The Crawford Touch

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

George Hurrell captured a portrait of 1942 Joan Crawford for the ‘Bride’ publicity campaign.

I had never taken the time to sit down and watch They All Kissed the Bride, the Columbia picture that Carole Lombard was supposed to make after her return from the bond tour to Indiana and the one she would never make because she didn’t return from the bond tour to Indiana. I’m not going to go into depth about They All Kissed the Bride because I want this column to be about more than movie reviews, and I’ve spent time on a number of movies already and there’s another film analysis in the queue.

What I’ll say is that They All Kissed the Bride is a picture that makes me sad to watch. Since it’s a Columbia Picture you don’t expect much going in because by 1942, Columbia was making comedies that were loud, silly, and for the most part starred down-on-their-luck actors.

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

The Joan Crawford of 1927 had already been Carole Lombard’s rival on Hollywood dance floors for two years.

It’s telling that this is a script Carole Lombard accepted. She was to play M.J. Drew, hard-as-nails boss of a powerful shipping corporation based in New York City. Hard as nails, that is, until she meets Melvyn Douglas, at which point she goes all weak in the knees and hates herself for it and can’t understand what’s happening to her. She thinks it must be her liver.

Screwball pictures often required convoluted plots to create appropriately uncomfortable situations and this one is no exception. The surprising thing for me in finally seeing Bride is: It would not have been a hit for Lombard. In fact, Joan Crawford is probably better in it than Lombard would have been, because Crawford of the square jaw and square shoulders comports herself like a cutthroat boss. She’s believable in the part.

The backstory of how she landed Bride is much more interesting than the picture itself. Soon after Lombard’s death aboard TWA Flight 3 just after World War II began for the United States, Joan Crawford was signed to take the lead in the picture then called He Kissed the Bride, and pledged to donate to four war-related charities, in Carole Lombard’s name, the entirety of her $115,000 salary. When Crawford’s agent took his usual percentage for lining up the deal on a picture made under these circumstances, Joan fired him.

These were fantastic gestures on Crawford’s part, and yet the intertwined lives of Joan Crawford and Carole Lombard had not been conducted on friendly terms going all the way back to the 1920s Coconut Grove nightclub, where they sweated against each other in dance competitions. Joan of MGM always had more clout in Hollywood than Carole of little brother Paramount. When Lombard landed Clark Gable, it was with the knowledge that Joan had been there four years earlier and sexually enchanted the big lug.

But at the dawn of 1942 Lombard and Crawford had something in common: They were both in career slides. The script for He Kissed the Bride proves it for both of them. It’s not a bad picture, but typical of the Columbia jobs, it jumps the shark halfway through and resorts to improbability, misperception, and pratfalls. You sit there thinking, “Joan’s better than this,” the same way you would have said, “Carole’s better than this.” Melvyn Douglas was better than this, too, but it was a living and the stars took these parts because it was work and hopefully better times lay ahead.

The turbulence of Carole’s career waters is confirmed if one looked ahead to what she had signed on for next. After working at Columbia she would be going back to Universal for My Girl Godfrey, a script so slight that it was finally released as a musical starring Deanna Durbin in 1943 after being retitled His Butler’s Sister. At this time Universal was making Ghost of Frankenstein and other B-level entertainment, and had Lombard lived, 1942 would probably have been seen as another mediocre year.

Yes, the most significant thing about He Kissed the Bride (which was retitled They All Kissed the Bride, a title that in context of the script makes no sense) is Joan Crawford’s gesture, which everyone in the industry greeted with, “That’s very Joan” because, despite her five-foot-two stature, Crawford did everything BIG. This is the same Joan Crawford who served as sexual surrogate for a destroyed Clark Gable in the months after Carole’s loss. She was there for him in her home anytime he needed, without strings, and provided some TLC, some physical relief, some moments reliving the days of their impetuous youth and wild sexual fling on the MGM lot.

It’s a shame that since the 1980s Crawford’s legacy has been reduced to grotesque makeup and child abuse. Joan’s better than this. In the barren chill of January 1942 it was Joan Crawford who stepped up and on those small, square shoulders helped relieve the burden of a devastated Hollywood that had just experienced the loss of its most beloved home-town girl.

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

Crawford, age 37, poses for another They All Kissed the Bride publicity still. Her career slide had been precipitous in the year prior to Lombard’s death, but Joan’s gestures to honor Carole and comfort Clark were instinctive, and heartfelt.

5 comments

  1. Despite the fact that They All Kissed The Bride occasionally comes on TCM, I have never made an effort to watch this film. I’ve read that it’s a middling, forgettable affair, and the thought of watching Joan Crawford in a comedy doesn’t exactly fill me with awe.

    I might add that if Lombard had not been killed in that plane crash and this had been a middling, forgettable comedy in her career, I would undoubtedly have watched it by now.

    I must be honest and say that I am a bit surprised, Robert, that you refer to Carole Lombard being in a career slide at the time of her death. I don’t know what the box office returns were for the Hitchcock comedy (the quite delightful Mr and Mrs Smith) or To Be Or Not To Be, but I think it’s safe to say that Lombard is rather divine in both productions (it was great to see her back in comedy again).

    It may well be that the material she was on the verge of doing was sub-par (not a good sign, of course) and she was, correct me if I’m wrong, a freelancer at the time of her death, not under contract to any studio. Perhaps the pickings were a little lean for her then, though I would have thought that the Lubitsch-Benny film, at least, would have been regarded as a status production.

    As far as Crawford and Gable are concerned, the one collaboration of their’s that did impress me was their final one, 1940’s Strange Cargo. It’s a bizzare but dramatically compelling mixture of Devil’s Island escape melodrama and religious allegory. It’s yet another illustration of an MGM film dealing with the salavation of blaggard Gable’s soul but far more interesting than most. The film is distinguished, in my opinion, by a pair of hard edged, convincing characterizations by both Gable and Crawford. When her character finally softens and wants to (predictably) reform, I must say that I was surprised to find Joan to be as touching as she was.

    Douglas Fairbanks Jr. wrote in his autobiography, Salad Days, about the shock that he experienced when he was informed by friends that wife Joan, whom he called Billie, and occasional house guest Gable had been having an affair for two years. Adding to his surprise was the discovery that one of the pair’s favourite rendezvous locations was in the portable dressing room that Doug had purchased for Joan as a wedding present. Ouch!

    Fairbanks, writing years after his discovery, said, “Clark was such a nice guy that even in my private distress I couldn’t blame him. Had our positions been reversed, I wasn’t sure that I wouldn’t have been equally deceitful.”

    Fairbanks also wrote, “In much later years, after two or more marriages, Clark’s and my paths were to cross in the unusual way of his marrying my father’s widow, my second stepmother. I liked him very much, but neither of us ever so much as mentioned the name Joan or Billie to each other.”

    1. Tom, I am speaking specifically about box office returns for Carole Lombard pictures. That’s the bottom line for any star, and Carole knew she was flirting, and pretty seriously, with being a three-time loser and therefore branded boxoffice poison. Yes, Mr. and Mrs. Smith was a moderate success, but Lombard’s pictures from 1939 through 1941 were mostly unsuccessful, and the two made at RKO in 1940 were bombs of a bunker-buster nature. To Be or Not to Be was a big hit for UA in February and March of 1942 as a specific response to Carole’s death and the fascination with seeing her alive one more time. The trades made a big deal of the “morbidity factor.” There’s no way to say how To Be would have done if she had lived, except to note that theater patrons in heartland America weren’t exactly primed to flock to a comedy that made fun of Nazis. Carole knew going in that To Be was a statement picture and not one likely to be big box office. Was it a “status picture?” I’d argue no, because UA didn’t have the clout that the major studios had in terms of distribution, and Benny had been a hit on radio but just so-so on the screen to this point.

  2. There certainly weren’t many filmmakers that had the nerve to poke fun at the Nazis for comedic purposes at the time. Chaplin had done it in 1940 (to large box office success, I believe). Then came Lubitsch, with Lombard accepting glamourous straight woman support to Benny. Yes, difficult to know how well that film would have done without the morbidity factor, especially since America would have just entered the war prior to the film’s release. Thinking about it in that respect, it was a huge financial gamble on the part of its filmmakers.

    Perhaps the status that To Be Or Not To Be enjoys is in its historical significance today, not only for the tragedy in regard to its female star, but for also being the highlight of Jack Benny’s film career. Something else about the film that will forever be embedded in my memory, Sig Ruman’s hilarious bumbling turn in it, in particular his exclamation, “Soooo, they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt!” That is probably the biggest belly laugh moment of the film for me.

    Speaking of that succession of box office failures from which Lombard had suffered during the 1939-40 period, They Knew What They Wanted, for years tied up in rights issues and therefore unavailable for viewing, is currently on You Tube, in what is advertised as a high definition transfer. For those interested, you might want to take a look at Lombard’s perfromance as a lonely waitress who enters into a loveless marriage with Italian grape grower Charles Laughton before the film may disappear from view once again.

    1. To Be or Not to Be is my favorite Lombard performance and favorite Lombard film by a wide margin. It’s irresistible, and brilliant. As for They Knew What They Wanted, I remember enduring it 25 years ago but haven’t been inspired to attempt another climb of that mountain since. Maybe I should take advantage of your tip and give it a look.

  3. It’s been a few years since I last saw They Knew, Robert. While I recall finding it difficult at times to endure Laughton’s fake Italian accented mugging (“Amy, looka me, looka me,” as he dances on the roof top before tumbling off it- much to my cheers), still I thought the film may have Lombard’s most effective dramatic performance.

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