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The Glamorous and Tragically Short Life of Hollywood Starlet Carole Lombard
The Very Start
Carole was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana but moved to Los Angeles at a young age to pursue her acting dreams. She came from a wealthy family and was raised by her single mother, Elizabeth. At the very young age of 12, she made her movie debut in A Perfect Crime after being scouted by director Allan Dwan.
Carol signed a contract with Fox Film Corporation by 16 but then was dropped just before her 18th birthday after a car accident left her physically wounded.
No More School
Carole moved to California with her single mom and brothers at the age of six. She spent her childhood years going to schools in the area but when she made her film debut at 13, she got her first taste of fame.
She tried going back to normal life but it didn’t last long and at 15, Lombard dropped out of school in pursuit of theater. However, she still managed to get her high school diploma in 1927.
Not Giving Up
Lombard’s tragic accident in 1926 happened right at the time her career was beginning to take off. The starlet was left feeling hopeless after studios began treating her differently upon seeing her sliced face.
She took extreme measures when she even underwent a cosmetic surgery without anesthesia in an attempt to better the wound’s appearance. Though the surgery helped, the actress still had noticeable scars on her face. She then studied makeup and lighting techniques and this solution was found to be successful.
Changing Her Name
Between 1927 and 1929, the actress appeared in 15 comedies for Mack Sennett who was known as ‘The King of Comedy.’ This led to her landing roles in the 1929 feature films High Voltage and The Racketeer. After starring in The Arizona Kid in 1930, Carole cemented her stardom when she signed with Paramount Pictures.
However, the studio accidentally misspelled her name which was originally known as “Carol.” The actress decided that the additional vowel set her apart from the rest and kept it. Interestingly enough, her birth name was actually Jane Alice Peters.
Hollywood’s Leading Lady
Paramount began casting Lombard in leading roles for the production company’s drama films. And by the time she married William Powell in 1931, Carol was not only high-profile but also one of Hollywood’s most prominent stars.
Powell was 16 years her senior with an impressive career in acting under his belt. The American actor was a major star at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and starred alongside Myrna Loy in 14 films.
The marriage between Lombard and Powell only lasted two years but her fame was greatly impacted by him. During this time, Lombard was cast in many films but one of them in particular stands out because she co-starred alongside her future husband, Clark Gable.
For their film No Man of Her Own Carol played Gable’s wife and both actors were met with critical and commercial ovations. Media Editor Wes Gehring even wrote that it was “arguably Lombard’s finest film appearance” at that stage in her life.
Despite the film’s rave reviews, it is the only one to date that the famous duo ever made together. And while many speculate that the two fell in love at first sight, Lombard recalled that she “never got any kind of tremble out of him at all.”
Then in August of 1933, Lombard and Powell divorced and she initially blamed their busy schedules as the reason. Carole later admitted three years later that the two were “completely incompatible people.”
Keeping Good Relations
Even though Powell and Lombard’s marriage was not long-lasting, their friendship was. In fact, it’s thanks to him that Lombard got the arguably best role of her career in My Man Godfrey.
The director Gregory La Cava was not sold on Carole for the character of Irene but wanted William badly. Powell agreed to star in the film contingent on Lombard’s role and the rest is history. How’s that for a modern-day love story?
The Show Goes On
Even though her short-lived marriage was over, Lombard focused entirely on her career. That same year she went on to star in five films, including her only horror picture Supernatural and the melodrama Brief Moment which critics praised her for.
In a 1934 interview with writer Sonia Lee for Movie Screen Magazine, Lombard opened up about a great loss. She admitted to wanting to marry Russ Columbo, a famous singer she admired who was tragically killed at age 26.
The Comedy Queen
Throughout the ‘30s, Lombard reigned over the inception of “screwball comedy.” Her films My Man Godfrey, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and To Be or Not to Be were among the successes that bolstered Carole’s acting career.
At one point in time she held the title of being “the highest-paid actress in Hollywood.” Whether she liked it or not, she never saw the same success in her dramatic performances than she did in her comedies.
Despite the bumps along the road, Lombard embraced her highbrow lifestyle in Hollywood. She became known as a party girl who enjoyed having a good time and dancing the night away. Carole even caught the attention of a Fox Film executive while doing the Charleston at a nightclub.
Then in 1935, she held her most famous party at Venice Pier where Hollywood’s most famous stars were invited to enjoy a private viewing of the theme park.
Taking a Ga(m)ble
In 1936, Lombard and Gable began their whirlwind romance after reuniting at a party. Sparks flew that night and it was reported that the Hollywood actor even tried to lure Carole to his hotel room.
She apparently responded to him, “Who do you think you are, Clark Gable?” Soon after the two became inseparable and were loved by the press despite one rather large hiccup – Clark was still married.
Hollywood’s Golden Couple
However, the actor was separated from his then-wife Maria Langham and after their divorce was finalized in 1939, Hollywood’s new golden couple eloped. Gable and Lombard were famously in love and known to exchange “gag gifts” with one another when they were apart.
However, their love story was far from perfect. The two struggled with fertility issues and rumors of Clark’s indiscretions surrounded the couple. Many believed that he had an affair with American beauty Lana Turner right before Lombard’s death.
Not to Be Trusted
While it was obvious that Gable’s true love was always Lombard, that didn’t seem to stop the actor from admiring other women. During the span of his five failed marriages, Gable’s love affairs were often the cause of their endings.
It was also believed that in January of 1942, when Carole was killed in a plane crash, she was in a rush to get home to California because she thought her husband was cheating on her.
The Profane Angel
Though Lombard was born in a time when women were supposed to act like ladies, she had a reputation for speaking her mind. In fact, she was even nicknamed “the profane angel” for her colorful vocabulary.
Despite being a Midwestern darling, Carole was not afraid of using impolite words and having a crass sense of humor. However, some industry professionals like The Guardian’s Sarah Churchwell reported that her biting tongue was a protective measure.
She’s a Fighter
Being the youngest of two brothers, Carole never shied away when it came to defending herself. Her tomboy mentality really paid off for her role in the 1937 film Nothing Sacred.
The renowned fight scene stars Lombard who is pretending to be poisoned to fool doctors and her accomplice. He ends up hitting her which knocks Carole out but when she wakes up she famously punches him back with full force.
Never a Mother
In the years before her fatal accident, Lombard attempted to slow down her acting career so that she and Gable could start a family. Unfortunately, she suffered two miscarriages and even sought treatment at John Hopkins clinic.
Lombard also knew to keep her infertility a secret as word of the couple’s difficulties with pregnancy could have affected Gable’s career. In the end, they were never able to conceive but Clark did have children with other women.
A Good Friend
Lucille Ball is the famous American actress known for her work on the beloved sitcom I Love Lucy. What many don’t know is that it was actually Carole who gave Ball the nudge she needed to star in the show that ended up making her career.
Lucille later said that Lombard was a dear friend who appeared in one of her dreams and told her to take a risk. It was right after this epiphanic moment that Lucille decided to go ahead with the show.
The Best Advice
When Carole initially began acting, her roles were mainly just to stand around and look pretty. Whether it be playing a bathing beauty or getting hit in the face with custard pies. But then things started to change when Columbia pictures hired her to star in the film Twentieth Century opposite John Barrymore.
Howard Hawks, who was the director of the film, told Lombard to quit acting and totally let go. The harsh direction clearly paid off for the newbie actress.
Partners in Crime
The head of Colombia Pictures, Harry Cohn was a known predator in the industry. Unfortunately for Carole, she became a victim of his while filming Twentieth Century. So, she got together with Hawks (the film’s director) to embarrass and get rid of Cohn.
Lombard pretended to be interested in Hawks and began undressing in front of Cohn. Hawks then acted disgusted by her lack of professionalism and Cohn was so shocked by the incident that he never came to the studio again.
Not Your Part
The movie industry is very competitive and even A-list stars don’t always get the roles they want. For example, Lombard, like many other actresses, wanted to play the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind but the film’s director was not interested.
Because Gable was already cast as Rhett Butler, he worried that the couple’s off-screen romance would interfere with the movie. In the end, Vivien Leigh got the part and she even nabbed an Oscar for it!
Helping Out Friends
Lombard was remembered for her kindness as a friend. After her film Twentieth Century came out, Lombard became the talk of Hollywood. And as her power increased, she used it to help out her friends.
For example, when John Barrymore’s stardom started going downhill, she pushed for him to get a role in her 1937 film True Confession. Sadly Barrymore passed away just a few years later after battling cirrhosis.
Don’t Mess With Me!
Lombard was a true beauty and this meant that she was often subjected to powerful men hitting on her. But luckily, she could also handle her own and wasn’t afraid of playing tricks to get even.
So, when her co-star Fredric March in Nothing Sacred began trying to seduce her, Carole hatched a plan. She decided to invite March to her dressing room and gave him a massive fright when she revealed a sex toy between her thighs. Take that Fredric!
Even though Lombard and Gable were Hollywood royalty, they chose to live a more humble lifestyle. Living amongst horses, cows and a citrus grove, the couple settled down at a ranch of their liking in Encino.
The neighborhood is still highly regarded but back then it was considered rather rural. After Carole passed away, Gable wanted their farm to remain exactly the way she left it and refused to let it be touched for months.
Her or Nothing
Lombard became such a prominent actress in her peak that Orson Welles decided to not make a movie because she wouldn’t star in it. This was back when Welles was a fresh-faced director at RKO studios and had a vision for her to play the lead in his melodrama Smiler With a Knife.
But Carole turned down the thriller in favor of the comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Her decision paid off for everyone – her chosen film received rave reviews and Welles went on to make Citizen Kane.
A Great Politician
During the ‘30 and ‘40s, it was customary for celebrities and public figures to be named honorary mayors of their communities. Lombard got her chance to rule Culver City for the day in July of 1938.
She chose to make the day a legal holiday for all the production employees and threatened to call the police on them if they dared showing up to work. Her one and only act just shows how much she respected those around her!
The Fatal Coin Toss
When Lombard decided to get home to California after finishing up a lengthy tour, she wanted to find the fastest possible route. Whereas Gable’s press agent and her mother who joined her on the trip wanted to take a slow multi-day train ride to the west.
Carole then made a compromise by flipping a coin to decide their form of transport. Unfortunately, Lombard won and all three of them boarded a flight to California.
Details of the Accident
Shortly after the plane took off it changed course. And while warning lights would have helped guide the pilot, the beacons were blackened due to fears of Japanese bombers. The plane ended up smashing into the Potosi Mountain and everyone on board died.
Search parties were able to retrieve Lombard’s body but she was only recognized by the jewels she was wearing. The famous actress was just 33 years old. Lombard was buried next to her mother at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Clark’s Life After Carole
Despite being married several times throughout his life, Gable cherished his relationship with Lombard the most. After her tragic passing, he was left devastated, depressed and reportedly suicidal.
Clark ended up enlisting in the US Air Force during WW11 as a way of moving forward with his life. And even though he remarried again, when he passed away in 1960, he requested to be buried next to Lombard’s grave.
A Classic Beauty
51 years after her death, Lombard reappeared in a GAP campaign advertising khakis. The 1993 feature showed an image of Carole learning against a bar wearing khakis. The advert read “Carole Lombard wore khakis.”
The tribute also showed us how beauty is timeless and that Mrs. Lombard Gable is still greatly admired in the fashion industry. Other legends featured in the campaign include Andy Warhol and Hemingway.
A True Patriot
While taxes are the bane of most people’s lives, Carole Lombard saw the income tax system very differently and proudly promoted it. She was even quoted saying “I enjoy this country and really think I get my money’s worth.”
She was a keen patriot throughout her life and right before she died, she was in active service selling Defense Bonds. Will Hays, president of Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, even told Variety magazine that the star “Gave her life in the service of America.”
Not a Diva
Many Hollywood stars of Lombard’s caliber would have the reputation of being divas but she steered away from that status quo. In fact, Carole was more interested in hanging out with non-actor members of the crew on her movie sets.
She preferred to be around the tradesmen having fun and smoking cigarettes than by herself in a private dressing room. In this era, her casual behavior would have been frowned upon from others in elite society.
The Rally She Missed
As mentioned earlier, Lombard was on a mission to sell bonds when she was tragically taken. Had the actress not died then, she was actually scheduled to make another appearance at a war rally.
And due to newspaper columns having early deadlines, the article about her active attendance came out four days after she died. As sad as it is to think about how she was trying to do good for her country at the time of her passing, it also reinforces her giant legacy.
Sabotage or Accident?
After the plane crash that killed Lombard, her mother, and Gable’s agent, the F.B.I. started a profile to investigate the case further. There were murmurs of witnesses claiming to have seen flames shooting out of the motors.
The F.B.I. wanted to evaluate the evidence and see if the Nazis could have had something to do with her death, due to the timing and her patriotic role. However, in the end nothing suspicious was found.
A Listed Legend
In 1999, 57 years after her passing, Lombard was named in the list of the top 25 female screen legends of the 20th century. The list included major stars like Katherine and Audrey Hepburn, Rita Hayworth and Vivien Leigh ― who ended up taking the role Carole wanted in Gone With the Wind.
But Carole did very well for herself coming in at number 23, one behind Jean Harlow. Give it up for the legend who is Lombard!
A Business Woman
At Lombard’s prime during the late ‘30s, she was the highest-paid actress in Hollywood, racking in a whopping $500,000 per year. Just to put that amount into perspective ― it’s five times more than the salary of then-US president Franklin D Roosevelt.
And though Lombard earned her wealth through acting, she was also brilliant at public speaking and rallying groups. She managed to raise over $2 million in just one evening during the Liberty Bond Tour that happened right before her tragic passing.