lombard gable

Wishing They’d Go Bump

I want nothing so much as to run into a ghost face to face. Wouldn’t that be fantastic? I just don’t get it when grown men say they saw a ghost and ran away. What’s a ghost going to do to you? Rattle a chain? Go, “BOO”? I don’t have a bucket list, but if I did, I’d put two things on it for sure: I want to see a ghost, and I want to see a bear. I don’t mean like a bear in the zoo, I mean a bear in the wilds. A bear rooting through my trash. A bear on the porch. Or a ghost anyplace at all. I’d turn interviewer at once. I’d want to know all about that ghost. Name, year of birth, occupation, address, year of death, manner of death—the works. With all those questions I’d likely bore that ghost to d… Well, not to death certainly. But far from running away, I’d be interested.

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

Here I am sitting on Errol Flynn’s diving board. On my return trip, all alone, I felt the ghost.

I felt Errol Flynn’s ghost, as described in Errol Flynn Slept Here. I stood at his deserted home, Mulholland Farm, and I was all alone, and I felt him watching me to the point the hairs stood up on my arm. I told no one about my brush with the ghost at the time—I thought I was imagining things—and it wasn’t until 15 years later that I started to hear other, much more startling personal encounters with the ghost of Mulholland Farm. Tracy Nelson, for one, saw Flynn’s ghost up close, as did her brother Gunnar.

I felt Jean Harlow while visiting Forest Lawn Glendale a long time ago. I felt her reaching out to me, quite distinctly, and what I sensed was, Write about me. I sensed great loneliness; great sadness. A soul alone. Circumstances prevented me from doing it at the time, but I felt a heavy sense of obligation. I carried it around for years. Finally David Stenn wrote Bombshell and Darrell Rooney and Mark Vieira wrote Harlow in Hollywood and whatever needs the Baby had, these books must have satisfied because they are both fantastic—and very different—approaches to telling her complete story.

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

From a distance it even looked haunted–Errol Flynn’s Mulholland Farm.

Another time I was on a ghost hunt in an old house near Pittsburgh and something touched the back of my neck as I walked down a narrow hallway. I saw nothing, but I felt a hand on my neck. Not a cobweb. Not a draft. A hand.

The most frequent question people ask me related to Fireball is, “When you were at the crash site, did you feel anything?” By that they mean, did you feel, did you see, did you experience ghosts? I wondered if I would at this spot where 22 people died in one second. I felt the sadness of the place; I held a human bone in my hand. More than anything, I felt obligation to those souls.

When you explore as much history as I do, you walk well-worn paths and you feel things. I’ve had my fair share of “stranger than science” incidents, but I haven’t seen nearly as much as I want to. One of my best friends lives in a very haunted house that’s full of residual energy. He can lie in bed in the early morning and hear commotion downstairs that’s clearly his family going through their routine from 50 years earlier. Imagine hearing noises of busy family life coming from your kitchen and knowing it’s your mother in there cooking; it’s 10-year-old you and your brothers and sisters sitting down to eat and then scraping back chairs and rushing off to school. That house also has at least one ghost, as proved by dozens of odd little incidents.

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

Imagine, if you can, Flight 3 flying into the middle of this scene and crashing against the cliff. Ghosts here? I felt close to the crash victims; I knew I had to tell their story.

A few weeks ago I walked through several homes from the pre-Civil War and Victorian eras and felt the presence of the former inhabitants. I heard others describe ghostly encounters, but I had no encounters of my own. I’m also helping to restore a Victorian home these days and will spend tomorrow there alone. It’s a hundred years old but do you think I’ve heard one thing out of the ordinary? I’m afraid not. Maybe I need to walk in tomorrow and challenge the ghosts to show themselves. I haven’t tried that yet and who knows, maybe it will kick something up.

Do you want to make me jealous? Tell me about an encounter you had with a ghost, or an odd experience that you think may have been ghostly. Something you can’t explain. It’s the perfect time of year for a ghost story, and I want to hear some.

Tucked Away

On the way to Fort Wayne for the Carole Lombard weekend, we stopped in Indianapolis for 90 minutes at a place I bet you never heard of and one that, if I ever compile a list of my top-10 most memorable experiences, would easily make the cut.

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

Nellie Simmons Meier, a scientist at heart and international sensation in the first half of the twentieth century.

Once there was a “scientific palmist” named Nellie Simmons Meier, who lived with her husband, fashion designer George Phillip Meier, in a bungalow tucked away on North Pennsylvania Street in Indianapolis. Because it sat back off the street and was modest in appearance, it acquired the name “Tuckaway,” and it was here that Nellie held court for many of the most powerful people of the twentieth century. I’m not kidding about the significance of her clients. We’re talking Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and an ardent pursuer, Adolph Hitler. Walt Disney was among her close friends and frequent visitors, to the extent that Nellie’s readings and Nellie’s home became instrumental to the creation of Disneyland.

Tuckaway looks like any old bungalow on any old street in the United States when you view it from a distance. Even people with an appointment drive right past it—I can tell you that from experience. When Ms. Garmin announced, “Arriving at destination, on right,” I groped to see anything on the right, let alone a destination shaped like a bungalow.

I can’t explain the physics of it, but Tuckaway is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, a yawning beast of Victorian design. We walked in to a vaulted-ceilinged parlor ablaze from a fire in the enormous fireplace. The walls were done in gold canvas because Nellie Meier had visited Coco Chanel’s gilded apartment in Paris and wanted her own home to be “dipped in gold,” like Coco’s. Cigarette smoke filled the yawning space, as (it sounded like) Marlene Dietrich purred torch songs from the walls themselves. Our host was Kenneth Keene, an impossible-to-describe raconteur who bought Tuckaway from the heir of Nellie Meier in 1972.

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

You’re saying, WHAT? There’s a home back there?

It’s forgotten today, but Nellie Simmons Meier was such a highly regarded professional at the scientific interpretation of palms that the brightest minds in the world sought her out. Rachmaninoff played piano in that parlor we walked into, and 80 years later it felt as if he were still there, trapped in time, along with all those other luminaries. Gershwin was a fan, as were Duncan Hines, Margaret Sanger, and Amelia Earhart. So prestigious was the library of palm prints and readings of Nellie Simmons Meier that President Franklin Roosevelt insisted that a portion of her collection be housed in the Library of Congress, where it remains today. When the president of the United States insists, what’s a girl to do?

The walls of the hallway and library downstairs hold dozens of framed portraits of the greats of the century past, every one inscribed to Nellie. Carole Lombard is there in a prime spot at the bottom of the stairs, the green-ink inscription on her photo attesting to the accuracy of Nellie’s reading.

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

The parlor of Tuckaway, as mysterious and compelling as an episode of The Twilight Zone. And what role in Carole Lombard’s life did the front door (seen at right) play?

I had come to Tuckaway to interview Mr. Keene about the connection between Lombard and Meier, based on a tip I had gotten while on the Indianapolis stop of the Fireball book tour. Local lore had it that Carole had stopped at Tuckaway the day of the bond rally and Nellie had warned her “not to take the plane.” I have more research to do beyond what I learned during the October 3 visit to Tuckaway, and by the time the trade paperback revised edition of Fireball goes to press after the first of the year, I believe I’ll have a definitive answer to the question: Beyond everything already described in Fireball, was there yet another chilling episode, tucked away in time since 1942, that compounds the mystery of the chaotic, improbable, and tragic last 24 hours of Carole Lombard’s life?

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

The inscription of Carole Lombard’s photo on the wall, signed as always in green ink, reads, “For Nellie Meier, In sincere appreciation of your Great Talent and kindness and truth of your reading. Cordially, Carole Lombard.”


I like to tell the story of the time I was subpoenaed to testify as an eyewitness to a car crash. Afterward, my co-worker Amy asked, “When you were sworn in and put your hand on the Bible, did it burst into flames?” Anyone who knows me would not be surprised at this question. However, in my time I have indeed opened a Bible or two, and during the confirmation process many years ago I read about all that “begetting” that started in Genesis, and I was never more bored in my life. All these people begat all these other people and so on and so forth. I don’t even much care about my own genealogy as it extends back into the distant Bavarian past…unless of course I’m somehow connected to rich Matzens and vast European fortunes. Then, by all means, sign me up for genealogy classes.

So, I had mixed feelings when a couple of weeks ago my friend and Fireball researcher Marina Gray sent me a thorough, 12-page document containing years of her expert research on Carole Lombard’s genealogy, the story of the Knight and Peters families, which combined their gene pools into the begetting of three children: Frederick Peters II, Stuart Peters, and Jane Peters. Marina sent me the fruits of her genealogical work, which turned out to be a fascinating history, as prep for my upcoming lecture on Fireball in the hometown of Jane Peters/Carole Lombard, Fort Wayne, Indiana, on Sunday October 5. Click here for an article about the event published September 28 in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel.

As you may know, Fort Wayne is the second-largest city in Indiana and was named after Revolutionary War General Anthony Wayne, known as “Mad Anthony,” after he chose this spot on the map for one of several forts to defend white European settlers from the Miami Indians—who had every right to be “mad” themselves after a bunch of white people started to claim Native American lands.

Fort Wayne sits in the northeastern corner of Indiana and it was here that a whole lot of wealth congregated. On Carole’s mother’s side, the Cheneys were already on the level of “magnates” when they joined with the Knights, who were Wall Street wizards. On Carole’s father’s side, John C. Peters, or “gramps” to Carole, pretty much owned Fort Wayne. Among his businesses was the Horton Manufacturing Company, which introduced the first automatic washing machine to the world and offered replacement to back-breaking manual labor in the cleaning of clothes. It was quite the revolutionary device and that alone would have made any family a fortune, but to the Knights and Peters, the income from washing machines was pocket money. Chump change. All this is why I say in Fireball that money grew on trees around Carole Lombard all her life. This girl was lucky enough to be rolling in dough long before she became the highest-paid actress in Hollywood in the late 1930s.

Part of the fun of visiting Fort Wayne will be the ability to get a glimpse of the three-story home of John C. Peters at 832 West Wayne Street. It’s so big that it was converted to an apartment building. The elegant brick home of the Knights, in which 26-year-old Elizabeth wedded 27-year-old Frederick before begetting the three children (including Jane/Carole), still stands at 519 Tennessee Street and is now known as “Shepherd’s House,” a shelter for homeless veterans. The house built for Frederick and Elizabeth Peters in 1902 still stands at 704 Rockhill Street. It was within these walls that Fred exhibited such dark, violent behavior that Elizabeth, known later as “Tots” and “Petey” to daughter Carole, had to gather up the children and flee to California.

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

Elizabeth Knight Peters sits for a portrait with her three children in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1911. From left: Stuart, Frederick II, Tots, and Jane, who would grow up to be Carole Lombard, and already looked the part.

Sunday, October 5, is going to be a big day for any Carole Lombard fan. It really starts on Saturday evening at 8 (Eastern) when Turner Classic Movies shows Carole Lombard’s Twentieth Century on The Essentials with Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore. The following morning, Sunday the 5th, I’m appearing as a guest on WANE-TV to talk about Fireball and the day’s events. Then at 2 P.M. I’m speaking at the Fort Wayne History Center. Before and after, you will get to see a once-in-a-lifetime collection of personally owned Carole Lombard items on display at the History Center, including jewelry, purses, hats, a cigarette lighter and cigarette case, compact, documents–including the hunting licenses of Lombard and Gable, a letter handwritten from Carole to MGM VP Eddie Mannix, and the 11×14 Hurrell portrait that Carole inscribed to Clark, “Pa dear, I love you, Ma.” There will also be movie memorabilia and rare photos on display, including candids from the Myron Davis set taken in Indianapolis the day before the crash of Flight 3. At the conclusion of the History Center event, at approximately 5 P.M., attendees will get to tour the Rockhill Street house to see the room in which Jane Peters was born and slept, and the streets she roamed with her two big brothers, “Fritz” and “Tootey.” [Note: the Lombard house is not a working bed and breakfast at this time.]

As I understand it, the History Center event is free to the public (but I can’t swear to that); I know for a fact that the tour of the Rockhill Street house that will be hosted by Rick and Cora Brandt is free.

Special guests on October 5 will be Carole Sampeck, director of the Dallas-based Carole Lombard Archive Foundation and consultant in the development of Fireball, and the aforementioned Marina Gray, one of two Jedi Ninja researchers who helped to make Fireball a book that has drawn praise for the comprehensive nature of its information. [DC-based Ann Trevor is the other Jedi Ninja.]

I’ve had some terrific experiences speaking about Fireball around the United States, and met many people I now call friends, but I can’t imagine there’ll be anything to top this celebration of Carole Lombard in her own home town and on the day before her October 6 birthday. I hope to see as many of you there as possible.

And, for the record, no, the Bible did not burst into flames that day.

Hedge Hopping

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

This postcard, circa 1940, shows TWA airships at the gate of the Allegheny County Airport. On its last voyage, TWA Flight 3 taxied into position here; 18 hours later it crashed in Nevada.

Understanding the nature of commercial aviation as it existed in January 1942 proved to be, for me, one of the eye openers of the Fireball narrative. In Q&A following my lectures, people often assume that the plane on which Carole Lombard died along with her mother Elizabeth Peters and MGM press rep Otto Winkler was a charter, and they’re surprised to learn it was a regular commercial flight, and a transcontinental flight at that.

We think of transcontinental air travel today as five tedious hours spent motionless in a first-class or coach seat, headphones on, dozing the time away, or working on laptops or reading. New York to L.A. in upwards of six hours, depending on headwinds. L.A. to New York in about five. In 1942 the term “transcontinental” was a lot different. Instead of a nonstop or perhaps a stop for a connector, it took 10 or 12 stops to reach one coast from the other. Up and down, up and down endlessly, landing one or two times per state as the plane progressed cross-country with stops to refuel and/or pick up and drop off passengers and all-important airmail.

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

The Allegheny County Airport, unchanged in outward appearance from its 1936 expansion.

The DC-3 itself was a fabulous plane and so dependable that a few still fly today, almost 80 years since they first rolled off the assembly line. Passenger versions seated up to 22 comfortably, with the word “comfortable” being entirely subjective. In an unpressurized cabin, which the DC-3 featured, you were at the mercy of a) the ambient air temperature—except for a cabin heater controlled from the cockpit and b) the roar of two very loud engines just three feet on either side of the fuselage. The glamour and luxury of transcontinental travel in Carole Lombard’s day, in fact, hurt. It hurt your flesh; it hurt your back; it hurt your ears. Cruising altitude would be 9,000 feet above terrain if they could get away with it or 12,000 in mountains. Think of the ear popping in that unpressurized cabin. Think of the climate as you would routinely be subjected to temperatures 30 or 40 degrees colder at altitude than on the ground.

After a couple of hours in the air, you were begging for relief, and you knew it was coming; it was always coming with all the takeoffs and landings. And that’s our story for today, boys and girls, the state-of-the-art airport terminal of 1942. I am lucky enough to live about 20 minutes from just such a building, the one that used to service Pittsburgh until being replaced by a much larger facility in 1952. Because the new Greater Pittsburgh Airport was placed 15 miles west of the city, there was no need to tear down the old terminal located closer to the heart of Pittsburgh. Instead, it became a secondary hub of aviation activity and continues to serve Southwestern Pennsylvania today.

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

Vintage 1930s touches like stainless steel trim remain in place.

I’m no architect, but to me, the Allegheny County Airport terminal is an Art Deco masterpiece, built in 1931 with wings added in 1936. Many original design features remain intact, from intricate tile work to stainless steel accents and art deco lettering for the Waiting Room and Office. The original wooden benches are still in place along with the original compass set into the floor. Can’t you see men in suits and women in furs sitting there waiting to board the next flight out? I wish I could find vintage interior views to glimpse the restaurant, ticket desk, and souvenir stand as they existed in 1942, but I haven’t been able to locate any.

Readers of Fireball may remember that this airport was a stop for Flight 3 on its last voyage. The plane had taken off from LaGuardia and stopped at Newark before landing here and taxiing to the gate. From Pittsburgh the TWA airship headed west to Columbus, Ohio, and after that Indianapolis, where Lombard’s party boarded. At each stop stood a facility just like this one, offering temporary sanctuary from the rigors of air travel.

Upon completion in 1931, Pittsburgh’s airport was the most modern in the world and boasted by far the most paved runway area. Presidents and movie stars roamed this floor and the place buzzed with activity in World War II. Literally. All dignitaries and celebrity traveling from the American heartland to and from New York City stopped and stretched their legs here. It’s a building that’s drawn my eye from earliest memory—every time my parents would drive by, and then every time I would as well. I certainly hope the building is haunted. Then again, how could it not be given all the history it holds?

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

Original lettering for the Waiting Room and Office evoke a bygone era.

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

A single room served passengers for several major airlines. In an alcove to the right was the small restaurant. Original 1930s wooden benches remain in place, including one that looks out on the tarmac.

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

Passengers always knew which was way up–as well as north, south, east, and west, at the Pittsburgh air terminal.

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

Even the planters flanking the building’s entrance tie into the aviation theme. The green tile work matches inlaid tile accents on the building exterior.

Party Girl

My friend the High NASA Official is reading Fireball at present. She said the other day, “I think I would have liked drinking with Carole Lombard.” Yes, Diane, I think you would have, because Lombard liked the sauce (scotch and soda) and Lombard was a very sociable, outgoing person with a genuine interest in other people.

There were many questions to answer in writing Fireball. One of them involved her party period that began in 1934 at the house on Hollywood Boulevard. For much of her time here, Lombard was planning and staging wacky parties for friends that ran the gamut from filmland’s elite to gaffers, carpenters, and production assistants on her pictures. She wasn’t big on entertaining during her marriage to William Powell, which ended in 1933, and certainly not during her years with Clark Gable, but during her run on Hollywood Boulevard, Lombard was known for her spectacular social events. It became imprinted upon the legend: Carole Lombard, thrower of crazy parties.

I think it was John Barrymore’s widow who told a story of how Carole, in formal attire at a formal gathering, suddenly jumped in somebody’s pool because she was “that kind of girl.” This documentary was made when so few of Lombard’s contemporaries remained alive that John Barrymore’s last wife became relevant, but her statement shows a lack of understanding of the subject. I’m here to tell you that if there was one thing Lombard was not, it was impetuous, or capricious, or anything of the kind. Everything Carole did, she did for a damn good reason.

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

In this official Paramount Pictures publicity photo taken in 1934, Carole stands in front of her rented Hollywood Boulevard home.

Which brings us to the parties. Carole rented the 3,000-square-foot, French provincial home at 7953 Hollywood Boulevard late in 1933 at a time when her career at Paramount was on the upswing. The house sits way down in the residential section of Hollywood Boulevard near Laurel Canyon and it’s tucked back off the thoroughfare and you wouldn’t give it a second thought and certainly wouldn’t imagine it to be connected with bigger-than-life Carole Lombard.

I’ve never been inside this place but I’ve stood outside and I’ve talked to neighbors. Looking at it, you wonder how she had room for the kind of ambitious entertaining that marked her years here. But this terrific video with its then-and-now views puts things in perspective. The Hollywood Boulevard house had land behind it, including an apartment on the terrace above where Madalynne Fields (dubbed “Fieldsie”), Carole’s best friend and secretary, resided. Carole’s guests could spread out inside and out for the parties of legend.

Anyone who knows me will tell you: I hate parties. I’ll do all I can to avoid one, so you won’t see me having the willies when I describe Lombard’s parties but just know—I’m having the willies.

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

Mixology, Lombard-style, in the Hollywood Boulevard house.

She threw a “Roman party” and invited guests to come in togas. She threw a “hillbilly party” complete with barnyard animals (think cows and roosters) and wait staff in coveralls. Look close in the video because there may still be hay and feathers stuck in the baseboards from that one. She threw the miscalculated “hospital party,” where guests were asked to change into hospital gowns at the door or at the very least cover their attire with hospital gowns. Wait staff appeared as nurses and orderlies; food was brought in on gurneys and served hospital-style on trays. All that happened in the house shown in the video.

It all seems “madcap” and “gay” in the old sense of the word, but in Fireball I refer to it as Calculated Mayhem. In the wake of her performances in Twentieth Century and Lady by Choice, and the popularity of the new style of picture catching fire, the “screwball comedy,” Carole set out to claim that territory in Hollywood’s landscape. The parties were a means to an end to position Carole Lombard as the type of personality just right for screwball. It was what they call today a brand strategy concocted by Carole and her two very shrewd advisors, Fieldsie and talent agent Myron Selznick.

The strategy worked. By 1935 Paramount was putting Lombard in Hands Across the Table and The Princess Comes Across; Universal was asking for her for her most famous screwball picture of all, My Man Godfrey, and David Selznick (Myron’s brother) could imagine only Lombard appearing in his screwball entry, Nothing Sacred. Lombard’s screwball run lasted a solid three years, but these pictures with their bizarre elements could easily misfire, and that’s what ended her hot streak—the truly wretched True Confession in 1937 and Fools for Scandal in 1938. She made four straight dramas in 1939 and 1940 and only appeared in a couple more comedies before she died, but after the crash of Flight 3, the snapshot description of Carole Lombard was the “queen of screwball.” It’s how I describe her in interviews, and how she’s remembered.

In 1936 she started seeing Gable, and the house on Hollywood Boulevard became a little too high profile for the lovers, so she ditched it for digs in far-flung Bel Air. But her glory years on the social scene as bachelorette and hostess were all spent here, in this unassuming little house at the edge of Tinseltown.

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

This was my first view of the Lombard party house as it looked in 1987 with vegetation run amok. Back then it looked haunted, and some say it is.



Almost every day since the book’s release in January, somebody somewhere has commented on the extensive research in Fireball, and I’ve been gratified to learn that my dumpster dive into federal records accomplished its goal, as did long hours spent sifting through existing histories and biographies, newspapers, unpublished manuscripts and interviews, birth and death records, military archives, and conversations with participants and relatives of participants in the story. Oh, and a day spent eating dirt, getting stuck on cactus, and bouncing off boulders on Potosi Mountain. And other days spent walking in the footsteps of people in the narrative. When it was over I understood Carole Lombard and Clark Gable at the molecular level and also had learned about others critical to the story, from the stewardess on Flight 3 to the miner and ex-football star who led the charge up the mountain.

But that was then. It’s a good thing when you are the author of a book that gets positive reviews and that people really like. There’s gratification; there’s also pressure every time somebody says, read Fireball, loved it, big fan, what’s next? Well, thanks! And, uhhh, I dunno.

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

Oh, great, another mountain to climb. In case you are wondering, the Flight 3 crash site is along the ridge line, dead center from left to right, a few hundred feet below the crest.

It’s all organic, man. It comes from luck, or inspiration, or usually from a particular friend saying, “You know what would make a great idea for a book?” And that friend did it again two months ago, planting this seed in my brain. At first I think, no, that’s no good. It’s been done, or I can’t get at that story, or something similar, but then the damn seed starts to sprout and before long I’m believing that, yes, he’s right again. This is a story. I’m going to tell this story.

Friends, readers, I’m starting my next book. It’s a new day and a new ballgame. It’s not even the top of the first inning and the umpire isn’t about to shout, “Play ball!” [Reference to American baseball, global readers.] It’s not even time for spring training, really, because first comes determination of the theme of the book, what I’m writing to, what tone to set, how the narrative will sound, and even more basic to that, who are my characters? I’m in that nebulous period where I’m learning about the world I’m going to be inhabiting for a year or two. I’m reading existing works and visiting web sites. Just now I was reading a biography on the couch and Francois, my ten-week-old black kitten, jumped up on me and asked, “Whatcha readin’, Dad?” and before you know it, we were both asleep on the couch. So I can report that this phase is rather pleasant so far.

I’m not ready to announce what the book is going to be about, except to say it’s another World War II story with an aviation theme and part of it is set in Hollywood. (Tom, you’re a bright fellow. If you guess what the story is, please don’t blurt it out.) It’s nonfiction because to me the best stories are true stories where I say to myself as I unearth the facts, “You couldn’t make this stuff up.” Research is going to put me back in D.C. and back in Hollywood, but it’ll also require a trip to England and possibly to France and Germany and this time I’m going to have to be sifting through German records and lots of them. Sprechen sie Deutsch? My high school German teacher, Miss Diamond (who I had a crush on, but, don’t tell), would be the first to report, no, Robert does not speak German. That’s going to be a handicap to my enterprise because one thing I’m certain of is, this story is going to include a civilian’s-eye view of life on the ground in Germany during the latter phases of World War II. It’s one story line in what will no doubt be many story lines.

It’s daunting to be at this point in a book. Way down the road, I know I’m going to be holding three pounds of bouncing baby … hardcover, but in the meantime everything is squishy and Unknown. I have no idea where I’m heading. I don’t know how I’ll get there. I don’t know what I’ll discover along the way. Worst of all, I don’t know what makes my main character tick. I hate not knowing, and there’s so much mythology grown around this character that I already have a healthy dislike. Just like I had with Gable. I tell myself that it’s OK, the Gable thing worked out, and now he and I are friends and I pay my respects at his grave and everything.

Today’s confession is that I hate new people. My lifelong friend and former co-worker, Helene, would tell you that. Oh, Robert hates new people. Anytime somebody new came on staff at the company where we both worked, there was a period where I didn’t like them until I got a handle on them and then it was usually OK, except of course when it wasn’t. So now I’m at the stage where, based on everything I know so far, I don’t like this new person I’m going to write a book about. But when you’re in close quarters with someone for a long period, the ice gets broken somehow, and I’m counting on the fact that it’ll happen here. We even have some things in common, so what the hell am I worried about?

There, I’ve said it: I’m starting a new book. Monkey off my back. That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, this autumn I’m back in the saddle pitching Fireball and so coming and going, it will be an interesting time. Keep your eye peeled for dispatches from the front, which will all be delivered here at this address a couple times a week.

Carole Does Paris

Simone and I were on our own for a week while her mother was out of state, and so one evening I pulled out an old VHS copy of Fools for Scandal that I forgot 20 years ago I even owned. Fools for Scandal is the result of Jack Warner luring Carole Lombard to Warner Bros. because of a desire to get his studio up to speed on screwball comedy. Just for a little context, Fools went into release around the same time as The Adventures of Robin Hood.

I said to Simone, “Let’s watch a Lombard movie,” but Simone wasn’t interested. Then I told her that this picture was set in Paris, and that perked up her ears and she agreed to give Fools for Scandal a shot.

Thirty minutes later, Simone had been rendered unconscious and so had I. Although stuporous, I roused myself for the last couple reels and then went back the following morning to confirm for myself that I had indeed been neutron-bombed by this picture.

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

Simone at the 30-minute mark of Fools for Scandal.

Simone will tell you, and I agree, that there’s just no accounting for funny. I don’t want to scarze you off from giving Fools for Scandal a try (actually, yes I do), but let me present it this way: In one sequence, the dialogue shared between Carole and her co-star is in rhyme. I mean, for no good reason, they start talking in rhymes. Then he starts singing, shakily, in rhymes and you expect her to sing too but she knows she can’t carry a tune so she talks it while he sings it. I can only imagine that 1938 audiences knew right around now that they were the fools of this particular scandal.

The plot of Fools for Scandal is about as funny as a salvaged cinder block: A French chef becomes enamored of a woman he sees on the street and stalks her. He sends her fleeing to the safety of a taxi, then hops in the taxi and badgers her to see the sites of Paris until finally, exhausted, she relents. She manages to escape him and make her way to London but he follows, all stalker-like, and worms his way onto her domestic staff. Then he refuses to leave. Ask those poor California people in the news whose nanny refuses to be evicted just how funny this scenario is and they’ll tell you—this scenario isn’t funny; it’s horrifying.

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

The first scene, when Carole picks up her stalker on the Warner backlot. Shooting of “Paris” exteriors would take weeks–a bad sign for any picture.

Carole here portrays Kay Winters, an American movie star off to Paris in disguise for some R&R. Instead, she picks up a stalker and spends roughly 90 minutes of her life and ours shrieking for liberation and running for her life. At one point she even says to her stalker-who-refuses-to-leave, “My life was so nice and peaceful until you came along.” At the very end of the last reel, the Stockholm Syndrome dooms poor Kay Winters.

How did Miss Lombard find herself in this wretched predicament? FLASH BACK to just a year earlier when her contract at Paramount Pictures expired and super agent Myron Selznick convinced her that the grass was greener at other studios. She made the Technicolor comedy Nothing Sacred for Myron’s brother, David, and that picture scored good reviews and solid box-office returns. But there must have been a dearth of good screwball scripts out there at the second half of 1937 because the offer she decided to accept came from Warner Bros. of Burbank, a studio known for gangsters and swashbucklers and not comedy. The script was adapted from a stage play called Food for Scandal, the double meaning being that the boy in this boy-meets-girl tale is a chef who shacks up with the girl in London, causing a scandal. When the boy breaks into shaky song, what he’s singing is “Food for Scandal.”

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

Rene (Fernand Gravet), invades Kay Winters’ cab and refuses to leave. The decision that dooms her: she didn’t call the gendarmes and demand a PFA.

I guess Carole thought this thing had a chance because the Warners brought in Mervyn LeRoy to direct, and the talented Warner stock company would back her up, and the studio invited her to bring along her hand-picked cameraman, clothing designer, and hair stylist. As a result she looks like a million bucks in Fools for Scandal only to be defeated by a 10-cent script and total lack of directorial support.

If this isn’t a Hollywood axiom, it should be: It’s always dicey adapting stage plays for the screen.

If this isn’t a Hollywood axiom, it should be: It’s always dicey importing foreign movie stars to appear in American pictures.

So here is Carole set to star in a stage-play-turned movie with a French leading man of some experience, Fernand Gravet (pronounced Graw-VAY), who is new to Hollywood. If you’re thinking Charles Boyer when you hear Fernand Graw-VAY, forget it. The former had that voice and a certain debonair manner to offset average looks. The latter also sported average looks and a nearly impenetrable accent hung like bad wallpaper on a tenor voice and about as much charm as you’d expect from your average, garden-variety psycho. And speaking of psychos, Ralph Bellamy portrays Kay Winters’ boyfriend and manages to be unlikeable even in a situation where you want to root for him because his life and relationship have been invaded by a maniac. Instead, Bellamy plays cuckold in strange eye makeup that renders him a beady-eyed muppet.

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

Kay turns to her boyfriend, Phillip (Ralph Bellamy), for help with the stalker, but finds Phillip ineffective, not to mention irritating. You would think an American movie star could do better.

In researching Fireball, I went through the Warner Bros. production files on Fools for Scandal and relived anguish that began with the title Food for Scandal. How can we even fathom now that censors found it too suggestive—a man living in a woman’s house without a wedding ring in sight? Fools for Scandal better suited the negative implications of such a situation, so they changed it, even though Fernand breaks into “Food for Scandal” about 30 minutes in.

The other thing that the production files reveal is pain. Pain from all involved. Pain from Hal Wallis the executive producer, pain from the unit manager, pain from the stars. Your run-of-the-mill A picture wrapped in seven or eight weeks, but this production dragged on for three months, with endless retakes on the Warner backlot, day after day, week after week. Stalingrad went better for the Germans than Fools went for Carole.

Lombard was always at her best when she underplayed the comedy, and we can see in this picture that she knew she was in trouble because she starts playing it frantic about two minutes in and doesn’t stop until The End. Carole desperately needed the firm hand of a director here and Mervyn LeRoy wasn’t it. LeRoy made some decent pictures in his career but never excelled at comedy. You could point to another converted stage play that worked under his direction, Mister Roberts, but I’d argue that he had three men in that cast—James Cagney, William Powell, and Jack Lemmon—with impeccable comic timing and a vehicle that had been proven effective.

Seventeen years earlier, he had Lombard and a cinder block, and what happens when you attach one to the other? It’s inevitable, and that’s exactly what happened here. I don’t think Simone will ever trust me again.

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

The Warner marketing department had trouble figuring out how to sell this particular pile of rubble, given that its plot is more psychological thriller than comedy.

Rhett Butler, Take 2

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

A sign of trouble: too much to read on the movie posters in the lobby of the theater.

What an irony that Clark Gable’s last picture at MGM would be called Betrayed, because that’s exactly how Gable felt when the company that had ridden his back for two decades suddenly dumped him in 1954, the last of Hollywood’s Golden Era stars to be let go. Right about now he could have used Carole Lombard’s advice on “how to be a free agent.” As it was, Gable made several mediocre pictures in a row because now he was taking on scripts that had not been tailor-made to fit the King and his brand. He was just earning a paycheck. Then late in 1956 he considered an offer that must have made him smile the famous Gable smile, and for several reasons.

Band of Angels was a hot property at the time, a bestselling Civil War novel by Robert Penn Warren about a highborn Southern belle, Amantha Starr, who learns upon the death of her father that she is really a half-caste, born of his black mistress. As a result she’s chattel, loses everything, and is sold into slavery.

Warner Bros. owned the rights, and it was Jack Warner himself who reached out to Gable to play Hamish Bond, Southern plantation owner with a dark past. I imagine Pa heard Ma’s voice in his head squealing for him to take the part, how he’d be great in it, Rhett Butler all over again, his greatest triumph, the role everyone knew him for. Clark Gable back in the Civil War. It was a can’t-miss proposition, especially since Gone With the Wind had been reissued in 1947 and 1954 and still packed ’em in. Always packed ’em in.

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

Clark and Kay at the Encino ranch. She landed the King; he drank to numb the pain of it all.

Gable was expert at playing 50 shades of himself and never, once he became a star, enacted an out-and-out villain. Gable didn’t go taking risks like John Wayne just had with The Searchers because, as noted in Fireball, Clark was an insecure actor and sought to play it safe. Friends and directors alike noted his limited range and said there was a “Gable way” to do things. So Rhett Butler was going to resemble Gable and Hamish Bond was going to resemble Gable and any way you looked at it, with Gable’s Rhett aboard, Band of Angels couldn’t miss.

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

On location in Louisiana with the sternwheeler, Gordon C. Greene. This was more of the authentic Old South than even Selznick gave audiences.

Warner Bros. at the time was still a thriving studio and for the next 20 years would continue to stare down the unblinking eye of television and turn out hit pictures. Bold-as-brass Jack Warner loved the idea of luring the King to Burbank for a Civil War epic and offered him 10 percent of the net skimmed right off the top. As added incentive, all the Band of Angels exteriors would be shot on location in Louisiana, at The Cottage plantation in St. Francisville, north of Baton Rouge, and on—or in front of—the last of the old-time paddleboats, the Gordon C. Greene. The location work offered Clark and his bride of two-plus years, the former Kay Spreckels, a chance to travel together and be treated like, well, a king and his queen.

But sometimes sure things don’t work out. Sometimes planes smack into mountains for no good reason. Band of Angels was not, in the end, another Gone With the Wind. In fact, in execution and through no fault of Gable’s, it burst into flames like one of Hamish Bond’s sugar cane fields. Yes, Clark and Kay went on location, and, yes, they were treated like royalty, made the rounds, were feted, toasted, given keys to cities, and crushed by fans. Yes, Clark played Rhett Butler all over again and putting him back in sets and wardrobe depicting the antebellum South took 10 years off his appearance and son of a gun if he didn’t become Rhett Butler again. What was missing was David O. Selznick fretting and caressing and adding layer after layer of nuance, and throwing hundreds of thousands of extra dollars at the screen. Without the Selznick excesses, Band of Angels seems today almost threadbare, despite its authentic locations.

It’s hard to say when the picture’s director, “Uncle” Raoul Walsh, lost his fastball and became just another guy behind a camera. But he had lost it by The Tall Men, the 1955 picture he made with Gable, and Walsh was far more detrimental to Band of Angels. Or perhaps nothing could save a picture where the three leads are named Hamish, Amantha, and Rau-Ru. How dem dawkies love Massuh Hamish; they even sing to him in great choruses as the sternwheeler floats him on in to the dock, making this cinematic depiction of slavery problematic at best and typical of vintage Hollywood. All his slaves love Hamish Bond but one: the African child that Hamish saved from a massacre, the aforementioned Rau-Ru, who grows into firebrand Sidney Poitier in an early role. Poitier is way too sophisticated for something like Band of Angels and sticks out like a hammer-pounded thumb with all his New York, new-wave internal conflict, despising Hamish Bond and everything he stands for. Poitier, who turned 30 during production, classes up the proceedings too much. This is a picture that didn’t need class. It was bodice-ripping soap opera and needed movie stars fit to fill a frame alongside Clark Gable.

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

Yvonne De Carlo as Amantha Starr. Spoiler (for all of us): she survived the suicide attempt.

And speaking of what Gable didn’t have, there’s Yvonne De Carlo, a woman of so little warmth and sex appeal that when she fetches a rope and hangs herself in reel two rather than succumb to the advances of a slave trader, I cheered—and I don’t think I was supposed to.

Amantha was saved at the last minute and kept planting herself in front of the camera through the rest of the picture, giving Gable about as much to play off of as a dressmaker’s dummy. This role screamed Ava Gardner in all her sultry darkness, but posterity played a cruel joke and gave us the equivalent of Ava Gardner’s stand-in. I don’t mean to be unkind, and timing and circumstances come into play when casting pictures, but in this case DeCarlo just couldn’t infuse sympathy into this character, and sympathy was crucial.

Gable biographer Lyn Tornabene labeled Band of Angels “the nadir of Gable’s career” but I don’t see it that way. Even considering the liability of the leading lady, Band of Angels turned a slight $92,000 profit according to John McElwee of the Greenbriar Picture Shows BlogSpot. This was stout box office considering the $2.8 million cost of its production. People did flock to see Gable in another tale of the Old South, and word of mouth must have been OK or better for returns so good.

I feel for Gable as the years piled up and he coasted on reputation. He was a man of simple pleasures and little joy, lugging around guilt and grief over lost love Lombard as if bearing a lead-filled backpack. He does some nice acting in the scene where Hamish reveals to Amantha, who is now in love with him, that once he had been a villain who kidnapped Africans into enslavement. He delivers a monologue, staring off and reliving a particular dark event, and it’s effective. The moment, however, lacks a payoff because DeCarlo hasn’t established emotional parameters for us to care how she feels about the revelation. The script doesn’t help her and feels at times like a Classics Illustrated version of Band of Angels; Raoul Walsh’s lack of close-ups also saps power from this critical plot point, so much so that his decision seems to be the director’s way around Gable’s aging. The man turned 56 the second week of shooting and all the drinking, cigarettes, guilt, and grief had rendered Rhett Butler’s face into something different than audiences saw in 1939, and in more recent GWTW reissues. With the lighting and angles just right, with the sets and wardrobe and use of medium shots, the illusion works, but in a scene like the one where Hamish comes clean, dramatic tension suffers because of a lack of close-ups.

Gable made some solid pictures after this one. He was by no means out of gas and seemed to delight in poking fun at himself ever more as time went on. No, Band of Angels isn’t the picture he figured it would be, but it’s still a kick seeing self-serving, cynical Rhett Butler loose amidst the magnolias one more time.

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

Wait a minute. He’s Rhett, but she’s not Scarlett. This carefully photographed still represents the Clark Gable that Warner Bros. wanted theater patrons to see.

Note: My next column covers the 1938 Carole Lombard picture, Fools for Scandal, which TCM U.S. is airing on Thursday morning July 10 at 4:15 A.M. Eastern time.

Meanwhile, in an Alternate Reality…

For Immediate Release


Actress vows to ‘come clean’ in Putnam hardcover

HOLLYWOOD, May 1, 1961/AP —G.P. Putnam’s Sons announced today that the publisher will release the autobiography of motion picture and television actress Carole Lombard. The would-be author had stated previously that her book would be entitled, “Just One of the Guys.” Last week, Miss Lombard, who will turn 50 in October, made a public appearance after months of seclusion following the November, 1960 death of her ex-husband, Clark Gable. It is speculated that her memoir will discuss life with the one-time “king of the movies,” as well as their 1946 divorce, continued close friendship, and recent reuniting as co-stars of the romantic comedies, “Teacher’s Pet” and “But Not for Me.”

Miss Lombard’s career began in silent pictures for the Fox and Sennett studios and then continued in the sound era at Paramount. But it was the 1934 Columbia Picture “Twentieth Century” that shot her to the top. She solidified her status as “queen of screwball” two years later with an Academy Award-nominated performance in “My Man Godfrey.”

Miss Lombard and Mr. Gable began their association in 1936 and once comprised the most famous couple in Hollywood. They were married during production of the highest grossing motion picture of all time, “Gone With the Wind.” They enjoyed status as the most prolific and profitable stars of the World War II years, and, despite rumors of marital turmoil, their separation at war’s end caught Hollywood by surprise.

Miss Lombard said she has been working on the manuscript for more than two years. In describing its title, she said, “It was the men who ruled the Hollywood roost, and I had to make room for myself in the ‘boys’ club.’ Then I had to do it again when I decided to produce some pictures, and especially when I wanted to direct features and then serve as executive producer of my TV series.”

That series, “Carole of the Belle,” features Miss Lombard as Carole Simpson, a divorced newspaper reporter raising her daughter on a Seattle houseboat called the “Puget Belle.” Now in its 11th season on the National Broadcasting Network, “Carole of the Belle” was second in popularity in the last decade only to the CBS smash hit “I Love Lucy,” which starred Miss Lombard’s friend of more than 20 years, Lucille Ball.

In addition to her groundbreaking work in motion pictures and television, among the topics to be remembered by Miss Lombard are a car crash that nearly ended her career in 1925; her marriage to suave leading man William Powell; the strange death of Russ Columbo, a 1930s singer with whom she was romantically linked; a long-time friendship with tennis star Alice Marble; a brush with death when an airliner on which she had been traveling crashed in Nevada after she had disembarked; and her battles with HUAC and unwillingness to “name names.”

Famous for her salty vocabulary and known as one of the most down-to-earth of Hollywood’s elite, Miss Lombard said she would “pull no punches” in her book, although she was coy when asked if she would discuss her post-Gable romances with actor/director Orson Welles, and then her most controversial relationship of all, with actor Paul Newman, a man 15 years her junior.

Putnam anticipates an autumn 1962 release for “Just One of the Guys.”



How this came about…

A colleague of mine, Wendy, is reading Fireball and said to me yesterday, “The whole thing is such a tragedy because if anyone should have lived a long life and produced a great memoir, it’s Carole Lombard.” Wendy paused and said, “She’d have made a great old lady.”

Which got me to thinking. Suppose she hadn’t died on that mountaintop. Suppose she had lived a normal lifetime and worked the length of a normal career. What would have happened? Of course it’s pure fantasy, but when you have spent as much time in someone’s head as I have in hers, you get to a point where you can draw conclusions. Here they’re laid out. Somehow or other, the marriage would have ended, but Lombard didn’t hold grudges and after a time she and Gable would have been friendly. Without the tragedy of her death hanging over his head, three things would have changed: 1) Gable’s ambition wouldn’t have been snuffed out and his brand would have thrived; 2) the public would have been spared seeing Clark Gable as a mortal and he wouldn’t have aged prematurely, and 3) at age 41 and then 42 and 43, he wouldn’t have gone to war; he would have made very popular pictures from 1943 through 45, during the biggest boom in Hollywood history.

In the meantime, Lombard would have made He Kissed the Bride (retitled They All Kissed the Bride) and My Girl Godfrey, and from there, she would have been off to the races as an independent, enjoying good roles with her contemporaries until 1950. I could see her producing and directing by, say, 1948, and not comedies either. I think Lombard would have gone for gritty film noir as a form of artistic expression. She had wanted to succeed at drama but never broke through, so it’s clear she wanted the challenge of meaty work. She would have been out front with Ida Lupino as a woman director and by this time she would have amassed fortune enough to finance A-pictures as an independent.

Imagine Carole Lombard called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Always a liberal Democrat, Carole would not be the one to rat out a colleague and it was likely she’d lean into the microphone on Capitol Hill and state clearly for newsreel cameras, “Senator, with all due respect, you can kiss my ass.”

In 1954, when MGM severed with Gable, Lombard would have been there as his biggest supporter and sooner or later she would have made pictures with him to give her ex a boost—returning a favor done for her by William Powell in 1936. I picked Teacher’s Pet because I could see Lombard in the Doris Day role, and But Not for Me where she would have been perfect in the cynical ex-wife part played by Lili Palmer.

Carole would not have spoken about Clark during his lifetime, but because she was indeed a “ham” and because she loved to tell stories (never letting the truth get in her way), I could see Miss Lombard following the trail blazed by Errol Flynn and publishing a scorcher of a memoir.

Romantically, she may well have slipped into a romance with Robert Stack, a premiere Hollywood stud and nice guy who was in love with her. The problem was that Bob didn’t need rescuing, and Carole was a rescuer/nurturer who went for powerful men. Always powerful men. Who fit the bill at this time? Obviously, Orson Welles, who would have been available after his divorce from Rita Hayworth. I asked Carole Sampeck to play along and it was she who labeled Welles a likely candidate, and also young Paul Newman, the next big thing in the late 1950s at a time when Carole would have just been turning 50 but, knowing her, still mindful to play the field.

And finally, I believe Lombard would have turned to television, the rival medium. In a White 1950s America dominated by traditional family values, the formula was for aging female movie stars to play wives and mothers, but not Lombard. Carole would have scratched and clawed to play a woman with guts, a divorcee and career-minded mother. A woman making her own way and suffering romantic misadventures week in and week out, making jokes at her own expense and guiding an onscreen child in lieu of the one she could never produce in life.

Notice that the press release gets Lombard’s age wrong by three years. She had already shaved a year off by 33 and sleight of hand would have killed another couple by the early 1960s. Nobody enjoyed pulling a fast one more than Carole Lombard.

So this is my version of the alternate reality wherein Lombard lived out her lifetime–what’s yours?

Who Did She Have to Screw?

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

The ultra-rare one sheet movie poster for Supernatural; rarity caused by its rapid run through American theaters and a resulting lack of need for a lot of advertising material.

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.

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

Didn’t FDR promise a chicken in every pot and a 20-foot bird cage in every conservatory? Carole Lombard and Randolph Scott live the good life in Supernatural, until…

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.

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

Is it just me, or are you fellas also suddenly feeling like murdering people? Roma is possessed by the soul of Ruth Rogen as Dr. Houston (H.B. Warner) and Grant (Randy Scott) look on.

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.

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

Paul Bavian stages a bogus séance related to the picture’s other story line: Roma’s twin brother has just died, and she wants to make contact with him. (I was annoyed that all pronounced it “SEE-ants.” Was that really the word as used in the 1930s?)

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.

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

Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart) is only a little suspicious when Roma takes him to his late lover Ruth Rogen’s apartment. The full-length portrait of Ruth (Vivienne Osborne) offering up a tempting apple is emblematic of the fact that bad girls are a lot more fun. Until they strangle you, that is.

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.

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

Will Grant arrive in time to save Roma from a murder wrap for strangling evil Paul Bavian?

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.