When the Magic Happens

As I’ll do now and again, I turned to the Beatles this morning and was listening to You’re Gonna Lose That Girl, a song from their 1965 film, Help! I sat there and said to myself, here’s a song that’s about 50 years old and yet perfect; perfect music and lyrics from the perfect song-writing duo. It got me to thinking about chemistry, how someone can have a special something with another someone over other people and their combined molecules form a powerful chemical compound. John and Paul wrote music while in their early 20s that I’m convinced will be considered classic in a century, and covered by contemporary performers and heard in commercials, but the magic was between them exclusively and when they broke up, each became “just another musician.” I can hear Ruth Peeples protesting and YES Ruth, they were great musicians as individuals, and Paul McCartney certainly thrives today. But can you argue that the chemistry between them generated the best music of the career of either? They knew they were that good together, but they broke up; the creative chemistry was genius, but the friendship chemistry managed, under the immense pressure of being “Beatles,” not to endure.

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

Lennon and McCartney, making music, and history.

I’ve been fortunate enough to experience chemistry of my own, personally and professionally (you know who you are out there), but I imagine there are some who never find a John or Paul, the kind of person who becomes a spouse or fishing buddy or bedmate or collaborator on songs or movies or books or cures for cancer. Chemistry comes in all shapes, sizes, and varieties. As I was listening to You’re Gonna Lose That Girl, one of the things that struck me was Carole Lombard died too young, age 33, to find professional chemistry that would have enhanced her fame and legend for future generations.

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

It was said that Ginger Rogers could do everything Fred Astaire could do–only backwards, and in high heels. Ginger wasn’t yet 23 when she met Fred; he was 34.

Think about the great movie teams. While Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland started early (26 and 19, respectively), other stars went years before finding the right chemistry, or never found it. Myrna Loy made dozens of pictures—you’d be surprised how many—before she found William Powell and embarked on The Thin Man and its sequels. Jeanette MacDonald was 33 when she first sang with Nelson Eddy. Astaire was 34 when he met Rogers. Abbott was 36 when he teamed up with Costello. Tracy was 42 when he started with Hepburn.

Of course, Lombard had Gable and their personal chemistry was world-beating. As I supposed here a couple weeks ago, had she lived, I doubt that their marriage would have lasted, but I also suspect that Lombard and Gable eventually would have made pictures together to follow up their lone 1932 collaboration, No Man of Her Own. Their names together on the marquee would have spelled box office, especially if she had found success on television, which Gable steadfastly refused to try through the course of the 1950s. I bet Gable thought about what might have been, had she lived—the sophisticated pictures they could have made together, maturing on screen like Tracy and Hepburn.

You could make a case that Lombard found her onscreen chemistry with William Powell in their three pictures together, but the body of evidence just isn’t there, and Powell was already busy with Loy. Lombard did well with Fred McMurray for two years, but that teaming ended when she left Paramount. Lombard and George Raft did OK for two pictures, but their rapport was better in the sack than on the screen. She had terrific chemistry with Jack Benny in To Be or Not to Be, and they liked each other behind the cameras too. I could see a professional partnership of Benny and Lombard, figuring that in their day and age, the male’s name always came first even if the female had the longer screen career. It has a nice ring to it, Benny and Lombard.

Let’s talk chemistry. How has it manifested in your life? What examples of chemistry do you most enjoy in motion pictures or the other arts?

In Carole’s case, we’ll never know what might have been, but listening to You’re Gonna Lose That Girl (Yes, yes, you’re gonna lose that girl) got me to thinking about chemistry as I’ve experienced it and as others have—or haven’t. Sitting there and listening inspired quite a stream of consciousness, or I guess you could say that the work of John and Paul was my catalyst this morning, which isn’t surprising given the chemistry at work between them.

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

Benny and Lombard camp it up in a publicity shot for To Be or Not to Be.


  1. That extraordinary magic that sometimes occurs between two individuals is not just reserved for the movies or the world of music. If the chemistry is potent enough, it can even make something as seemingly insignificant as a 30 second television commercial seem like a special little moment.

    I’ve been thinking about James Garner quite a bit the past few days, of that laid back charm and subtle humour that he brought to the screen, from Brett Maverick to Jim Rockford to countless film appearances. But in the late ’70s and early ’80s he also made several hundred Polaroid commercials with actress Mariette Hartley.

    While their main purpose, of course, was to hawk a camera on television, it was such a joy to watch these two bantering with one another. Mixed in with their affection for each other were the zingers, most of them, it seems to me, aimed in Garner’s direction.

    He would be exuding that same affable good old boy charm that was so winning, while she would be a bit of a pistol, ready to launch a gentle little verbal stinger at him. That would be followed one of Garner’s marvellously subtle facial comic reactions. End of commercial.

    And it was wonderful to see an attractive couple, with an certain innocent wholesomeness about them, who, while clearly enjoying one another’s company, were also ready to puncture the ego (usually his) of one another through gentle humour.

    Their commercials were so popular at the time that people would to go into a camera store to ask for “the James Garner camera” and, so convinced were many that these two actors were a real life husband and wife that Hartley wore a T shirt that had printed on it, “I am NOT Mrs. James Garner.”

    Now that’s chemistry!

    Later Hartley expressed some regrets that a film had never been developed in which the two of them could have been featured. It’s a shame that the right script (if anyone was even searching for such a thing) had not been produced. Now, some thirty years after those Polaroid commercials brought a smile to the faces of hundreds of thousands of television viewers the only way to find one of them, to the best of my knowledge, is through some sub standard image playing on You Tube.

    But Garner and Hartley certainly had that magic to which you referred, Robert. And then some.

    1. Great call, Tom! I had forgotten about those commercials from back in the day but you’ve found chemistry within reach of today’s headlines. And it was powerful.

  2. Lombard actually got top billing over Benny in the 1 classic comedy they made together, unlikely for many reasons, notably that hers is the lesser part & rumored to be 1 reason Miriam Hopkins left the production. Perhaps Lombard’s late arrival leveraged her billing, but since newcomer Robert Stack is 3rd. billed in a small role, who knows?

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