The Life, Loves & Tragic End of Carole Lombard

Carole Lombard is remembered for her talent as a leading lady, a screwball comedian, and an American hero. A starlet of classic Hollywood, Lombard had a successful career from the ripe age of twelve until her untimely death, in the line of duty, at age thirty-three. Aside from her memorable acting, Carole was also known for her legendary Hollywood romances.

Carole Lombard Clark Gable / Carole Lombard / Carole Lombard and Cary Grant / Lombard and soldiers
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The iconic comedian was married to leading man William Powell before divorcing him and marrying the iconic actor Clark Gable. Their relationship was revered and highly covered by the media, but despite their great love, it wasn’t always easy being married to a lady’s man. What did she do in service of her country, and how did Carole Lombard die?

“A Cute-Looking Little Tomboy”

On October 6, 1908, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Carole Lombard was born under the name Jane Alice Peters. Her parents were Fredric and Elizabeth Peters, both of whom came from generational wealth, and she had two older brothers, Fredric Jr. and John. Jane’s early childhood was very privileged and social, filled with parties, sporting events, and community activities.

One-year-old Carole Lombard firmly grasps her doll as her picture is taken.
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Jane was an entertainer from a young age, always dancing around for the grown-ups at her mother’s events. Her mother always told her that girls could do anything boys could, so Jane grew into quite the tomboy determined to compete with her brothers, whom she greatly admired. Sadly, not all was perfect in paradise, and her parents’ marriage soon fell apart.

Moving Out West

In 1915, Elizabeth Peters decided to move her children to California for an extended vacation, which became permanent. Fred, their father, stayed behind in Fort Wayne, hoping to convince his wife to return, to no avail. Elizabeth and her kids set up their new life in Los Angeles, where Jane continued to get into trouble, ruining her dresses, being unladylike.

Carole Lombard as a young girl, poses with her mother and brothers for a portrait.
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Ultimately, being a tomboy paid off for Jane, who was spotted playing baseball by a neighbor who called over director Allan Dawn. He hired twelve-year-old Jane to appear in her first feature film, A Perfect Crime. Dawn shared that Jane was “a cute-looking little tomboy… knocking the hell out of the other kids, playing better baseball than they were.”

A Screen Test for Charlie Chaplin

After she enjoyed acting in A Perfect Crime so much, Elizabeth encouraged Jane to audition for other films, to no success. However, when Jane was fifteen, opportunities arose when Charlie Chaplin asked her to do a screen test for his upcoming film, Gold Rush. Jane didn’t get the role but auditioning for such an acclaimed filmmaker gained her more attention, and in 1924 she was approached by 20th Century Fox.

Carole Lombard is leaning on timbers on set.
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Fox signed the sixteen-year-old to a contract and forced her to change her name. Jane settled on the first name Carole and the surname Lombard- after a family friend. For years the media misspelled her name as Carol without the E. She finally had her foot in the door!

“Little Bag of Tricks”

Lombard’s career kicked off in silent features in 1925. The budding actress mostly played bit parts or appeared as an extra. She later reflected that her early acting was terrible and shared she never knew what to do with her hands. Carole said she played all roles alike, developing signature mannerisms that the press called “Lombardesque.”

Carole Lombard and Her Dog.
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Lombard later admitted, “of course it was all wrong, but I was developing something I badly needed, confidence in my little bag of tricks.” Her first leading role was in the silent picture, Marriage in Transit, opposite Edmund Lowe. Carole claimed she was “pretty terrible in the picture” and described how she had overacted and hadn’t empathized with her character at all.

A Man’s World

Behind the scenes of her early films, Carole endured some uncomfortable behavior at the hands of male costars and studio executives alike. Carole never revealed what exactly happened and who had harassed her, but she hinted at the inappropriate things big stars had put her through on film sets.

Carole Lombard is surrounded by Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Ricardo Cortez.
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The comedian shared that she put her guard up and tried to act like the class clown to deflect unwanted advances and protect herself. When that didn’t work, she pretended to be one of the guys, cussing and acting unfriendly; this wasn’t 100% successful but still minimized the propositions somewhat.

Cut From Nose to Cheek

Lombard’s contract with Fox wasn’t renewed when the first year was up. Many believe that the reason for this was a large scar on her face that Carole sustained from a car accident. However, the accident occurred over a year later, in 1927. She had been on a date when her beau crashed into another car on Santa Monica Boulevard.

Carole Lombard is covering her face.
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The automobile’s windshield broke, and glass cut Lombard from nose to cheek across her eye. After corrective surgery and an extended recuperation period, Carole was ready to return to acting but feared the scar would end her career.

“Carole of the Curves”

Luckily, at the time, she was under contract with Mack Sennett, who made sure to hide the scar with makeup and lighting. Mark, otherwise known as the King of Comedy, rebranded her as “Carole of the Curves” to draw attention to the pleasant features she had away from her face.

Mack Sennett poses with his actresses, including Carole.
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Carole became part of Sennett’s company, the “Bathing Beauties,” and got her start in slapstick comedy. Despite initially being reserved about making her foray into comedy, her time working for Sennett was “the turning point” of Lombard’s career. It paved her way to becoming the queen of Hollywood’s screwball comedies.

Breaking Out as a Comedian

After being cast as the lead in several Pathé Exchange productions like Me, Gangster, Carole was promoted to talking films and participated in High Voltage. She then starred in two films alongside Robert Armstrong, which were very successful. In 1930, the up-and-coming star appeared in The Arizona Kid.

Carole Lombard and Warner Baxter in the Arizona Kid.
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The film was extremely successful, and because of it, Lombard caught the eye of Paramount Pictures, which signed her to a contract. Finally, Carole’s career really kicked off, and she appeared in numerous comedies throughout the early 1930s, which brought her popularity and acclaim.

“Perfect See-Saw Love”

In 1931, Carole starred in two films, Man of the World and Ladies’ Man, opposite Hollywood star William Powell. The two had good chemistry and struck up a surprising set romance. They were an odd pair, she was a carefree, twenty-two-year-old, cussing comic, and he was a well-established, cosmopolitan, thirty-eight-year-old intellectual.

Carole Lombard and William Powell pose together on the couch.
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On June 6th of the year they met, Powell and Lombard were married. She said their “diametrically different” personalities were the secret to their “perfect see-saw love.” Their marriage gained Carole more popularity with the press, and she continued to star in major pictures, opposite legends like Gary Cooper.

No Man of Her Own

In 1932, Carole was the female lead in the film No Man of Her Own. The male lead was Clark Gable, who was one of Hollywood’s most prominent new stars. The movie was a great success, but her feelings towards her costar were lukewarm. Lombard was happily married to Powell, while Gable was with socialite Ria Franklin.

Carole Lombard and Clark Gable embrace in a scene from the film
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Carole and Clark even had a few “hot love scenes,” but the two felt no attraction for one another. They never imagined that they would be swept into a whirlwind romance and end up married in just a few years.

She Almost Married Russ Colombo

After being together for just over two years, William and Carole called it quits and got a divorce in 1933. The two ended things on a good note and stayed close friends despite ending their romance. Later Carole attributed their divorce to incompatibility. Lombard took the time to focus on her career.

Carole Lombard and Russ Colombo hold hands as they stare into each other’s eyes.
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Carole starred in many films, including The Eagle and the Hawk with Cary Grant and White Woman with Charles Laughton. The starlet began a romantic relationship with the singer Russ Colombo, whom she “would have married” had he not tragically died in a freak accident in 1934.

Lombard’s “Fiery Talent”

In 1934, Lombard’s career skyrocketed when she starred in the famous screwball comedy Twentieth Century. Her second cousin, Howard Hawks, directed the film. Hawks thought she was “hilarious and uninhibited” and tutored her throughout the production, encouraging Lombard to relax, be herself and stop overacting.

John Barrymore and Carole Lombard in a still from
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For her performance in Twentieth Century, Carole received rave reviews and was praised by critics as a “fiery talent.” The film’s success propelled her into more screwball comedies like Hands Across the Table, in which she starred alongside Fred MacMurray. They had excellent chemistry and continued to make three other movies together.

Starring Opposite Her Ex-Husband

Shockingly, in 1936, three years after divorcing, Carole starred opposite her ex-husband William in the screwball comedy My Man Godfrey. Powell was actually the one who insisted Lombard was the only woman for the role, genuinely proving that they had put their differences aside and were friends.

William Powell is serving Carole Lombard breakfast in bed in a scene from 'My Man Godfrey.'
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Their on-screen reunion was so successful that both parties were nominated for Academy Awards for My Man Godfrey. William joked that their characters’ crazy, hysterical romance was like their former real-life marriage. Carole became known for swearing between takes and adding curse words into her lines, making for hilarious bloopers.

“Who Do You Think You Are, Clark Gable?”

After running into one another in 1936 at the star-studded Mayfair Ball, former costars Carole Lombard and Clark Gable began seeing each other. The evening of the ball, they shared a dance and couldn’t stop flirting.

Gable and Lombard sit beside each other during an event.
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At the end of the night, Clark invited Carole up to his hotel room, to which she answered, “Who do you think you are, Clark Gable?” Gable was still married to Ria at the time, yet he and Lombard couldn’t help falling head over heels. The two kept their romance secret until 1938.

Carole and Clark

At some point, Gable and his wife separated, yet she wouldn’t give him a divorce. Meanwhile, Carole and Clark went public with their relationship and became the talk of the town. In March 1939, Clark and Ria’s divorce was finalized after he offered her a settlement of $500,000. Thirteen days later, he married Carole.

Carole Lombard and Clark Gable grin for photographers following their wedding.
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Gable was in the midst of filming Gone with the Wind and took a break from production to elope with Lombard in Arizona. Soon they moved into their new ranch in Encino, California, where they often went hunting and spent time in the great outdoors.

Laughs, Gags, and Gifts

During her relationship with Clark, Carole tried to take roles that wouldn’t interfere with their plans together. The couple was inseparable and was never apart for more than a week throughout their entire marriage. They swiftly became Hollywood’s favorite duo, known for their laugh-filled, loving connection.

Carole Lombard and Clark Gable sit in the back of a vehicle on set.
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Carole and Clark’s nicknames for each other were Ma and Pa, and when forced to spend time apart due to their work, Gable and Lombard would constantly send funny gifts to make each other laugh. It became a tradition for them to surprise each other with gags and pranks.

Ma and Pa

Despite their parental nicknames, Ma and Pa, Carole and Clark never had children together. Unfortunately, this wasn’t for lack of trying; Carole wanted very much to be a mom but could not get pregnant. The actress even sought treatment from fertility specialists at Johns Hopkins.

Gable and Lombard on their horse ranch.
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Thankfully, they had each other, and that was enough. By then, Gable was Hollywood’s favorite star at the peak of his career, and Lombard was the queen of comedy. In 1937 Carole became the highest-paid star in Hollywood, earning $450,000 less than a decade after the Great Depression.

Personally Thanked by Franklin D. Roosevelt

The press discovered how much Lombard was making and reported on it unfavorably. Carole explained that 80% of her earnings went towards taxes, which made her happy because she wanted to help and improve her country. The press was impressed with her answer, and she received positive feedback for being so patriotic.

Carole Lombard meets President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office.
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Furthermore, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent her a personal letter thanking her for her comments. Carole was a massive fan of F.D.R. and a vocal liberal. Once, she even covered her conservative costar Robert Montgomery’s car with F.D.R.’s campaign stickers as a gag.

Fun, Fearless and Fashionable

Lombard was passionate about everything in her life, from politics, relationships and acting, to fashion and fun. The actress was known for her lavish parties and over-the-top events. Once, she even decorated her home like a hospital and served her guests’ food and drinks on surfaces that looked like operating tables.

A portrait of Carole Lombard.
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Despite being a lifelong tomboy, Lombard also became a glamorous style icon in the 1930s. She looked great in shorts and boots and just as beautiful in flowing gowns made by Irene, her favorite costume designer. Her look was both elegant and daring, just like her personality.

The Profane Angel

Lombard posed for about 42,000 photographs during her lifetime. According to Barbara Stanwick, Carole was so spirited and “so alive, modern, frank, and natural that she [stood] out like a beacon… in [the] odd place called Hollywood.” Carole’s lovely demeanor, mixed with her tendency to swear more than a drunken sailor, gained her the nickname “The Profane Angel.”

Lombard and Lucille Ball drive a racecar.
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Carole’s magnetism gained her many friends in Hollywood; from Bing Cosby to Robert Riskin, those she worked with admired her a lot. Lombard was very close with Lucille Ball, who looked up to her. Carole helped Lucy score her most significant breakthrough roles.

Not Friends With Everyone

However, Carole wasn’t friends with everyone. When Harry Cohn, the notorious head of Colombia Pictures, made unwelcome advances towards her, Lombard concocted a plan to make him stop. Supposedly, she rushed into his office while he was in a meeting and yelled while removing layers of clothing, “I’ve decided to say yes!”

Portrait of Harry Cohn.
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Clearly, Cohn never made a pass at her again. Carole also tricked Fredric March when he tried to sleep with her. She let him into her changing room, but when he picked up her skirt, he encountered a banana-shaped toy she’d put between her legs to prank him.

Dramatic Efforts

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Lombard tried to move out of comedy and focus on more dramatic roles. She starred alongside Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 film Made for Each Other, but it was a box-office failure despite favorable reviews. The same year, she starred with Cary Grant in the picture In Name Only, which was a success.

Carole Lombard and Cary Grant sit in a living room in a scene from ‘In Name Only.’
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After a few less popular dramas, Carole accepted that her “name doesn’t sell tickets to serious pictures” and returned to comedy. Her first comedic film in years was Mr. and Mrs. Smith, directed by the famous Alfred Hitchcock.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

For Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Lombard was chosen to portray Mrs. Smith opposite the talented Robert Montgomery; Carole also recommended that the producers hire Hitchcock to direct the film, despite it being outside his usual genre. Lombard knew Hitchcock through David O. Selznick and wanted to work with him.

Hitchcock and Lombard behind the scenes of Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
Source: RKO Radio Pictures

Hitchcock claimed he only agreed as a favor to Carole. The film was a huge success, and fans were excited that Lombard was back in comedy. Because of their friendship, when it came time to direct Hitchcock’s signature cameo in the film, Carole was chosen to direct the director.

Sir, You Are No Gentleman

Even though everything seemed perfect in Carole’s life and marriage on the surface, not all was well. Carole and Clark suffered two miscarriages and eventually stopped trying to have children. The actress was devastated by her losses and even more so when she suspected that Gable wasn’t faithful.

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard sit beside each other.
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Many believed that Gable was an adulterer and a ladies’ man and thought he was cheating on Carole with Lana Turner. The reason for doubting Gable was apparent; he was known for his conquests such as Loretta Young, Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, and even Nancy Davis (the future Nancy Raegan).

To Be or Not to Be

After Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Carole didn’t appear in a film until 1942, when she decided to star in the satire To Be or Not to Be. It was a dark comedy about the occupation of Poland in WWII, which was still going on and, therefore, a touchy subject.

Carole Lombard and Jack Benny in a still from ‘To Be Or Not To Be.’
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Lombard chose the role because of its political significance; she firmly believed America should join the war effort and aid their allies overseas. The actress loved acting in the satire, in which she played a Polish actress who tricks the occupying troops. Little did she know, the role would be her last.

Something for Her Country

Carole was significantly affected by WWII. Many believed that mocking the enemy in a film like To Be or Not to Be was risky. But Carole did it anyway, despite the danger of being put on an enemy death list, as Charlie Chaplin had been for making The Great Dictator.

Lombard prepares to speak backstage.
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After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Lombard knew that she had to do something to aid her country in the war effort. So, after shooting To Be or Not to Be, she joined the Hollywood Victory Committee and set out on tour to promote war bonds.

Carole’s War Bond Tour

Carole’s war bond tour was in the state where she was born, Indiana. The actress was joined by her mother Elizabeth and her friend Otto Winkler, who was her husband’s agent. Clark Gable didn’t join them, as he was in the middle of filming Somewhere I’ll Find You.

Lombard and others hold a Bond Rally.
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The tour was a great success, and on one evening, Lombard managed to raise as much as two million dollars in war bonds for the United States, far more than F.D.R. had expected she would. On January 16th, 1942, the tour was finished, and the time came to return home.

Rushing to Home to Clark

Bess, Carole’s mother, wanted to take a train home. But Carole was desperate to return to California. She was worried that her husband was cheating on her with his costar, Lana Turner. So, instead of taking a train, Bess, Otto, and Carole boarded T.W.A. Flight 3 home.

Clarke Gable and Carole Lombard, sitting together wearing heavy coats and blankets.
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The Douglas aircraft made a stop in Las Vegas, Nevada, to refuel en route to California. It was a clear, cloudless night, yet somehow the aircraft went off course and neared the Spring Mountain Range, where it crashed into a cliff on Potosi Mountain at an altitude of around 7,770 feet.

How Did Carol Lombard Die?

Everyone on board T.W.A. Flight 3 was killed instantly in the crash, including Carole Lombard, her mother Bess, and Otto Winkler. Aside from them, fifteen United States Army Air Corps and four airplane crew members also lost their lives that fateful night.

Soldiers stand near the scene of the air crash that took the life of Carole Lombard.
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The aircraft veered off course because instead of using radio navigation, they had been using compass heading. Furthermore, the pilot had less than ideal visibility the night of the crash because most airway light beacons were turned off so that potential enemy bomber aircrafts flying from the Pacific wouldn’t have light beacons either.

Fallen in the Line of Duty

The tragic death of Carole Lombard at age thirty-three rocked the nation. Carole’s passing was proclaimed a war casualty, and her obituary said she’d “died in the line of duty” since she was returning from a defense mission. Will Hays pronounced that “Carole Lombard gave her life in the service of America.”

Lombard is surrounded by soldiers in a still from the film To Be Or Not To Be.
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The release of her final film, To Be or Not to Be, was delayed out of respect to Lombard. When the movie came out in March 1942, it received mixed reviews, although Carole’s performance was praised. Nowadays, it’s considered one of the greatest comedies in history.

Clark Gable Was Never the Same

When he heard the news of the plane crash, Clark Gable charted an aircraft and flew directly to the site of impact, where he identified the bodies of his wife, her mother, and Winkler, who had been his best man at their wedding. At their funeral, Gable was “white-faced and stricken.”

Clark Gable leaves his hotel after the notice of his wife’s death.
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Clark lost twenty pounds and was devasted, inconsolable, and unable to process the loss of his dear love. According to Ester Williams, “he was never the same.” Gable, shaken to his core, soon joined the war effort in tribute to his fallen wife.

Gable’s Service in WWII

When she was alive, Carole had often asked Clark to join the war effort like many of his contemporaries, such as Jimmy Stewart, but he had declined. After she died in support of her country, he felt compelled to respect her wishes and joined the U.S. Army Air Force in 1942, where he trained to become an officer.

Capt. Clark Gable speaks into a microphone as he urges support for the war.
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Gable received a special mission as part of the Air Force’s Motion Picture Unit. He became head of a cinema unit that filmed aerial gunners in combat. Alongside his friend, cinematographer Andrew McIntyre, Clark captained five missions before his resignation in 1947.

Replaced by Joan Crawford

Before her death, Carole Lombard had been cast as the lead role in the film They All Kissed the Bride. Sadly, she died before filming began and was replaced by Joan Crawford. In honor of Lombard, Crawford donated her entire salary from the movie to the American Red Cross.

Joan Crawford in the 1942 film
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Crawford and Gable had a complicated past and had been friends and lovers for many years. Crawford was rumored to be jealous of Gable’s marriage to Lombard. However, Joan greatly supported Clark after Carole’s death and acted as his closest confidant and friend. All was forgiven between the two costars.

I Love Lombard

Lucille Ball was also devasted that her close friend and greatest supporter passed away. Ball praised Lombard, calling her a “fine actress” and “a successful woman.” Lucy professed that Carole always had “a great desire, an overwhelming motive, all the time, year after year, to make people happy.”

A portrait of Lucille Ball.
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Lucy believed that Carole was not only her role model but her “guardian angel.” The I Love Lucy star shared that when she was considering starring in the T.V. show, she dreamt that Carole told her, “Take a chance, honey. Give it a whirl!” which prompted her to try.

Gable’s Fourth and Fifth Wives

Although he had many affairs after Carole’s death, Clark waited seven years before marrying again. His fourth wife was the British actress and model, Sylvia Ashley; their union lasted only three years. Perhaps Gable wasn’t quite over Lombard because after her death, “he rode his motorcycle recklessly, drank and smoked heavily.”

Sylvia Ashley and Clark Gable / Kay Williams and Clark Gable
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In 1955, Gable married for the fifth and final time to actress Kay Williams and became the stepdad of her two kids. They were together until his early death in 1960. Four months after Gable died, Williams gave birth to the actor’s only son, John Clark Gable.

Clark Was Buried Beside Carole

Despite remarrying after her death, Clark never stopped loving Carole. When the star died at the age of fifty-nine from heart failure, he was buried next to Lombard in Glendale, California, at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. On Carole’s other side, her loving and supportive mother, Bess Peters, was buried.

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard share a laugh.
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Clark’s marriage to Carole had been the happiest time of his life, and he wanted to be laid to rest beside her for eternity, proving that he truly did love her until the day he died. After her death many years later, Kay Williams was buried on Clark’s other side.

Gable and Lombard

In 1976, a biographical movie about Carole and Clark’s relationship was released. The film is called Gable and Lombard and dramatizes their romance. The film isn’t entirely accurate, and in it, the couple meets at a party rather than on a film set. They also are portrayed as severely disliking each other at first, which wasn’t the case in real life.

The movie poster for ‘Gable and Lombard.’
Source: Universal Pictures

The film received unfavorable reviews and was called a “mushy, old-fashioned extravaganza.” Unfortunately, the movie focuses more on Clark Gable and his career than on the beautiful love story between the two Hollywood legends.

Carole Lombard’s Legacy

Carole Lombard was more than a glamorous Hollywood starlet. She was spunky, funny, and inappropriate. She was the perfect mix of tomboy and ladylike and made friends wherever she went. Even during the hardest of times, Carole knew how to put a smile on everyone’s face.

Carole Lombard as Princess Olga in 'The Princess Comes Across.'
Photo by George Hurrell/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Lombard is considered an influential comedian and feminist. She was before her time and always heeded her mother, believing girls can do anything boys can do. Lombard has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and is ranked 23rd on the American Film Institute’s list of the 25 greatest American female screen legends.

An American Hero

Lombard influenced screwball comedy so much; she is considered a pioneer of the genre. Her legacy lives on in the performances of those whom she inspired. From Lucille Ball to Lisa Kudrow and Amy Poehler, actresses have paid homage to the original queen of comedy.

Carole Lombard stands framed by a doorway.
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Aside from her outstanding comedic contributions, Carole Lombard was also an American hero who fell while serving her country. She did everything she could to aid in WWII and raised immeasurable funds for the cause. Carole was a shining star of positivity and patriotism and will always be remembered.