Directed by Wesley Ruggles, No Man Of Her Own is a fantastic and often overlooked pre-code about the unlikely romance between Clark Gable’s unscrupulous cardsharp Babe Stewart, and small-town librarian Connie Randall, played by Carole Lombard. It has no relation to the 1950 Barbara Stanwyck film of the same name.
The film began life as an adaptation of Val Lewton’s pulp novel No Bed Of Her Own. Set amidst the greed and desperation of New York in 1931, the story follows the struggles of hard-boiled blonde Rose Mahoney after she loses her job and home in the Great Depression. Previously a secretary, the lack of jobs in the precarious economy forces Rose into a downward spiral, which leads to her becoming a prostitute in order to survive. The salacious novel became a bestseller upon its January 1932 release, and was serialised in the New York Daily Mirror beginning the following month. Lewton himself – at the time of the novel’s release employed by the MGM publicity department – would later become known for producing a string of low-budget cult horror films for RKO in the 1940s.
Paramount Pictures quickly snapped up the screen rights (for the reported price of $7,500), envisioning the film as a vehicle for Miriam Hopkins. However, it quickly became apparent that the content of Lewton’s novel – although it could have made a great movie – was practically unfilmable in the contemporary cultural climate, and the original script was rejected by the Hays Office. The officially mandated Motion Picture Production Code wouldn’t exist for another two years, but Hollywood films were already experiencing pressure from the censors. The studios were frequently releasing films in this period which censorship groups took offence to, but it was felt that the story of No Bed Of Her Own would be a step too far, and after further drafts produced a script which the studio felt was disappointingly tame, Paramount decided to scrap it entirely. It was replaced with a story by Benjamin Glazer – who had won an Oscar for his work on 7th Heaven (1929) – and Edmund Goulding, still a burgeoning director at this point in his career, but already an accomplished screenwriter. The screenplay was completed by Milton Herbert Gropper and Maurine Dallas Watkins, who is best remembered today for writing the stage play Chicago in 1926.
The film was retitled No Man Of Her Own, and Paramount intended George Raft to star alongside Miriam Hopkins. However, also in the early stages of production was the upcoming Marion Davies picture, which would be released as Going Hollywood (1933). Davies was determined that her co-star be Bing Crosby, who was at the time one of Paramount’s top male stars. MGM offered a trade for Clark Gable, whose own star was quickly on the rise. When Gable arrived at Paramount, he was given a stack of scripts to look over, and ultimately it was No Man Of Her Own which caught his eye. Deeply aggrieved that he’d be getting top billing over her, Miriam Hopkins refused to make the film (publicly claiming it was due to her not liking the story), and a new female lead was needed.
Enter Carole Lombard. The actress had been skirting the edges of the film industry since her mid-teens, and had spent time as one of Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties between 1927 and 1929, before being signed by Paramount in 1930. Her first film for the studio was the Buddy Rogers comedy Safety In Numbers (1930), followed by an appearance with Hopkins in Fast and Loose (also 1930). In her early years at Paramount, Lombard became known as a kind of unofficial stand-in for Miriam Hopkins; at the time, Hopkins was the significantly bigger star, of the two. When a production (or another studio) requested Hopkins, they would often be offered Lombard instead, which is how Carole came to replace her in No Man Of Her Own.
When Gable’s Babe Stewart arrives in the small town of Glendale, he’s on the run from the law, having cheated his way across the card tables of New York City. He soon runs into Connie Randall (surely the most glamorous librarian of all time), who is thoroughly discontented with the predictable drudgery of life in Glendale. The pair are soon head over heels for one another, although Connie is determined to play hard to get. Her resolve weakens when it’s time for Babe to return to New York, and she tells him to flip a coin; tails they’ll split, heads they’ll marry.
The film premiered on December 30th 1932 at the Paramount Theatre in New York, and enjoyed much success upon its general release. It was the only film Gable and Lombard would make together, and although their romance would later become the stuff of Hollywood legend, it wouldn’t begin for several years; at this time, Lombard was still married to William Powell. However, the on-set relationship of the two leads was responsible for one of my favourite old Hollywood stories. Lombard apparently hadn’t been in the best of moods during the shoot, and on the last day Gable gifted her with a pair of ballerina shoes, with an attached card which read: ‘to a true prima donna’. Lombard was a committed prankster, and she wasn’t going to take this lying down. At the wrap party, she got her revenge: she presented Gable with a big ham, crowned by a photograph of his face.
No Man Of Her Own is a great deal of fun, and deserves to be better known amongst the classic pre-codes. As a review in the March 1933 issue of Photoplay magazine put it, “Clark Gable devotees and fanciers of Carole Lombard should take to this one”.