Lombard screwball

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.


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

Seventy-six years ago today, March 30, 1939, Carole Lombard and Clark Gable addressed the media at her Bel Air home and announced that they had wed. Newsreel cameras rolled, flashbulbs popped, and a cultural phenomenon was born. Gable then reigned as the hottest thing in Hollywood—the number-one box-office draw in the world and definitive sex symbol of the movies. Lombard was a popular leading lady known as the “screwball queen” for her comedy pictures and madcap Hollywood parties.

Their relationship was more than three years old by this time. Lombard had made herself available on the social scene 16 months after the Labor Day 1934 shooting death of her lover, 26-year-old popular singer Russ Columbo. She emerged from a period of mourning with a vengeance, landing a very married Gable at the end of January 1936 and carrying on a public love affair based from her home right there on Hollywood Boulevard, in full view of the movie colony and the press. But scrutiny proved withering and Lombard left her Hollywood “party house” for a home in secluded, difficult-to-access Bel Air where she continued her activities with Gable.

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

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

I’m not sure that we can imagine today what a sexual playground Hollywood was in the 1930s. We think of the stars of the day as above it all, but nobody was immune and everybody was doing it with everybody. They were beautiful people dressed by professionals and promoted by powerful ad men. They cavorted with other beautiful people, and sex became a sport of who could bag whom. Many stars came from troubled backgrounds and brought emotional baggage with them to a city without morals. This was Clark Gable, certainly, a narcissist by definition because he was an image created by his acting teacher/wife and projected by MGM. Lombard, on the other hand, had bounced westward as a child after her parents’ separation back in Indiana, but she had enjoyed a solid Los Angeles upbringing thanks to her practical, loving mother. Solid, yes; conventional, no. Lombard had grown up a sexual athlete from her teens on and been made wise beyond her years due to a car crash that chopped up her face just shy of her 18th birthday.

The couple that met the press this day 76 years ago had been galvanized by years of couplehood in the glare of the public spotlight. He had been crowned king of Hollywood and she had made some big pictures and now earned more than any other actress in town. Their out-of-wedlock shenanigans had earned scorn in the Bible belt, and the backlash reached the board room at MGM, where Gable was ordered to divorce his wife and make an honest woman of Lombard. Gable didn’t take kindly to orders from anyone about anything, but he had been beaten down from all sides, and so during a day off from production of Gone With the Wind, he sneaked out of town with his girl and got hitched.

Fireball tells the story of the elopement for the first time thanks to an unpublished account by Jill Winkler, whose husband Otto had driven the disguised couple out of Hollywood and clean to Kingman, Arizona, for the ceremony. They didn’t have a proper wedding night, or any sleep at all for that matter. You can see it in their faces in the thousand-and-one photos snapped at the Bel Air press conference. One has to laugh at Lombard’s acting job, playing it demure for the newsreels complete with shy and loving gazes at King Gable.

The press conference on this date proved to be a brilliant move as it established these two, dressed to the nines and appropriately bashful, as the closest thing America had to a royal couple. They wouldn’t enjoy even three years past this date as husband and wife due to the plane crash that removed Carole Lombard from the living in January 1942. As explored in this column recently, the union was in rough waters and possibly heading for the rocks by the end of their second year as an official couple, but her tragic passing erased any trace of negativity and pressed these two into America’s book of memories as one of the perfect couples of all time.

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

Carole’s mother, known as Tots or Petey, stands with the happy couple at the Bel Air press event. Less than three years later she would ride into history with her daughter aboard TWA Flight 3.0

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.

Riding the Wave

This past Tuesday I did a local Fireball lecture/book signing on Pittsburgh’s North Side and then introduced a showing of the 1936 screwball comedy My Man Godfrey with William Powell and Carole Lombard. It’s been a while since I visited 1011 Fifth Ave. and Tuesday marked the first time I’ve ever seen Godfrey in a public setting.

Pittsburgh is the home of William Powell, or to be precise, William Powell hails from Allegheny City, which was once Pittsburgh’s sister city before being gobbled up via hostile takeover in 1908. But that’s another story. And my ancestors hail from Allegheny City after coming off the boat from Germany in 1844, but that’s yet a third story. For now let’s stick to the fact that Powell met the world as a bouncing baby boy in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, and spent his childhood there and some of his best pictures are being shown publicly in a series running two months in a church on the very streets he once walked. I was invited to introduce My Man Godfrey because of Fireball, a book about Carole Lombard that covers her brief and turbulent marriage to Mr. Powell and their close friendship that endured to her death. In fact, the couple had been divorced for more than two years when Universal offered Powell My Man Godfrey, and he said he would take the part only if his ex-wife was offered the co-starring role.

Map of Allegheny City, home of actor William Powell and site of a showing of Carole Lombard's My Man Godfrey.

Allegheny City was once Pittsburgh’s elegant sister. The showing took place roughly at the T in City.

The pro-Powell crowd was into My Man Godfrey, which is a loud, sometimes frenetically paced picture. In a nutshell, the zany Bullock family of Fifth Avenue, New York City, has way more dollars than sense and lives extravagantly, frivolously, and foolishly among Big Apple’s elite. On a whim daughter Irene rescues a “forgotten man” named Godfrey off the city dump and gives him a job as their butler not knowing he is a Bostonian from old money who had fled a bad relationship by deciding to live among honest bums by the East River. Or maybe it’s the Hudson.

Carole Lombard and William Powell in My Man Godfrey.

Carole Lombard and William Powell pose for a My Man Godfrey publicity photo. Both acknowledged that they made excellent friends and terrible spouses.

Familiar character actors populate the sets. Gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette plays the head of the household, a reasonable man who processes things in practical fashion but is no match for his shrill wife Angelica, scheming older daughter Cornelia (Gail Patrick), and capricious younger daughter Irene. Alice Brady plays the wife as if she’s off her Prozac. Brady was a fine actress and stage veteran, but the other night it occurred to me that a little of Angelica goes a long way.

Carole Lombard and other cast members of My Man Godfrey, a motion picture described in Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Mischa Auer as Carlo takes the spotlight in this scene also showing Lombard as Irene, Alice Brady as Angelica, and Gail Patrick as Cornelia.

I was curious about the reaction of my companions, including my friend Eric, who had never seen a Lombard picture, to Carole and her performance. He was quite taken, commenting on the subtlety of her playing and command of the screen even when confined to the background. Lombard would call Irene “the most difficult part I ever played. Because Irene was a complicated and, believe it or not, essentially a tragic person.”

My Man Godfrey is really Powell’s vehicle and he gets most of the attention, with Carole hemmed in by Irene’s pining for Godfrey through half the run time. She’s really part of an ensemble cast that assures Powell his picture will work. These players keep the plot moving along as they toss off classic one liners that stand the test of time. Strength of cast is measured by the sweep of Oscar nominations in all four acting categories—Powell, Lombard, Brady, and Mischa Auer as “Mother’s protégé,” the freeloading concert pianist Carlo. Director Gregory LaCava was also Academy Award-nominated for My Man Godfrey, as were screenwriters Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind.

Scene from My Man Godfrey, which is featured in Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Godfrey is oblivious to the fact that both Irene and Molly the household maid (portrayed by Jean Dixon) are in love with him.

I can only imagine how many William Powell and Carole Lombard fans were born of stumbling into this picture halfway through on the late show or TCM. The household at 1011 Fifth Avenue (which was the name of the novella by Eric Hatch on which the screenplay was based) is a charming and friendly place and if you watch any 30 seconds of this film you’ll be re-upping for 30 more until you’re hooked.

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

Publicity photo of the screwball queen, Carole Lombard.

I’m amazed by the light in people’s eyes when they learn that Fireball is all about Lombard. This actress, gone 72 years now, continues to haunt popular culture to a degree I never expected. If you Google Fireball and Carole Lombard you come up with pages and pages of hits, largely because people are out there responding to the book and chattering afresh about the queen of screwball. I pinch myself frequently that no writer had done a fresh take on her in almost 40 years, and I get the feeling we’ve only scratched the surface of what might be a significant Lombard resurgence ahead.