More Hollywood Biopic Movies

Brolin & Clayburgh as Gable and LombardIt does still seem amazing to me–even though I lived through and heartily participated in it–that there was a time when classic movies were completely mainstream, something that popular culture enthusiastically embraced and young people made their own.  This was over thirty years ago, of course, but sensing the mood in the air, Universal released two big-screen Hollywood biographies in early 1976…and both landed with a resounding thud. 

First to hit theaters was Gable and Lombard, the story of Silver Screen immortals Clark Gable and Gable and Lombard posterCarole Lombard and their genuine and ultimately ill-fated romance.  Written by Barry Sandler (whose big break in Hollywood came when he dropped off his story for Kansas City Bomber on Raquel Welch’s doorstep while he was still in UCLA Film School), and directed by Sidney Furie (The Ipcress File, Lady Sings the Blues), Gable and Lombard was a Grade A production, lushly photographed, with exquisite period art design and authentic costumes by Edith Head.  Cast to impersonate Gable, the undisputed King of Hollywood, James Brolin as Clark Gablewas TV star and movie actor James Brolin, just coming off his multi-year co-starring role as the motorcycle-riding hip physician Dr. Steve Kiley on the series Marcus Welby, M.D..  No stranger to the big screen–he had garnered good notices for his work in 1973’s robot rampaging Westworld–Brolin was handed what was probably a thankless task:  making the world’s most famous and imitated classic movie star into a believable flesh-and-blood character.  Brolin’s Carole Lombard was to be relative screen newcomer Jill Clayburgh, a product of Sarah Lawrence College who went into acting and eventually Jill Clayburgh as Carole Lombardsucceeded in getting roles on Broadway and then in television, including an Emmy-nominated role as a prostitute in the acclaimed TV movie Hustling in 1975.  (Later would come her big triumphs like An Unmarried Woman.)

Because of the classic movie revival of the time, people were again awareThe Real Gable and Lombard, in poster pose of Gable and Lombard’s legendary love affair, from their meeting to their living together and eventually to their happy marriage which was tragically cut short when Lombard died in a plane crash on the way back home from a war bond tour.  What was wrong with the movie, many critics decried, was that it was more fan magazine than biography, more forced comedy than real life, emphasizing the supposedly wild and wacky ways of Clayburgh and Brolin Meet as Gable & Lombard1930s Hollywood and the unlikely pairing of the ribald Lombard and the unsophisticated Gable. 

In the world of 1976, Gable movies still played on broadcast TV (at least on local independent stations and on late shows) and many cities had popular repertory movie houses where all the classics were merrily being revived to appreciative audiences.  Critics complained that it was too easy to compare Gable and Lombard’s wily pretenders to theA Romantic Moment in Gable and Lombard real thing.  Was there no chemistry between Clayburgh and Brolin?  What made the movie fall flat?  Certainly it was the kind of Hollywood tale that plays into the mythology and consciously decides to ignore the more human and troubling aspects of biography.  Even Michel LeGrand’s grandly romantic score couldn’t lift Gable and Lombard’s emotional impact past a guilty wallow for most people. 

Jill and James as Clark and CaroleTo give credit, Brolin is a good physical match for Gable but it was a lost cause, probably.  The movie is back out on DVD now, and perhaps enough time has gone by–and also perhaps only fans of the genre willThe DVD of Gable and Lombard seek it out, rather than general audiences–that Gable and Lombard will find its rightful place as an interesting and delectable if flawed taste of Hollywood glamour long past.

Gable and Lombard’s less-than-stellar reception in February of 1976 must have chilled the hearts of Universal executives, because less than two months later another Hollywood biography was on their release schedule.  In April of that same year they unveiled W.C. Fields and Me, based on Fields’ mistress Carlotta Monti’s popular autobiography.  Perhaps it was the presence of Oscar W.C. Fields and Me movie posterwinner Rod Steiger that caused critics to back off a little bit.  They were generally respectful ofSteiger as Fields Steiger’s portrayal of the curmudgeonly comedian, and found more of a true performance and less of an impersonation in his work.  Carlotta Monti was played by recent Oscar winner (for Lenny) Valerie Perrine, so the pedigree behind this movie was superb.  Co-starring as Field’s drinking buddy John Barrymore was talented stage, movie and TV character actor Jack Cassidy who perished in a fire in December of that year.

W.C. Fields and Me was directed by Arthur Hiller (Love Story, The Out-of-Towners, Silver Streak) and again Universal spared no expense in recreating period Hollywood with its excess of glamour and behind-the-scenes shenanigans, set to a HenryValerie Perrine and Rod Steiger as Monti and Fields Mancini score.  The problem was it had to be a PG version of the town, instead of the liquor-soaked, profanity-laden, call girl-populated world that Fields and his ribald companions lived and loved in.  And how do you capture the peculiar charm of W.C. Fields?  Is the life of a comedian really full of comedy, especially a comic like Fields? His misanthropy was worn proudly like a cloak, and just as surely protected him from some human interactions, as was no doubt intended.  Though W.C. Fields and Me Rod Steiger as W.C. Fields in W.C. Fields and Mehinted at the core of Fields’ personality, it was a big glossy movie and not a penetrating psychological study of a probably damaged personality.  Now that would have been the movie to see, and Steiger could have pulled it off beautifully, but it wasn’t the movie that Universal made.

And so, Universal had its second flop Hollywood biography of 1976.  It’s no doubt time to take another look at this nearly-forgotten film, but it hasn’t been released on DVD at the present time so you’ll have to hang in there.  Let’s hope that Universal gives us a chance soon to rediscover one of their infamous failures, and maybe we’ll find it wasn’t such a bust after all.

12 Responses More Hollywood Biopic Movies
Posted By Liz : December 11, 2007 7:24 am

I had no idea Sidney Furie directed something like that! I love The Ipcress File, but no one else seems to have seen it. I think it deserves at least as much notoriety as the Bond films. His direction is fantastic, Superman IV notwithstanding.–Play social movie trivia on Kwanzoo.com !

Posted By Liz : December 11, 2007 7:24 am

I had no idea Sidney Furie directed something like that! I love The Ipcress File, but no one else seems to have seen it. I think it deserves at least as much notoriety as the Bond films. His direction is fantastic, Superman IV notwithstanding.–Play social movie trivia on Kwanzoo.com !

Posted By RHS : December 12, 2007 10:46 am

I love The Ipcress File, but no one else seems to have seen it. You need to get out of Syracuse, Liz… those people don't know what they're missing!And Medusa, speaking of a time when vintage Hollywood was a hot commodity, I can remember going to my local department store (which was a Barkers, I think) and buying 8×10 movie glossies… Bela Lugosi in Dracula, Gary Cooper in For Whom the Bell Tolls and Bogart in Casablanca… right there in a stack next to the tube socks and Tootsie Rolls. 

Posted By RHS : December 12, 2007 10:46 am

I love The Ipcress File, but no one else seems to have seen it. You need to get out of Syracuse, Liz… those people don't know what they're missing!And Medusa, speaking of a time when vintage Hollywood was a hot commodity, I can remember going to my local department store (which was a Barkers, I think) and buying 8×10 movie glossies… Bela Lugosi in Dracula, Gary Cooper in For Whom the Bell Tolls and Bogart in Casablanca… right there in a stack next to the tube socks and Tootsie Rolls. 

Posted By Stephen Cooke : December 16, 2007 12:45 pm

Now, now, don't be picking on Syracuse…I go there every year for Cinefest, which shows four days worth of movies I can't see anywhere else, not even on TCM!Even Leonard Maltin hangs out there, and he's seen more movies than almost anyone.

Posted By Stephen Cooke : December 16, 2007 12:45 pm

Now, now, don't be picking on Syracuse…I go there every year for Cinefest, which shows four days worth of movies I can't see anywhere else, not even on TCM!Even Leonard Maltin hangs out there, and he's seen more movies than almost anyone.

Posted By Vincent : March 21, 2008 12:57 pm

A few months ago, I wrote an entry on "Gable & Lombard," and the many things that went wrong with it, at my site, "Carole & Co.": http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/47604.html

Posted By Vincent : March 21, 2008 12:57 pm

A few months ago, I wrote an entry on "Gable & Lombard," and the many things that went wrong with it, at my site, "Carole & Co.": http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/47604.html

Posted By Medusa : March 21, 2008 1:40 pm

Hi Vincent!Thanks so much for the link to your excellent article on Gable & Lombard!  I didn't see it when I originally wrote this blog or I certainly would have done a better job on my post!  It's still amazing that studio execs would even have ventured to produce a movie about classic Hollywood stars.  Kind of amazing it wasn't done for TV, really.  Might have turned out better, as the TV Hollywood bios tended to at least have lesser expectations.Thanks again and I loved your article!  – m

Posted By Medusa : March 21, 2008 1:40 pm

Hi Vincent!Thanks so much for the link to your excellent article on Gable & Lombard!  I didn't see it when I originally wrote this blog or I certainly would have done a better job on my post!  It's still amazing that studio execs would even have ventured to produce a movie about classic Hollywood stars.  Kind of amazing it wasn't done for TV, really.  Might have turned out better, as the TV Hollywood bios tended to at least have lesser expectations.Thanks again and I loved your article!  – m

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : November 10, 2010 6:41 pm

[...] Clayburgh as Carole Lombard.  I wrote a bit about this interesting but failed movie a while back here on Movie Morlocks.  Suffice it now to say that Jill gave it her all and for that matter so did Brolin, but the movie [...]

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : November 10, 2010 6:41 pm

[...] Clayburgh as Carole Lombard.  I wrote a bit about this interesting but failed movie a while back here on Movie Morlocks.  Suffice it now to say that Jill gave it her all and for that matter so did Brolin, but the movie [...]

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