I caught a couple of Lombard pre-Code pictures this past week, the hot-sounding Virtue (1932) and boring-sounding Brief Moment (1933), and only one lived up to my preconceptions. As you know, pre-Code refers to early talkies made prior to institution of the Motion Picture Code (read: censorship) when Hollywood was more like Dodge City and onscreen vice reigned. Virtue and Brief Moment ran 69 minutes each, with the former going fast and the latter an excruciating life sentence.
Brief Moment only lifted itself above tedium when I was shouting at the screen for Carole to get over that bum Gene Raymond, but did Carole listen? No. She continued to refuse to come to her senses and ended up staying with him at fade out. She enacted a torch singer named Abby Fane and he was Rodney, the spoiled son of a vastly wealthy family, and their sudden marriage produced page-one headlines in major metropolitan newspapers. You know how the montages went—1930s screenplays advanced via the device of big headlines in newspapers that saved 10 minutes of exposition.
Brief Moment, another picture that Lombard made on loan out to Columbia, was one of those girl-meets-bum, girl-loses-bum, girl-gets-bum kind of pictures. Personally I was hoping that an apple would fall on Abby’s head and she’d take up with shady nightclub owner Toots, played by Steve Walsh. Toots is clearly nuts for Abby, see? But she doesn’t love him “that way,” so he goes all heart of gold and patches things up between Abby and Rod in the last reel.
How did Lombard survive pictures like this? Her agent, Myron Selznick, must have been one hell of a salesman is all I can say. Only a big star could have pulled this thing off—a woman with a set screen personality like maybe Ruth Chatterton, who was the prototypical long-suffering actress of the early 1930s, or maybe Kay Francis, who was still trending upward in 1933. I’m not saying Lombard wasn’t good; she knew her way around a script and the cameras by this time, but just when you start to believe her performance, she reverts to that deep voice and stilted playing that caused Howard Hawks to nearly fire her from Twentieth Century.
She’s actually much better in the other picture I watched, Virtue, made with Pat O’Brien on loan out to Columbia in 1932. I guess I had seen Virtue 30 years ago, but I have no conscious memory of the experience. All I knew going in was that Lombard played a prostitute and this was a pre-Code picture so I had high hopes of skin and smut—on the order of Joan Crawford’s Rain, made the same year—but after investing those 69 precious minutes as Virtue unspooled, I had experienced neither skin nor smut and found my innocence intact. The setup of the picture has Carole as Mae, a prostitute who is deported out of New York City, but gets off the boat before it sails and stays in town, where she meets hard-boiled, down-on-dames cab driver Jimmy (O’Brien). Oddly, the opening of the picture, with Mae sentenced to get out of town for prostitution, is audio only, with the screen black, so the audience never actually gets to see the actress as a hooker.
Mae and Jimmy get hitched in a New York minute, and he’s dim to the fact that she used to turn tricks. Personally, I’d wonder on my wedding night where my young bride got such talent and enthusiasm, but that’s just me. For the remainder of the picture Mae tries to fly right while we count the minutes until Jimmy gets wise to his wife’s big secret. Then he does find out and circumstances lead him to suspect she’s out turning tricks again, but since Jimmy’s already established as a cynic at heart, it’s not like he’s crushed or anything and at fade out (spoiler alert) they kiss and make up, and I could only hope he spent the next 50 years making the most of his wife’s earned-on-the-street abilities.
I couldn’t make up my mind if I could imagine 23-year-old Carole Lombard as a pay-for-play babe and really, it’s ridiculous unless she was hopped up on opium or booze. But she’s as lucid as always and so we know going in this is a tidy little Hollywood fantasy. Aside from one bouncy braless scene on a city street, there wasn’t any skin, which was the biggest disappointment for me considering Virtue stills that made 1930s voyeur mags like Film Fun. Judging by these images Virtue was a smutfest with lesbian undertones, not a gee-whiz romance espousing, well, virtue. If this were a picture made after institution of Hollywood’s Production Code less than two years later, there could have been no happy ending and Mae would have lost her man as penance for life on the streets.
I came away from these two pictures believing that prior to her big break in 1934, Carole Lombard was only as good as her director and whatever script she was handed. She could act OK, but she couldn’t transcend. Am I wrong here? In what pictures did Lombard rise above the material as a leading lady? It seems clear that it was through her social connections—married to William Powell at this point in her career and benefiting from her access to Powell’s superagent—that she positioned herself for the good fortune that would come with casting in Twentieth Century. Then the tutelage of Howard Hawks changed everything.