Sometimes The Show Doesn’t Go On

Carole Lombard death causes grieving Jack Benny show cancellation (Jan 16, 1942)

There has been plenty written on how the Hollywood community came together to aid their nation when America became embroiled in World War Two. The attack on PearlHarbor touched everyone, and later generations have every reason to be proud of the way the Greatest Generation reacted.

We have heard the stories of the stars who put their careers aside so that they could wear the uniform of their country. Those who couldn’t join the service contributed where they were able. Whether sharing their talents for entertaining the troops, working hard to sell War Bonds, or spreading the message from the rationing board, it seemed that the entire entertainment industry had been mobilized.

Like any other segment of the population, some from the Hollywood community paid the ultimate price in the War Effort. The following is the story of what the Hollywood Victory Committee recognized as the first star to give their life for their country in the war effort.

Carole Lombard was an incredible screen presence and had the power to absolutely entrance men, both on and off the screen. In 1931, she was married to her sometimes costar William Powell. Friends were convinced that they could not overcome the sixteen year difference in age, but they were sure they could be happy together. The marriage only lasted 28 months, but they remained friends and coworkers. Powell even insisted that Lombard costar in his 1936 hit My Man Godfrey.

Carole Lombard starred with Clark Gable in No Man of Her Own (1932) while she was still happily married to Powell. Lombard and Gable renewed their acquaintance at a costume party in 1936, and soon fell in love. Unfortunately, this time Gable was married. When he was offered the role as Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind, part of the deal was a bonus that would cover the expense of Gable‘s divorce.

Carole Lombard was an ideal mate for Gable. She had all the glamor of the movie queen she was, but she also outgoing and enough of an outdoors woman to be a real “pal” to the active Gable. They were married during a break in the production of Gone With The Wind in 1939 and settled on a 20 acre ranch in Encino.

Carole Lombard

Lombard’s career took a bit of a setback about the time of her wedding to Gable; she took a number of dramatic roles that audiences found difficult to accept. She found success in comedies again in Alfred Hitchcock‘s Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941). She rode the career boost into one of her most successful films, To Be Or Not To Be with radio’s Jack Benny.

The film was a satire set in Nazi occupied Poland. Jack Benny played a “ham” actor who bears a resemblance to Adolph Hitler. Carole Lombard played his suffering wife with a wandering eye. Lombard and Benny struck up a strong friendship during production.

The film was in post production when Pearl Harbor was attacked and Hollywood mobilized. Clark Gable was made the chairman of the Hollywood Victory Committee, and one of his first acts was to send his pretty movie star wife, along with his press agent and her mother, on a War Bond drive tour of her home state of Indiana.

The drive was very successful, raising more than $2 million and hit a high point in Indianapolis, where Carole Lombard exhorted the crowd to “join me in a big cheer- V for Victory!” In a hurry to get back to her husband, Lombard convinced her party to board TWA flight 3, which flew from New York to Burbank, with Indianapolis being one of the stops.

Carole Lombard

When the flight stopped in Las Vegas, the Carole Lombard party was in danger of being bumped for military passengers, but Lombard”pulled rank”, claiming the having sold $2 million in war bonds, she deserved some consideration. 32 miles from the airport, the DC-3 slammed into a cliff on Potosi Mountain. There were no survivors.

Clark Gable was understandably distraught at the loss of his wife and friend, so much so that he joined the Army Air Corp and flew on B-17 missions from England. But first he had to bury Carole Lombard. The Army offered to honor her with a military funeral. Gable choose to respect her wishes, giving her a simple, private funeral at Forest Lawn. He also bought two adjoining burial plots, one for Lombard’s mother, and another for himself.

Lombard’s friend Jack Benny was so broken up over the loss of his friend that he was not able to perform his regular program on Jan 18, 1946. Instead, he had Don Wilson host an all music format. Neither Carole Lombard or the plane crash is mentioned on the broadcast.

Hear the Jack Benny Show from Jan 18, 1942:

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To Be Or Not To Be was initially a disaster. Between the depressing war news and the tragic loss of the film’s star, moviegoers were not much in the mood for laughter when the movie was released. The Screen Guild Theater performed a radio adaptation of the movie exactly a year after Jack Benny‘s music format broadcast. Benny’s role in the radio adaptation was played by Carole Lombard’s first husband, William Powell.

Enjoy The Screen Guild Theater‘s 1943 broadcast of To Be or Not To Be:

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