Mobilizing a heart-shaped face that might have been carved from alabaster were it not quite so elastic, oversized eyes that flicked from wide-open innocence to heavy-lidded allure, and a voice that, though velvety on command, more often gushed forth in a high, tinkling rush, Carole Lombard seemed to play with the properties of celluloid as if they were finger paints. Hers was a full-body talent, an effulgent physicality born of natural frisk and honed as a player in Mack Sennett silents, and it made her an ideal screen comedian. In one of her greatest roles, as burbling blonde heiress Irene Bullock in Gregory La Cava’s 1934 screwball masterpiece My Man Godfrey, Lombard creates a ditz so rare, a creature so otherwordly in her oblivion to what others call reality, that she comes off less as a thing of flesh and blood than as a shimmering cloud of butterflies flying in perfect, girl-shaped formation. My Man Godfrey opens Film Forum’s 12-day centenary tribute to Lombard in grand style, but as these 23 features (and one Sennett short) prove, Lombard provided even the most routine pictures with a sure shot of excitement.
The ’32 romance No Man of Her Own teams Lombard with future husband Clark Gable years before the two fell in love, but while the film—starring Gable as a cardsharp who marries Lombard’s devoted small-towner—is only modestly entertaining, the pair’s sass-and-sex match-up is palpably magnetic. In the grade-A ’39 soaper In Name Only, Lombard turns off the bubble machine and takes a markedly fresh and steady turn as a widowed mother in love with Cary Grant’s married man. Yet, while a film like the 1930 pre-Code comedy Fast and Loose (with Lombard as a true-heart chorus girl) is intriguing for its prototypical Preston Sturges dialogue and though the ’34 Paramount revue We’re Not Dressing is a prime example of the studio’s penchant for kitchen-sink comedies (Ethel Merman! Burns and Allen! A dancing bear! On skates!), it’s the big-ticket items here that pay off most handsomely. They include Nothing Sacred, the ’37 Technicolor treasure directed by tough guy William Wellman and starring Lombard as Hazel Flagg, a Vermont maiden who poses as a victim of radium poisoning in order to score an all-expenses trip to New York. A delirious send-up of bandwagon piety, the film was scripted by that snappiest of Hollywood crank cases, Ben Hecht, and he never got a better, more committed distaff embodiment of his flair for highlighting hooey than Lombard, who throws herself into the role with daffy, tongue-tripping abandon.
The actor reached her peak in 1942 with To Be or Not to Be, Ernst Lubitsch’s beautiful, bittersweet confection about a hapless theater troupe in Nazi-occupied Poland. As an actress married to Jack Benny’s prize Polish ham, Lombard smooths her trademark madcap zest with silky self-possession for what was clearly a personally ground-breaking, next-step role. Killed in a plane crash, at 34, while the film was in post-production, she would never top it—or, for that matter, decline.