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.
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.
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.