Carole Lombard and What Remains

Christina Lane

Associate Professor, University of Miami

I view this video essay as a companion piece to my journal article “A Modern Marriage for the Masses: Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, and the Popular Front,” published in the Quarterly Review of Film and Video in January 2016. I have been intellectually obsessed (and personally mesmerized) by the field of classical Hollywood stars, in general, and a handful of stars, in particular, for far too long. For a certain spell, Carole Lombard, and somewhat by extension Clark Gable, emerged for me as a central site of study—comprising what I would describe as both a guilty pleasure and Sisyphean, scholarly calling. I attribute this mainly to the whimsical, disruptive, transgressive (radical-hetero-feminist) aspects of Lombard’s persona, which have gone curiously understudied until recently.

When the opportunity to create this video was extended, I posed to myself the question, what would an evocative, expressive, somewhat visceral iteration of my research look like? Moreover, here was a chance to change the angle, turning slightly away from the anti-authoritarian marriage themes and the Popular Front, New Deal context that I explored in “A Modern Marriage for the Masses” toward a look at representations of Lombard’s embodiment, mortality, and memory.

What an inviting gift—and a welcome challenge—to approach scholarly writing and representation in the form of a video essay. I saw this as an occasion to fashion cinematic meaning from the many raw bits of material that had been filtered through the “projection screen” of my mind over the (many) years that it had taken for my theoretical and historical claims about Lombard and Gable to rack into focus. Part creative collage, part fan tribute, part critical inscription, Carole Lombard and What Remains is meant to raise open-ended questions and quests related to images, sounds, stars and stardom, reality, specificity, history, memory, fans, authorship, and sites.  Indeed, it ponders sites of many kinds: sites of meaning, fan sites, a crash site, in addition to sights (internal plays with looking and seeing) and sightings (efforts to capture someone or something visually).

One dimension of this video I find worth highlighting is its dialectical tensions between image and sound, invoked in multiple ways, starting with the interplay between contemporary observer/narrator’s voice (accompanied by the noises of the equipment that have brought him to the crash site) and the classic movie images. In the second half of the video—the flipside, so to speak—sounds of Hollywood scenes are juxtaposed with visuals from our narrator’s amateur footage of Mt. Petosi.

My overall attention to sound is inspired by Lombard’s distinctive “movie voice,” which makes grand, undulating, performative gestures while gliding along the aural register as if on a dream plane (what Bob Gilpin describes as her “breathless, stream-of-consciousness, looping and loopy dialogue”). Lombard’s characters speak not only theatricality and comically, but cinematically. This video essay, as I interpret it, re-mediates the logic of the movie dreams created by and through Lombard in a way that shifts that plane, figuratively and, yes, (consciously working with the pun) even literally toward a space more corporal and somber—a dimension that was always part of her performance and persona (e.g., The Princess Comes Across 1936, Nothing Sacred 1937, To Be or Not to Be 1942).

Other ideas that animate this video essay involve authorship, related to “what counts as knowledge,” and “the role of the scholar.” Even playing a role as theorist here, I purposefully slide into the part of fan. While critical thinking is necessary in scholarship, there is something ironic—and potentially even fallacious—about the fact that traditional film theory and some strands of popular culture studies communicate an expectation that in order to do an adequate job, scholars are expected to break fully our attachment from our chosen object of study (a film, a star, a filmmaker or media-maker, a moment in time)? The work of Henry Jenkins, Alexander Doty, and others has complicated the scholar/fan lines; Doty asks, for example, “But is there really little room for autobiographical or fan elements in rigorous, intelligent critical work?” (12).

My position as fan is not the only fan-position that exists in Carole Lombard and What Remains, given the consequential role played by the ambiguous narrator (the voice behind the video camera), who serves as both a literal figure—a man who would endure a grueling, rugged, steep climb due to deep drives and desires that only he can grasp (and perhaps not fully know)—as well as a symbolic surrogate for the many fans who may identify with him, though for different reasons.

The devotion of fans, in this Internet age of social media and shared information, eventually proved fruitful for my research in ways I never could have imagined. These channels often led me to newspaper and magazine articles, photographs, verifiable facts, and living sources through fan blogs that I had not found in over a decade of searching through the some of most comprehensive and respected official archives on the subject. I credit Vicki Callahan and our conversations about her Internet, fan-based research on Mabel Normand with deepening my thinking about how such networks challenge conventional notions of what counts as legitimate sites of knowledge and intervene in assumptions about academic archives.

Carole Lombard’s untimely passing—mourned by an entire nation—happened more than seven decades ago, but what remains of her star persona? What remains of her cinematic memory—in contemporary culture at large, and with any one of us at any given time?

 

References

Carman, Emily. Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood System. Austin: University of Texas at Austin, 2016.

Carole and Co.: Celebrating Carole Lombard and Classic Hollywood. https://caroleandco.wordpress.com [Accessed 10 June 2016] Website.

Doty, Alexander. Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon. NY and London: Routledge, 2000.

Gilpin, Bob. DVD Commentary. My Man Godfrey. Universal Pictures, 1936. NY: Criterion, 2001. DVD.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. NY and London, 2003.

Lane, Christina. “A Modern Marriage for the Masses: Carole Lombard, Clark Gable and the Cultural Front.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 33.5 (January 2016): 401-36. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10509208.2015.1061876.

Matzen, Robert. Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3. Boulder, CO: Paladin, 2013.

Ray, Robert. How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Vivian Sobchack. “Chasing the Maltese Falcon: On the Fabrications of a Film Prop.” Journal of Visual Culture 6, no. 2 (July 2007): 219-46.

Stern, Lesley. “Paths that Wind through the Thicket of Things.” Critical Inquiry 28 (Autumn 2001): 317-54.

 

The Cine-Files, issue 11 (fall 2016)