1921)