Welcome to “Of Carole [Lombard] and pre-Code,” my contribution to the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings and Once Upon A Screen (and sponsored by Flicker Alley). The three-day blogathon, which began yesterday and concludes tomorrow, examines all facets of movie history — from the dawn of film through 1975. (That year is a good cutoff point, as the release of “Jaws” that summer established the studio blockbuster culture that lives to this day, for better or worse.)
The photo at top shows Lombard in a scene from “Twentieth Century,” after her character, lingerie model Mildred Plotka turned actress Lily Garland, becomes a Broadway diva (with an inflated ego to match) before high-tailing it to Hollywood for big-screen stardom. Carole’s outfit is definitely indicative of pre-Code, although it possibly could have passed muster after the Code was strictly enforced in July 1934. And “Twentieth Century” technically is pre-Code, as it was released in April of ’34 — and some of the publicity pics Lombard took with co-star John Barrymore, such as these below, were deemed too racy by Joseph Breen even before the Code was implemented.
This brings up our topic for today: Why does Lombard tend to be overlooked when it comes to pre-Code actresses? We certainly saw Carole in the various states of undress we so associate with pre-Code. Below are screen grabs (not publicity stills) from two of her films released during the pre-Code era, “No Man Of Her Own” from the end of 1932…
…and “Bolero,” from early 1934:
If looking seductive in scanties was the only criteria for pre-Code stardom, Lombard would have ranked right up there with any of her contemporaries. Instead, she’s rarely mentioned among that crowd. Here are a few reasons:
* A surfeit of talent at her home studio, Paramount. In the early ’30s, Paramount was teeming with actresses — some of them leftovers from silents (Clara Bow), others rising to stardom at the dawn of talkies (Nancy Carroll) or the start of the ’30s (Sylvia Sidney), still others imported from Broadway thanks in part to Paramount’s Astoria studio before it shut down during the Depression downturn (Claudette Colbert, Miriam Hopkins, even Ginger Rogers briefly) and a few imported from Europe (Marlene Dietrich). Later, Paramount’s stable of starlets included Ida Lupino, Betty Grable and Ann Sheridan, all of whom would find their main fame elsewhere. With so much competition, it’s no wonder Lombard got lost in the shuffle.
* No distinctive on-screen personality yet to speak of. The Carole of 1930 to ’33 was known for her beauty, fashion sense and fine legs…but then, so were Dietrich, Colbert and many others. Some at the studio liked her ability to identify a good script, and just about everyone at Paramount were fans of Lombard as a person. But there wasn’t much else to hang your hat on when it came to Carole; she couldn’t sing (and wouldn’t try until Mitchell Leisen successfully persuaded her to warble in “Swing High, Swing Low”), she wasn’t identified with any particular genre or director. Perceived as an all-purpose leading lady, she found no niche.
* A lack of sense of direction. Lombard later admitted that in many ways, she was her own worst enemy. After the auto accident that led to Fox dropping her contract in 1926 and her battling back to studio work via Mack Sennett and Pathe, Carole may have grown a bit too comfortable with her status and at times lacked the drive to successfully handle her career. For example, in late 1931, she declined a loanout to Warners for “Taxi!” with James Cagney; Loretta Young instead became her leading lady, and the film became a considerable hit.
Lombard may have hit her nadir in this vein when Paramount assigned her to the horror film “Supernatural” in early 1933. While she may have liked Fay Wray as an actress (both admired writers — Carole later romanced Robert Riskin, Fay eventually married him), she had absolutely no desire to go the “scream queen” route.
Fortunately for Lombard, one of the most reviled men in classic Hollywood lore came to her rescue.
Harry Cohn is remembered by many as the crudest of the movie moguls (and considering the competition, that’s saying something), but history is proving kinder to him and his work. With relatively few resources at his disposal — unlike many of his rivals, Columbia owned no theaters — Cohn kept his studio out of the red for his entire tenure, which lasted well into the 1950s. Columbia rarely held onto stars, but when Cohn had them, he knew what to do with them. And Lombard — one of the few stars who got along well with him — is one of his shining examples.
Carole made five films for Columbia between 1932 and 1934, and whereas Paramount generally gave her pedestrian scripts during that time (“The Eagle and the Hawk” was an exception, but her part was a small one), Cohn gave Lombard top-of-their-line material. It began with “Virtue,” which if you don’t count “Twentieth Century” as a pre-Coder but rather an embryonic screwball comedy, now is perceived as Carole’s finest pre-Code film.
This tale of a streetwalker going straight and finding true love with a cab driver despite a rocky road of romance must have seemed like a second chance for Carole after the “Taxi!” embarrassment. She exhibits a genuine pre-Code toughness unusual for her, especially after she gives a so-called friend part of the couple’s savings (they planned to use it to purchase a service station) and stands up to her after being deceived. Pat O’Brien, sort of a second-tier Cagney, is capable as her cabbie husband, and there’s also a nice supporting turn by future Humphrey Bogart spouse Mayo Methot. “Virtue” has risen in retrospect among Lombard fans — it’ll never be rated alongside “Twentieth Century,” “My Man Godfrey,” “Nothing Sacred” or “To Be Or Not To Be,” but it fits comfortably on a solid second tier with “Hands Across the Table” and “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.”
“No More Orchids,” released later in 1932, doesn’t quite reach the heights of “Virtue,” but still it’s arguably better than anything Paramount was giving Carole at the time. (“No Man Of Her Own” isn’t a bad film, and in both that and “Orchids” Lombard shows hints of her later comedic persona, but one doubts it would be remembered as well as it is if future husband Clark Gable wasn’t Carole’s leading man.) Aided by a strong cast (Lyle Talbot, shown above, plus the always-reliable Walter Connolly and Louise Closser Hale, not to mention C. Aubrey Smith as perhaps the most memorable bad guy of any Lombard film prior to “To Be Or Not To Be”), “No More Orchids” is no classic, but neverheless makes for solid entertainment.
“Brief Moment,” adapted from a hit Broadway play and initially envisioned as a Barbara Stanwyck vehicle, was Columbia’s gift to Carole in the fall of 1933. Perhaps Cohn saw this as a prestige item for his small studio, and while it’s hardly an embarrassment to Lombard, it never quite comes off as the successful vehicle Cohn expected. Perhaps Gene Raymond doesn’t have the proper chemistry with her (they would work together once more, in 1941’s “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” and while he meshes better with her there, many fans of the film wish he and Jack Carson had switched roles).
So Lombard never really joined the ranks of Norma Shearer, Constance Bennett, Hopkins, Young and others as pre-Code stars of the first degree. But her time would come, thanks in part to a new genre that evolved out of both “Twentieth Century” and Columbia stablemate “It Happened One Night” — the screwball comedy.
To see entries on the silent era for the blogathon, go to http://moviessilently.com/2015/06/26/the-classic-movie-history-project-blogathon-silent-era/. For Golden Age entries, visithttp://aurorasginjoint.com/2015/06/27/the-classic-movie-history-project-presents-the-golden-age/. And the final day’s entries will be found at http://silverscreenings.org/.