Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on August 8, 2014
Carole Lombard will be headlining TCM’s Summer Under the Stars line-up on Sunday, August 11th.
While pursuing my personal interest in local history here in Napa I was pleasantly surprised to discover how one of my favorite funny ladies, the brassy blonde bombshell Carole Lombard, had made a lasting impression on the area when she visited California’s Wine Country in 1939 to star in Garson Kanin’s THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED (1940). This notable RKO production was based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play written by Sidney Howard that chronicled a complicated love triangle between an ambitious San Francisco waitress (Carole Lombard), a simple-minded Italian grape farmer (Charles Laughton) and his affable ranch hand (William Gargan). Much of the film was shot on location in the Napa Valley and during that time Lombard, along with her costars and husband Clark Gable, toured wineries, mingled with locals and befriended some well-heeled residents who still fondly recall family stories about encountering the lovely Lombard.
Top: Carole Lombard & Charles Laughton in a publicity still from THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED.
In 1939 Napa was still recovering from the effects of prohibition so California’s grape growers welcomed Hollywood with open arms when RKO announced it would be shooting an updated version of THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED. Sidney Howard’s popular play was first adapted for the screen in 1928 as a silent film called THE SECRET HOUR starring Pola Negri and Jean Hersholt but the drama took place in an orange orchard instead of a grape vineyard. It was remade again in 1930 as A LADY TO LOVE, which featured Vilma Bánky and Edward G. Robinson but that production was confined to the MGM studio lot. Producer Erich Pommer along with director Garson Kanin and cinematographer Harry Stradling, decided to make use of Napa’s natural beauty when they remade THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED on location and local winemakers greatly benefited from their decision. During filming the nearly 140-year-old Beringer Vineyards invited the cast to tour their historic winemaking faculties. The occasion was widely publicized and helped kick-start wine tourism in the region making Carole Lombard one of Napa’s most glamorous unofficial ambassadors.
Top: Napa’s Alexandria Hotel (aka Plaza Hotel) in 1910 and the building today.
According to director Garson Kanin, there were a lot of production delays and tension on set during the making of THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED mainly due to Charles Laughton’s behavior. The talented and temperamental actor reportedly caused a lot of friction on set. By most accounts, Lombard was an easy-going and down-to-earth gal who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and although she made two movies with Laughton, the actors evidently didn’t get along very well. The Carole & Co. blog has compiled some interesting news reports from the time that suggest there was some serious conflict between the two stars but they also reveal that Lombard really enjoyed the time she spent in the Napa Valley.
At her suggestion, Clark Gable along with Lombard’s mother and brother, visited the actress during the making of the movie. Work-related problems may help explain why (according to local historians) Carole Lombard decided to leave the Plaza Hotel (aka the Alexandria Hotel) where her volatile cast mate was staying and moved into a house with Gable during filming. The famous Hollywood couple set up home at 447 Randolph Street in Napa, which was owned by the Grossman family who also happened to own the Plaza Hotel at the time. The Grossman’s kindly rented the house to Lombard and later recalled how genial and gracious the star had been. At the Dear Mr. Gable blog you can read an extremely funny and unsourced story suggesting that there were no hotels in Napa in 1939 so the cast and crew were forced to live in tents until Lombard insisted on moving into a local ranch house. Gossip columnists at the time had obviously never been to Napa and assumed it was merely made-up of farms, ranches, rolling hills and dirt but today the 105-year-old Alexandria Hotel still stands. It’s now occupied by the Carpe Diem Wine Bar but much of the building remains the same. The house that Lombard occupied with Clarke Gable has recently been restored by new owners but it hasn’t changed much since 1939 and it’s easy to imagine the two Hollywood stars hosting parties there for visitors.
Top: The Napa house rented by Carole Lombard & Clark Gable.
THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED isn’t one of Carole Lombard’s better remembered movies but it made a lasting impression on Napa residents who decided to name a street after the beloved actress. Lombard Road can be found on the outskirts of the valley near Napa Junction. If you’ve seen the movie you may recall that Lombard’s character travels by train from San Francisco to Napa and after watching the film a few times I think that the scene may have been shot at the historic Rutherford Station in St. Helena. It’s currently in a state of disrepair and local historians are desperately trying to save it but it has maintained some of its original charm and is located in one of the Valley’s most scenic spots.
Top: The train station pictured in the film & a recent photo of Rutherford Station.
I hope Carole Lombard fans have enjoyed this little excursion into California’s Wine Country. Napa might not be Hollywood but many stars have called it home.
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