Let me start with a funny story. In originally scheduling the next few installments of this column I knew I wanted something to contrast with Liz & Dick. I figured, if anything, why not contrast that scandalous couple with a celebrity love story that’s tragic and beloved? How I ended up with two weeks of virtually the same movie is beyond me! Gable and Lombard follows the Liz & Dick model so closely that if I were the production company who put this out in 1976, I’d be suing Lifetime! This film is equally vapid in presenting a cardboard cut-out of the couple. In two hours and fifteen minutes all you get is fighting and screwing with little in-between. I shouldn’t say that, you do get a pretty crappy screwball comedy because apparently Gable and Lombard’s love story was the foundation for every movie made in the 1930s…unless that’s historically inaccurate.
Hollywood couple Clark Gable (James Brolin) and Carole Lombard‘s (Jill Clayburgh) love story is showcased in this soapy melodrama. Starting off as enemies, the two begin a torrid affair that threatens to ruin their careers considering Gable is a married man. Their love flourishes, but is ultimately cut short with Lombard’s death in a plane crash.
I did know what I was getting into when I decided to watch this. I’ve heard nothing but terrible things, and it’s directed by the man who brought us Superman IV: Quest for Peace. Yeah that guy. The same issues that plagued Liz & Dick are magnified here only because the acting caliber should be better (in theory). If you know anything about the real romance between Clark Gable and Carole Lombard you know that it was a romance in every sense of the word. Gable was inconsolable at her death, and even though he married twice after, he’s interred next to Lombard. All of that is removed for numerous scenes of them having sex as a means of conveying love and romance. Anytime the two argue, which is so numerous you can watch one and just fast-forward over the rest, the only way to solve it is through sex because apparently these two were shallow individuals. There’s no true scenes of them talking, or building up a relationship, other than one scene of Gable being unable to tell Lombard he loves her because he’s “scared of himself.” The dialogue isn’t different from Liz & Dick in my opinion. With the sex substituting character development Clark Gable comes off like a chauvinist pig who throws Lombard over his shoulder anytime the two disagree, which again happens a lot in this film! In one scene he actually interrupts her film to throw a robe in her face (she’s filming a bathtub scene), and orders her to go home! There’s a few scenes of Lombard saying that doesn’t work, but all she does is needle him to do it more.
The film opens with a publicity photo of the true Gable and Lombard before it morphs into the same photo with Brolin and Clayburgh. Within the first 20 seconds the film sets up how far these two actors will fall in trying to reach any heights the original duo set. I did buy James Brolin as Clark Gable, and he does work to elevate the staid material. He looks like Gable to the point I’d say it’s one of the best facial comparisons I’ve seen since I started doing this feature. He tries with the voice, and you can buy he’s the best version of Gable we’ll ever get. The problems with his character all lie within the script. I mentioned the need for making him a chauvinist, but he’s also obsessed with his image according to this film. The studio wants to separate him and Lombard since he’s married (although Lombard was also married at the time to William Powell which this film ignores). Since Gable is such an up-and-coming actor he’s willing to give up Lombard any time he’s threatened with his career going down the toilet. The film comes off as a one-sided love story since he’s more than willing to throw her over to keep on being a star leaving Lombard to be the nagging mistress in the film. In the end when he’s mourning over her death, you don’t feel anything for him because the film is too content to pull them apart.
For all the good Brolin does in the role, Jill Clayburgh is horribly miscast. I think Clayburgh, who passed away in 2010, was a phenomenal actress; just not here. I know Carole Lombard was a tomboy and a foul mouth, but this movie presents all that in a way that makes Lombard look like an uneducated idiot. Clayburgh shrieks all her lines when she’s not crassly spitting out curse words. The movie is rated R for some reason, and I can only imagine it’s because of all the crass dialogue Lombard is given. I don’t recall Gable dropping any F-bombs furthering my point that the screenwriter simply read a bullet point list of Lombard featured, saw “mouth like a sailor” and ran with it. By the midpoint of the film my ears hurt from all the yelling and screaming she does. It doesn’t help that no attempt is made to make Clayburgh look like Lombard. Aside from dying her hair platinum blonde Clayburgh could have been playing Harlow, Thelma Todd, or Marilyn for all I knew.
What ultimately dooms Gable and Lombard beyond anything else is the idea the two actors’ relationship was no different from the films they made. This movie has so much screwball, rom-com clichés in it that you roll your eyes. This movie isn’t about two people who lived and loved each other, it’s about taking their images and dreaming up the most boring romantic comedy from the 1930s you could imagine. The two stars first meet swirls around Gable crashing his car to avoid an ambulance that’s part of a prank Lombard thought up. It’s funny apparently that the car he just mentioned he paid off completely falls apart. The love/hate relationship the two have (again copied in Liz & Dick) devolves into them having a food fight (are they grown adults?), and Gable organizing a fight with a group of men in order to have Lombard take care of him. As the two are forced to hide their relationship, they actually start dressing up in disguises and hiding around each other’s sets! These were two grown adults, not teenagers trying to hide a relationship from the ones angry dad, yet the script doesn’t treat them as such. Gable and Lombard is essentially a remake of a Gable and Lombard movie starring poor copies of the two stars.
As I mentioned in my Liz & Dick review, if you want to know about the romance of these two you’re better off reading a book on either star, or watching the film they made together, No Man of Her Own.
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If You Really Want It
A Real Gable and Lombard Movie
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.