Carole Lombard’s Lasting Impact … on Napa!

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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.

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Top: Carole Lombard & Charles Laughton in a publicity still from THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED.
Bottom: Lombard & Laughton visit Beringer Vineyards, which is still a popular tourist attraction in the area.

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 Lombard one of Napa’s most glamorous unofficial ambassadors.

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Top: Napa’s Alexandria Hotel (aka Plaza Hotel) not long after it was built in 1910 and the building today.
Bottom: Carole Lombard and director Garson Kanin on the set of THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED followed by a shot of them eating breakfast at the hotel with Charles Grady, Secretary of Napa Chamber of Commerce.

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. Apparently the talented actor was very temperamental and this caused a lot of friction between his costars. 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 Napa. At her suggestion, Clark Gable along with Lombard’s mother and brother, visited the actress during the making of THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED. 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 during the making of the movie and later recalled how genial and gracious the star had been. At the terrific Dear Mr. Gable blog you can read an extremely silly 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 and the house that Lombard occupied has recently been restored by new owners. The house hasn’t changed much since 1939 so it’s easy to imagine Carol Lombard and Clark Gable hosting parties there for Hollywood visitors.

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Top: The house rented by Carole Lombard & Clark Gable during the making of THEY KNOW WHAT THEY WANTED.
Bottom: Director Garson Kanin with Carole Lombard and Clark Gable followed by a shot of Gable with Napa’s Mayor Jack Cinnamend (on his right) and some adoring locals.

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 the 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 filmed 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 managed to maintain some of its original charm and it’s located in one of the Valley’s most scenic spots.

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Top: The Napa train station seen in THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED and a recent photo of Rutherford Station.
Bottom: Lombard Road in Napa.

I hope Carole Lombard fans have enjoyed this little excursion into California’s Wine Country. It may not be Hollywood but many stars have called it home.

Further reading:
- The Movie Stars Next Door
- Napan Restores New Life to Old Home
- What’s in a name?
- Napa: An Architectural Walking Tour by Anthony Raymond Kilgallin

8 Responses Carole Lombard’s Lasting Impact … on Napa!
Posted By tdraicer : August 9, 2014 1:15 am

I saw a revival of They Knew What They Wanted on Broadway back in the late 70s/early 80s. The play was, frankly, awful; the worst sort of dated melodrama. That experience has kept me from ever seeing the film, making it (I think) the only Laughton I’ve never seen. Could they have made a silk purse from that sow’s ear? Perhaps one day I’ll force myself to find out.

Posted By DBenson : August 9, 2014 2:08 am

By the by, Frank Loesser turned the play into a near-opera titled “The Most Happy Fella”, a Broadway hit that still pops up in major and minor revivals.

It was heavily plugged in an episode of “I Love Lucy” and couple of songs — “Dallas” and “Standing on the Corner Watching All the Girls Go By” became pop standards.

Posted By vp19 : August 9, 2014 2:19 pm

As the administrator of the Carole & Co. site, which I’ve run for more than seven years, I’m thrilled you used it as a reference.

Perhaps the reason “They Knew What They Wanted” isn’t better remembered is its lack of availability. In the late 1980s, RKO issued it on videocassette, and I recall it airing on late-night TV in Philadelphia. But legal difficulties with the estate of Sidney Howard has prevented it from a legitimate DVD release, at least in Region 1 (North America). It’s probably also the reason it has never aired on TCM. Many other Lombard films are currently unseen, notably her early 1930s Paramount programmers (now property of Universal). It would be wonderful if, come August 2017, several of these — including “They Knew What They Wanted” — finally become available and air as TCM premieres when Carole once more is a SUTS honoree.

Posted By Doug : August 9, 2014 4:39 pm

“Carole Lombard’s Lasting Impact … on Napa!”
And me, too.
From what vp19 noted, there are many more Lombard pictures to discover; I would love to see “They Knew What They Wanted” someday.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 9, 2014 5:45 pm

Thanks for the all the comments and I appreciate your insights vp19. I hope Lombard fans will visit your blog that I linked to in my piece. It’s a must for Lombard Fans!

It’s interesting hearing all the opinions of the original THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED play. While the plot may seem a little dated today I think the film has a lot to recommend it. It provided Lombard with one of her few dramatic roles although she does get some laughs in it and she’s great in the film. I also think it’s beautifully shot and gives viewers a rare and wonderful look at Napa in the late 1930s. Laughton’s Italian immigrant is a little over-the-top at times and he becomes somewhat of a silly caricature instead of a fully flushed out individual but Laughton’s always fun to watch. The films available on PAL DVD but as vp19 pointed out, it hasn’t been officially released in the US as far as I know.

Posted By Doug : August 9, 2014 8:59 pm

Kimberly, please forgive-I am all about NOT being a word nazi, but I had to laugh because, concerning Laughton, it was accurate-I think you meant fleshed out, not flushed out.

The French Hillbilly boy ran in from the woods with a moonshine jug which he deposited at his mother’s feet.
“You’ve made a mistake, son. This is faux pas.”

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 10, 2014 5:36 pm

Ha! You’re right, Doug. Thanks for spotting my error and having a sense of humor about it.

Posted By moviemorlocks.com – EARTHQUAKE! – An Update From the Trenches : August 28, 2014 8:13 am

[…] – but I wanted to relay my quake experience here because a few short weeks ago I wrote about Carole Lombard’s impact on my small city and shared photos of the historic Alexandria building in Napa, which housed the cast of THEY KNEW […]

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