Curves

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

Carole Lombard in 1928 after Mack Sennett had labeled her “scrawny” and ordered a weight gain.

When did “unnaturally thin” and “emaciated” become desirable for women? Mack Sennett told Carole Lombard to put on a few pounds when he hired her in 1927, and I think she never looked better. Otherwise, Lombard spent her career dieting and sweating to be as thin as possible, mainly I think because she tended to put on weight in her legs if she gained an ounce and she didn’t like it.

I have grown so bored, my friends, of women who are proud because their ribs are showing. We have long been at the point where women brag about starving themselves, brag about every ounce lost in an effort to be a 4 instead of a 6 or a 10 instead of a 12. Women don’t even seem to do it for men; they do it to one-up the competition—other women. Is it a billion-dollar or a trillion-dollar industry, the companies selling the message that if you aren’t skinny, you’re miserable? It’s a brainwashed world gone mad.

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

Ashley Graham: Sports Illustrated-bound.

The so-called “plus-size model” who will appear in an ad in the upcoming SI swimsuit edition, Ashley Graham, is, to me, as sexy as it gets. The xylophone-ribbed waifs who will surround her on the pages—not so much. To me they all look exactly alike. They’re up and down and boring.

Why the rant against anorexia? Because women’s obsession with weight and the negative consequences of being anything but ribby is nothing new. Case in point: Carole Lombard’s close friend and confidante Madalynne Fields. I’m reading a 1936 article from Modern Screen magazine that Vincent Paterno posted on his Carole & Co. web site. My friend Marina had tipped me off to this article during the research phase of Fireball, and I remember being frustrated back then by the typically fluffy nature of the piece. “Fieldsie” spent her lifetime hiding in shadows, and all we get are glimpses of Carole’s fun-loving companion from the early 1930s when Lombard and Fields rampaged through Hollywood as a distaff Laurel and Hardy.

Have you ever wondered why there seem to be just a couple of photos in existence that show the supposedly inseparable duo of Lombard and Fields? Carole never met a camera she didn’t like, but Fieldsie managed to avoid cameras most of her life. The truth is not pretty.

Straight dope on Madalynne Fields was impossible to obtain until I accessed old audiocassette tapes in the Academy’s Herrick Library, one of which was an interview from 1976 by Gable biographer Lyn Tornabene with Fieldsie’s son, Richard Lang. Richard’s mother had just recently passed on at the time of the interview, and his voice is tinged with sadness as he describes this woman whom he knew as “the General.”

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

One of two photos you’ll see of Carole and Fieldsie. Here they attend an event for Carole’s picture, Twentieth Century. Fieldsie is looking not at the camera but at Russ Columbo, a man she disliked, as described in Fireball. Lombard looks at her Twentieth co-star, John Barrymore.

The real Fieldsie was brilliant, meticulous, demanding, driven, and unhappy. She didn’t want to be six feet tall. She didn’t want to weigh in a range that fluctuated around 250 pounds. She didn’t want to stand out in a crowd and draw everyone’s stare. It was the most difficult thing in the world for Fieldsie to be Carole’s comic foil, and she became trapped in the role when Carole hit it big in 1934 with Twentieth Century and then bigger in 1936 with My Man Godfrey. Fieldsie had a tremendous sense of humor that became central to the Lombard legend, but it was humor as a defense, humor as a shield, humor to hide the pain.

The 1936 Modern Screen article gives us hints of the life Fieldsie faced. She describes herself as a thirty-five-dollar-a-day motion picture actress—but that was on the days when she could land work as a walk on or extra, and those days were almost nonexistent because she was so big. As a result she went to school and learned secretarial skills that allowed her to become Carole’s secretary. Night school wasn’t a lark as positioned in the 1936 article; for Fieldsie, the adding machine and shorthand meant survival.

The article quotes Fieldsie as saying, with tragic understatement, “Although I wouldn’t admit it, I was terribly self-conscious about my weight. I knew that Carole realized this, for without mentioning it, she used to say and do things that meant a great deal to me.” The article also mentions that Fieldsie was, as of the writing, under a doctor’s care and had lost 60 pounds, and soon she was marrying director Walter Lang, who had directed Carole in the features No More Orchids in 1932 and Love Before Breakfast in 1936.

I used to wonder why Fieldsie suddenly departed the scene upon marrying Lang in 1937. It seems as if she left Carole high and dry as secretary and business manager and, in truth, she did. As Carole’s star neared its zenith, Fieldsie vamoosed because she couldn’t take it anymore. She couldn’t stand to be seen towering over her perfect little svelte clothes-horse of a best friend. She couldn’t stand the heat of the spotlight and sought nothing more than a quiet life away from it.

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

Madalynne Fields makes a rare public appearance with Clark Gable and Irene Dunne at the launching of a ship named for Carole Lombard. Not only are Fieldsie and Clark the same height; she was the General and he was only a major so she out-ranked him.

So effectively did Fieldsie go on to avoid that spotlight that only in January 1944, when the liberty ship Carole Lombard was christened, did Madalynne Fields make a public appearance in range of cameras, and how uncomfortable she appears.

Fieldsie was 18 months Carole’s senior and appointed Carole to be godmother of son Richard, who was born in 1939. He would be Fieldsie’s only child. Fieldsie transitioned from power behind the Lombard throne to power behind the Walter Lang throne as Lang progressed through a successful career as director of pictures for James Stewart and Clark Gable, among many others. It’s easy to see Fieldsie living to 80 or 90 but her life was cut short at 67, not by ill health from carrying around extra weight but from a mugger who cracked her on the head with a lead pipe. The incident took down a woman whom Richard described as “fierce” and she died soon thereafter.

Of the millions of women out there struggling to force themselves into the media’s accepted norm of body shape, Fieldsie was an early casualty. She had the misfortune to grow up in the 1920s when “boyish” became the figure of choice for women, and she was anything but that. Carole Lombard, empathetic soul, did all she could for Fieldsie, but the association proved to be both blessing and curse, and so here is the uncomfortable truth behind the legend of Carole’s fun-loving sidekick.

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

Courtesy of Tom Hodgins: a shot from the Sennett days with Fieldsie center and Carole foreground left of frame, highlighting the problem for the larger of the girls.

One comment

  1. Thanks for the writeup on Madalynne Fields, Robert. I rather doubt that that image of the voluptuously endowed Ashley Graham would have made Fieldsie feel much better about her appearance even compared to the thinner beauties that surrounded her in late ’20s and early ’30s Hollywood.

    There are a couple of videos of The Campus Vamp, a 1928 Mack Sennett comedy in which Fieldsie appeared with Lombard, on You Tube. Appropriately, the IMBd listings for this short merely list Fields as “Fat Girl.” Here’s an abbreviated version of it, with some colour shots. Carole is her vivacious self in this one, while Fieldsie can be glimpsed at the 5min.22sec. and 6min38sec. mark of it.

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