Pre-Code Carole

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

“Many men filled her life,” teased the poster in the lobby. Images of Lombard in negligee and Lombard showing leg added to the promise of a good show within.

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.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

“Dump that bum!” I shouted at the screen; Carole didn’t listen.

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.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Judging by this image in Film Fun, Virtue was a must-see picture.

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.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

More Columbia Pictures enticement to go see Carole Lombard in Virtue.

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.


  1. I have to agree with your assessment of Carole’s talents on screen prior to 20th Century, Robert. It’s also difficult for me to even really recall that much of her early pre-coders. I’ve seen Virtue but it’s like a heavy fog covers my brain in whatever parts of it partial memories still reside. I’ve the vague impression that Mayo Methot was rather good in it but I could be wrong. It’s that long since I’ve seen it.

    I also once saw Brief Moment. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), any film with Gene Raymond in it I have already forgottten before the film even ends. Yes, I know Jeanette MacDonald felt a little differently about him, and theirs was one of the Hollywood marriages that lasted. Perhaps he was Mr. Excitement off screen, a male version of Carole Lombard. Nah, I don’t believe that statement either.

    I believe that somewhere I read that Lombard had been the intended casting as Cagney’s leading lady in Taxi, a loan to Warners before the deal fell apart. Now that might have been interesting. Cagney and the fast pace of Warners programmers might have brought some energy to Carole that an actor like Gene Raymond (and Brief Moment’s script) would only drain away.

    Anyway, based on what I’ve seen of pre-code Lombard, it appears that Carole owed a lot to the combined influences of Howard Hawks and John Barrymore when working with them. Without that opportunity coming her way, who knows how much any of us would be talking about the lady today.

    1. A shot at Gene Raymond! Excellent, Tom. I agree with you about Taxi as well–Cagney might have loosened Carole up earlier than Hawks and Barrymore did. I could see Cagney saying to her between takes, “Why so stiff, kid? Have some fun with it.”

      1. Right you are, Robert. Cagney wouldn’t take much guff from his Warners bosses but he was known as a generous worker with his co-stars. Such actresses as Joan Blondell, Ann Sheridan and, much later, Doris Day did some of their best work when Jimmy was in the room with them.

        It is a shame that an early talkies Carole Lombard, definitely inclined towards stiffness on screen at times, couldn’t have had a bit of the Cagney encouragement to loosen up while the cameras were rolling. Mind you, on the other hand, if Cagney was doing that, it sure didn’t help Jean Harlow’s performance in The Public Enemy. But that, as they say, is another story.

      2. I remember an incident Cagney recounted in his memoir where he noticed that Pamela Tiffin’s eyes were “ping-ponging” in a close-up with him. That’s the reflexive thing that your eyes do when they’re looking into the eyes of someone close by, trying to fix on both eyes at once. Crafty old actor that he was, he coached Tiffin to focus on his downstage eye and then her eyes wouldn’t ping-pong. It always struck me: Here’s a generous actor who would take the time to help a young player, because at the time, during production of One, Two, Three, she was about 18 and Cagney was in his early 60s. I have no doubt that Cagney would have shot straight with Lombard, too. He might not have known all the tricks in 1932 at the time of Taxi, but he would have spotted her tension in a heartbeat and his instinct would have been to get her past it.

        To this very day, when I see an actor’s eyes ping-ponging, I remember (and in Cagney’s voice), “Focus on the downstage eye.”

  2. Thanks for that anecdote, Robert. From what I recall about the making of One, Two, Three, Cagney would have loved to have had a huge ping pong paddle in his hand in order to deal with scene hogger Horst Buchholz (and Jimmy would have been shooting for Buchholtz upstage eye, as well as his downstage).

  3. Cagney probably would have elicited a lively performance from Lombard in “Taxi!” some 2 1/2 years before Barrymore and Hawks did likewise in “Twentieth Century.” But at the time Carole was offered the role, she was a relative newcomer at Paramount and perceived a loanout as demeaning; as a result, Loretta Young was hired as the leading lady (her only film with Cagney). It’s unfortunate, because exposure to the free-wheeling atmosphere at pre-Code Warners (and its fine array of character actors) probably would have brought out the Lombard we all know and love. (Carole had a chance to work on another Cagney film, but turned it down because she didn’t like the script and Mary Brian got the part. The film, “Hard To Handle,” probably is my favorite Cagney comedy, with all sorts of delightful in-jokes,a few having to do with grapefruit!)

    Alas, Lombard’s only time at Warners, aside from visiting husband William Powell when he switched from Paramount, was for the lackluster “Fools For Scandal.” I went to the studio a week and a half ago for a filming of my favorite current sitcom, “Mom,” and the stage where I saw it (No. 20) had a plaque listing notable films and TV series shot there — “Jezebel” and “Now, Voyager” was listed, but even if “Fools” had been made at No. 20, it probably wouldn’t have made the cut.

    1. An aside about those sound stage numbers. When I was researching Errol & Olivia I sifted through all the production files and saw the listing of what picture was shot on what sound stage, but when we visited the studio and spoke with the historian about it, I learned that all the stages had been renumbered in the 1970s. Maddening! My fondest memory of that day at Warner Bros. was visiting a sound stage that was Stage 1 in 1937. Here we explored the set of the long-running TV series Chuck . Suddenly I realized I was standing in what was once the Great Hall of Nottingham Castle during production of The Adventures of Robin Hood.

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