“I knew all about that man – where he was born, who his parents were, why he joined the Foreign Legion. I knew he was a degenerate and what the circumstances were which led to that state of affairs. Characters like that lift this business of acting out of the commonplace, mechanical rut and portraying them becomes a real joy.”
Thus William Powell explained how he made his characterisation of Boldini in Beau Geste so realistic and believable, but also provided us with a very thoughtful and humane consideration of how a character can become a flesh and blood human being. As opposed to presenting a mere shadow on the screen, Powell brought to life individuals with a chronology and back story to explain their actions.
For the What A Character blogathon I’m jumping ahead a year to 1926, and to a picture that was designed to showcase Ronald Colman as the ultimate hero, but as was becoming common practice, ended up being another opportunity for William Powell to steal the show with an in-depth study of humankind’s failings.
In Beau Geste, Powell played Boldini, a lickspittle coward, blackguard and cheat who’s only agenda is to preserve his own neck even if it is at the expense of others. I have to confess I watched this film a number of months back and was sorely disappointed. The picture had received pretty much universal acclamation in the contemporary reviews I had read and you can see for yourself in Mordaunt Hall’s piece for the New York Times below, as well as others linked. In addition Beau Geste won the prestigious Photoplay Magazine Medal of Honour for 1926. Swayed by this I was expecting a fast paced movie full of action, but actually found parts of it quite plodding.
However, in preparation for this blogathon I thought I must give the film a second chance and this time round I enjoyed it more fully. I suspect that’s because I’m more acclimatised to silent pictures and have come to realise the importance of place and atmosphere – enjoyment of silent film needs to be an immersive experience, and watching a poor print on YouTube on my morning train commute would inevitably dull my viewing pleasure. Imagine Mordaunt Hall as he describes Beau Geste for the first time – in a New York Picture palace, no doubt all the invited guests in evening dress, with full orchestra to keep the pace of the picture. With these types of elements present Beau Geste must have created a stupendous evening of adventure for the picture goer.
Bearing all this in mind, I sat down for a second viewing and was much more satisfied. Ronald Colman always brings a laconic charm to his roles, with a slight hint of irony, which ensures that his movies don’t become sappy and this is especially the case with Beau Geste. This tale of love, honour and betrayal could be very plodding and worthy, but Colman’s playing style offers a hint of emotional distance that I suspect would be very natural to the Englishman.
However we’re here to discuss William Powell’s contribution to Beau Geste as a character actor and as the Photoplay Magazine reviewer said about Powell and Noah Beery, “…watch these two boys cop the picture.” Powell’s biographer, Roger Bryant is firmly of the view that his characterisations are as authentic as any portrayal from the supposedly ‘naturalistic’ method style of the 1950s and includes Powell’s rendering of Boldini in his conclusion. Thanks to his careful preparation and the seriousness which he brought to his craft, Powell presents Boldini as a man who is perpetually desperate and who’s lack of honour does for him in the end. The ultimate theme of Beau Geste is honour, and Boldini is the antithesis of honour as opposed to Beau Geste, and that cannot be presented two-dimensionally.
This is my entry in this year’s What A Character! Blogathon – do have a look at my compadres’ entries, there’s some wonderful reads about some wonderful actors!
For the Addicted to Screwball Blogathon I am celebrating the career of a truly remarkable lady, who achieved enormous success in silent and talking pictures, movies and radio, in the US and the UK, and in drama as well as comedy, although we’ll be taking a look mostly at Bebe Daniels’ comedic triumphs in this piece. For a kick off, here’s a real treat – Bebe’s appearance on the American version of This Is Your Life, which will tell you all about her life story:
The Boy and The Girl
Bebe was born in 1901 in Dallas, Texas, into a theatrical family, who moved to Los Angeles. Bebe was 7 when she appeared in her first movie, but in 1910 actually starred in her first feature length picture, as Dorothy in the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It’s amazing to consider that William Powell’s future friends and co-stars all got their breaks through the Hollywood magic of short comedies and like Carole Lombard and Jean Harlow, Bebe had come to the attention of Hal Roach. Bebe was cast as the love interest in Harold Lloyd’s Lonesome Luke series, which Roach and Lloyd felt had become somewhat moribund. The Luke character was a reverse of Chaplin’s tramp character insofar as Luke clothes were too tight as opposed to too baggy. Bebe’s mother wasn’t hugely impressed. As far as she was concerned her daughter’s appearances in movies as a child actress were merely a means to an end and certainly weren’t a long term career option. Mrs Daniels had good reason to think this way – actresses in short comedy films were generally just eye candy and fodder for various slapstick goings on and the Luke series was no different to the extent that Lloyd, who continued to tire of the role, described the love scenes as a ‘travesty of the real thing.’
However, Lloyd was developing his now famous ‘glasses’ character, a more human character than Luke. In complete opposition to Luke, this new character was not a loser, but a lovable and realistic young suitor for Bebe’s affections (‘The Boy’). This also allowed development for Bebe’s character (‘The Girl’). Now Bebe could play hard to get, due to an overbearing father for instance, with hilarious consequences.
It seems odd now when you take into account that Bebe was still a teenager when she appeared with Harold Lloyd as her performances became more self assured. Bebe was blessed with a very mobile face and quick, darting eyes which she employed to great comic effect, in fact her natural comedy timing was brought to the fore in these pictures.
“I was fourteen when I went with the Rolin-Pathé comedies to play opposite Harold Lloyd, and I think this was the best possible training during my ‘growing up’ years, for comedy has taught me the values of lights and shade of emotional work that I probably would not have gained had I done only serious dramas. I loved it, too; it was a happy experience, for everyone in the company was so fine, and we were like a big family,” she said in 1919.
Harold and Bebe fell in love during their time together at the Roach studios and became a popular Hollywood couple, entering and often winning the many dance contests to be found at local nightspots. It was at one of these contests at the Sunset Inn in 1917 that Bebe got chatting to Cecil B DeMille who became intrigued with Bebe and saw potential in her. He offered her the opportunity of more dramatic work, which Bebe initially turned down as she still had a year to run on her Roach contract, but sure enough once that had finished she took up DeMille’s offer and was contracted to Paramount for the remainder of the silent era, which is where she came into contact with William Powell. Although Bebe did make dramatic movies, such as Dangerous Money, her natural flair for comedy was still made full use of and in particular, Bebe made a couple of role reversal flicks, Señorita and She’s a Sheik, sending up the current fashion for swashbuckling adventures and desert based melodramas, the joke being that the swashbuckler/sheik character was actually a girl!
Her last movie with William Powell was Feel My Pulse, about a hypochondriac heiress who winds up on an island that she’s due to inherit thinking there’s a sanitarium there, as opposed to Bill Powell’s rum running business. Similar to a lot of her pictures Bebe’s character isn’t merely a weak vessel, as she gets to grips with the fact that she has no control over her life, she kicks off spectacularly and hilariously, ransacking the entire building until all present are sure that this dame isn’t going to be made a patsy of any longer! Oh, and she gets to run off into the sunset with Richard Arlen which is a definite bonus.
Of the 53 silent feature films Bebe made, 39 are lost.
Bebe Daniels and Life with the Lyons
Now although this piece is primarily about Bebe’s silent comedies, it would be remiss of me not to conclude with Bebe’s greatest achievement, in my view, Life with the Lyons. When you think of all those massive BBC radio comedies of the 1950s, such as The Goon Show, Take It From Here, Hancock’s Half Hour and many more, it is truly remarkable that Life with the Lyons is also included in that venerated group of great comedies. Remarkable because the main writer of the show was that American former silent screen idol, Bebe Daniels herself.
Bebe had married Ben Lyon in Hollywood in 1930 and like a lot of Hollywood stars, would come to the UK on theatre and music hall tours. The difference with Bebe and Ben was that they decided to stay here.
By this time they had two children, Barbara and Richard, and they figured a nice house in the countryside would be a perfect setting to bring their kids up. However when war broke out in 1939 they had a tough choice to make. Thus, Barbara and Richard were sent back to Hollywood to live with Bebe’s mother for the duration of the war while Bebe and Ben stayed on in England, which garnered the British public’s respect and gratitude. Indeed Bebe went on to be awarded with the Medal of Freedom by Harry S Truman on account of her work as the only female reporting on the Normandy landings.
During the war Ben Lyon had an idea for a comedy show that would raise the morale of the troops as well as the public, which he took to the BBC’s then Head of Light Entertainment, Pat Hillyard. Hi Gang, also starring the comedian Vic Oliver, would run for 9 years and Life with he Lyons was its sequel – a sitcom about an ordinary Hollywood family who happen to live in London, starring not only Bebe and Ben but Barbara and Richard too! In fact even Barbara’s boyfriend and later husband, Russell Turner, and Richard’s fiancée were roped into making appearances on the show. The Kardashians weren’t the first at this game! Indeed, there was an element of rudimentary augmented and scripted reality in Life with the Lyons as Bebe would use real life occurrences and her family’s idiosyncrasies to comedic effect in the show. Ben was the vain former Hollywood star, having a bit of a mid-life crisis as he reminded anyone who was listening about the time he snogged Jean Harlow in Hells Angels.
Barbara was the teenage drama queen (‘I’ll die, I’ll just DIE!!!’) and Richard the annoying kid brother who would devote an inordinate amount of time to upsetting his big sister.
Bebe would write the show with her co-writers in the cellar at the Lyon’s family home in London, perfecting each script before rehearsal and recording. Bebe’s attention to detail paid off as the show was rewarded with 20 million listeners, and eventually television and film versions.
I should add here as an aside for those of us of a certain age that one of Bebe’s co-writers was Bob Block who would go on to write the children’s sitcom Rentaghost. And the Lyon’s Scottish maid was played by Molly Weir – McWitch in Rentaghost!
Anyway, do have a listen to Life with the Lyons below. A general rule of thumb when listening to BBC radio comedies of the golden age – if the studio audience are laughing before the theme music even starts you know you’re onto a winner!
This is Bebe’s 1956 appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs (well it wasn’t Radio 4 then, it was the BBC Home Service but that’s by the by). Here Bebe talks about her life and her favourite pieces of music should she become a castaway on a deserted island. Note her luxury item is a typewriter! Ben Lyon went on to be surprised by Eamonn Andrews in the U.K. version of This Is Your Life in 1963 and it’s Eamonn’s voice you can hear in that Pathé news clip above.
‘Not Guilty’ screamed the headline in Photoplay Magazine in 1929 – ‘Bill Powell declares he is not a picture stealer’. At this point William Powell had appeared in 33 motion pictures since his debut in Sherlock Holmes in 1922. He’d obviously fancied himself as a leading actor but his journey to that status was going to be a circuitous one – as Bill noted in my post on When Knighthood Was In Flower, ‘It was my ambition to be a screen hero… But I had a wonderful sneer and a leer which registered perfectly. So I became a villain.’ A villain so charismatic that, as Photoplay Magazine noted, he had a tendency to be the only person on the screen that you would want to look at.
After freelancing around, in 1925 the Los Angeles Times announced that Jesse Lasky had signed William Powell to an exclusive contract with Paramount Pictures, ‘I consider Mr Powell one of the foremost artists in motion pictures and he is a most welcome addition to the ranks of our character players… He will be featured in a number of our most ambitious productions, plans for which are under way.’ And this is where Bill’s villainous career really started to kick on.
So imagine this scene: Bebe Daniels is cowering on a double bed edging away from the attentions of William Powell who is coming ever closer, chattering away manically. This scene, where Powell’s character threatens rape is from the 1926 comedy Feel My Pulse (which can be viewed on YouTube) and is incredibly unsettling!
It was then that I realised how complete an actor Powell was, because he is so sinister in that scene that it threw out all my preconceptions about my lovely gorgeous William Powell, the charming light comedian of the screwball era. Ugh! What a scumbag!
You can split William Powell’s villain roles into a couple of recognisable tropes, which I have outlined below:
The Shady Foreigner
As seen in When Knighthood Was In Flower, The Bright Shawl, Under the Red Robe, Dangerous Money, Too Many Kisses, The Beautiful City, Sea Horses, Beau Geste, She’s a Sheik
The name ‘William Powell’ on its own is a bit generically Anglo-Saxon don’t you think? It doesn’t denote ‘film star’. I mean any old joe can be called ‘William Powell’ really. But William Powell’s looks belied his rather ordinary name, as he was the owner of a rather exotic looking face. This face, in the silent era, enabled him to play what would be considered ‘ethnic’ roles in those unenlightened times. Ronald Colman, on account of his brunette appearance, would also be cast occasionally as Italians, but William Powell began to specialise in a type of sinister criminally minded foreigner, often one who’s sniffing around the film’s heroine in a vaguely threatening manner. A slight change to that character was Boldini, the coward from Beau Geste. Boldini isn’t in the business of chasing women, more after saving his own skin at the expense of his compadres.
These types of roles have always been a well known device in Hollywood that we can all recognise, playing into and exploiting the public’s fears of the unknown. Very relatable today in my view.
The Smarmy Git
As seen in When Knighthood was in Flower, Special Delivery, Beau Geste, Aloma of the South Seas, Time to Love, Paid to Love
This type of role was also often engaged in the pursuit of the film’s heroine, but instead of merely using threatening behaviour, would turn on a type of slimy, oleaginous charm. These characters would often be smart talking, super rich smoothies used to getting their own way, until either the hero or heroine would give them a metaphorical kick in the nuts. Bill would play this type of bounder with moustache smoothed and eyebrow raised, most famously in Paid to Love where Prince Eric peels a banana while Virginia Valli undresses behind a screen, the dirty devil!
Other Assorted Slimes
For Bill’s other silent pictures there’s a mixture of cowards, gangsters and hoods, but also a smattering Western villains. Naturally the common theme that links all these characters is that they get a very satisfying comeuppance in the end, but the Powell charm ensured that even if he made an early exit it was his part that would stick in your mind.
“Bill, I’ve always been curious; how do you feel when you’re about to commit a murder?” asked Ricardo Cortez in 1927.
“Right now, I’m feeling pretty punk. I was just thinking that if I had gotten up ten minutes earlier, I’d have had time to eat some cereal. If there’s anything I hate to do, it’s commit a murder before breakfast.”
This post is part of the Great Villains Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy, Silver Screenings and Shadows & Satin. Check these evils demons out!
‘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
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: