A Trio of Pre-Code Classics Provide an Origin Story for a Screen Legend.
BLU-RAY STREET DATE AUGUST 4, 2020/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
For those of you who might not know, back during the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood, the 1930s through the 1940s, the major studios- like Warner Brothers, Twentieth Century Fox, and Paramount- controlled every aspect of a film’s production. This would often go as far as to have a stable of performers under an exclusive contract- meaning that a guy like Humphrey Bogart could only appear in Warner Brothers movies. What’s more, these actors would only ever be cast in parts that the studio had designated for them. This often led to a lot of frustration on the part of the actors, because they would often be pigeonholed into roles they often found limiting- both from an artistic standpoint, as well as a financial one. Bit roles as hoodlums and gangsters didn’t pay as well as romantic leads.
Sometimes an actor could get a break and be cast against type. If this happened, and the movie was successful, the actor could find all new doors opening up for them. This happened with the aforementioned Bogart, who went from the aforementioned hoodlum and gangster roles when he was cast as Rick in Casablanca. Suddenly Bogart was a leading man, and could begin to get the roles that made him a star.
For some actors, though, it was less a matter of typecasting and more along the lines of finding their sweet spot as a performer. Some were dashing, some were dangerous, some were charming, others were churlish. And once they found their niche, they would excel. Just like audiences today flock to the cinemas to see Batman or James Bond, the audiences back then went to see W.C. Fields or Marlene Dietrich. The stars’ personae were the I.P.s that drove attendance back then. Just as Batman is more or less the same in whichever film, no matter who is playing him under the cowl, so was Dietrich playing slight variations on the same carefully crafted character in each of her films. It was never a question of who Dietrich would be playing in any given picture, but what situations would she be finding herself in.
For Carole Lombard, the subject of this three-film box set from Kino Lorber Studio Classics, that sweet spot- the roles that shot her to real stardom- would be in fast-paced screwball comedies starting with Twentieth Century by Howard Hawks. These roles would get her an Academy Award nomination and propel her to become the highest-paid star in Hollywood by the end of the 1930s.
Finding her niche, however, took some time. She began acting in films at the age of 16 in silent films. Her roles grew gradually from bit parts as a bathing beauty to lead actress, and she made the transition to sound films as the 20s grew to a close. In 1930, she signed a contract with Paramount and that’s where our collection begins. The roles she plays in the three films included with this set each represent a stepping stone on her way to becoming Carole Lombard.
Fast and Loose (1930)
DIRECTED BY FRED C. NEWMEYER
Fast and Loose is a perfect description of the plot of this breezy class-conscious romp from 1930. Based on a stage play by David Gray and Avery Hopwood, the movie concerns the offspring of the wealthy Lenox family, Bertie (Henry Wadsworth) and Marion (Miriam Hopkins). Bertie’s a drunk and Marion’s spoiled and entitled, but their real crimes against the family occur when it is revealed that they wish to marry Alice, a chorus girl (Lombard), and Henry, an auto mechanic (Charles Starrett), respectively.
Bertie’s story of his relationship with Alice takes second fiddle to that of his sister. Marion and Henry have a meet-cute, where he says unkind things about women and she tells him that she thinks he’s appalling. He’s the first ‘real man’ she’s ever really known, though and she can’t help but be fascinated by him.
Though she gets third billing, Lombard is a relatively minor character in the film. What’s more, Alice is portrayed as so pure-hearted and sensitive, that the character doesn’t offer Lombard any opportunity to show the saucy qualities she would come to be known for. Still, despite her presence in over 40 past movies, this film is the first appearance of “Carole Lombard.” Paramount spelt her name wrong (with the extra ‘e’ in Carole) in the credits, and she decided she liked it better that way.
Man of the World (1931)
DIRECTED BY RICHARD WALLACE
In Man of the World, Lombard appears opposite her future first husband, William Powell. Powell plays an expatriate in Paris, who’s ostensibly a novelist, but really earns his living by conning then blackmailing wealthy Americans. Lombard plays the niece of Powell’s latest victim. While trying to get her into a compromising position in order to facilitate the blackmail, Powell falls in love with the woman, and has to decide if he can go through with the scheme or not.
The story, written by Herman J. Mankewicz, starts out in a light and airy mode, as Powell plays the sort of sophisticated and charming rogue he was best at. When he meets Lombard, and their relationship begins to develop, the tone turns more serious, even becoming somber towards the end, as Powell’s decision to confess or not weighs heavily on him. Lombard’s character has much less of a dramatic character arc. Okay, let’s be honest, she doesn’t have one at all. She’s there primarily to provide a motive for Powell to grow and change. Her character’s purity and innocence was a marked contrast to Lombard’s own earthy (and some would say vulgar) persona.
A Man of the World comes with a feature-length commentary by film historian Samm Deighan. It’s another commentary from her that provides entertaining and informative context for the movie and its production.
No Man of Her Own (1932)
DIRECTED BY WESLEY RUGGLES
This is the only film Lombard would appear in with her future (and most famous) second husband, Clark Gable. At the time, there was no romantic involvement between them (she was still married to Powell at the time).
Gable plays a card shark named “Babe” Steward, who flees the big city when things get a little too hot with the law there. He takes refuge in a small town upstate (choosing the destination at random). There, he meets Connie Randall (Lombard) , a librarian who’s tired of small town life. Babe initially pursues her for a one night stand, but she convinces him to take a gamble on marriage. The two are hitched, and head back to the big city.
Babe tries to pretend he’s legit, even going so far as to set himself with a phony job he has to trudge off to every morning. Still, he knows the law isn’t far behind him and his shady occupation will catch up to him sooner or later. Since he really does love Connie, he worries that she’ll reject him once the truth comes out.
In Connie Randall, Lombard is really starting to come into her own as a star. She’s given a lot more to do than just stand around looking pretty and pining after her man. She challenges and pushes back against Babe. He’s expecting a naive and simple small-town girl he can use and discard, but soon discovers Connie has an inner core of iron- a core which serves her well as she begins to suspect her new husband isn’t who he claims to be. No Man of Her Own is still not a comedy showcase for Lombard, but we can now see how she will be able to hold her own in the battle of wills that would define the screwball comedy.
No Man of Her Own comes with a feature-length audio commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton, as well as a small collection of theatrical trailers.