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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Gentleman: The William Powell Story

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William Powell in a publicity photo from My Man Godfrey

Few of the legendary movies stars of the first half of this century were personally capable of equaling the glittering images they projected with the help of studio publicists and the roles they played on the silver screen. William Powell was a notable exception to that rule.

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William Powell was a private man.  He was a public figure and yet a complex, private man.  Therefore the task before biographer Charles Francisco was a challenging one.  Certainly there were plenty of stories in popular Hollywood magazines of the era, tabloid features and interviews, but views into his private life were limited.  He married three times and fathered one child, a son, who tragically committed suicide in 1968.  Aside from his third wife, these significant figures had long departed and there is no indication that wife Diana Lewis chose to reveal the private man. His closest friends, who included Richard Barthelmess and Ronald Colman, had long departed; he outlived almost all of them but Myrna Loy.  In fact Powell himself died during Francisco’s research.  Yet the author has done a remarkable job in giving us a solid sense of William Powell, the essence of the man and of his life; it was one filled with satisfying successes, occasional frustrations and sometimes all too public tragedies.

 

 

 

 

Famously, Powell married and divorced Carole Lombard, then became engaged to Jean Harlow, remaining so until her death at age twenty-six.  He grieved openly at her funeral, flanked by his mother and a studio attaché for support.  Her death ushered in a period of struggle for Powell.  Shortly after this profoundly difficult loss he was faced with another crisis, rectal cancer.  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer softened the blow for the public, citing his long absence from the screen as due to colon cancer, relating few details; the actor was one of the first patients to undergo treatment with implanted radium.  This combination of blows – the death of Harlow, two surgeries and a lengthy recovery – perhaps deprived us of additional films that might have added to his legacy.  His absence took him into middle-age and some unfortunate type-casting.

 

 

 

Powell became a comedic success with The Thin Man, the role for which he is perhaps best remembered.  Its popularity led to further Thin Man films, six in total, and while he certainly enjoyed the role, and was surely grateful for its gifts, he knew he was capable of much more.  Happily he was later able to show his range in several highly successful and still memorable films, namely Life with Father, How to Marry a Millionaire and finally Mister Roberts.  Portraying the wise and weary ‘Doc’ in the latter put Powell among a new generation of actors and before new audiences.  Yet the on-location shoot tired him and he chose to bow out, departing from the screen at the age of 62.  He eventually left this world for good thirty years later. In doing so he left behind a sweeping body of work that starts in the silent era, polishes many pre-Codes and ultimately enchants in some of the most enduring romantic comedies of the thirties and forties.

 

 

If you are a fan of Powell’s, as I am, this book is one to search out and find. The tone is warm and measured, never salacious or engaging in sordid speculation, despite Powell’s romancing and co-starring with some of the most beautiful and sought after women of the early days of Hollywood. Francisco treats his subject, and the numerous Hollywood luminaries and fellow players he encounters, with respect and admiration, pulling from available files, newspaper and magazine articles, archives and Powell’s own writings. In doing so he constructs a portrait of a man who was far from perfect but generally well-intended and truly the gentleman that he hoped to be.  Known as a movie star, he was first an actor and an absolute master of his craft.

I was sad to reach this book’s end for to do so was to leave behind a life well-lived.  Powell is painted as a man who didn’t always have the answers but who sure as hell tried to find them.  This was a lovely, satisfying and moving book. I highly recommend it.

Gentleman: The William Powell Story includes a filmography and two sections of black and white photographs. It is book-ended by a prologue and epilogue, with the first and last paragraphs shared here, suitably opening and closing this review.

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Perhaps Myrna Loy, who co-starred with most of the movie legends, described Bill Powell best.  She said, “There’s just nobody like him, and there’s never been anybody quite like him.”  Unfortunately, in the course of contemporary film, we may never see his like again.

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This post is the third 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! This book is available through Amazon and other used and vintage booksellers.

harlow peeking red dust