Thursday, June 03, 2010


Centennial Tributes: Paulette Goddard

By Josh R
Depending upon which account you believe, there may have been a point at which Paulette Goddard was but a hair’s breadth away from landing the coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara. On paper, it made sense; she was the right age, she looked the part, and already was an established name with a few notable credits under her belt. Moreover, she had the right combination of kittenish sex appeal and dramatic presence that the role required. Very early on during the long, tortuous process of casting the most iconic character in all of American literature, it was abundantly clear that Paulette Goddard was more than just a pretty face. With talent, wit and beauty to spare, she was not only a credible seducer of men — she had the stubborn, willful insolence of a girl headstrong enough to think she could fight The Civil War all by herself, and enough in the way of fiery sexual bravado to reduce Atlanta to a pile of ashes without even striking a match. David O. Selznick, the impresario responsible for bringing the best-selling novel to the screen, tested her extensively for the part over a period of several months; by time she had made her final test, he was almost convinced that she could do it. Before long, the gossip columnists had already begin referring to her as “Scarlett O’Goddard.” While Wall Street had yet to recover from The Crash of `29, by 1937 Paulette Goddard had all the markings of a blue chip stock.

Sure things have a way of falling through, and there are plenty of theories as to why Goddard’s promising forward march, with the magnolia-crested lawns of Tara well within her sight, ended just a few miles shy of glory. The publicity department was not in her corner; Paulette was known as a good-time girl, and was not particularly discreet about it. Her early life story makes for a colorful read — she began her career as a frolicsome teenage adventuress bound and determined to have as much fun as possible, without worrying too much about what sort of names she was called along the way. She started as a Ziegfeld chorine — probably lying about her age to get the gig — and by the time she was 17, she had married a middle-age lumber tycoon and set her sights West. By the time prep work had begun on Gone With the Wind, she was living with Charlie Chaplin in the Hollywood hills — the status of their relationship remained, at best, ambiguous (there were some farfetched stories circulated by anxious publicists about an impromptu wedding at sea, or perhaps even in China, but the confirming paperwork remained curiously absent). She was popular and well-liked within the Hollywood community, but did not fight as hard as she might have to get to the front of the line. As a result, the starmakers — studio chiefs, agents, publicists - were slightly wary of her. It’s not that she was problematic — a consummate professional, she showed up on time, got along well with others and did her work without causing any trouble — but she may have lacked something in terms of drive and ambition. Often, it seemed as though she was more interested in having a good time than in hunkering down and putting career first. If the press had paid closer attention and conducted its research a little more thoroughly, they would have discovered that the All-American beauty with the frilly Gallic moniker — “Paulette Goddard” could have just as easily suited a countess as courtesan –— was actually Marion Levy from Queens, New York. In the 1930s, it was one thing for a Jew to run a studio; if you aimed to be a movie star, certain things were best left unacknowledged.

It is possible — even probable — that one or more of these factors contributed to the failure of Paulette Goddard’s candidacy for the most coveted acting assignment of the 20th century. Ultimately, they do not fully account for why she came up short. Simply put, Scarlett O’Hara was not a role that Paulette Goddard was ever meant to play. Certain things can be chalked up to exigent circumstances, bad timing, the vagaries of subjective taste. The casting of Scarlett O’Hara was not determined by any of those things; as ridiculous as it sounds, it was quite simply a matter of heavenly design. While Paulette Goddard had so many wonderful qualities working in her favor — beauty, talent, and a good head start on rest of the competition — the hand of divine providence had made its own selection. That’s what David O. Selznick saw in the screen tests of an unknown Englishwoman — who pursued the part not merely because she wanted it, but believed that it was hers by right — and what brought the impresario to the conclusion that there were greater forces at work than could be neatly attributed to luck and chance.

The loss of Scarlett was surely a huge professional disappointment, not least because of what came after — if destiny’s plans for Vivien Leigh were awesome in scope, they were much more modestly scaled for the second-place finisher. While there were hits aplenty — Goddard’s track record at the box office was, for a brief period, inspired — the great, career-defining role never materialized. The closest she came was Modern Times for Chaplin; while she played the sprightly gamine to perfection, it was not an assignment which utilized her full capabilities, or showed her for what she truly was — a fun-loving dame and an unpretentious sexpot. Chaplin liked her energy and pluck, but as a matter of personal vanity, insisted on keeping her wholesome; some men would prefer to believe their wives came to them as virgins (the same held true in The Great Dictator, in which Chaplin kept her light even more firmly under the bushel). At her best, Goddard could be slinky, sexy and sharp in the best sense of the word; she could land a zinger with the best of them, and was naturally funny without resorting to aggressive tactics. She had a special knack for portraying worldliness in a way that seemed playful and fun — no mean feat at a time when girls who’d been around the block were usually depicted as tawdry and sad. The best Goddard performances are built around the pleasures of foreplay — she’s not just a flirt, she’s a flirt who likes sex and the banter leading up to it, and can dish it out without feeling ashamed or sacrificing one ounce of self-respect; there are few actresses of the 1940s who portrayed so many smart-talking dames with such lightness of touch. In The Women and Hold Back the Dawn, she was a merry golddigger without a mean bone in her body, quick with a quip and entertaining enough to build an entire film around; but these were supporting roles, not leads. She would have been ideally cast in either The Lady Eve or Ball of Fire, both which went to Barbara Stanwyck — but Baby Stan had more variety as a performer and was the superior technician. Goddard might have played those parts for straight-up carnal humor, and would have done it brilliantly — Stanwyck had a great feel for comedy, but also understood complexity of characterization in a way Goddard may never fully have grasped. Sugarpuss O'Shea is Stanwyck's greatest comic creation, but there are occasional glimpses of hardness, cheapness and self-loathing in the mix as well. Goddard was great as a broad on the make, but she wasn't suited to noir — was she too expensive to play cheap?

The lack of a great lead kept her from entering the pantheon of legends, but a handful of supporting parts kept her in play and gave her opportunities to shine. In addition to The Women and Hold Back the Dawn, there was her Oscar-nominated turn as the navy nurse in So Proudly We Hail, shuttling from Pearl Harbor to battle-scarred outposts of The Pacific theater while pausing just long enough for saucy interplay with appreciative servicemen. She was once again in her element as the kind of libidinous minx who keeps a lacy black negligee in her tack kit while the rest of the girls in the unit shuffle around in shapeless regulation uniforms, but was able to step out of the mold just long enough for some finely observed moments of toughness and tenderness — it was a more fully-defined character than she was generally allowed to play, and she rose to the occasion.

Part of the problem for Goddard was the fact that, after parting ways with Chaplin and Selznick, she ultimately landed at Paramount, a shop that did not do particularly well by actresses; this was the studio that ran out of things to do with that hyper-animated sparkplug Betty Hutton in five years, Veronica Lake in less than two, and never thought to do anything at all with Dorothy Lamour beyond sandwiching her between Crosby and Hope when she wasn’t on sarong duty (of all the major female contact players at The Mountain, only Claudette Colbert flourished for an extended period of time). Goddard did better than most of her stablemates — for starters, she avoided the type of poverty and obscurity that befell both Hutton or Lake in later years — but she never plucked any plums from the Paramount orchards on the order of Sullivan’s Travels or Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. The comedy leads that did come her way — in Pot O’Gold with Jimmy Stewart and Standing Room Only with Fred MacMurray — were not at the level of Preston Sturges, who might have made fantastic use of her if given the chance.

She was bolstered by a series of huge box office hits that have about as much of a claim on posterity as Demi Moore’s money-makers of the early 1990s. In fairness, nothing she did was as bad as Indecent Proposal or Disclosure; at least two were comparable in terms of frivolity. For Cecil B. DeMille she was photographed in gorgeous technicolor and wasted as The Girl — just The Girl, and nothing more — in two big-budget action-adventure films that were less concerned with drama than with spectacle. The first, 1942’s Reap the Wild Wind, played almost like a parody of Gone With the Wind, and at least permitted her some flashes of spirit as a Southern belle salvaging ships off the Florida Keys (she wasn’t responsible for that blockbuster status of that film; audiences came to see John Wayne wrestle a giant squid.) The pre-Revolutionary war epic Unconquered, in which her flame-haired ingénue was deported to the colonies, sold into indentured servitude, harassed by savage Indians, steered over a waterfall and repeatedly groped by Gary Cooper, was the top-grossing film of 1947, and really only served to illustrate how little DeMille’s concept of directing actors had evolved since the end of the silent era. Between the two behemoths was another, much better top-grossing outing, 1945’s Kitty, a dirty-minded reworking of Pygmalion in which the heroine not only learns to refine her vowel sounds, but dispenses sexual favors frequently and liberally in her ascent to titled nobility. Goddard enjoyed herself more as a rambunctious, barefooted cockney pickpocket than as a corseted duchess in cumbersome powdered wigs — the film had a cheekiness that suited her, but in its second act the performance got smothered in a swath of lavish costuming.

The decline of the film career was less a precipitous tumble than a slow fade-out; Hollywood hadn’t yet figured out what to do with sexpots of the '40s when they were nearing their 40s. Two ambitious projects, Renoir’s Diary of a Chambermaid and Korda’s An Ideal Husband, were well-received but never quite connected with audiences, while the infamous Lucretia Borgia biopic, Bride of Vengeance, was hailed as an unqualified fiasco. She married and divorced Burgess Meredith, and the 1950s brought some B-grade films whose scripts were not commensurate with her talent. She wisely opted for retirement in favor of career rebirth in Grand Guignol; with a personality as light as a champagne cocktail, there was no sense in entering anything as heavy-handed as the Baby Jane sweepstakes. In the late '50s, she married her fourth husband, the novelist Erich Maria Remarque, amassed a modern art collection to rival J. Paul Getty’s, and wound up with more money than she really knew what to do with. She remained the life of the party well into her 60s and 70s. As a jet-setting socialite bedecked in jewels, she was just as likely to be seen on the arm of Andy Warhol at Studio 54 as she would be dining with French President Francois Mitterand on the eve of the Cannes Film Festival. Upon her death, she willed an unseemly amount of money to New York University; Goddard Hall in Washington Square is named in her honor.

David Hinton’s documentary on the making of Gone With the Wind features footage of Goddard’s screen tests for the role of Scarlett O’Hara, as well as Vivien Leigh’s. These brief snippets bear out that fact that Selznick was right to entertain serious thoughts of casting Paulette Goddard. She read well for it, better even than her other performances might lead one to suspect. She was more than beautiful enough, and had enough spark and energy to serve the major demands of the role, if not to embody its contradictions as effortlessly as Leigh did. The biggest difference between the two women observed in the test footage can be summed up very succinctly: one is playing Scarlett O’Hara, and playing her well; the other is living and breathing the part — she is Scarlett. It is obvious that Paulette Goddard wanted very badly to play the role; it is equally clear that Vivien Leigh refused to be denied it. It’s that intensity and conviction that brought the novice Englishwoman to America on her own dime, before it had even occurred to anyone to offer her an audition; she recognized the character on the page as one created specifically for her, the role that she was born to play. The challenger was hopeful; the chosen one was certain. Certainty can be a form of madness — the voices whispering in Leigh’s ear may not have been so different from those heard by Joan of Arc. Fate’s blessing can bring it with a curse; the same type of madness that spurred Leigh on, that anointed her as the only person in the world who could possibly play that particular role in that particular film, overtook her in the end. It’s worth questioning who was the luckier of the two. The blessings that brought Leigh to Scarlett O’Hara also led her into darkness. Paulette Goddard always headed toward the light.

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Another great post. So thorough.

I remember being freaked out to discover she was the Goddard of Goddard Hall.

I've never given her much thought beyond the Chaplin films, though from what you wrote, it looks like there's a couple worth seeing.

I've always thought her first scenes in Modern Times--when she's a hungry, feral thief, are very exciting. I don't know how realistic it is, but she's definitely beautiful.

There's also this great picture of she and Chaplin, a formal profile shot of them in recline, reading a book together. (I thought it was in the Robinson bio of Chaplin, but it's not.) They look like such a boss couple! Formidable. (She's no Lita Grey!)

"really only served to illustrate how little DeMille’s concept of directing actors had evolved since the end of the silent era"
So true!
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