LOMBARD, CAROLE (Jane Alice Peters) (1908–1942) Actress

A master of the screwball comedy, Carole Lombard was born Jane Alice Peters on October 6, 1908. Her prosperous family lived in Fort Wayne, Indiana, until 1914, when her parents separated. Jane’s mother then moved with her and her two older brothers to Los Angeles.

 Always a tomboy, Jane at 12 was spotted playing baseball on the street by director Allan Dwan. He subsequently cast the girl in her first film, A Perfect Crime (1921). Though Jane was eager to become a professional actress, her career did not take off until another chance meeting occurred four years later. Now a slender beauty, Jane caught the attention of a Fox studio executive while dancing at a Hollywood nightclub. When the studio signed her to a contract, she opted to change her name to Carole Lombard, taking the surname of a family friend. After several screen appearances, Lombard was in a car accident that plunged a shard of glass in her cheek. She underwent several plastic surgeries, but was still left with a small, yet noticeable scar. Determined, nevertheless, to continue her career, she gave herself a thorough education on movie lighting and camera angles to ensure that she would be photographed fiawlessly. After making several comedies for producer director Mack Sennett, Lombard signed a contract with Paramount in 1930. There, she made two films with William Powell, whom she married in 1931. Although the couple divorced two years later, they remained friends. In 1934, Lombard appeared in  Twentieth Century, the film that made her a star. Playing a former shopgirl turned movie star, she keenly displayed her precise comic timing and unparalleled talent for combining glamour and pratfalls.

 She owed her next great film role to her ex-husband, who recommended her for the female lead in My Man Godfrey (1936). The pinnacle of both Lombard’s and Powell’s careers, the film is perhaps the greatest example of a screwball comedy, a genre in which Lombard excelled. Popular throughout the 1930s, screwball comedies combined physical humor with fast-paced, sophisticated dialogue and often lampooned the manners of the rich. Among Lombard’s other noteworthy contributions to the genre were William Wellman’s  Nothing Sacred (1937) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941). At the height of her success, Lombard in 1939 married actor Clark Gable during a break in the filming of Gone With the Wind. The couple had one of the most publicized romances in movie history. Though they had acted together in No Man of Her Own in 1932, Lombard and Gable did not fall in love until 1936, when they met again at a party.

Widely considered a “man’s man,” Gable was attracted to Lombard’s rare combination of earthiness and elegance, characteristics that also endeared her to both the actors and crew members she worked with. After her marriage, Lombard cut back on her work schedule in order to spend more time with her husband. They moved to a ranch in Encino, California, where Lombard eagerly took up Gable’s favorite pastimes, including hunting and fishing. Soon after the United States entered World War II, Lombard finished work on To Be or Not to Be (1942), Ernst Lubitsch’s black comedy that pitted a Polish acting troupe against the Nazis. Lombard demonstrated her own commitment to an Allied victory by embarking on a tour to sell war bonds. After an appearance in Indianapolis, she boarded a plane headed home. On January 16, 1942, as the plane approached Las Vegas, it crashed into a mountain, killing everyone on board instantly. Her sudden death stunned Hollywood and devastated her grieving husband. Although Gable remarried twice, he was buried next to Lombard following his own death in 1960.

Further Reading
Maltin, Leonard.  Carole Lombard. New York: Pyramid,1976.
Matzen, Robert D.  Carole Lombard: A Bio-Bibliography.New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Swindell, Larry. Screwball: The Life of Carole Lombard. New York: William Morrow, 1975.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
My Man Godfrey (1936). Madacy Entertainment, DVD, 1998.
To Be or Not To Be (1942). Warner Home Video, VHS, 1996.
Twentieth Century (1934). Columbia/Tristar, VHS, 1991.