[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]
His cowlick is artfully combed and he has the verbal and behavioral tics down pretty good, but there’s so much concentration in the way he sucks his cheeks and pushes his lips out that you begin to think he’s a dental patient waiting for a negligent technician to come back and retrieve the X-ray pads. She doesn’t recall any particular Hollywood blonde of the Thirties, but then again she does manifest some signs of independent life and personality, which can’t be said for his Disneyland robot, however mechanically perfect. It seems pointless to award merits and demerits to Brolin and Clayburgh for not being Gable and Lombard, because only Gable and Lombard were Gable and Lombard, and you can make an honorable try at reconstituting Julius Caesar, Richard the Lion-Hearted, Leonardo da Vinci, Anne Boleyn, Betsy Ross, Emile Zola, Charles Steinmetz, and even Jeanne Eagels or George M. Cohan, but you can’t fake someone whose silver-screen reality is more definitively established than any “real-life” reality ever could be—the medium simply won’t permit it, and God bless the medium! Neither does it make much sense to pretend to tell the story of two entirely made-up creatures whose names just happen to be Gable and Lombard, except maybe in a surrealistic novel—although you can ring in a supporting character, mythical rather than personal, and exploit him as symbol or icon (v. Jerry Lacy’s “Bogart” in Play It Again, Sam—but don’t let him get too close to the actual clips from Casablanca).
The particular fictional characters featured in Gable and Lombard are monumentally uninteresting, their lives laid out in formulae that are repeated from time to time so that we can learn it by rote and hence “understand” them: He’s handsome, obsessed with manliness, but fearful of not being man enough to hold up his end of a marriage contract. She’s gorgeous, compulsively witty and profane, desperate to find someone to whom to say “I love you.” The cross they bear: being two public figures who fall in love but dasn’t love openly because he can’t get a divorce and the scandal would wreck two careers. The script works hard to establish and enforce that situation while at the same time letting the film industry and the film audience off the hook for it. Louis B. Mayer (Allen Garfield) manipulates his stars but nevertheless really is the fatherly figure he keeps saying he is, and cares deeply about their future as human beings and as stars; there are pressure groups out there who award plaques for making moral movies and mount letterwriting campaigns to protest (accidental) instances of earthiness wherever glimpsed on preview screens, but the real public knows two people in love when it sees them, and applauds their forthrightness in admitting they’ve been shacking up secretly for several years. Gable and Lombard is so blatantly meretricious it’s not even worthy of outrage—it’s just shrill (Sidney J. Furie) and redundant (Barry Sandler) and simpleminded (Michel Legrand) and opportunistic (Harry Korshak) and dumb (all join hands).
And speaking of dumb, plenty of reviewers have rehearsed the myriad discrepancies and distortions on the biographical level, so I’ll content myself with three tidbits: G&L begins with an actual still of Gable and Lombard from the one film they made together, a picture that predated their romance—and the 1936 beginning of this movie—by two years, yet the script has them meeting cute (and reencountering each other cuter) as though that film had never been made. Gable had won an Academy Award for the 1934 It Happened One Night and been nominated for another for the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty, yet he is treated as a comparatively shaky newcomer. And during a publicity-mongering soiree for Gable and his newly discovered Gone With the Wind leading lady Vivien Leigh, Hedda Hopper is overheard insisting that Metro be sure and have her out to the set for the burning-of-Atlanta sequence—which scuttles the film’s pretensions to insiderishness even on the fan mag level since one of Hollywood’s most honored legends has Vivien Leigh being cast as Scarlett O’Hara only after David Selznick glimpsed her, a casual onlooker at the time, in the glow of the flames during the shooting of that very scene.
GABLE AND LOMBARD
Direction: Sidney J. Furie. Screenplay: Barry Sandler. Cinematography: Jorden S. Cronenweth. Production design: Edward Carfagno. Music: Michel Legrand. Production: Harry Korshak.
The players: James Brolin, Jill Clayburgh, Allen Garfield, Red Buttons, Melanie Mayron, Joanne Linville
© 1976 Richard T. Jameson