Here begins my first look at one of William Powell’s lost pictures, Outcast, released in December 1922. This was Bill’s third movie, billed seventh. As you can see below all that’s left of this movie are lobby cards and reviews from newspaper, trade and fan magazines. It’s such a shame as it sounds an intriguing drama with an intriguing love triangle at its centre. The plot revolves around Geoffrey and Valentine, who were in a relationship until Valentine jilted poor Geoffrey for a rich husband. In the meantime, Miriam, played by Elsie Ferguson, is living in extreme poverty. Miriam happens to be passing Geoffrey’s apartment when one of his friends accidentally squirts her with a soda siphon! Needless to say, Miriam falls in love with Geoffrey, who becomes torn between Miriam and Valentine. Now given the circumstances I feel happy to insert a shameless plot spoiler, and in the finish up Geoffrey follows a heartbroken Miriam to Rio where they are married.
By this time Elsie Ferguson was reaching the end of her motion picture career and the four picture contract she had with Paramount. Elsie was an enormous star on the Broadway stage, celebrated for her ethereal beauty, and although she made 25 films in total, theatre was her abiding passion. Her level of superstardom ensured a remuneration of $9,000 a week, generous even today! As such, Elsie could therefore be choosy about the projects she worked on. Her last silent feature was An Unknown Lover in 1925 and she made one talking picture, Scarlet Pages, in 1930, retiring completely from stage and screen that same year. Her success had enabled a Riviera lifestyle and she was able to split her time equally between the South of France and the United States.
Today is Ronald Colman’s 125th birthday! And to celebrate this milestone achievement I wanted to take a look at the gentleman who was one of William Powell’s closest friends.
Ronald was born in Richmond, Surrey on this day in 1891, the son of a silk merchant. He was one of seven siblings, one of whom, Eric Colman, became chief announcer at the radio station 2GB in Sydney. Eric recounted to the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1940,
“Ronald is slightly younger than I am…but we both went to the same school together. In those days he was always reading, and the family intended that his career should be the Church. But he had even then a passion for acting, and fortunately our school at Littlehampton encouraged amateur theatricals, particularly performances of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. We both took part, and I can remember Ronald giving a fine baritone performance of the Pirate King in “The Pirates of Penzance.”
So an affluent family in an affluent town who could afford a good education for their children. Ronald was planning to study engineering at Cambridge, but then his father, Charles Colman, died. This meant that Ronald’s education was curtailed and he went to work as a shipping clerk in London while continuing amateur dramatics in his spare time.
With the outbreak of war in 1914, Ronald Colman signed on for the London Scottish regiment –
I’m not going to outline his war service in detail here, instead I recommend you read this exceptionally moving post by Sister Celluloid. Suffice to say from that post I am borrowing this quote:
“The war suddenly swooped down on us like a martial bird and bore us off. There was no time for goodbyes, either to family or sweethearts, movies and fiction to the contrary. We embarked from Folkestone. I remember sitting in that train with my battalion on a siding, waiting to go. I could see from my car window the familiar streets I had walked so many times, houses of people I knew. I felt as a dead man might feel, revisiting, himself unseen, old haunts he had known well but which knew him no longer. I knew that I would come back but not as I was then. Because I didn’t come back. I won’t go into the war and all that it did to all of us. We went out. Strangers came back. It was the war that made an actor out of me. When I came back that was all I was good for: acting. I wasn’t my own man anymore.”
After the Armistice both Colman brothers started appearing in stage productions in London. And in the meantime they visited a producer of motion pictures in Wardour Street, at the time London’s cinema alley. The producer sent the brothers away saying somewhat apologetically that the Colmans ‘weren’t the screen type’. Eventually in 1919 and 1920 Ronald did make three pictures for Cecil Hepworth’s company, but with little success. The Hepworth company was ailing considerably at this point, along with most of the British film industry, under the onslaught from Hollywood (this would lead to the Cinematograph Films Act 1927, placing a duty on British cinemas to show a quota of British made films, the cult ‘quota quickies’).
By 1920 Eric and Ronald, not getting anywhere fast, decided to see what the world had to offer, Eric going to Australia and Ronald accepting opportunities to tour in stage productions in New York. Ronald arrived in America on his arse, but after much perseverance was appearing and touring in successful theatre productions. In 1923 this led to his casting in the movie ‘The White Sister’ opposite Lillian Gish, and the success of this picture was to change his life, leading to a contract with Samuel Goldwyn in 1924, which lasted a decade and produced 18 films, although their relationship was fractious.
Romola, the 1924 film that Ronald also made with Lillian Gish, was the production that truly gave William Powell major recognition in Hollywood. It also led to an enduring friendship. On a personal level, both men had similar personalities, very quiet, shy and with a tendency towards melancholia. Allied to this they both had complex personal circumstances – the post ‘Bill and Carole: Post Divorce BFFs‘, describes Bill and Ronnie’s reputation as notorious bachelors in Hollywood but their situations were complicated. Bill and his first wife, Eileen Wilson, had separated amicably, but as William Powell Jr noted, Bill and Eileen met coincidentally in Venice during the filming of Romola, the result of this meeting being William Powell Jr! However, Bill and Eileen separated again not long after their son’s birth.
For Ronald Colman, his situation was far more distressing, as in 1920, a month before he left the UK for America, he had married the actress Thelma Raye in haste, a union Colman quickly and bitterly regretted. Thelma became furiously jealous of her husband’s success and initiated a campaign of stalking and emotional intimidation that lasted throughout the 1920s. The already quiet and diffident man became withdrawn to the point of reclusiveness and would guard his privacy strictly for the rest of his life. Liaisons with girls were left for Bill Powell to arrange with the utmost discretion, and there certainly weren’t going to be any further emotional entanglements as far as Ronnie was concerned.
During the silent era Colman was able to avoid typecasting, playing roles in pictures as diverse as westerns, romantic comedies, melodramas and adventures, as obviously the cinema going public hadn’t heard that famous velvet voice yet. Ronald had more than enough good looks and charisma to ensure his popularity as a Hollywood film star remained constant throughout the 1920s.
Ronald further consolidated his position as a major movie actor through his teaming with the new Hungarian sensation Vilma Banky. They were paired for five pictures in total, starting with The Winning of Barbara Worth in 1926 and these films exploited their natural and assured chemistry. Ronald Colman was now set up for his greatest triumph – the dawn of the talking picture.
“Ronald on the screen always annoys me,” laughed Eric Colman in 1933, “because I always realise that he is just going on before the public as he always went on at home. He is perfectly natural. It makes me sick to think that he has ten times more in his bank account than I have for the simple reason that he is himself at all times.”
‘Shows you how things go, huh? Another inch, half an inch maybe, a turn of the head and my whole fuckin’ career could’ve been over. There was this nice kid. A rich kid. Harry Cooper. His father owned a bank or something. And he had this sonofabitchin’ Bugatti roadster. And I was out with him one night, and he was showing off his god-damned car. You know how it is with some guys. They think a car is like a part of their body and they want to show you how hot it is. So all of a sudden, wham. And I remember how I thought it was just beautiful, like a fireworks explosion, glass in a terrific pattern, and I passed out…’
So said Carole Lombard to director Garson Kanin in 1941 recounting the horrific car crash that derailed her career in 1925, ending her contract with Fox. You know, it’s quite something to think of all the Canadians who played a part in the shaping of early Hollywood. And we certainly owe a debt of gratitude to Toronto born director Allan Dwan who spotted 12 year old tomboy Jane Peters playing baseball with her friends and decided to cast her in a picture.
As I am currently looking at William Powell’s silent pictures, I also want to delve into the nascent careers of his friends. Although Bill and Carole didn’t meet until 1930, I was curious about this pragmatic step that she took after the car crash to join Mack Sennett’s company. The crash had left some scarring to her face, with obvious implications for her future, but Carole was determined to return to the motion picture business as soon as she could and in whichever way was possible.
Mack Sennett was born Michael Sinnott in Richmond, Quebec, in 1880, although the Sinnott family eventually moved to Northampton, Massachusetts. In his late teens Sennett worked in factories but what he truly yearned for was a theatrical career. Now later on Mack spun this yarn about Sinnott family lawyer Calvin Coolidge (yes that one), writing a letter of recommendation about his young client to Marie Dressler – native of Cobourg, Ontario. Regardless, starting at the Bowery Theatre, New York, Sennett became a chorus boy, eventually moving onto Broadway shows.
In 1908 Mack Sennett got a minor role with the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company thus beginning his long career in motion pictures. Under the tutelage of D W Griffith his expertise in motion picture making progressed to such an extent that during 1908 Sennett moved on from being merely a player to also writing and directing two reel shorts. There was an opportunity for Sennett here as Griffith wasn’t keen on comedy but made comedy shorts anyway due to their immense popularity. And more opportunity for Sennett arose in 1912 when the New York Motion Picture Company needed a comedy studio and thus the Keystone Film Company was born, located in Edendale, California.
Sennett discovered and gave a start to some truly legendary comedians in particular Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle and Mabel Normand. And let’s not forget Gloria Swanson, although Gloria was adamant that she was never a ‘Bathing Beauty’. Mack Sennett started the Bathing Beauties initially to drum up publicity, but found that the antics of this troop of girls increased the popularity of his pictures. This then provided an avenue for Carole’s return to motion pictures in 1927. Certainly after many long months of convalescence to heal the scars caused by the accident Carole Lombard was back on the scene in a big way burning up the Cocoanut Grove’s dance competitions.
However Mack Sennett’s glory days were long behind him, hence the move to Pathé, who were also struggling and in need of some quick wins. The Sennett brand of slapstick tomfoolery was becoming a bit old hat, and the dawn of the talkies would usher in a more verbose style of quick witted humour through the Thirties. Sennett had introduced himself to Carole at the Cocoanut Grove before the car crash and couldn’t have cared less about her scarring. He just needed a nice looking girl who was game for anything. And he was more than happy to proffer useful advice for Carole: “We gotta get some meat on you. Carole, honey, you go right home and eat some bananas, a lot of bananas,” he said. “Just keep on eatin’ ‘em. That’ll fatten you up, especially in the tits.”
Carole was elated to have this opportunity to resume her career and was determined to make full use of it, starting off in small parts and graduating to larger roles in shorts such as ‘Run Girl Run’, ‘The Campus Carmen’ and ‘The Campus Vamp’.
In these comedies Carole tends to play a boy crazy sporty girl, in contrast to Daphne Pollard’s bossy girl, Madalynne Fields as the funny fat girl and Sally Eilers as the good girl.
It’s difficult to know whether the Sennett movies created or merely developed the cheeky side of Carole Lombard’s personality, but in the films Lombard is more recognisable as the Carole Lombard comedy persona we know than in her early Paramount pictures where she sometimes seems nervous and affected. There’s no doubt that she’s literally throwing herself into the parts wholeheartedly – at one point during a pillow fight in ‘The Campus Carmen’ she takes a pillow full on in the kisser leading to an exquisitely executed pratfall off the bed and onto her back leaving just a visible pair of shapely gams!
‘My best tutor was Mack Sennett. He is the old maestro of comedies. Sally Eilers and I were the last of his bathing beauties to get somewhere. Mack Sennett is a wonderful teacher. His knowledge of comedy, of timing, use of pantomime, of sudden changes from comedy to tragedy, from laughter to tears – well he has grasped the psychology of the human mind.’
By 1928 Pathé was in the market for new faces for their talking pictures and after her voice was tested, Carole was ready. The Sennett gamble had paid off.
‘Mack Sennett’s was the school of hard knocks. There I started working up from the bottom. It was the most delightful madhouse imaginable and life was one fall after another. There was a lusty, rowdy spirit of freedom there that I’ve never encountered anywhere else. I recommend it. It exposed the sham of pretension, it exploded the petty hypocrisies of people in high places, it flung pies at false dignity. What’s more, Sennett’s develops the sense of humour, toughens the constitution, nurtures the ambition and teaches you the game as it should be played. Two years there gave me a thorough grounding. I left fully prepared to face the world.’
This piece forms part of the O Canada Blogathon hosted by Ruth at Silver Screenings and Kristina at Speakeasy – pull up a bucket of poutine, a four pack of Oh Henry bars, and a can of Molson Canadian as you relax and read some of the great posts on there.
Carole Lombard: Twentieth Century Star – Michelle Morgan
Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A Historical Overview – Brent E Walker
Not surprisingly I appear to have hit an impasse in my silent movie experience – at this point so many of William Powell’s pictures are either lost, or stored in archives and private collections and therefore not publicly available. This is mostly because he made the majority of his silent pictures with Paramount, the dominant studio of the 1920s. Of the 1,222 silent pictures that Paramount made, only 361 remain, a few of which are incomplete or fragmentary.
The list below outlines those films that are lost or unavailable:
The Bright Shawl (1923) – stored at UCLA
Under the Red Robe (1923) – stored at George Eastman House
Dangerous Money (1924)
Too Many Kisses (1925) – stored at the Library of Congress
My Lady’s Lips (1925) – stored at UCLA
The Beautiful City (1925) – not known
White Mice (1926)
Sea Horses (1926)
Desert Gold (1926)
The Runaway (1926)
Aloma of the South Seas (1926)
The Great Gatsby (1926)
Tin Gods (1926)
New York (1927)
Love’s Greatest Mistake (1927)
Senorita (1927) – private collection
Time to Love (1927) – private collection
Nevada (1927) – stored at the Library of Congress and George Eastman House
She’s A Sheik (1927)
Beau Sabreur (1928)
Partners in Crime (1928) – stored at the Library of Congress
The Drag Net (1928)
The Vanishing Pioneers (1928)
Forgotten Faces (1928) – stored at the Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art
I’ll still take a look at each film consecutively though – mercifully there are fan magazines, film stills and newspaper reviews to give us some context. And I’ve still a fair bit to go at, so over the coming months I’ll be giving you my views on Bill’s existing silent films – most of which you can find in varying degrees of quality on YouTube:
Beau Geste (1926)
Special Delivery (1927)
Paid to Love (1927)
The Last Command (1928)
Feel My Pulse (1928)
The Four Feathers (1929)
But oh! What a scant amount of work remains compared to those lost! I can only exhibit a mixture of sorrow and frustration because in amongst those lost pictures were some monster hits, and some true classics of the genre. There’s a few duds as well, but wouldn’t it have been nice to have the opportunity of forming our own view of them?
The list also highlights just how much William Powell’s career kicked on from 1926 onwards – he was firing out a prodigious amount of work which would have enabled a pretty decent Hollywood lifestyle. Powell’s early years on the stage were marked by a decade or so of struggle, particularly financial, which had led in part to his separation from his first wife, Eileen Wilson. Once in Hollywood, Bill maintained a reputation for being very careful with his money, assisted by his father, an accountant who also managed his affairs. Indeed, Bill eventually moved his parents to Hollywood and the three shared a flat together until Bill’s marriage to Carole Lombard.
Bill’s career was transformed by the talkies and this gave him the power to be more choosy over which pictures he worked on and he reduced his output accordingly. He’d made the hard yards in the silent era and it was time to enjoy the fruits of his labour.
People who know me well will confirm that I’m an inveterate collector. My poor husband despairs. Our loft groans with boxes of bus and train timetables, seaside postcards, beer mats, even sugar packets. So my new found love for William Powell led me down the rabbit warren that is eBay and I was pleasantly surprised to find plenty of old merchandise, reasonably priced to boot.
As it happens, William Powell’s most successful years coincide with the golden age of the cigarette card, roughly the 1920s to 1939 precisely. Why 1939? Well with the start of World War 2 on 1 September 1939, the U.K. needed all the paper and other materials it could get hold of and therefore tobacco manufacturers ceased production of the little cards, which were designed to stiffen paper cigarette packets, they weren’t made from cardboard like today.
So I’ve started the collection with this little beauty, and judging by the pictures outlined on the back, probably dates from 1928, which coincides with the latter part of Bill’s silent era that I’m currently looking at:
Bill certainly looks appropriately villainous and caddish in the picture, and I was pleasantly surprised to see him described as a ‘star’ even before the talking pictures that sealed his fame. But the description at the back contains a small mystery – ‘Nevada’, ‘Senorita’ and ‘Forgetten Faces’ are all pictures I know about, but ‘Raymond Wants To Get Married’? Now that’s not in Bill’s Wikipedia filmography, it’s not mentioned in Roger Bryant’s book and I can’t find any mention of it on the internet! Very strange!
In 1927 Bill made a 5 reel short called ‘Time to Love’ with Raymond Griffith – The Silk Hat Comedian. Now as the plot does revolve around Raymond’s character wanting to marry the Countess Elvire, with hilarious consequences, I am guessing this must be the same movie. Often Hollywood films are renamed for the UK market and vice versa, so perhaps this was the case here.
‘Time to Love’ is in the hands of a private collector, like most of the films on the back of the card – although none are available for viewing, we should be grateful that they even survived at all. Certainly the vast majority of Raymond Griffiths’s work are lost as are most of William Powell’s silent pictures and I’ll be looking into this more closely in the next week or two.
Writing biographies of classic era movie stars is no simple feat – the subject as well as their contemporaries are probably long gone and certainly in the case of William Powell, didn’t leave much information behind about their lives. Powell was a very private and reserved individual who wasn’t interested in pushing himself forward as a celebrity. He gave very few interviews and receded from view almost entirely after his retirement. He also gave a wry chuckle about fellow stars doing the chat show circuit in the 1970s reminiscing about their heyday.
That can leave a writer in a predicament – whether to write a factual manual based entirely on the subject’s professional output, or to try and read between the lines (as well as thousands of fan magazines) and produce a story based on conjecture and opinion. Bit of a thankless task really, because either way the author can end up having their work slated in the reviews section of Amazon.
Roger Bryant’s book falls into the former camp, which many have been critical of. For my purposes though I’ve found the book invaluable as a reference. You’ll notice that I refer to it constantly. What’s particularly useful to me at this moment in time is the amount of additional information regarding Powell’s silent output, especially those films that are lost and it’s good to have those background details, stories and context behind pictures that we’re sadly never going to see. I have to say at this point that because the book is mostly about William Powell’s professional output I haven’t actually read it in great depth – each movie is described at some length which means that there are the inevitable spoilers to films I haven’t seen yet. So I read those sections after I’ve seen a picture and skim over the rest. Clearly, Bryant has researched Powell’s work extensively and it shows. It is a dispassionate guide that doesn’t dwell heavily on Bill’s personal life or try to guess his feelings.
For me the mother lode of all star biographies is Graham McCann’s ‘Cary Grant: A Class Apart’ – another exceptionally reticent individual, who very rarely gave interviews. No Michael Parkinson for him in the 70s! Graham McCann is a Cambridge fellow who’s main areas of study are the interfaces between society and popular culture. He’s particularly well known in the U.K. for producing a number of best selling biographies of superstar comedians, most notably Frankie Howerd, Terry Thomas and Morecambe & Wise, however A Class Apart was his first major work and it is a superlative deconstruction of how Grant transcended Britain’s stifling class system – reinventing himself from terrible poverty in working class Bristol to become the ultimate Hollywood Gentleman.
Roger Bryant’s book is not Bill’s definitive biography, and it makes me wonder whether there are any writers out there prepared to take up what would be a considerable challenge given the constraints I’ve outlined above. However, in line with McCann’s more academic study of Cary Grant’s life, I believe something similar could be achieved. For example, McCann discusses how women are treated in Grant’s films and I think Powell’s films would benefit from a similar discussion along with the concept of the Hollywood Gentleman and how the Powell light comedy persona fits into that. Examinations of the stars’ personal lives are a contested area, not everyone approves of what is after all an intrusion into their privacy, but for someone like William Powell who used his experiences to lead his performance it is still relevant to any study of his life, and his friendships with women, platonic and otherwise, are fascinating. Plenty to go at I’m sure you’ll agree!
I am so excited to be participating in the Carole Lombard Blogathon, the first blogathon I’ve ever taken part in! And my small offering today is going to be about the curious tale of Carole Lombard and William Powell’s relationship and how it evolved through infatuation, marriage, divorce, the best of friends and the heights of professional achievement. I have to issue a warning here – this post is highly illustrated. This is because there are a ridiculous amount of pictures of Bill and Carole looking insanely hot together – I was going to discipline myself to just a couple of favourites but then I thought nah chuck em all in. It would be an injustice not to take this opportunity of including these stunning photos of their friendship!
In 1930 William Powell was 38 and doing quite nicely professionally. Thanks to that fruity voice and training in the legitimate theatre he’d made a smooth transition to talking pictures, and was top man at Paramount. But on a personal level he’d been separated for many years from his wife and was still living with his parents. (Mind you, Bill was also apparently keeping a shag-pad in the name of ‘Mr Thorne’, which was kitted out with an extensive collection of appalling French photographs.) Bill and his friends Ronald Colman, Richard Barthelmess, Ernest Torrance and Warner Baxter were well known in 1920s Hollywood as being a set of disgraceful bachelors, although they were calming down as they hurtled towards their 40s and certainly weren’t on the same booze n birds fuelled level as David Niven and Errol Flynn down at ‘Cirrhosis by the Sea’.
However, when Bill went travelling round Europe with Ronnie and Ernest in 1930 he noted that:
“I was absolutely surrounded by playboys and playgirls of the play world… Everyone around me seemed to be having a most glorious time… yet I was, if possible, even more lonely than I had been at home.”
Carole Lombard was 21, also living with her mum, but completely her own woman. ‘Carole Lombard’ was the professional name she chose in 1925 when she was just 15 as Jane Peters was too dull (“I think that ‘e’ made the whole fuckin’ difference…”)
After her devastating car crash when she was 17, Carole took the pragmatic step of signing up with Mack Sennett as a Bathing Beauty to restart her career.
When Carole ended up at Paramount after Pathé went bust she hadn’t found her ‘voice’ in pictures and was still in the process of cultivating a strong on screen persona.
Man of the World is a potboiler melodrama about a blackmailer who falls in love with one of his marks. The plan was for a professional discussion prior to the start of filming. William Powell was a successful leading man who had no time for dippy young actresses. Carole Lombard was a young independent woman determined to succeed on her own merits and who’s blunt language demonstrated she wasn’t taking shit from anyone. As neither party suffered fools gladly it was thought best they meet beforehand and discuss the requirements for the picture. However!
“The day I met Carole I had the same feeling as a sixteen year old boy on his first date. I was embarrassed and fidgety. I worried over whether or not I was making a good impression on her. It just so happened that immediately after our introduction,which took place at the studio, we were left alone to talk over the picture we were about to do together. But we didn’t talk about the picture. We talked about men and women and things that happened to them and ourselves.”
The talk carried on into a long dinner date and that was that! During the filming of Man of the World they were described as being ‘torridly fascinated with each other’ and their chemistry radiates through the screen, cutting through a fairly tedious picture, with a leaden script, plodding direction and a dull ending.
The fascination continued after the picture wrapped. They had a very similar sense of humour – William Powell was well known for being a wind up merchant and he thought Carole’s filthy jokes and potty mouth were hilarious, so Carole got stuck into some serious banter with her new chap, giving him the nickname ‘Junior’.
In the meantime and in order to capitalise on their romance, Paramount put them together in another picture, ‘Ladies Man’, another potboiler that can be filed under ‘strictly for completists’, although the couple were able to project strong emotions in the film:
Both parties were in hugely different places in their lives though. Carole came crashing into Bill’s neat and tidy existence as a humongous party animal, owning the dance floor at the Cocoanut Grove most weekends, and both were therefore very definite about how they saw life panning out for them. Bill said that Carole was the frankest girl he’d ever met. Carole said that her boyfriend,
“…will strangle me – or at least want to. He likes order and dignity… I can’t live that way. I always do whatever occurs to me at the moment…”
Bill was throwing caution to the wind though, working his smooth patter on Carole to the max, because during their first date he had a revelation:
“Suddenly, in the midst of this talk with the most beautiful girl I had ever known, a thought came to me: Someday I am going to ask this girl to marry me!”
But for that to happen both parties would have to wind their necks in quite substantially – Bill wanted Carole to jack in her career and there was no chance of that and Carole wanted to hit the nightspots and there was no chance of Bill doing that.
“I think I asked Carole to marry me on average of every half hour. At first she was a bit dubious… so many professional marriages fail to work out… I had experienced one failure in matrimony previously, and Carole was just starting out on a career that was tremendously important to her.”
So… they tried to compromise…
Bill and Carole married on 26 June 1931. As far as he was concerned:
“Freedom is one of the great disillusions of the world… I’ve had a great many years of the ‘coveted freedom’… I think I’m getting the most wonderful girl in the world. Freedom? I’d trade every bit of it just for a few hours with Carole.”
And Bill was so nervous he forgot which finger to put the ring on! With that, the Powells went off to Hawaii for two weeks of sun and fun and relaxation, except that it wasn’t because Carole ended up with the flu…
And so the Powells tried to settle into their new life together and their new home – Bill trying his best to make his wife happy by trying to support her career and Carole trying her best to make her husband happy by trying to be the perfect housewife. Carole explained to Garson Kanin years later:
“You know how it is. You always try to get in solid with the son of a bitch by playing him at his game…
“…Now with Philo it was different. Because after all, Philo. It was legitimate. We were married. (Philo was her name for William Powell because he had once played the detective Philo Vance.)
“…With him, it was wife stuff. That’s where I learned how to put a house together, and have everything supplied. And how to take care of his clothes. And what had to be dry cleaned and what not…
“…I mean, I was the best fuckin’ wife you ever saw. I mean a ladylike wife. Because that’s how Philo wanted it.”
Interestingly it was during this time that Carole appeared in ‘No Man Of Her Own’, a film that has become a legend amongst Lombard and Clark Gable fans due to the many ‘hot love scenes’ she shared with Gable – despite the fact that she was still in love with Bill and Gable was married to Ria Langham but actually in love with Elizabeth Allan.
‘No Man Of Her Own’ may have been one of the catalysts for the strengthening of the Production Code due to those same ‘hot love scenes’ – the film attracted the wrath of Father Daniel Lord who asked how William Powell could countenance his wife appearing in ‘filthy movies’ – hilariously, because Bill was at the same time appearing in ‘Lawyer Man’, where he blow jobs a cigar.
After two years of marriage Bill and Carole called it a draw. Although it was done with best intentions their attempts to give the other what they wanted were stifling.
Adela St John Rogers wrote soon after Carole’s death:
“…Carole moved fast and saved much. Once she saw that there were deep and fundamental differences between herself and Bill as husband and wife which would degenerate into quarrels, into ugliness, she didn’t wait for any of the messy cruel things which are called grounds for divorce to happen. She used the surgeon’s knife –- swiftly -– cleanly –- with decision.
“…Weeping as though her heart would break, she put her arms around him and said goodbye to him as a husband. But she saved him as the best friend any woman ever had.”
Carole headed off to Nevada for the proceedings – Bill didn’t contest the petition and Carole didn’t want any money from him. In fact the proceedings contained evidence that this was not going to be your usual unpleasant Hollywood split, such as the pair’s in jokes – for example Carole cites William Powell’s constant ‘use of foul language’ as one reason for the dissolution of the marriage, causing ironic laughter in the courtroom.
“…[Carole] breezed into town from Reno, with the divorce papers in her bag and the loveliest tan…
…’Hello Bill,’ said Carole over her mother’s phone. ‘Baby’s back.’
‘Darling,’ exclaimed Mr Powell, looking right smart in a snappy dressing robe. ‘Darling, I’ve missed you so. Not a good laugh in weeks. Come right on over, I’ll start icing the champagne.'”
Carole spelled it out:
“I admire him as an actor and as a man. I know that we are vital to each other. We have a mental balance founded on respect. We meet on a friendly basis, and when you speak of friendship after marriage, know that it is possible only when there has been no quarrelling. Respect dies with quarrelling and fighting… I think it is fine when two persons who have separated can meet as friends and go out together with no feeling of bitterness.”
“I must like the man, or I wouldn’t have married him in the first place…”
Maybe once released from the dull realities of married life the pair got their mojo back for a bit, who knows? It’s not unusual. Regardless, both eventually moved on to new partners, most notably relationships with Russ Columbo and Jean Harlow.
Carole then went on to marry Clark Gable in 1939 and Bill married Diana Lewis in 1940.
1936 was a professional triumph for William Powell – he appeared in five of the biggest and most critically applauded movies of the year, Libeled Lady, The Great Ziegfeld, After The Thin Man, The Ex Mrs Bradford and arguably the greatest screwball comedy ever made, My Man Godfrey.
William Powell made it clear that he would only participate in the production if Carole Lombard played the part of Irene. Bill saw reversed parallels between how they’d got together with Irene’s hot pursuit of Godfrey and his anointing as Irene’s ‘protegé’.
Certainly I’m not the only one who’s surmised that Powell and Lombard are talking to each other through their characters in this sweetly resonant scene:
Bill’s mentor during his early years on the stage, Leo Ditrichstein, had taught Bill to use his own personal experiences to motivate his performances, advice that he passed on to Carole. Allied to this director Gregory La Cava had the cast improvise the scenes – an outline script was brought to the set everyday and the cast would brainstorm the scene before filming. Bill was apparently nervous about this, but for Carole it was a throwback to her freewheeling Mack Sennett days. And it’s this that makes the dishwashing scene so funny but also poignant – when Godfrey tells Irene he’ll ring her occasionally and they’ll have long chats and lots of fun, apparently that was the basis for Bill and Carole’s post-divorce friendship!
My Man Godfrey is still fresh as a daisy and between the pixies, gorillas and pomeranians still dishes out massive laughs – not bad for a movie that’s 80 years old! When Bill decided to relent and support Carole’s career prior to their marriage, he told her:
“…I want you to be the biggest star in the business. I will help you to be the biggest.”
Whether it was conscious or not, Bill’s lobbying for Carole to get the part lived up to his earlier promise, and then some.
My Man Godfrey is without a doubt the tribute and testament to Bill and Carole’s friendship.
If 1936 was William Powell’s greatest year, 1937 and 1938 were marked by the sort of tragedy where you really do need true friends to get you through.
Carole had suffered the tragic accidental death of her partner Russ Columbo in 1935, but Carole and Clark Gable were completely unprepared for what happened to their dearest friend Jean Harlow.
William Powell was the love of Jean Harlow’s life, but Bill was ambivalent about Jean throughout their relationship, stringing her along for three years without the marriage Jean longed for. After witnessing her awful death from kidney failure at the age of 26, Bill was filled with remorse, but like all true friends Carole dished out the hard truths, saying to her friend Kay Mulvey:
“I shall always consider Bill a friend, but even if I searched my mind from end to end I would not be able to understand why he did what he did to Jean.”
Bill struggled emotionally after Jean Harlow’s death, and Carole comforted him at the funeral. After escaping to Ronnie Colman’s yacht for a while he then collapsed during the filming of Double Wedding and had to take further time off. But then to compound matters, in 1938 Bill was diagnosed with colon cancer and successfully submitted to an early form of radiation therapy.
Carole rushed to support him, joining a very close group of friends who nursed him during his illness and treatment.
On the evening of 16 January 1942 William and Diana Powell were telephoned and informed that Carole was on board a plane which had crashed into mountains near Las Vegas. Bill and Mousie waited up all night for news about their friend. Finally they received confirmation that Carole had died in the disaster.
Her best friend for over 10 years – William Powell was devastated.Carole Lombard was a very loved person – all my source material points to this simple fact, and it’s not the usual gushing Hollywood claptrap. Bill and Carole’s marriage and subsequent friendship was seen as a bit of an oddity not just because of the age gap but also due to differences in personality and temperament. While Bill was in actuality a somewhat shy and reserved individual, prone to episodes of introspection, Carole Lombard was whip smart, funny as hell, kind, considered and considerate, and that’s before we consider what an amazing looking woman she was, so of course William Powell was crazy about her – everybody who was lucky enough to know Carole was crazy about her.
Carole was a highly unique individual who ploughed her own furrow in life, and therefore her ‘stardom’ springs from a much deeper well than just being a glamorous movie star and why for us, her fans, her legend continues to resonate so strongly 75 years after her loss.
This post is part of the Carole Lombard: The Profane Angel Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. All the entries are below – I highly recommend you give them a read:
I’m not going to be in the habit of regularly commemorating deaths, but today is the 75th anniversary of the passing of war hero Carole Lombard – a massive loss to her family and friends but also to entertainment and popular culture. Indeed she was a huge loss to America and the allies generally. If she could raise $2.5 million worth of war bonds in one day, imagine what she would’ve achieved if she’d lived? (According to her Wikipedia entry that’s now worth $34 million in today’s money!)
I bet her spirit gazed with satisfaction in April 1945 when Adolf met his deserved end. I’d also like to think that she was partying with the rest of Europe a few days later on VE Day.
And today is the start of the Carole Lombard Blogathon – my entry, outlining Bill and Carole’s guide to conscious uncoupling, is on its way!
Here are the other entries – give them a whirl, I can’t wait to get stuck into them all: