Beyond the Classics is a bi-weekly column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. In this installment, she highlights the only collaboration between lovebirds Carole Lombard and Clark Gable: No Man of Her Own.
In Hollywood, love that lasts is the exception rather than the common occurrence. Extramarital affairs, secret lovers, and rocky relationships are what we’ve grown accustomed to with stars, especially when looking back at Hollywood’s early players. The Hollywood relationships that didn’t end in divorce, heartbreak, deceit, or all of the above, stand out as true love stories for the ages.
Carole Lombard and Clark Gable‘s short, yet devoted relationship is one everyone remembers as one of Hollywood’s greatest and most tragic loves. While we can revisit a lot of the classics they made separately, the only movie they made together gives a picture-perfect look at their talent and their chemistry. 1932’s No Man of Her Own rarely enters the conversation of Lombard or Gable’s best films, but it shows how well they worked together before they fell in love.
No Man of Her Own originates from Val Lewton’s novel No Bed of Her Own but ended up adopting more from a story called “Here is My Heart” when the Hays Office warned Paramount that the book did not meet their censor standards. Rightfully so, considering Lewton’s novel is a lurid, pulp-noir about a woman who loses her job and finds herself homeless in a big, vile city.
No Man of Her Own instead shows the meeting of con man Babe Stewart (Gable) and smart-mouthed librarian Connie Randall (Lombard) when Babe flees from New York City cops and lands in her hometown of Glendale. Babe is the callused playboy we’ve seen Gable play several times over in his career, but he sees something different in Connie. She’s fed up with her boring small-town life and is determined to wrangle Babe into a relationship that pulls her out of Glendale.
Connie isn’t like the other women Babe has used and then cast aside when he’s done. She knows that playing hard to get and making herself a prize Babe needs to win over is the way to his heart. This makes for some solid comedy and truly steamy scenes between the two of them.
These scenes feature some of the best on-screen flirting available at the time. Despite Paramount’s promises to the Hays Office that the film would be sanitized of the vulgarity in Lewton’s original novel, the final product has plenty of quintessential pre-Code scenes that are lacking in much clothing and subtlety when referencing sex.
Babe eventually agrees to marry Connie and brings her to New York with him, but he continues to try to shield her from his criminal ways. From here, the movie sinks into a melodramatic plot that truly cannot be explained, but the important fact is that Babe and Connie naturally return to each other in the end.
At the time of filming No Man of Her Own, both Gable and Lombard were well on their way to stardom, but neither had made the classics we often look back on today. For Gable, Mutiny on the Bounty, It Happened One Night, and Gone With the Wind came in the years after 1932.
Lombard was just beginning to flex her comedic chops but was still very much one of Paramount’s greener actresses. Her true comedic gems like My Man Godfrey, 20th Century, and of course, To Be or Not to Be happened after Lombard showed Paramount and critics alike that she was a hilarious force to be reckoned with.
Lombard and Gable’s pairing in No Man of Her Own was really a case of happenstance rather than a collaboration bound to happen. Marion Davies is who we have to thank for this movie. She got whatever she wanted at her studio, MGM, in the early 1930s, partly thanks to the leverage her long-term relationship with newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst had over studio head Louis B. Mayer.
Davies asked Mayer to trade Paramount’s Gable for Bing Crosby for a single project so that she could make what would become Going Hollywood, one of her and Crosby’s best movies. Mayer agreed and Gable’s short-end of the deal was his pick of story properties Paramount already owned. He chose Lewton’s novel, but his request of top billing made finding his leading lady another task entirely.
Paramount had Miriam Hopkins in mind for the role of Connie. She was coming fresh off of her great performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. However, her clear path to superstardom was not going to make a pitstop at second billing to Gable if she could help it. She turned the project down.
Paramount decided to go for an actress they knew couldn’t afford to refuse a project. That actress, Lombard, didn’t have the leverage to pick her own projects yet in her career. However, her recent marriage to William Powell promised she would get the publicity necessary to draw a decent crowd and do what the studio told her to at the same time.
Thankfully, you’d never guess that Lombard and Gable were not the intended pair for No Man of Her Own. Their chemistry exceeds that of even Gable’s greatest on-screen relationships with Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, and Jean Harlow. Both he and Lombard get their fair share of impressive zingers in the dialogue and their natural playfulness perfectly fits the cat-and-mouse feel of Connie and Babe’s relationship.
Watching this movie today, with the knowledge that Lombard and Gable ended up married several years down the line, it would seem that this production was what sparked their one-of-a-kind relationship. That wasn’t the case.
By all accounts of what happened on set, Gable and Lombard worked well together when filming, but they were merely cordial when the camera wasn’t rolling. Gable was not initially a fan of Lombard’s notorious foul mouth. Both stars were knee-deep in other relationships at the time as well. Lombard was still very much in love with Powell, and Gable was reportedly still in the thralls of his affair with Joan Crawford at the time.
When Lombard reflected on the production after she and Gable were married, she mused, “And we worked together and did all kinds of hot love scenes and everything. And I never got any kind of a tremble out of him at all. You know, he was just the leading man. So what? A hunk of meat. Of course, it didn’t help that I was on my ear about a different number [her marriage to Powell] at the time.”
There were no rumors or hints that Gable and Lombard were romantically interested in each other on set at the time either. However, they ended up being pretty jovial by the end of the production. Like Babe calls Connie, Gable gave Lombard the nickname “Ma,” and she called him “Pa.”
When the film wrapped, Gable gifted Lombard a pair of ballerina slippers addressed to “a true primadonna.” Lombard never passed up the chance to crack a joke or knock a man down a peg, so she retaliated by bringing a ham with Gable’s face on it to the wrap party as a gag. The two shared a kiss goodbye but didn’t stay in touch after the movie was finished.
By the time they both attended millionaire Jock Whitney’s party in 1935, neither Lombard nor Gable were still staying loyal to someone else. Lombard and Powell had a lengthy split. Gable was still married to socialite Rhea Langham, but he was never shy about his efforts to find comfort outside of their marriage.
In typical Lombard fashion, she refused to cooperate with the formal “all-white” dress code of the party in a serious manner. She decided to wear a scant white hospital gown and roll up to Whitney’s mansion in a white ambulance, sirens blaring and lights flashing. Once everyone realized Lombard wasn’t actually in need of the ambulance and was playing a joke, everyone loved her effort to lighten up the party. That included Gable, who was visibly struck by Lombard’s skimpy outfit and goofy arrival.
He may have seemed like a typical Hollywood star to his fans, but Gable never felt at home in the glamor that went along with acting in movies. It’s likely Lombard’s distaste for the seriousness of Hollywood’s social circle also drew him to her that night. She later spoke about the time humbly, “And for some reason, this got to ol’ Clark. He thought it was hot stuff. Who knows? Maybe with all that white, he thought I was a virgin or something.” The silliness and jokes didn’t end when the party was over this time.
What they didn’t like about each other on the set of No Man of Her Own ended up drawing Lombard and Gable together years later. Gable came to love Lombard’s swearing and wild nature. She was the only woman up until then who entertained Gable enough to keep him from falling into affairs with anyone else. Lombard realized that Gable was only the ham she thought he was when he needed to be for his career, and deep down he was really as down-to-earth as she was.
Despite the fact that their relationship didn’t begin with No Man of Her Own, the plot of the movie and their respective characters embody a lot of what we still love about Gable and Lombard’s relationship. She had the same spontaneity and wit that Connie does in the movie. He fooled the world into thinking he was as detached and allusive as Babe.
Connie defied what Babe expected from women, and it seems Lombard did the same for Gable. The banter their characters have in No Man of Her Own mimics what fans saw of the couple in their home movies and public appearances. The film came before the two may have realized their attraction to one another, but all of the signs of their compatibility are in their only movie together.
We still remember Lombard and Gable as one of the few examples of true love in Hollywood partly because of their clear love for one another, but also because it was cut short. Not long after they married in 1939, Lombard set off to fundraise for war bonds in her home state of Indiana in 1942. She left Gable in California, but she couldn’t wait to get back to him. Instead of taking the train back home, she insisted on taking a plane because she wanted to see Gable sooner. Tragically, she never made it back to him. She and the rest of the passengers, including her mother, died when the plane crashed just outside of Las Vegas.
The entire country was amiss over the loss of the comedic queen of the screen, and Gable was inconsolable after her death. He joined the Air Force to serve during World War II not long after Lombard died, a request she had been asking him to do, but he had refused while she was alive. Many claim he never truly recovered from losing Lombard, despite marrying twice after her death. As one final act of devotion to Lombard, he was buried next to her when he died in 1960.
Their romance remains one of the most legendary in Hollywood history. It was one of the few that didn’t have the chance to fizzle out in a divorce. Whether or not that would have happened, we will never know. Just as Lombard and Gable’s words about one another and their home movies display, No Man of Her Own shows how perfect they were for each other, even before they realized it themselves.