Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3

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Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were the darlings of Hollywood when the US entered WWII as a result of the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.  Lombard, being patriotic and decisive, determined that she and Clark should involve themselves in the war effort.  While her famous husband served as president of the Hollywood Victory Committee, Lombard was engaged to sell bonds in the heartland. On January 12, 1942, she set off for her home state of Indiana and as a true star and rousing presence, she sold two million dollars worth of bonds. Flush with success and anxious to get home to her handsome, and frequently roving husband, she deviated from plan and instead of taking the train insisted upon flying despite the misgivings of traveling companions, mother Elizabeth Peters, and MGM press agent Otto Winkler, a personal friend of Gable’s who had been assigned to accompany her. The fierce persistence and determination that had built her career and led to marriage to two of Hollywood’s most eligible and bankable leading men, ultimately contributed to her death when the plane crashed into the side of Mt. Potosi following take-off in Las Vegas on the last leg of their trip home.  The crash led to national headlines and a dangerous search for survivors, then bodies.  The story of this tragedy, the events leading up to it and its horrific aftermath are related in Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3.

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Author Robert Matzen is an engaging writer and Fireball has an interesting structure. Two threads alternate chapters until they merge midway creating one story that brings significant players to a set point in time, that of the crash itself. Changing tone as it moves between the Hollywood hills and the sturdy landscape of pilots, military servicemen, airline personnel, and the everyday folks with whom they intersect, these two worlds each have their own voice.  This latter thread, grounded in All-American wholesomeness, is by far the strongest of the two in this examination of the crash that took the life of not only Lombard but the other twenty-one people aboard the plane.

Matzen brings experience as a Hollywood historian and author, NASA communications specialist, and documentary filmmaker to this effort; he is uniquely qualified for such an enterprise.  The book starts strong as he relates his account of scaling the mountain and viewing the scattered remnants of the crash that still remain on Mt. Potosi. He accessed TWA’s confidential files, examined the results of two federal investigations and conducted numerous interviews with those personally connected to these ill-fated passengers. His own prior knowledge lends authenticity to aspects of this story, particularly those involving the flight, aeronautics, and the relevant history of air travel.

When residing in the Hollywood realm, Matzen indulges in a bit of salaciousness with these swiftly moving chapters taking on a tabloid tone. At times dated and sexist language is used to presumably set the story within its era.  This is unfortunate as it is unnecessary. The story of Gable and Lombard, her career and their love affair is dynamic and arresting in and of itself; her dramatic sudden death makes it even more so.  There’s also some critical inferences around Hollywood stars.  It is intimidated that Lombard’s first husband William Powell’s self-absorption and emotional withdrawal blinded him to fiancé Jean Harlow’s sinking physical health.  Similarly, it is related that Gable and Lombard resented having to attend the subsequent funeral for MGM’s platinum-coifed ‘baby’, as Harlow was then known, being forced to attend by studio brass. These types of characterizations may not play well with many fans of  the silver screen’s most beloved stars.

One gets the sense too that Matzen doesn’t care much for Gable.  He refers to him repeatedly as the king, as Clark Gable was once named the King of Hollywood in coast-to-coast polling, a moniker that almost seems to take on a mocking tone as the actor goes through the most challenging and heartrending period of his life.  The assessment that he is a self-absorbed narcissist, “doing a lot of taking and little giving”, much like Powell, doesn’t seem to fit with other accounts but certainly a star of that magnitude might have that aspect to his character.  However, it is seems strikingly odd to drive that point home in a chronicle of his greatest heartbreak.  Given that Lombard was at the height of her success, having found  her comedic timing and a marriage to MGM’s top draw, the nation mourned her loss for its own sake but also for Gable’s; many of his contemporaries have related that he was never the same after the tragedy.  He lost a woman he appreciated infinitely after her death, as is human nature, and the nation lost not only a glamorous comedienne but a potential bond-raising powerhouse for the war effort and a patriotic American. Her death was tragic in many respects and underscored the losses already occurring in families across an anxious country.

Fireball consists of much that was already known but succeeds in weaving it into a compelling story.  People on the ground and in the air, those who lost their lives and those who remained behind are each in turn spotlighted.  There’s a richness to this approach.  As readers we are taken back to January 1942, a place, a time, a tragedy.  But there is also a drawback and it is significant: the author has created a novelization of actual events.  While many details, exhaustively researched, are absolutely fact or surely true, other aspects are a bit speculative. Missing information is filled in to facilitate narrative flow. Thoughts of those who die in the crash are shared, despite the fact that they never had an opportunity to relate these inner musings. Gable’s own private thoughts are revealed, personal recollections only he could have known.  As such it is clear there is some speculation involved, informed and educated surely, but nevertheless speculation. This aspect at times made me cautious and as the book progressed  I read with an increasingly skeptical eye. While it is clear that the author has done extensive admirable research, I was uncomfortable with his putting thoughts into the minds of actual people; this is not a historical novel yet frequently reads like one.  While much of this revealing of inner life and shared moments comes from interviews that were published at the time, it remains difficult to know what is based on research as opposed to what might be based  upon “extensive study of the subject”, as the author characterizes his approach to Gable.  Personally, I would’ve preferred an entirely fact-based accounting.

Initially there is some suggestion that this in-depth examination will reveal the true cause for the crash; this is not the case.  However this does not detract from the book as the analysis that examines multiple potential causes is extensive; there were many and as is frequently true, sometimes it’s a congruence of unfortunate circumstances and events that contribute to tragedy.

Despite these misgivings,  I  found Fireball a compelling read, yet was relieved when I finished this one. Those relatively new to the story of Gable and Lombard will find a mini-bio of Carole and a very in-depth look at the crash and its surrounding events.  While I knew a fair amount going in, there was still enough to keep my interest, mostly surrounding the other passengers, personnel and the aftermath at the scene.  Much of that was riveting (at times grisly – be forewarned), and worthwhile.  The book certainly highlights the loss to the screen, her loved ones and the country that occurred with the death of Carole Lombard, the first Hollywood casualty of WWII.

Note: This review is for the Expanded 2017 Edition, published by Goodknight Books

This post is the sixth in the 2017 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher of Out of the Past.  For more book reviews by fellow bloggers,  please check with her throughout the summer!! I’ve really enjoyed participating and am definitely convinced that these book reviews can be a lot of fun.  Here’s to cool Autumn nights curled up with a good book 🙂

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Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes

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Rose Joan Blondell learned many things growing up as a child of vaudeville.  She learned to make friends easily, to fit in, and to adapt to ever changing surroundings and circumstances. She learned how to tend to a crew, learn her lines and enhance the performances of others. She learned to smile on cue and to place the act before everything else.  Most importantly she learned discipline, hard work and perseverance.  The one thing she wasn’t taught was how to value herself, her gifts, and her own feelings.  And that is a lesson lost that cost her much personal happiness.

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Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes gives us a chronological accounting of the actor’s life.  Beautifully researched, it benefits tremendously from the full cooperation of her surviving relatives, including her children.  It was her son who suggested that such a book be considered.  He approached author Matthew Kennedy as the two were working on another project.  It is a gift that he did so.

As expected the most compelling section is the first third when Blondell is working frantically and furiously at Warner Brothers.  Her swift climb towards being an invaluable player in the studio’s talented stable make for heady reading.  She arrives in Hollywood almost simultaneously with the advent of talking pictures with a young Jimmy Cagney, both fresh off a Broadway play that lands on the screen with the racy title of Sinner’s Holiday.  While compelling in their debuts, Cagney’s magnetism is undeniable.  The studio recognizes their hot property for what he is and quickly places him in starring vehicles with compensation to match.  Cagney achieves this with some savvy and negotiation.  Blondell’s compensation doesn’t achieve his, nor is she given those starring roles; her negotiation skill and representation is weaker and she is frequently used to bolster others’ work or enliven sagging pictures. Nevertheless, her presence in tight, rapid-fire pre-Code films is almost unmatched.  It is only those women that truly reached the upper tier, such as Barbara Stanwyck, a friend of Blondell’s, that have greater presence.  Some of the most memorable films of the era such as Night Nurse, Three on a Match, Blonde Crazy and the Busby Berkley musicals Dames and Gold Diggers of 1933 would be unrecognizable without Blondell’s presence.  The latter’s finale number, Remember My Forgotten Man, with Blondell as its centerpiece, is arguably the most significant musical sequence of the Great Depression.  The actress herself was taken aback by the critical and public response to its social significance.  She was working so fast its impact had eluded her.

In a life filled with contradictions, Blondell frequently referred to herself as a workhorse, many times denigrating her own accomplishments while struggling for the recognition and roles she rightfully deserved.  Toddling onto the stage at fourteen months, she entered vaudeville as a regular in her parent’s act at the age of three.  The Blondell’s travelled the globe, rarely stopping to establish roots, a pattern Blondell found difficult to break. She longed for a house and home yet this was sometimes as elusive as the roles she sought.  When Blondell found personal stability, she used this security to bolster her career, seeking and taking risks that then undermined her domestic happiness. This strategy of zig-zagging from coast to coast, seeking substantial roles, was ill-tolerated by the men in her life who married a people-pleasing petite blonde and somehow ended up with a real woman with needs.  Husbands George Barnes, Dick Powell and Mike Todd ranged from distant and controlling to financially irresponsible and emotionally and physically abusive.  Blondell only achieved marital bliss intermittently and fleetingly.  Professional success similarly had its rich yet transient moments.  Her finances followed her marriages and her performances, rising and falling with their shifting fates.

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As Aunt Sissy in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, with Peggy Ann Garner

Blondell was nominated for an Academy Award for The Blue Veil, however one of her most memorable performances of her post-Warner years was that of Aunt Sissy in Elia Kazan’s adaptation of the best-selling novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  It was her favorite role. Yet some of her best moments were left on the cutting room floor due to their adult nature and the restrictions of the Production Code, an editorial necessity she found upsetting.  If she is remembered by some as the matronly former star who cameos in Grease it may be because she is only one of a handful of women whose career lasted her entire adult life; she worked almost continually. And while she tended to scoff and discount her own artistic needs, her drive to pursue roles appears to have been motivated by more than money.  Blondell trusted her talents to provide for her but ached for more; she craved fulfillment on a personal and professional level.  She ultimately gave up dating but continued to work, even while seriously ill, until the age of 73, when she succumbed to leukemia.

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Joan Blondell with husband Dick Powell

This well-researched biography covers all phases of this actor’s busy and tumultuous life, almost so much so that the larger arcs are elusive.  Her marriage to Dick Powell lasts eight years but the ups and downs and moves are so frequent, and the intermingling of professional and personal so complex, that the longevity is almost lost.  This is the most significant intimate relationship in Blondell’s life.  Powell is the father of her two children, with her eldest being adopted by him in the early happy years.  Yet this aspect of the book is a minor quibble and perhaps unavoidable given its sweep. It is enriched by numerous interviews, archival research, family memories and haunting recollections.

Blondell’s story spans much of the twentieth century and carries within it the tremendously complex changes occurring in the entertainment industry. Blondell adapts and sashays these changes with skill and sacrifice, working in not only vaudeville and movies, but theater, radio, summer stock and television. Consequently, she is sometimes missing from home for months at a time yet is a devoted mother; many times her children travel with her. More often, her struggles and heartaches, both professional and personal, are due to male attitudes than her own choices; as a woman I ached for her.  When she died I cried.  Through it all she retained the generosity of spirit that made her an audience favorite.

I knew Joan Blondell was something special when I was a small child.  Sitting on the floor staring up at the television screen, watching Here Come the Brides, I took notice when she was introduced in the opening credits with her own solo title card, “and Joan Blondell as Lottie”.  She was charming and warm, still beautiful but comfortingly maternal.  She was the proverbial heart of gold in that series but she was more.  She radiated something unmistakable, the charisma of a movie star, a Hollywood survivor.  When Blondell appeared, she owned the screen.  I tuned in week after week not just for teen heartthrob Bobby Sherman but for her.  Her warmth was something I sorely needed in my life and I adored her for it.  Imbued with the same spirit, this rendering of Blondell’s life is highly recommended.

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This post is the fifth in the 2017 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher of Out of the Past.  For more book reviews please check her blog throughout the summer!!

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