Lombard was particularly noted for the zaniness of her performances,described as a “natural prankster, a salty-tongued straight-shooter, a feminist precursor and one of the few stars who was beloved by the technicians and studio functionaries who worked with her”.Life magazine noted that her film personality transcended to real life, “her conversation, often brilliant, is punctuated by screeches, laughs, growls, gesticulations and the expletives of a sailor’s parrot”. Graham Greene praised the “heartbreaking and nostalgic melodies” of her faster-than-thought delivery. “Platinum blonde, with a heart-shaped face, delicate, impish features and a figure made to be swathed in silver lamé, Lombard wriggled expressively through such classics of history as Twentieth Century and My Man Godfrey.
Lombard was born into a wealthy family in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but was raised in Los Angeles by her single mother. At 12, she was recruited by the film director Allan Dwan and made her screen debut in A Perfect Crime (1921). Eager to become an actress, she signed a contract with the Fox Film Corporation at age 16, but mainly played bit parts. She was dropped by Fox after a car accident left a scar on her face. Lombard appeared in 15 short comedies for Mack Sennett between 1927 and 1929 and then began appearing in feature films such as High Voltage and The Racketeer. After a successful appearance in The Arizona Kid (1930), she was signed to a contract with Paramount Pictures.
Paramount quickly began casting Lombard as a leading lady, primarily in drama films. Her fame increased when she married William Powell in 1931, but the pair divorced two years later. A turning point in Lombard’s career came in 1934 when she starred in Howard Hawks’ pioneering screwball comedy Twentieth Century. The actress found her niche in this genre, and continued to appear in films such as Hands Across the Table (1935) – forming a popular partnership with Fred MacMurray, My Man Godfrey (1936), for which she was Oscar-nominated, and Nothing Sacred (1937). During this period, Lombard married “the King of Hollywood”, Clark Gable, and the pair was treated in the media as a celebrity super couple. Keen to win an Oscar, at the end of the decade, Lombard began to move towards more serious roles. Unsuccessful in this aim, she returned to comedy in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) – her final film role.
Lombard’s career was cut short when she died at the age of 33 in an aircraft crash on Mount Potosi, Nevada, while returning from a War Bond tour. Today, she is remembered as one of the definitive actresses of the screwball comedy genre and American comedy, and ranks among the American Film Institute’s greatest female stars of classic Hollywood cinema.