Hard-boiled card sharp Gable splits the city to dodge a persistent vice cop and winds up in a hick town highlighted by lovely Lombard, who’s bored to the point of wagering sex versus marriage on a Gable coin toss. The stars ooze charisma in a simple but well-crafted story, pleasing to the eye, and well-paced despite running over eighty minutes. Paramount borrowed Wesley Ruggles from RKO to direct, and they were so pleased by his effort that within a month they bought the remaining portion of his contract.
Of course, the highlight of No Man of Her Own is the teaming of stars Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. That isn’t what Paramount had planned though. For months the studio promoted the film as a Gable-Miriam Hopkins pairing, but Hopkins pulled herself out of the movie in November with the excuse of “not liking the story” (“For Legal”), though modern sources say she cared even less for the billing, which featured Gable’s name over hers. Believable.
Lombard, meanwhile, was on Paramount’s naughty list after refusing a loan-out to Warner Bros. to appear opposite James Cagney in the film ultimately released as Hard to Handle (1933). Mary Brian was given that part instead. There were several inter-studio loans going on at this time, and Lombard’s was in return for Paramount’s use of Warner Bros. star George Brent in Luxury Liner (1933). Variety reported that Paramount refused to tolerate Lombard’s insubordination, especially since they considered Hard to Handle a good role, and she was taken off salary. Well, Paramount must have taken more stock in Miriam Hopkins’ opinions at this time than Carole Lombard’s, because Lombard was quickly back to work replacing Hopkins opposite Gable in No Man of Her Own.Speaking of stars on loan out, Gable obviously came from MGM where he had just appeared in Red Dust (1932) opposite Jean Harlow. In the special introduction featuring Robert Osborne on the Universal Cinema Classics DVD release of No Man of Her Own, Osborne tells a story crediting Gable’s Paramount loan to Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst, because Miss Davies had to have Paramount property Bing Crosby opposite her in her next movie, Going Hollywood (1933). The Gable loan is explained the same way in an article on TCM’s website (and other places as well). I wasn't able to trace this story to its original source, though the trade papers point to an alternative with better timing.
No Man of Her Own originated when Paramount paid a reported $7,500 for the Val Lewton novel No Bed of Her Own in May 1932. Famed for his work as a producer at RKO in the 1940s, at this time Lewton worked in MGM’s publicity department. Vanguard Press published his novel in January 1932, and the New York Daily Mirror paid the second highest price to date to serialize it in their newspaper beginning that February. The trade papers seemed surprised to report Paramount’s plans to star George Raft and Adrianne Allen, “virtually screen unknowns,” in their adaptation of the Lewton novel. In May, Variety reported Paramount executives felt Raft and Allen could be built up through their next few releases since No Bed of Their Own wasn’t scheduled for production until that October.
“Swap March and Gable,” read the unambiguous title on a brief entry in Film Daily, also in May 1932. MGM was borrowing Paramount’s Fredric March to star opposite Norma Shearer in Smilin’ Through (1932), “and in return MGM will lend Clark Gable to Paramount for a picture to be made in the near future.” The future arrived just four days later when that same publication placed Gable opposite Miriam Hopkins in in an entry titled “Gable’s Paramount Film.” George Raft and Adrianne Allen received no further mention in connection to the project.
Now, we’re squarely within the pre-Code era, that time between 1930-34 when there was lax enforcement of the Production Code. But I did say lax, and there was a Production Code, and No Man of Her Own was briefly abandoned because of it. Lewton’s novel was about a secretary’s fall from grace (Excellent summary HERE, by someone who read the novel), and won’t sound at all familiar to anyone who has actually seen No Man of Her Own. Here’s why. In July, back when the project was still under the original Lewton title, the Hays office rejected the script as too torrid. The title change followed, but by late September Paramount decided that their made-over script was “too tame.” Variety reported that Paramount paid two weeks salary to freelance players assigned to the film when they dismissed them.I’m definitely curious about that original script, because Ruggles managed to slip quite a bit of sin and skin into the finished movie. You get Dorothy Mackaill flouncing about in a negligee that I’d swear I could see through, and which is so flimsy that Gable’s character even comments upon it: “That thing you’ve got on is pretty thin, but I’ve got tough skin and I don’t feel it.” Later we get an extended view of Carole Lombard stripped down to her underwear, and then even a pair of shower scenes: one with Lombard, one with Gable! Now, you don’t see much skin beyond bare arms and backs in these shower scenes, and the highlight actually turns out to be Lombard’s delightful laugh, much more an all-out guffaw than any ladylike titter. Then there’s Lombard’s look of satisfied ecstasy as she reclines the morning after her marriage. None of this stuff would have made the grade a couple of years later.
Less than two weeks after the announcement abandoning the film, Paramount borrowed director Wesley Ruggles from RKO to direct it. Gable and Hopkins were still listed as co-stars by that time. Then Hopkins bolted and was replaced by Lombard that November, and it was full-steam ahead for the production—until a flu bug cut down several Hollywood stars, including Clark Gable and Carole Lombard later that month. The completed film premiered at the Paramount theater in New York, December 30, 1932.
Meanwhile, looping back to the Gable-for-Bing Crosby story, it was another fifty-one weeks before MGM released Going Hollywood (1933) starring Crosby and Marion Davies. In fact, Davies had appeared in Peg o’ My Heart (1933) prior to that, and Crosby had appeared in two Paramount features (plus three shorts) in 1933, prior to his loan to MGM. According to Crosby biographer Gary Giddins, Crosby was loaned to MGM at the request of Arthur Freed, who wanted him to put over a song he had written with Nacio Herb Brown. Giddins concludes, “Paramount agreed to the loan-out, reasoning that a little MGM stardust could not hurt the value of its property; besides, Hearst always paid his way.”
Care to hear a little about the movie? It’s pretty fun, and far from the nudie show that I may have led you to believe it was a couple of paragraphs earlier.
It sets itself up well with a strong opening scene around the card table. Kay Everly (Mackaill) fawns over Mr. Morton (Walter Walker), while her uncle Charlie (Grant Mitchell) jokes with her, and the supposedly inexperienced player (Gable) seated on the other side of him. Another player, Vargas (Paul Ellis) sits with his back to us. The Gable character, Babe Stewart, fumbles with his shuffle before sneezing, while Charlie jokes with Mr. Morton. Babe takes the final hand and Mr. Morton happily pays his share even after Babe suggests they forget about it and just toss their chips back in the pot. Morton promises Kay $1,500 towards the $1,000 coat she wanted while making his way towards the door of her apartment. The four men take the elevator down together, joking and laughing all the way to the sidewalk. They shake hands, and each go their separate ways.
Moments after their departure a cab pulls up in front of the apartment building and Charlie gets out. Then Babe joins him. Then Vargas. Everybody except Mr. Morton. Without speaking to one another they march back to the elevator and ride back up to Kay’s apartment. By this time Kay has changed into that sexy outfit that I mentioned earlier.
“You fishcake,” Babe says to Charlie. “Get some tomato sauce for this guy, will you, Vargas, and feed him to the cat.”
Babe’s angry that Charlie stacked the cards too close together, leading to Babe’s winning the hand with a Jack-high over Morton’s ten kicker. Too obvious, he thinks. Then he scolds Charlie for being too slow to distract after Babe sneezed.
“Do I have to send you to sneezing school?” Babe asks.
Charlie is apologetic, and Babe’s quick to forgive. Not so quick with Kay, who he’s had enough of. Kay drives Charlie and Vargas out of the building so she can be alone with Babe, scolding Charlie as he goes to kiss her goodbye: “Next time you play uncle, cut out those wet kisses.”
Babe reluctantly stays behind to make things clear to Kay, who threatens to jump off the roof by the time he’s done. Babe puts her down hard, but on his way to the door the bell rings. He drops his coat and welcomes Mr. Collins (J. Farrell MacDonald) into Kay’s apartment. Babe and Collins parry politely for a few moments until Collins explains he’s seen Mr. Morton downstairs and told him how Babe and his crew had just fleeced him. Babe is confident, knowing Mr. Morton doesn’t want the bad publicity that would come with pressing charges, but Collins vows to bust him eventually. Collins’s departure puts Babe on the run.
“Heads a boat, tails a train,” Babe says to Charlie before flipping a coin. “Train it is. I never go back on a coin.”
At the train station Babe is overwhelmed by the number of possible destinations, so he closes his eyes and drops the point of his pencil inside a schedule. Glendale it is.
He arrives in the small, quiet town just before the fifteen-minute mark of No Man of Her Own. He shows off around the depot for a bit before we move to the Randall home, where daughter Connie (Lombard) sounds bored talking to a boy on the phone, and exasperated by her mother’s pointless scolding. Glendale is too small for Connie Randall.
“Sometimes I go out in the woods and scream just to keep from bursting,” she tells her family.
Connie leaves the house stopping along the way to roll dice against Charley Grapewin’s newsstand operator. She catches the attention of Babe Stewart, standing just a few feet away. After Connie leaves, Babe asks the clerk who she is. “Cute trick,” old Grapewin says, “but, oh boy, is she a handful.” He tells Babe that Connie is a librarian, so Babe heads off to the library.
Babe sticks to Connie from there, ingratiating himself with her family at Church the next morning, then tagging along home with the Randalls for some vanilla ice cream in their parlor. When he hears Connie is headed to the lake, it’s no surprise to find Babe getting directions there from the old-timer at the newsstand. If I’ve made his pursuit sound desperate, it’s not. It’s determined, and Babe is never anything but one hundred percent confident. He only wavers after Connie remains elusive while alone with him at the cabin on the lake. He’s finally ready to quit when she scolds him, telling him he should give a girl a chance. “Have you ever gambled?” Connie asks.
“Heads we do,” Gable says, coin in hand, “tails we—”
“Get married,” she says, her voice excited as she interrupts him.
“Right. I never go back on a coin.”
They take their vows almost exactly halfway into the movie. From there it’s back to New York, where Babe tries to shield Connie from his gambling activities, while Connie tries to tame a husband.
Connie comes to believe Babe is a stockbroker, and she assumes a very successful one by the amount of money he can afford to lose at cards. She soon realizes that Charlie and Vargas always play with Babe, while the other men—who always lose—never return a second time. Eventually she spots Babe planting a rigged deck of cards, and she winds up interfering and costing him a bundle. When they have it out it seems their marriage may be done, especially when Babe storms out of their apartment, but despite Gable’s scary scowls, you know his Babe has completely fallen for his small town wife. The resolution to the story isn’t exactly a shocker, but it is neat, tidy, and believable.
Besides Gable and Lombard, No Man of Her Own provides a great showcase for character actor Grant Mitchell, who isn’t as folksy or fatherly as he usually is. He’s as crooked as Babe, but without the fury. More like a loyal sidekick to the Gable character. Third-billed Dorothy Mackaill winds up underused after the opening scenes, returning only once later in the movie to go head to head with the Lombard character. Charley Grapewin provides a couple of chuckles, but otherwise, besides J. Farrell McDonald, none of the rest of the cast has much to do.
Audiences and critics alike were pleased. “Just a nice little piece of entertainment,” Film Daily said, while Variety praised it as “an audience picture of better than average appeal,” adding that that appeal should draw nationwide, “which counts a lot in these days of regional reactions.” New York’s Daily News explained that last remark in describing No Man of Her Own as “a snappy, always entertaining program picture, mixing small-town placidity with big city swindling.” The other New York dailies agreed, the American going so far as to call the film “a Hollywood holiday for the fans to cheer about.”
As a Gable fan I enjoyed his pursuit of Lombard as much as the card-playing. Young Gable, sans mustache, keeps up the rough persona he had been honing over his last several films, from A Free Soul (1931) right through Red Dust. He never has to get tough with any of the fellows in this one, but he flashes his temper throughout at his partners and the women in his life. He’s seething about half of the time, only slowing down to whisper sexy sayings in Lombard’s ear. No complaints here over Lombard either. She may not be a favorite, but she’s excellent in No Man of Her Own.
The finish, which I won’t spoil, is hilarious. All I’ll say is that it doesn’t end with the expected kiss, but rather Gable raising his voice as he tells one lie after another while a melodramatic tune begins to swell over his voice. Perfect touch for these characters.
Putting a cherry on top of the Gable-Lombard lore surrounding No Man of Her Own, it’s the film that saw Lombard present Gable with the joke-gift of a ham after production wrapped. It’s also the movie where Gable coined his pet term of “Ma” for Lombard. But the pair remained co-workers and nothing more at the time of No Man of Her Own. It wasn't until the Mayfair Ball in January 1936, that Gable told Lombard, “I go for you, Ma.” Their affair soon ignited and after Gable finally secured a divorce, he and Lombard were married, March 29, 1939.
It looks like my copy of No Man of Her Own, a 2007 DVD release from Universal Studios Home Entertainment, remains this movie's most recent home video release. The DVD includes the Robert Osborne introduction that I mentioned within the post. It's also the source of all of my screen captures.
If you'd like to read more about No Man of Her Own, do check out posts by Danny at Pre-Code.com, John at Twenty Four Frames, and Laura at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings. Everybody still likes this one!
- “Clark Gable in ‘No Man of Her Own.’” Film Daily. December 31, 1932, 4.
- “For Legal Advice.” Variety. November 22, 1932, 6.
- “Flu Floors 28 Film Flock.” Variety. November 29, 1932, 6.
- Giddins, Gary. "Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams - The Early Years 1903-1940." New York: Warner Books, 2001. Web. https://books.google.com/books?id=MRt-5GuyqMkC.
- “New York Reviews.” Hollywood Reporter. January 4, 1933, 2.
- “Par Ditches ‘No Man’ After Story Troubles.” Variety. September 27, 1932, 4.
- “Par Shelves ‘No Bed.’” Variety. November 1, 1932, 27.
- “Par Sides With WB in Lombard Walkout on Pic.” Variety. October 18, 1932, 3.
- “Par Taking Stuffing From ‘Bed’s’ Mattress.” Variety. June 21, 1932, 23.
- “Para. Borrows Ruggles.” Film Daily. October 7, 1932, 2.
- “Par’s ‘Bed’ For Hopkins. Variety. May 3, 1932, 31.
- “Par’s Hazy ‘Bed’ Cast.” Variety. May 24, 1932, 6.
- “Pictures: No Man of Her Own.” Variety. January 3, 1933, 27.
- “Ruggles Contract Bought.” Film Daily. November 9, 1932, 7.
- “Sapolioing ‘Bed.’” Variety. July 19, 1932, 4.
- “Swap March and Gable.” Film Daily. May 27, 1932, 2.
- “Title’s Worth It.” Variety. February 23, 1932, 49.