Pass the Graw-VAY

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

Flashback Sunday.

Wait….whut? All right, let’s say Sump-pump Sunday.

The time is autumn 1937 and the place is Warner Bros. studios in sunny Burbank, California. The major focus of the studio is Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, which is shooting on multiple soundstages, and another A production in progress is the comedy Food for Scandal starring Carole Lombard, fresh off seven years as a contract player with Paramount Pictures, acclaim as the “screwball queen” of Hollywood, an Academy Award nomination for My Man Godfrey a year earlier, and big box office for Selznick with Nothing Sacred.

Free-agent Carole has been lured to Warner Bros. to give that studio, known primarily for gangster pictures, Busby Berkeley Gold Diggers musicals, and the adventures of Errol Flynn, with a hit in the general category of Comedy.

Paired with sure-fire Lombard is Belgian import Fernand Gravet (pronounced Graw-VAY), who had been signed after scoring hits in France and brought to the U.S., much as Flynn had been signed in England and brought to Hollywood and gone on to be a Warner cash cow. Graw-VAY had made one picture at Warner Bros. to date, The King and the Chorus Girl with always dependable leading lady Joan Blon-DELL, and now Carole Lombard would be Fernand’s second co-star.

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

A Frenchman, a sexy girl, and some comedy. What could go wrong?

The problem was, given Gaw-VAY’s significant accent and limited range in English-language pictures, the only thing it made sense for him to play was a European Prince or European something, but that was OK with the concept of Food for Scandal: down-and-out Frenchman becomes enamored of American movie star and through a twist of fate becomes her chef, to the chagrin of her fiancé. A scandal ensues. Hence the title Food (because he’s her chef) for Scandal. But the title hadn’t tested very well, and Warner Bros. always second-guessed itself with comedies and titles of comedies, so pretty soon the picture would be called Fools for Scandal (even though there’s a musical number in the middle of the thing called “Food for Scandal”).

I bring to your attention to this on-set photo as evidence that life in 1930s Hollywood wasn’t all fun, games, sex, and stardom. I came across this vintage little jewel on some website or other and bought the original still stamped Dell Publishing. It shows our scowling gal Carole pointing at something in the script with frazzled director Mervyn LeRoy, as some nattily attired youngster looks on. I couldn’t identify said youngster so I turned to Rudy Behlmer, author of Inside Warner Bros. and commentator on DVDs of studio hits of that time, including Robin Hood. Between Rudy and his better half Stacey (of Herrick Library fame), soon Irv Brecher had been identified as the third face in this photo. Brecher, then the stunning age of 23, had been hired to do a little script doctoring on a picture in trouble, even though if there’s anyone who doesn’t look like a comedy writer it’s this guy. As it happens, Brecher would go on to write scripts for two Marx Bros. MGM titles, At the Circus and Go West, which represents, on the one hand, two significant credits for the Writers Guild and, on the other hand, a hint that said writer maybe wasn’t so funny after all. But then the Marx Bros. marriage to MGM was doomed by much more than the writing on their later pictures.

Why is Carole scowling? What prompted a standby cameraman to pull the trigger on this photo, which was then forwarded to the fan magazine circuit for republication? I have no answers but to tell you that Fools for Scandal became the BOMB of Carole Lombard’s career, along with her only invitation to Warner Bros. After this she would make four dramas in a row for Selznick Pictures and RKO, but see no profits in drama and suffer a career crisis as a result.

Just a little Sunday something on the verge of spring.

5 comments

  1. Interesting shot of Carole – you can see clearly the scar which appears to be V-shaped, running horizontal just above her upper lip – which would have sidelined any other actress who lacked the will power and perseverance to continue acting in the face of so many so thought that was it for her career. I owned three (3) Lombard-related posters: a theater card for Made for Each Other, a half-sheet of Fools for Scandal and yes, a quarter-sized (what do they call that size?) of Fools for Scandal, which I sold nearly a decade ago because I needed the money – but got only $150 or something for it. Still wonder to this day whether I should have kept it. Shoulda, woulda, coulda! Oh by the way, your recent post about the 75th anniversary (appropriate word?) of the plane crash and meeting up with Mike McComb begs for a museum or corner in same where artifacts can be displayed.

    1. Good eye on that upper-lip scar, Christopher. Contemporary descriptions of the accident state that her upper lip was nearly severed and based on the scar from this angle you can get an idea that this was likely correct. The indentation on her cheek is clear enough but it had drawn my eye and I missed her lip.

      I don’t think you made a bad deal getting rid of Fools for Scandal because in collecting circles it has been and always will be a problem title. It’s such a bad movie that people don’t want to be reminded of it by seeing something on the wall, no matter how good she looked.

      Yes absolutely, Mike’s artifacts need to be on display somewhere and he has said that’s his ultimate aim.

      1. Glad MM is not just out for a fast buck from a famous crash site. You have helped immeasurably in preserving history. Thanks for the background about Fools. Indicates how motivated she was to pull her career out of a slump – and why in part she had an equity position with To Be Or Not To Be. When she was down, she just hit harder.

  2. I saw Fools for Scandal again a few years ago. Pretty much completely gone from my memory bank now except that it didn’t make much of an impression upon me at the time.

    Warner Brothers is my favourite studio from the Hollywood factory days but good screen comedy is one of the genres for which they will not be remembered. The studio had a tendency to make their small ’30s comedies fast and punchy and loud but not with a lot of art (okay, maybe art is the wrong word to use for the studio of Jack Warner). Participants like a Joan Blondell or James Cagney are their saving grace.

    Warners also liked to buy the rights to a number of popular stage comedies, the likes of a Man Who Came to Dinner, George Washington Slept Here or Life With Father, among others. They’re all worth a view, I suppose (Life, in particular, if only for William Powell’s great performance) but nothing there really to compare to the elegance of a Lubitsch souffle at Paramount.

    (Having said that, should TCM show it again, you might take a look at the delightful Jewel Robbery, with the same Bill Powell again, this time as a gentleman thief, a Warners attempt at a Paramount-style sophisticated comedy that really works).

    1. Great point about Warner Bros. relying on stage plays for its comedies. Arsenic and Old Lace is another one, which may have been great fun on the stage but came off as desperate and shrill on film. But then, “desperate and shrill” describes the humor of Jack L. Warner, whose fingerprints are all over the unfunny stuff his studio turned out. There’s a bit of candid film out there showing Jack Warner and Errol Flynn standing together in 1943. I always found it remarkable how uncomfortable Flynn looks in this footage. Flynn the charmer, Flynn the fearless, holding his arm with his other arm like he’s having a heart attack, and this wax smile frozen on his face. Even Flynn feared Jack Warner, so whatever the boss said was funny, well, that became the standard of humor at Warner Bros.

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