I have a book review for you today, dear readers! I'm an avid reader of Classic Hollywood biographies and I always love the opportunity to do book reviews for them. Today's review will be for Carole Lombard: The Hoosier Tornado by Wes D. Gehring, a book I received 'long ago' for Christmas.
CAROLE LOMBARD: THE HOOSIER TORNADO
BY WES D. GEHRING
264 pages | Published: October 2003 | Indiana Historical Society
How can it not be exciting to read about Carole Lombard? Because honestly, who can say that they don't love Carole - Carole, our screwball queen. Carole, who was dubbed the "Profane Angel" because she swore like a sailor (Fred MacMurray complimented, "She swore like a man - some women try, but she really did.") but had blonde, blue eyed angelic beauty. Carole, who was the better half of Carole & Clark (Gable), a couple that was true product of Hollywood royalty to a Depression era audience. And Carole, who died tragically and certainly prematurely in a plane that crashed into the Nevada mountains in January 1942, killing her instantly.
So I was really excited to jump into this biography. As of 2012, it's the only easily available, in print work on Carole's life so I was really crossing my fingers that it would be good. I'm sorry to report that for me, at least, it fell terribly short.
I am far from an expert on Carole's life and body of work, but being an avid reader of Old Hollywood bios I could tell this book did her no justice. Firstly, the actual biographical portion of this book (so this is albeit a preface, prologue, epilogue, filmography, notes, & "selective" bibliography) comes down to 200 pages, easily the shortest bio I've read. Now, I know Carole died young (at 33), but I think her life was intense enough to fill up more than 200 (short in ratio, double spaced) pages, don'tcha think?
This book was the first to premiere in what is a series of Indiana biographies, life stories of famous people who were born in the Hoosier state. Carole was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana and left the state at the age of six only to return on a few occasions. This is not to say blue collar Carole was ashamed of her Fort Wayne roots; only that Hollywood kept her busy. I'm sure Carole was a proud Hoosier, considering her patriotism and ability to schmooze with "the man on the street" or any "Walter Mitty", despite being a glamorous movie star.
Anyhow, considering this, and also that this book was published by the Indiana Historical Society, it became clear to me from the start that the sole point that the author was setting out to prove, throughout the book's slim life, was Carole's Indiana roots. Gehring has an annoying habit of obsessively using the same word multiple times, which gets tedious, especially in a book so short - "Hoosier" is one of them. He brings up every apt opportunity to use this word, even if it doesn't apply to Carole - sometimes taking up three sentences describing the Hoosier roots of another famous Indiana native, like Irene Dunne. (Usually I wouldn't care about three sentences but in a book this short every word is precious). I mean, WE GET IT. SHE WAS BORN IN INDIANA. But she's in Hollywood making pictures now, so get over it! Still *sighs* being an Indiana Historical Society book, and the title alone should entail this, so I can't complain: I had coming. (You know some other words Gehring has an obsessive habit of overusing? You'll be sure to see "catalyst" and "smoke screen" on ever page.)
The research for this biography also seems quite poor. Gehring could more or less have Googled quite a lot of in the information. Also, he quotes on more than one occasion passages from other biographies, and then takes the time to agree or disagree with that previous biographer's statement, when the honest truth is that he ran out of information and is simply trying to fill pages with this hogwash. And if it's not passages from other biographies, it's snippets from what Gehring refers to as "period reviews." It's nice to read these, but one or two snippets will do. Gehring pulls out about ten after each Carole film.
Another issue for me was the photographs, which are a joke. Gehring produces no interesting or new photographs; and nothing rare or candid. The collection of photos are small, sprinkled about the pages rather than inputed in a few glossaries at different intervals throughout the book, as most biographers do. Even worse; whatever little photographs there are, some of them aren't even of Carole. Instead there are photographs of Charlie Chaplin, George Stevens, W.C Fields, etc. if they happen to have been mentioned on the page. I think that's ridiculous but it doesn't surprise me considering that Gehring spares plenty of paragraphs on information about other actors or directors that is insufficient to a biography of Carole Lombard.
Okay, now that we've gotten most of the cons of this book out, I must admit, there are a few pros which is why I manage to give this biography three stars. One of which is that Gehring obviously does have affection for his subject, restraining from throwing her under the bus at any point, which is something I incredibly admire for any biographer. I can't stand a biographer who writes a book simply to tear their subject apart; even though this isn't exactly good either, I much rather prefer a biographer who sticks with their subject through and through. And Gehring obviously likes Carole, likes her movies, has warmth for her, etc. which is nice.
The coverage of her films is pretty much consistent, though some reviews I read on Amazon written by hard core Carole fans accuse Gehring of skipping over some movies. (This is probably wrong of me, but when I read a bio I'm more excited to learn about the person's personal life than the movies they made... because I can always just watch the movies, so I'm not really a fan of three page summaries with spoilers.) His cover of her personal life also is not awful either, though I have a feeling - knowing how playful Carole was - there were more stories to have been shared. I loved reading about the pranks she pulled (sending Clark a rubber ham with his face on it for example), about her campaign to play Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939) (even conjuring up a crazy plot with Gary Cooper to help herself get the role), and her attempts to become a parent with Clark (one friend claimed that they would have even made love hanging out the window if it would have gotten Carole pregnant).
I also really enjoyed a detailed coverage over the ranch style house Carole & Clark bought in the San Fernando Valley. It seems like the second and third floors were turned into his and hers bedroom suites, and it was really interesting to read the descriptions and contrasting styles of the two! Clark's bedroom suite was all manly mahogany, whereas Carole's was elegant down to the chandeliers, pale blue color scheme, & white fur throw rugs. (She once described her bathroom in a way only Carole could put it, "the most elegant sh*thouse in the San Fernando Valley".)
As for Gehring's coverage of her plane crash in the Nevada mountains, he covers it in the prologue as if trying to be clever, but sums it up "she died in the plane with her mother, instantly killed" and that's it. No in depth analysis or anything. Just finished and close. The actual end of the biography (excluding the epilogue) ends equally abruptly, very suddenly, & you think since there's an epilogue there will be more closure but there's only a short discussion of the box office receipts of To Be or Not to Be (1942) and a note to the S.S Carole Lombard, the ship christened in her name after her death. Therefore, Gehring doesn't want to talk about the plane crash at all. And it's not something pleasant to write about but, you know, honestly? (As her note, her childhood, which was given about fifteen quick pages, was not done well either.)
This was a brisk, brief biography, leaving a lot to be desired. Though it shares a few nice stories, it just doesn't do someone like Carole Lombard justice. For that matter, since it's only 200 pages (I'm not including the other 56 pages of filler), it's not a waste of time - nothing about Carole could be a waste of time - so I'm not going to advise you to avoid it... just to know that it falls really short. If you would like to purchase it, you can do so here.
One nice touch was a poem inscribed in the beginning of the book that I thought really cutely describes the genre Carole is most famous for, and so I'll close this book review with just that.
Carole Lombard (1908 - 1942)
CAROLE LOMBARD: THE SCREWBALL GIRL
by Wes D. Gehring
"Screwball comedy is essentially about
The crazy rich girl next door
And the comic antohero boy
Who doesn't love her... at first
And though there are several
Recipes available to create
This fruitcake of a genre
All require lots of mixed nuts
For best results, add one
Zany heiress to the world
Of some mild -mannered male,
Unaware of his own unhappiness
Then sprinkle lightly with comic
Character actors, childlike pets,
And oodles of decadent playtime
In the most la-de-da of settings
Stand back as the ingredients start
To bubble, noting how the male's goose
Is cooked as the screwball heorine
Wears him out with her wackiness
Properly pampered, this comedy dish
Has served audiences endlessly since
The 1930s, Hollywood's version of the loaves
And the fishes, in 35mm topsyturvydom."
That's all, hope you liked the review, and if you have any questions be sure to ask! Or perhaps you read the book and prefer to defend Wes D. Gehring from my wrath, pitch in! ;D