As die-hard fans know, Carole Lombard made one horror picture in her too-short but very active career. It was the 1933 Paramount release, Supernatural, produced and directed by the Halperin brothers, Victor and Edward, who were at the time flush with cash from their 1932 independent production, White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi.
White Zombie is the mighty little swimming sperm that erupted into generations of succeeding pictures where the zombies grew ever more creepy, lustful, menacing, intelligent, speedy, and carnivorous, right up to today’s The Walking Dead, which I choose not to watch because death is around us enough without using it as entertainment. I digress. These Halperins from Chicago were the adolescent minds that started the Zombie Invasion by creating some glassy-eyed shufflers who now seem docile and even cute by today’s comparison, and now the brothers set their sights on ghosts and possession with Supernatural.
Readers of Fireball know that Carole Lombard lived and breathed filmmaking. She knew when a pan was better than a tilt, when a close up was better than a wide shot, when less light was better than more light. So imagine her vexation, after working for several top directors, when she tried to understand the vision of 37-year-old Victor Halperin, fresh off his stint working with Bela Lugosi and the undead. Most telling of all the unusual aspects of this picture as viewed today is the relentless series of brightly lit, full-on close-ups of Carole Lombard’s face. The girl who only felt comfortable when she controlled the lighting because of her scars is super-exposed in Supernatural, and truth be told, she looks great. The cheek scar is highly visible in several shots because it’s an indentation in her cheek and casts a shadow, but the blown-out lighting obliterated the other, flatter scars on her face, the one by her left eye and those near her mouth. Carole at 24 going on 25 is shown in Supernatural to be as uniquely beautiful as they came onscreen in that time period. She brims with vigor, her physical powers entering their peak. Why she worried so much about the way she was lit, I don’t know.
Supernatural is the one Carole was making when she entreated the heavens, “Who do I have to screw to get off this picture??” It’s easy to see why. Supernatural fades in to a dark and stormy night and warnings by Confucius and the Bible about the undead. The first quarter of the economical 64-minute run time concerns the pending execution of serial killer Ruth Rogen, a hot little number who manages to strangle her strapping male lovers. The inference is that she gets them drunk and then, does them in. Mad-doctor-sort-of-psychologist Dr. Houston is certain—certain, mind you—that when Ruth is put to death, her spirit will inhabit a nearby living breathing woman and so after execution is carried out, Dr. Houston claims the body, and………
He what? He claims the body? I guess these were simpler times, the 1930s, because you’d think it’d be a tough case that some guy can just claim the body of a headline-grabbing, newly executed serial killer. But next thing you know, he’s got her in his laboratory and he’s experimenting on her.
If you were so inclined, you could spend a week questioning the plot of Supernatural, but it would be a pointless exercise. Just enjoy Carole Lombard as young, wildly rich Roma Courtney, who’s possessed by the murderous soul of Ruth Rogen and bent on putting an end to Ruth’s evil lover, Paul Bavian. I’d tell you who the actors were but you never heard of them.
What I want to know is, how did everyone in this time period, from Roma Courtney to Nick and Nora Charles, get their MONEY? Wasn’t there this thing going on called the Great Depression? DAMN these people were well off. Roma’s digs are so vast that the dolly operators have a tough time keeping up with her. Roma has a yacht, too, which I mistook for a U.S. Navy destroyer.
Randolph Scott is in Supernatural, but I’m not exactly sure why. He’s too good for this sort of thing and yet manages to make no impression as Roma’s boyfriend, a part that could have been played by any guy plucked off any street corner in Hollywood. It’s the kind of role that only becomes necessary in the last reel, and (Spoiler) only for the moment it takes to rescue Carole Lombard’s possessed character from committing a murder.
Ironically, Carole’s off-screen posse included two psychics, and these weren’t money-grubbing Long Island Mediums either. These two refused to take her money and instead hung around Carole and her mom Petey just because. They routinely raised hackles by knowing things they couldn’t know. As a result, Carole should have found some interesting concepts in Supernatural, but the chaos of its production negated any such inclinations on her part.
Don’t get me wrong. Supernatural is a rollercoaster ride of a picture, and if it were made today, it would be all CG and over the top and loud and entrail-strewn and in your face and no fun at all. But because of the times and the stars involved, this thing is a hoot, with enough genuine creepiness to keep an audience onboard for an hour of mayhem thought up by genuine adolescent brains.
This is one of those “pre-Code” pictures they’re always talking about—you know, before the Hollywood Production Code went into effect and pinch-faced censors took over. This doesn’t mean Lombard’s bouncing around naked in Supernatural (unfortunately), but it’s clear that actual sex breaks out in this universe, and that booze is fun, and murder rewarding. Ruth Rogen doesn’t get her comeuppance for being a killer, which the Production Code would soon require. Sure, she’s executed, but then her soul floats free to continue the mayhem, and it’s implied at fade out that she’ll possess again after being driven from Roma’s body. For all I know, Ruth Rogen is still out there somewhere, strangling away.
I hope Turner Classic Movies runs Supernatural soon. If it doesn’t, seek out a bootleg copy and emulate Paul Bavian by pouring a triple shot of hard liquor. It worked for me. Then sit back and enjoy the picture that drove Carole Lombard crazy, the one she didn’t talk about, the one horror picture she ever made; the one that collectors today revere for its rarity. Whatever else you can say about Supernatural, it is hands-down the wildest, most unusual picture to which Lombard’s name is attached. And, oops, I think she just turned over in her grave.
It’s been a little while since I last saw Supernatural but, yes, this thriller from the Halperin brothers is a fun little effort, something, quite frankly, that I can’t really say about most of Carole Lombard films that I’ve seen made prior to her birth as a screwball queen in 20th Century.
This pre-coder clearly reflects its era by the scene in which Alan Dineheart, playing the fake spiritualist, lies on top of Lombard in a love scene. He is all over her, and I do mean all over her, with one big fat hand clamping a firm hold of one of her breasts. Lombard goes along with it, but I have to wonder if gregarious Carole might let the actor have it once the camera had stopped rolling. “And just where in the script, buster, did it say that the spiritualist cops a good feel of me, wiseguy?” “Well, sorry, Carole, I heard that comment you made about who did you have to screw, so I just assumed it was okay.”
Brief as they are, the seamless transformation scenes in the film are real highlight moments for me. With the camera focusing strictly upon Lombard’s face, you see her change from a normal person into a spiritually possessed one, as her makeup suddenly darkens and she eerily arches an eyebrow. It was done, I believe, with the same coloured filters process that had made Frederic March’s transformation from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde just two years before such a mind blowing experience for audiences at the time. Later in Supernatural Lombard has one of those scenes again, only this time in reverse, from a person possessed by the spirit of a murderess back into her original sweet self once again.
We do, however, Robert, have a difference of opinion about Randolph Scott’s performance in Supernatural because he did leave an impression upon me. I was impressed that he would later become a cowboy star, mainly because he was such a great wooden Indian in this film. I had much the same balsawood impression about Scott in RKO’s elaborate 1935 production of She, an adaption of the Haggard fantasy adventure novel. I’m quite certain that if a sudden flood had occurred on the set of that film Randy would have soon bobbed to the surface.
Randy was an odd one, a personality on the screen and not an actor, but he never ran out of work.
Thanks for the perspective on the transformation scenes, Tom. I love that stuff!
Reading this review of a precode makes me impatient with TCM because whenever I have a free time to watch something, they’re running something I’ve seen a million times. There’s nothing like settling down with a glass of wine and a couple of precodes back to back on a long winter evening. It sure beats Rock Hudson or June Allyson as SOTM.
I have Supernatural on videotape but haven’t watched it in years. Yep, I said videotape and I still own a VCR. I love anything Lombard especially her early career to watch her progression and boy, was she in some stinkers. (More on early Lombard in a minute.) I agree, Robert, that the Supernatural plot is crazy and clearly she knew a dud when she was in one. She’s gorgeous in this with her slinky gowns and she plays possessed pretty well. But I remember being wowed by Randolph Scott and not for his acting ability. The man is drop dead handsome and I think it was the first time I ever noticed this. I’d certainly seen stills of him as a young man and he aged well in his Westerns of the 1950s, but he was so nice to look at in this movie. Damn.
Now back to CL and her early career. A couple of years ago, TCM had a Mack Sennett week and ran many old shorts, a few of them with Lombard (Smith’s Pony, His Unlucky Night, Run,Girl, Run). I so enjoyed this week of Sennett and especially seeing her. My favorite is Matchmaking Mamma which you can see on YouTube here:
Part I http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTTEi9LsOaI
Part II https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QO03jE5a83s
Part III https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1eEuXDvD8hw
Lombard has wonderful presence in this film. For me it shows early on what her potential could be given the right material. The short overall is quite good. Daphne Pollard is feisty and I had no idea she was so tiny. Speaking of pre-code, you get to see an entire breast through a sheer bra of the actress who plays Marjorie Marlboro but she’s uncredited so have no idea who she is. Fieldsie is in it as one of the dancers and as was typical for her, she was portrayed as so big that she makes the house shake. I feel for her every time I see this. The leading man, Matty Kemp, had a short career but lived to be 92. Wonder what became of him. There are a couple of outdoor color sequences in Part III which are fun to watch and a color shot of the Sennett girls in the opening credits featuring Lombard front and center.
La Lombard had more misses than hits early in her career but this short does cast her in a good light and lets some of her ham shine through. That was much harder to do once she was working with sound, a lousy script or part, and a director who couldn’t help her pull out a good performance. Through her own efforts, she figured out what worked. Thank goodness.
Even though this is really Sally Eilers’ picture, Matchmaking Mamma shows just how natural Lombard was on the screen. Her instinct seems to have been to underplay; I doubt that the director would have been advising on that level of nuance. Thanks for the links to this picture, Marina.