Sunday 19 October 2008

No Man of Her Own (1932)

Here's something of an iconic film, and one that it's taken me a long time to find: it contains the only substantial pairing of real life husband and wife Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. They'd actually appeared in three films together before this one, all silents, but only as extras and they probably didn't even share scenes together. I've only seen one thus far and couldn't even find either of them. Admittedly that was Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, which was made on such an epic scale that it contained what seemed like everyone in Hollywood and everyone who would be. They may be a little easier to find in The Johnstown Flood or The Plastic Age, and bizarrely the best scene here is a silent one that takes place in a church.

According to Robert Osbourne on TCM, they only appeared together in this film because of the usual studio shenanigans. Gable was under contract to MGM and Paramount obtained his services through a swap because MGM wanted their star Bing Crosby for a film of theirs. He was due to play opposite Miriam Hopkins, but she objected to his name being above hers so refused to play ball and so Lombard got the role. That decision may seem surprising now given that Hopkins is mostly forgotten today while Gable became the biggest name of them all, literally being crowned 'King of Hollywood' in 1938. However he wasn't quite there in 1932, though he'd made a solid start with key films like A Free Soul and Red Dust. He hadn't even grown his famous moustache yet.

Here he plays Babe Stewart, a New York City card sharp with a minor organisation behind him, but he has a cop after him too so he has to temporarily leave the Big Apple until the heat dies down. He sticks a pin in a map and ends up in Glendale, where he falls for the local librarian, Connie Randall. He pursues her with the usual early Gable charm, but in the end she bags him, gambling marriage on the toss of a coin. Stewart is an honest crook, and as he says, he 'never goes back on a coin'. He's proved that honesty earlier too: when Charlie Vane, one of his cohorts, suggests how easily he could elevate the amount on a cheque, he declines the offer.

Of course he's still a crook and he makes his money by cheating it out of others. He also can't tell his new wife what he is and what he does, so he takes up something approaching a real job at a brokerage firm to keep him busy from ten to three. Of course she finds out in the end and that shakes everything up, more than you'd imagine. Actually you might be able to imagine it, but only by considering what this film really is: a Hollywood precode romance.

Because it's a Hollywood romance, it bears about as much relation to reality as your average monster movie. However because it's a precode it's all about the grim reality. The two approaches are really polar opposites and that makes this one quite a strange film. We're dealing with professional gamblers, slick deception, pregnancy, jail, using the female form as a means to hook rich new suckers, all solid precode concepts. Yet they're the framework for a nice romance story where the good girl redeems the bad guy through her love. I actually liked this bizarre mix of approaches: grit and fluff all at once. It makes the grit less gritty and the fluff less fluffy but there are decent moments for each. 'Do you know any nice girls?' 'Certainly not!'

Gable had an eagerness in his eyes back in his pre-moustache days. He looked like a well dressed and very charming ape, with his big ears and his lack of matinee idol looks. He was really the epitome of the shift away from those romantic leads to a tough and masculine man, where the focus shifted. Instead of being a lover who can fight, he's a fighter who can love. He was just right for the precodes and he was just right to continue on after them. This is not a key Gable precode, but it's another good example of who he was at that point and why his star rose quickly.

Lombard was also looking forward to great days ahead. Gable was the 'king of Hollywood' but she was the 'queen of screwball comedy' and those were still two years away, with Lombard's Twentieth Century overshadowed by Gable's It Happened One Night. She's confident here and while none of the roles in this film really call for great acting, she's able to throw little touches in there to help her character shine. She also works well with Gable, with the two apparently being very comfortable together. The legendary connection isn't there yet though: that would be a few years away yet.


dorian courteney windsor said...

Hal, have you seen the 1976 movie "GABLE AND LOMBARD"? its a long time since i`ve seen it but i seem to remember it was a very charming film but with that really unfortunate and sad ending. Even though its getting on for 70 years ago now i still get kinda` sad when i think about how Lombard snuffed it at the age of only 33, Gable really loved that bird.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

I haven't, but I have read a couple of books on the couple. It was one of those things where both were running through all the standard things that celebrities were expected to do only to wham! got hit by reality.

They didn't even like each other to begin with but that didn't take long to rapidly become a situation where nobody else existed any more, utterly smitten. Their story is a heartbreaker and it's only surprising it took that long for someone to film it.