The early death of Carole Lombard at 33 from a January 1942 plane crash remains one of cinema's most tragic episodes. During the 1930's, she was the most luminous of screen beauties yet innately likeable. What made her unique was the scintillating, often ribald and genuine manner in her performances. Even though she delivered top-notch dramatic performances, especially toward the end of her career, it is her comedies that continue to reinforce her legacy. It's almost impossible not to adore Lombard for the way she downplayed her looks, coming across as a proto-feminist in many of her roles. In fact, of all her contemporaries, Lombard still comes across as the most modern and self-aware, which is proven by this splendid two-disc set of six of her lesser known films. Granted none of them are close to the quality of her acknowledged classics - "Twentieth Century", "My Man Godfrey", "Nothing Sacred", "Mr. and Mrs. Smith", "To Be or Not to Be" - but each provides ample evidence of her abundant comic talent during the middle of her career between 1931 and 1937.
The first disc contains the earliest three movies. A 23-year old Lombard is merely the innocent leading lady to William Powell (before they were briefly married in real life) in 1931's "Man of the World", directed by Richard Wallace and written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, a pre-code dramedy about a sophisticated con man, an American in Paris named Michael Trevor, who attempts to take advantage of Mary Kendall, the niece of a foolhardy millionaire he has befriended. As Trevor, Powell gets surprisingly dour in the heavier second half, and little of Lombard's natural élan is on display playing the love-blind Mary. It's hard to fathom that this classic pair would team again for one of the great screwball social comedies, Gregory La Cava's "My Man Godfrey", only five years later.
Three years and fifteen films after "Man of the World", a more confident Lombard shows up as part of a silly ensemble farce, 1934's "We're Not Dressing", directed by Norman Taurog, in which she plays Doris Worthington, an ice-cold, rich yacht owner who gets into a shipwreck and an untidy situation where she is beholden to her former crew, in particular, the first mate who has a tendency to break out in song quite often. That's because this movie is an early Bing Crosby musical where the crooner's main objective is to melt Doris' heart. Lombard is much more in her element here as she plays her cardboard character's unattractive aspects while still generating her natural warmth. The film's problem is that her screen time is limited since the movie not only stars Crosby but also features George Burns, Gracie Allen and Ethel Merman. It's a variety hodgepodge but still worth seeing.
My favorite film of the six is 1935's "Hands Across the Table", directed by Mitchell Leisen, Lombard's first real starring vehicle and a disarming romantic comedy about Depression-era class struggles. She plays Regi Allen, a hotel manicurist determined to marry for money and quite open about her intentions. She immediately befriends a new client, Allen Macklyn, an ideal target for Regi except that he is a former pilot who has become a paraplegic. Enter Theodore Drew III, a flaky but charming playboy already engaged to an heiress. The standard complications ensue but not before the stars bicker and banter with dexterity. Lombard is terrifically winning as a working girl who ends up falling for Drew and even cohabitates with him before getting married.
As Drew, Fred MacMurray makes a strapping leading man and displays sharp comic timing. This was the first of four fruitful teamings he had with Lombard. Cinema's perennial third wheel, Ralph Bellamy, plays the smitten Macklyn with surprising romantic fervor, enough sometimes to appear like a true contender for Regi's affections. There are some startlingly sexy, noirish close-ups between Lombard and MacMurray as the film moves toward its inevitable conclusion. Look for an uncredited William Demarest as Regi's hapless blind date caught in a frustrating dialogue with MacMurray three decades before they co-starred in TV's "My Three Sons".
The second disc opens with an overly contrived romantic comedy, 1936's "Love Before Breakfast", directed by Walter Lang, which suffers for its lackluster leading man, Preston Foster. He plays Scott Miller, a rich Wall Street tycoon madly infatuated with Kay Colby, a Park Avenue girl already engaged to hard-working Bill Wadsworth. Miller pulls strings to have Wadsworth transferred to Japan, so he can pursue Kay against her outward wishes. It all sputters by quickly at only seventy minutes, and it takes all of Lombard's natural wit and charm to levitate the absurd plot and humanize such a hysterical loon. Long before he became the Joker on the "Batman" TV series, Cesar Romero plays the hapless Wadsworth for what the one-dimensional role is worth. I also find it interesting how Lang cast an uncredited Japanese actress, Mia Ichioka, as Kay's tea-leaf-reading maid Yuki.
Lombard re-teams with MacMurray on 1936's "The Princess Comes Across", an oddly conceived romantic comedy that suddenly turns into a murder mystery after the first half-hour. Directed by William K. Howard, the movie has Lombard cast as Wanda Nash, a struggling Brooklyn chorine disguising herself as Swedish royalty to gain a film studio contract. It's obvious that she is doing a not-so-subtle impersonation of Garbo as Princess Olga, but it is a funny take-off. MacMurray plays a singing bandleader who, believe it or not, plays the concertina professionally. They banter until things get serious, as she gets implicated in the murder and remains fearful about being exposed. Famous for her roles in W.C. Fields comedies, Alison Skipworth is a scene-stealer as Olga's phony dowager guardian. It's interesting to see MacMurray show glimpses of his cynical "Double Indemnity" personality in mercurial fashion before the mystery is solved.
The last film is 1937's `True Confessions" directed by Wesley Ruggles and again co-starring MacMurray. It's a complete lark showcasing Lombard's farceur skills as Helen Bartlett, the wife of a struggling lawyer. A compulsive liar who literally plants her tongue in her cheek just before letting go with a whopper, Helen gets involved in the murder of her lecherous employer of less than an hour. Seeing this as an opportunity for her husband Kenneth to show off his litigation skills, she pleads guilty to the crime just so he can get her acquitted. Complicating matters is an odd eccentric who watches the case in the courtroom and gains evidence to the contrary. With the various deceptions getting bigger and bigger, the film plays out like an extended "I Love Lucy" episode well before the TV series was conceived, and indeed Lombard was Lucille Ball's mentor and role model. Una Merkel plays the Ethel part of best friend Daisy, while John Barrymore, long gone to seed, hammily plays the irritating eccentric. MacMurray is a bit of a bore in this one since he has to represent the pillar of honesty top his wife.
Be aware that the two discs use both sides to fit all the films. The print transfer on all six films is surprisingly clean considering their seventy-year old age. Unfortunately there are no extras, not even theatrical trailers, but seeing the unparalleled Lombard is treat enough. She made 78 movies in her brief career, so I hope more of her titles will come up in future DVD releases.