Carole Lombard: The Glamour Collection Review
If you've read the Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection review from earlier today, you're probably of the opinion that, having written much about her beauty, Dietrich is the woman that I hold up as the epitome of female desirability. Not so. In fact, there are two stars of the screen I hold up even higher than Dietrich. One is Amanda Donohoe - though I admit that her willingness to disrobe may well be a part of this attraction - whilst the other, more attractive even than Donohoe, is Carole Lombard.
Of course, their awareness of their beauty is incomparable. Marlene Dietrich will always make a list of the most attractive actresses and Donohoe has a sexual aggressiveness that is uncommon but, rarely for a screen legend, Lombard's beauty is actually somewhat less important that another skill, that of a comedienne. Her most famous film, as well as her last, the WWII comedy To Be Or Not To Be is, rarely for a film of that age, still considered as one of the very best comedies. A superb film that featured wartime commentary on the horrors then happening under Nazi rule in Poland, To Be Or Not To Be remains a hugely funny film, the best of Lombard's career, a career that's not shamed by the six films in this set.
Born on 6 October 1908 as Jane Alice Peters in Indiana, Lombard first appeared on the screen at the age of twelve as a tomboy playing baseball in the street and, although she would grow up to play much more glamourous parts, that tomboyishness would stay with her. Looking happier in a pair of trousers and sporting a goofy smile than an evening gown and jewellery, Lombard first made it as a contract player in silent movies at Fox before making it into the talkies and to films such as the one that opens this six-film set, Man of the World.
The oldest film in this set, dating from 1931, Man of the World stars William Powell as Michael Trevor, an American in Paris, living off his wits as well as the naivety of others. Someone who has attracted his attentions is Harold Taylor (Guy Kibbee), a rich but foolish man who's easily upset by rumours of his fooling around with younger women. Trevor takes advantage of this and during one particular visit to Taylor to pass on a 'donation' to one of the more scurrilous papers, Trevor meets Taylor's beautiful niece, Mary Kendall (Carole Lombard). That night, he runs into her again, this time in the company of her fiancé Frank Reynolds (Lawrence Gray) and accompanies them to a little restaurant, where Trevor looks to show them something of the real Paris. As Reynolds leaves his fianceé alone in favour of a business assignment, Trevor looks to take advantage of this lonely American in Paris but whilst he was calculating how much Kendall was worth, he didn't take falling in love with her into account, something that his mistress (Wynne Gibson) isn't prepared to let him away with.
An inconsequential little film, in which Lombard's part barely qualifies as that of a leading lady, Man of the World is probably only notable for her co-starring with William Powell, whom she would later marry. Indeed, as the actresses fare, it's Wynne Gibson who brings most to the film with Lombard bringing little romance, style or even comedy to the part of Mary Kendall. Things get much better with We're Not Dressing, which stars Lombard as Doris Worthington, an icily wealthy owner of a yacht on which the easily-distracted crew, led by Stephen Jones (Bing Crosby) would rather sing, dance and partake in a little comedy wrestling with their pet bear than actually work the ship. Somehow they manage to stand idly by as the drunken Uncle Hubert (Leon Errol) mans the controls and, lost in the fog, crashes it into a reef. As the ship sinks and the crew abandon it, Doris lies unconscious after being struck by a piece of rigging.
Of course, all of that happens in the first twenty minutes or so, which feel unnecessarily long thanks to Bing breaking into song at every opportunity, meaning that We're Not Dressing is not going to end with its star drowning in a sinking ship. As the action moves to a nearby tropical island, the film becomes an upstairs/downstairs kind of tale as the rich but useless society dames get taught a lesson in work by the handy sailor Jones. As he takes himself off to a camp on his own, Dudley, Doris and two equally hapless suitors see their shelter collapse, their fire go unlit and their larder remain bare. As Doris and her society friends learn something about humility, there's the distraction of a pair of oddball anthropologists on the far side of the island, played by George Burns and Gracie Allen. As Doris bumps into them, she uses their gift of a box of tools to impress Jones and as the moon rises, she and the sailor have a romantic evening together but her society friends aren't quite so settled in their little paradise.
Somehow overcoming all of its problems - Lombard plays a spikily difficult woman, Crosby barely lets five minutes pass without a song - We're Not Dressing is a more enjoyable film than my description of it might suggest. Lombard could, for example, not made a great deal of her part but in spite of her coolness towards the crew and barely tolerating her friends, she brings a great deal of warmth to a character who could have been earned little sympathy from an audience hoping for a featherlight romance. If there's a problem with the film, it's that there's far, far too many songs - you'll wish for Crosby to shut up and put the bear down for a minute or two just to allow the story to move ahead - whilst it's too slight a story for the screen. Indeed, were it not for the songs and George and Gracie's schtick, We're Not Dressing would barely last more than forty minutes, leaving Lombard needing another film or two before her status as a star was assured.
The last film on the first disc is Hands Across the Table, which sees Lombard step out of the shadows of her male co-stars to take the lead in a film. She's cast as Regi Allen, a self-confessed chiseler who takes a job in an upmarket barbershop as a manicurist in the hope of bagging herself a rich husband. Within a short time, she meets two men - Allen Macklyn (Ralph Bellamy), a one-time pilot who's now in a wheelchair, and Theodore 'Ted' Drew (Fred MacMurray), a somewhat eccentric man who, though born of a wealthy family, is now almost penniless. Of course, that particular fact doesn't come out until the two find themselves in something of a relationship, one in which they share a flat - she in the bed, he on a lumpy sofa in the living room. As they get to know one another better, they find there's a particular irony to their friendship - he's utterly broke and hiding out from his engagement to a rich debutante (Vivian Snowden, played by Astrid Allwyn) whilst she's much more keen on hooking a wealthy man than a pauper like Ted but love doesn't have a habit of working out as we'd like it to.
Hands Across the Table did wonders for Lombard's career and even watching it now, it's not at all surprising that it did. She's an utterly charming presence throughout, beautiful but never particularly conscious of it, preferring to play it down in the rather ordinary clothing of a manicurist. Similarly, Fred McMurray, though born into a rich family, reveals himself to be penniless and the two misfits, made so by their obsessions over money, hide out in Lombard's apartment and gently fall in love. There's little that's unexpected in the film, save for Ralph Bellamy's handicapped pilot who provides a small amount of rivalry to McMurray but that's not really the point of Hands Across The Table. More that the enjoyment of the film is in the sparky, competitive relationship between its two stars with McMurray and Lombard working off one another, each line complementing the efforts of the other. But it's so clearly the moment that, of the films so far, Lombard makes the film work towards her own strengths with her Regi being, for a screwball comedy, as well drawn as she would be were this a drama.
On to the second disc in this set and with Lombard now having established herself as the star of the movie, the three films that follow all see her take advantage of this. Love Before Breakfast, although as flimsy a tale as We're Not Dressing, is made by Lombard's portrayal of a wealthy but emotionally flighty New Yorker whose love life is turned upside down by the machinations of rich mogul Scott Miller (Preston Foster). As the film opens, Lombard's Kay Colby is engaged to Bill Wadsworth (Cesar Romero) is disappointed to hear that his first posting in his new job at Amalgamated Oil is in Japan, then a long boat ride away. Dockside, she's comforted by Miller and is even taken out for a supper of a turkey sandwich by him but he soon confesses his meddling in her affairs - as a significant shareholder in Amalgamated, it was he who had Wadsworth sent abroad, principally to separate him from his fianceé. But Colby is not a woman to be so trifled with and with every button that Miller pushes, so Colby pushes back. At only seventy minutes but with a great deal of two-handed scenes between Lombard and Foster, Love Before Breakfast is a sweet film but a very light one, Lombard making it what it is but missing the chemistry that she had with Fred McMurray.
All the better then that McMurray is back for the two final films in the set - The Princess Comes Across and True Confessions. The first of these two - the oddest film in the set - sees Lombard star as the beautiful Princess Olga, who is sailing on board the cruise ship Mammoth en route to New York. As her boarding the ship is the cue to be met by the captain and to be handed the keys to the royal suite, it is also the start of being greeted as a Swedish princess ought to be...but Olga isn't a princess or even called Olga. Actually, she's Brooklyn girl Wanda Nash, who, along with her drama coach (Alison Skipworth), is posing as a princess as a publicity stunt to break into the movies. But such deception is fraught with danger and although Wanda/Olga is distraught when she's blackmailed by a New York talent agent who's also travelling on the Mammoth (Darcy, played by Porter Hall), it gets worse when he turns up dead in Wanda's stateroom.
First flagging itself as a romantic comedy - once again, the romance can be found in the gentle verbal sparring between Lombard and McMurray's bandleader, King Mantell - but come the death of Darcy, The Princess Comes Across wanders into the territory best described as a murder mystery. With five prominent detectives on board, the film's attentions turn to an escaped mass murderer who has escaped from prison and is thought to be hiding on the Mammoth but soon one of them is also murdered and Wanda/Olga and Mantell are the prime suspects. Suspecting that Princess Olga may not be who she says she is, he nonetheless sets out to clear her name, finding that despite not knowing who she really is, it's not enough to stop them falling in love.
A breezy comedy/mystery, The Princess Comes Across as one that was probably as much fun to make as it is to watch. With Lombard playing at Garbo and McMurray either fooling with his leading lady or skulking about in the fog of the Atlantic, the film is pitched perfectly between delivering gags and fresh corpses, even, as a stable of thirties comedies, a song. Like all of the best period murder mysteries, such as those of Agatha Christie, it has a clear sense of location, something that the characters are locked into. Where Evil Under The Sun and Murder On The Orient Express were set in the isolated hotel at Burgh Island and on the titular train, The Princess Comes Across has its cruise ship, sailing slowly across the Atlantic, allowing its mystery to unfold. Of course, this also gives the film ample time to develop its romantic plotting and McMurray and Lombard work off each other as well here as they did in Hands Across The Table, her Swedish accent faltering in the moments they're together, eventually asking of its star if she can maintain that accent on her long-awaited arrival in New York.
The last film in the set is equally concerned with a murder but one that's played for laughs rather than for suspense. True Confessions again stars Carole Lombard and Fred McMurray as Helen and Kenneth Bartlett, secretary and lawyer, one a compulsive liar whilst the other refuses to even consider taking a case if he suspects his client to be lying to him. Helpfully, Lombard lets us know her character's intentions - as to be truthful or not - by placing her tongue firmly in her cheek - but that doesn't save her when she runs out on Otto Krayler (John T. Murray), who later turns up dead. Thinking this might be a way to help her husband by having him successfully acquit her, the innocent Helen pleads guilty to killing Krayler but Charley (John Barrymore), an odd character who hangs around the courtroom, stops things from going as Helen had planned.
Released in 1937, Lombard went on to find greater success with Hitchcock's Mr And Mrs Smith - a romantic comedy, it bears no relation to the recent Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie movie. With her marriage to Clark Gable confirming her place in the upper echelons of Hollywood society, her future looked secure. Early in 1942, though, Lombard boarded a plane to return home from a war bond rally but soon after refueling in Las Vegas, she and twenty-two other passengers died when it crashed into a mountainside. With America not having been long involved in the war, Franklin D. Roosevelt posthumously awarded Lombard the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Released after her death, To Be Or Not To Be is the perfect film to remember her by - funny, charming and beautiful, Lombard was only beginning to fulfil her potential onscreen by the time of her death. She died far too young.
Much like the Dietrich set, this Carole Lombard Glamour Collection begins soft but sharpens up as the films pass. Therefore, Man of the World and We're Not Dressing are rather fuzzy but The Princess Comes Across and True Confessions, though made only five and six years after the first film in the set, look much better. With good levels of contrast and little noise in the image - at least not much that's visible beyond the grain - this is a good-looking collection of films. Speaking of which, as with the Dietrich set, there's plenty of grain but as I mentioned on both it and The Busby Berkeley Collection, films of that age don't seem complete without it.
Each film has been presented in 2.0 Mono and although there's some background noise, which you may or may not object to, these sound warm and nicely of their time. Finally, all five films come with English SDH (Subtitled for the Deaf and Hard of hearing), Spanish and French subtitles.
As with the Dietrich set, this uses DVD18s from Universal and it has been reported on The DVD Forums that some players are experiencing problems with them. It does seem, though, to be player dependent as I have tested these on a few machines and found them, where I've found problems with other R1 Universal DVD18 releases, alright. Be warned, though.
Where the Marlene Dietrich set had two trailers, this only has one for We're Not Dressing (2m42s).
Again, as with the Dietrich set, the lack of extras could be seen to be a problem with these Glamour Collection releases but writing as someone who's yet to listen to a single commentary from the Lord of the Rings Extended Editions, life can be too short for extras some of time. Instead, I've thoroughly enjoyed the six films in this set, some more than others I admit, but when Lombard has been on form, she's been a joy. Maybe never as wicked or as lusty as Dietrich but certainly funnier, these films make for great entertainment - well worth for the six films at the price that DVD Pacific are asking.