Carole Lombard pre-Code

Lure of the Forbidden

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

Almost 40 years before Ana met Christian, there was The Story of O, as sold in this vintage Italian movie poster.

I’m not sure how the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon happened. It’s a mystery to me how this exercise in juvenile erotica found its way into supermarkets and other retailers across America. In my long and checkered literary career, I have been an erotica-for-hire writer, and out of curiosity read 50 Shades. I was appalled, not because of the salacious subject matter, or because the depiction of women might set their cause back a couple generations, or even because the writing lacked sophistication. I started flinging 50 Shades around the room because of the presentation of Christian Grey as a dominant. Kids out there trying this writing thing at home: your characters have to be consistent, and no dominant male acts like Christian Grey acts in this story—it is a cloistered adolescent female’s imagining of what a dominant male would be like as he is “tamed” by a girl who in real life would bore the guy stupid in a couple of dates.

The writer in me applauds E.L. James for capturing lightning in a bottle and selling a gajillion copies of her B&D trilogy. Somewhere there’s another book waiting to be written called “Revenge of a Wallflower” where we learn about E.L.’s upbringing and long-ago snubbing by a bad boy who dumped her after a couple of dates and thus the 50 Shades phenomenon was born.

However, I’m not really here to talk about 50 Shades of Grey. We’ve heard enough about it all month. As I sit here and write in the pre-dawn murk of a frozen Friday the Thirteenth, this picture is about to shatter box-office records in these United States, riding a wave of hype that goes far beyond merely trailers on TV. There are 50 Shades tie ins across the straight-laced retail world; 50 Shades of nail polish, 50 Shades hairstyles; 50 Shades shoes. It’s being pitched on QVC and via email, and I get the feeling that somewhere, one-time movie flakmeisters like Russell Birdwell and A-Mike Vogel are beaming. Today’s blockbuster is the latest in a long line of pseudo-kink that promises the forbidden, lures you inside, and then laughs all the way to the bank as you stumble out of the theater wondering how you had been hoodwinked.

In my misspent youth, the X on a movie poster always enticed me. Of course, I’m far too young to have seen in first-run the films I’m going to mention. But…

Midnight Cowboy, starring my “twin brother” Jon Voight, proved to be an interesting picture but not the Dante’s Inferno of naked flesh that I envisioned.

Emanuelle was my first exposure to simulated sex, but today has a sanitary sweetness about it.

The Story of O offered a more realistic dominant-submissive story than what you will see this evening. In fact, save yourself 40 bucks and rent The Story of O. If Ana had a worldly grandmother, it would be the girl code-named O.

Last Tango in Paris was utterly boring and seeing dissipated Marlon Brando naked upset my stomach.

I won’t waste your time relating my frustration at Crown International sexploitation pictures that swindled me, like The Teacher and The Stepmother. Only A Clockwork Orange felt like an X to me even as a kid, and that wasn’t because of the sex but rather the ultra-violence.

There’s a sucker born every minute, and I was it. Finally I gave up on pictures that were sold as smut but never fit the bill and saved my money by avoiding Nine 1/2 Weeks until I could rent it on VHS for a buck. All I remember about it now is that it unspooled so slowly that I knew where the name came from. It was also relatively tame and I couldn’t understand much of Mickey Rourke’s dialogue because he’s a mumbler. (I spared myself entirely the experience of yet Another Nine 1/2 Weeks.)

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

From Showmen, Sell It Hot: Baiting the lure with “It” way back in 1932.

Greenbriar blogger John McElwee wrote a fantastic coffee-table book about showmanship in Hollywood’s Golden Era in which he examines the production of classic pictures and the ways they were sold to the masses by people like A-Mike Vogel. In Showmen, Sell It Hot! there’s a chapter called Titillated to Distraction detailing the lure of the forbidden in Hollywood’s naughty pre-Code years of the early 1930s. I’m reminded looking at McElwee’s work that in terms of attitudes about sex, America hasn’t come very far in 80 years. We were spawned of Puritans after all, making forbidden sex practices repugnant and therefore all the more irresistible.

As documented in Showmen, the 1932 feature Bird of Paradise “promised island beauty Dolores Del Rio au natural and indeed delivered via nude swim scenes.” Other examples by the author: “’Give me a job—at any price,’ says Loretta Young to Warren William in a teaser ad for Employees’ Entrance, and by February 1933 customers knew Warner Bros. wouldn’t let them down. Hold Your Man bade audiences to ‘Learn how to do it in one easy lesson,’ with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow more than capable instructors.”

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

This still from Virtue showing Carole Lombard and Mayo Methot appeared in the risqué movie magazine, Film Fun. As per usual, the picture itself didn’t sizzle.

The Carole Lombard of Fireball fame posed with Mayo Methot for a lingerie shot that remains today pretty suggestive as they were hyping the 1933 Columbia picture Virtue. It didn’t matter that Virtue was bland stuff; by the time a healthy American male found this out, the theater already had his money.

An ad for the Barbara Stanwyck picture Baby Face depicted Missy Stanwyck in a provocative pose beside an ad line that read, “She used everything she had … to get everything men had … She stopped at nothing and made ‘It’ pay.” And audiences knew what ‘It’ was, even in 1932. In all caps below the credits was a sobering warning: PLEASE DO NOT BRING YOUR CHILDREN.

I don’t know how many of you will queue up to see 50 Shades of Grey today or over the weekend, but if and when you do, be aware that you are carrying on a proud tradition that goes back as far as the motion picture itself. You have been summoned into the dark to see forbidden things. Enjoy whatever salacious moments you can wring out of this picture, because odds are you will return to the open air a little worldly wiser … by feeling hoodwinked yet again.

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

One more from Showmen, Sell It Hot: Joan Blondell was a nice girl selling naughty, pre-Code style. I can’t figure out, is she leaving a little or a lot to the imagination? Or is her expression merely saying, “Look out, people! Your wallets are being lightened!”

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.