See Why Carole Lombard Still Remains One Of Classic Hollywood’s Greatest Stars, 74 Years After Her Untimely Death

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January 15, 2016 — It was one of the great tragedies that came out of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Actress Carole Lombard died at age 33 in a plane crash while returning from a World War II fund-raising drive.

Carole Lombard was many things — one of the screen’s beauties, she was a natural-born comedian with a real talent for screwball zaniness; the highest paid star in Hollywood for several years during the 1930s, she was adored by the public, the studio bosses and her co-stars; the third wife of Clark Gable — although he would marry five times, she was the one he chose to be buried with. She is on The American Film Institute’s list of greatest female stars (#23).

She was also known to have one of the foulest-mouths in Hollywood.

She was one of the only great stars whom nobody seemed to dislike. She was married at age 23 to William Powell (The Thin Man, The Kennel Murder Case, Life with Father), the top star at Paramount Pictures; they would divorce two years later but remain great friends until her death. 

A tomboy growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, (born 1908), she got her first film acting role at the age of 13 and by the age of 16 she was given her first studio contract. But it wasn’t until she started working for the Mack Sennett Studios at the age of 19 that she began to enjoy and understand the work that would become her career. Her work in Sennett’s trademark slapstick films would give her a grounding in comedies. By 1930 she was given a contract at Paramount Pictures — and she never looked back.

Within the year she would be married to Powell, a star in her own right and both a media and critical darling. But it wasn’t until 1934, after her divorce from Powell, that she became a major star. She made 6 pictures that year, but it was Twentieth Century, opposite John Barrymore, in which audiences first saw her as a true screwball comedian. 

In 1936, William Powell insisted she be cast as the heiress Irene in My Man Godfrey, one of the most beloved screwball comedies of all time. They would both receive an Academy Award nominations for their roles (both would lose — he to Paul Muni for The Story of Louis Pasteur, she to Luise Rainer for her role in The Great Ziegfeld, another William Powell starrer). She would follow it up with Nothing Sacred in 1937, another screwball classic. By 1937 she was the highest paid star in Hollywood. 

By mid-1936, she was also the girlfriend of Clark Gable, the “King of Hollywood.” They would not marry until 1939. Gable was already married, although separated from his second wife, Maria Langham, when they fell in love. Knowing how badly he wanted to marry Lombard, Langham held out to increase his willingness to grant her the huge settlement 0f $500,000 (worth approximately $8,386,142 today). 

After her marriage, Lombard cut down the number of films she would make each year. But in 1939 she made two pictures with director James Cromwell (The Prisoner of Zenda, Of Human Bondage) — Made for Each Other with James Stewart and In Name Only with Cary Grant.

In 1941, World War II made audiences hunger for comedies to distract them from the horrible news from abroad. That year she would make two very popular ones: Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the only comedy Alfred Hitchcock ever directed, and the classic comedy To Be or Not to Be, a satire about Hitler and Nazism, which co-starred Jack Benny.

By the time To Be or Not to Be hit the theaters, Lombard had died. She was traveling back from a war bond rally (during which she had raised more than $2 million in a single night). Her mother and the other people traveling with her wanted to take a train; she wanted to fly back to be with Gable. The party flipped a coin and Lombard won. The plane would crash into Double Up Peak near Potosi Mountain. 22 people were killed, including Lombard, her mother and agent, and 15 servicemen.

Gable was devastated by her death. He would lose 20 pounds and friends were worried about his health. In August of that year, he joined the United States Army Air Forces on special assignment, something Lombard had asked him to do. Many people felt he never recovered from the grief.

FilmRise presents a trio of her greatest films (My Man GodfreyNothing Sacred, Made for Each Otherand remembers why Lombard, dead at 33, is still remembered as one of Hollywood’s brightest stars.
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