Scarface Comes Across

I have a question in the category of “How the hell did they do that?” I’ve got a couple of appearances coming up in Indianapolis, this Sunday at Indy Reads Books on Massachusetts Avenue at 3:30 P.M., and Monday morning on Indy Style at 9 A.M. on WISH-TV. (Come out and see me!) In preparing for these appearances I’ve been studying the Myron Davis photos of Carole Lombard selling war bonds at the Indiana State House the day before she died. Davis took several shots of Lombard, one after another as she handed out receipts for bond sales. He was using his Speed Graphic camera, the most famous press camera of its day, with Kodak film, and the detail of these shots is incredible.

It was while studying the digital files that had been processed at 800 dpi from the original Kodak negatives that I realized, in some of the shots, you can see one of the scars on Carole Lombard’s face. It’s common knowledge that Carole’s face was sliced up by windshield glass in a freak car crash just after she turned 17. She had nearly bled to death that night, cut to the cheekbone on one side, upper lip nearly severed, and deep cuts close to the left eye. She had been put back together by a cosmetic surgeon, but the wounds were so egregious that for a long time afterward, she was despondent and wanted to die.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Detail of one of the Myron Davis photos shows the boomerang-shaped scar beside Carole Lombard’s left eye.

Here I was looking at the candid bond shots taken by Myron Davis, and I started to be aware of the scar by her left eye. It runs up beside the eye in the shape of a little boomerang, broad and milky as scars can be, and a good inch long. There are others that are visible now and again in photos, the big one on her cheekbone and another dimply scar beside her mouth. What astonishes me is that I can see the eye socket scar in these Davis photos, but you don’t notice them in motion pictures of the day. Granted she worked with hand-picked directors of photography who knew how to photograph their way around the scars but still, given all the physical comedy she did, all the closeups, where are the scars?

So that’s my “How the hell did they do that?” question of today. This was 60 years before the invention of computer software that would obliterate such imperfections in motion pictures performers, frame by frame. Somehow in the 1930s they did it with lighting that smoothed out the skin, and angles that hid the damage. And there was a lot of damage, as is evident by the shots taken in Indianapolis.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The same scar is visible in this screen capture from 1939, as is the scar on her cheek.

One of the first things people who met Carole Lombard face to face must have remarked to themselves was, “Whoa! Look at the scars!” Bogey had that scar on his lip, a souvenir of World War I. You’ll see a divot here and divot there on other stars too, and there are the painfully obvious examples of Montgomery Clift and Van Johnson, their boyish good looks butchered in car crashes worse than Lombard’s. But for a glamorous leading lady of the 1930s to be sporting facial scars and not caring, not letting them get in the way of a thriving career, allowing cameras to get in so very close—that’s something. Carole’s pal Alice Marble said, when asked about the scars, that they only accentuated her beauty, and I can see that. They were character lines, visible in life and once in a while on film. It’s interesting that scars are not what people saw when they looked at Carole Lombard. They saw something genuine that transcended flawless skin. Granted the girl had help from camera and lighting geniuses. She also had guts, and a personality that made sense of an occasional railroad track on her face. I just wonder if she would be given a chance today, when the press and style gurus are so quick to judge and label a woman as hideous for the slightest deviation from some standard of beauty that they themselves could never attain. I think Carole Lombard would have a quick two words for such people, and I think you know what those two words would be.


  1. An interesting reflection about flaws and beauty. Of course, other stars had scars or “bad sides.” Claudette Colbert insisted on being filmed on only one side. Merle Oberon was another actress who was scarred by an accident, and a special camera light was created for her called the “Obie.” Perhaps this light also helped Carole in the late 30s. However, while Carole seemed to have adapted to the scars as part of her appearance. As you know, Oberon was sensitive about many aspects of her appearance, particularly as they related to her racial identity, lightening her skin and passing her Indian mother off as her maid. One of the refreshing things about Lombard was that she seemed comfortable in her own skin.

    I see some physical resemblance between Carole Lombard and the comedian Amy Poehler, who in some angles looks like a plumper, de-glammed Lombard. I also see a kindred spirit in Tina Fey, another honest, funny, and attractive lady with a scar. I think today’s culture is even tougher on physical imperfections, though. I remember trying to introduce 30 Rock to a writing class, and several students said they didn’t like Tina Fey because she had a scar and had to use make-up to cover it up, but that it still showed on camera.

    I wonder if Lombard would be a smart and saavy funny lady like those two comedians if she were around today. I can’t quite see her pigeonholed like Kate Hudson and Reese Witherspoon into a series of vacuous rom-coms.

    1. I had to go look up photos of Tina Fey and her scar and learn the origin of it because I had no idea. I always liked her, but I never watched 30 Rock. Her husband’s reaction–“…he found her facial scar ‘fascinating’ and thought it said a lot about her character as someone who has been through a challenging situation and managed to survive it…”–mirrors the theme with Lombard. Thanks for making the connecting between Fey and Lombard, Rosemarie.

      Your comments about Oberon sound familiar to me–must have read about the Obie light a long time ago. I fell for her the first time I saw The Scarlet Pimpernel, and at the Academy Library one day, I stumbled on a set of giant scrapbooks. They were hers, the most meticulous things you ever saw, these giant, perfect scrapbooks of her entire career. I assume she did all that herself, about herself, and it felt almost intimate going through these books so lovingly put together. It’s another thing I recommend to anyone visiting the Herrick–ask to see the Merle Oberon scrapbooks in Special Collections.

      1. One of the ironies for me of Merle Oberon is that I have been tutoring Indian immigrant girls in English literature the United States, and it would be wonderful for them to see her in Wuthering Heights or The Scarlet Pimpernel and say, “That actress is Indian.” Some of these girls are really victimized and teased by American classmates. It’s sad that Oberon lived in an era in which she felt she had to deny who she was to succeed.

        If you like offbeat writing, 30 Rock is a lot of fun. I loved Fey and Poehler hosting the Golden Globes, although I’m not a big fan of award shows.

  2. I think you have written the best book I have personally ever read in my 52 plus years sir,and I have read bs here…carole would have most likely enjoyed it,and perhaps she may have had some choice words about it too..brilliant my friend.find me on facebook anytime.I also detest bagpipes.

    1. Lee, I’m not sure what you mean by this comment–that I’m taking a shot at poor victim Carole Lombard by using the term scarface? The whole point of the post, and a theme of Fireball, is what Lombard overcame by not letting scars stand in her way. Even her doctor expected her to be victimized by the scars, but she didn’t let them stand in her way.

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