by Kimberly Lindbergs
While pursuing my personal interest in local history I was pleasantly surprised to discover that one of my favorite Hollywood funny ladies, the brassy blonde bombshell Carole Lombard, had made a lasting impression on the area when she visited Napa County to star in the 1940 film THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED. This notable RKO Pictures production was directed by Garson Kanin and based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play written by Sidney Howard that chronicles a complicated love triangle between an ambitious San Francisco waitress (Carole Lombard), a simple Italian grape farmer (Charles Laughton) and his affable ranch hand (William Gargan). Much of the film was shot on location in the Napa Valley and during that time Lombard, along with her costars and famous husband Clark Gable, toured wineries, attended well-heeled parties and mingled with locals.
At the time Napa was still recovering from the impact of prohibition and the Great Depression so the budding tourism industry welcomed Hollywood with open arms when RKO announced plans to shoot a film in the valley.
Sidney Howard’s popular play was first adapted for the screen in 1928 as a silent film and was remade again in 1930 but that production was confined to the MGM studio lot. Location manager Louis Shapiro and art director Chick Kirk along with director Garson Kanin decided to make use of Napa Valley’s natural beauty when they took up the task of creating an updated version of THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED and local winemakers greatly benefited from their decision.
Filming started in July of 1940 and only lasted a few short weeks but local newspapers kept track of Lombard’s every move beginning with her arrival. More than a thousand local residents accompanied by the Veteran’s Home band greeted the film’s cast and crew when they disembarked the train at Napa Junction, American Canyon. Afterward Lombard, along with director Garson Kanin, were photographed having breakfast at the Plaza Hotel (aka The Alexandria Hotel and Annex) in downtown Napa with the city’s Chamber of Commerce Secretary Charles Grady and his wife. Many members of the cast and crew also stayed at the Plaza hotel while making the movie.
Fagiani ranch (now home to PlumJack Winery founded by California Governor Gavin Newsom) in Oakville was the main location for filming and RKO spent a considerable amount of time and money transforming the ranch into a picturesque winery. When the the cast and crew had free time, they also regularly visited St. Helena’s historic Beringer Vineyards for inspiration as well as wine tastings that were widely publicized. As a result, wine tourism in the region received world-wide attention.
According to director Garson Kanin’s memoir “Hollywood” the making of THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED did not go smoothly. There were multiple production delays and tension on set mainly due to Charles Laughton’s temperamental behavior. In stark contrast, the director describes Lombard as lighthearted, easy-going, and down-to-earth but she was not afraid to speak her mind and during filming she regularly expressed her appreciation of the Napa Valley and the local hospitality.
At her suggestion, Clark Gable along with Lombard’s mother and brother, reportedly visited the actress in Napa while she was working. Production delays may help explain why Carole Lombard decided to leave the Plaza Hotel and move into a house with her husband during filming. The famous Hollywood couple set up home at 447 Randolph Street in Napa, which was built by local architect Luthor Turton and owned by the Grossman family at the time. The Grossman’s also owned Napa’s Plaza Hotel in 1940 and kindly rented their house to Lombard so she could be more comfortable.
Besides entertaining her own family at the Randolph Street residence, Lombard along with Gable and fellow cast and crew members regularly attended local events while they were here including war relief benefits, garden parties and even a fishing trip aboard a boat owned by Napa Councilman James Fisher.
When filming was completed locals hoped the movie would premiere in the valley but that did not happen. Instead, THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED opened in New York and San Francisco where it was well received. Despite some good reviews that singled out Lombard’s performance, Hollywood gossip columnists published bizarre falsified accounts of the production that claimed Napa was a rural backwoods town without any proper hotels. In response, the editor of the Napa Journal fired back by publishing a front-page editorial defending his city’s reputation. And during what was billed as “National Wine Week” in October of 1940 both Carole Lombard and Charles Laughton acted as ambassadors for Napa and Beringer Vineyards encouraging tourism in the valley.
THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED is not one of Carole Lombard’s better remembered movies, but it did earn one of her costars (William Gargan) and Oscar nomination and it made a lasting impression on Napa residents. According to Napa Register’s onetime columnist Louie Ezettie and the owners of Junction Brewery & Grill in American Canyon, the Napa Junction may have been renamed Lombard Station sometime between 1940-1941 in honor of Carole Lombard. Nearby Lombard Road may also be named after the Hollywood star, but I haven’t been able to confirm this so at the moment they are only rumors and legends. Hopefully I will be able to corroborate these stories one day with further research.[Ed. note: this article was originally written by Kimberly Lindberg for Turner Classic Movies, but it has been revised and updated with new research.]