Before Carole Lombard was the “queen of screwball comedy,” she was just another ingenue trying to make a mark in Hollywood. Born Jane Peters in 1908, the soon-to-be-rechristened actress made her debut in silent films at the age of twelve. She eventually became a contract player for Fox, and though a near-deadly car crash in 1925 threatened to derail the momentum of her growing career, Lombard recovered with only the slightest scar on her left cheek. Soon after, Lombard began working for slapstick king Mack Sennett, appearing in several of his comedies. Her work for Sennett in such short subjects as The Campus Vamp (1928) helped hone a comedic timing that would serve the actress well later in her career. Eventually Lombard moved into the sound era with 1929’s High Voltage. The following year, Lombard signed a contract with Paramount, and unsure what to do with their new acquisition, the studio shunted the young actress into roles in a string of minor dramatic films for the next several years.
One of those pre-Code dramas, 1932’s Virtue, which she made while loaned out to Columbia, provides glimmers of Lombard’s emerging comedic talent. In it, she plays Mae, a young prostitute who is commanded by a judge to leave New York City or else face imprisonment. A policeman named Mackenzie (Willard Robertson) is assigned to make sure she gets on a train back to her hometown in Connecticut, but Mae sneaks off the train at an earlier stop and hitches a ride with Jimmy Doyle (Pat O’Brien), a wisecracking, marriage-loathing cab driver. Mae ditches the cab without paying her fare and goes to see her friend Lil (Mayo Methot), a former prostitute involved with the slimy Toots (Jack La Rue). Lil gives Mae some money and Mae tracks down Jimmy to pay him back for the cab ride. An argument on the street and a couple of milkshakes later, the two have fallen in love. Jimmy gets Mae a job as a cashier at a diner, where she works alongside another former prostitute, Gert (Shirley Grey), whom Mae begs not to tell Jimmy about their former occupation. Soon after, Jimmy and Mae decide to get married.
When they met, Jimmy believed that Mae was an out-of-work stenographer, and Mae did not disabuse him of this notion. But as they return from their honeymoon, Jimmy discovers the truth about his new wife when Mackenzie arrives to arrest Mae for defying the judge’s orders. Jimmy is upset by the news, but he clears Mae by showing Mackenzie their wedding license before slapping Mae and storming out. But after wandering around the city lost in thought, Jimmy returns and tells Mae that he’s not one to walk out on a commitment, but warns her that if things are going to work, she has to stay away from “that crowd” she had been hanging with in her working-girl days. Mae agrees and they settle into marriage together. Four weeks later, Gert has come down with an illness and needs $200 for an operation. Even though Mae and Jimmy are saving up to buy half of a gas station, Mae loans Gert the money with the promise that it will be repaid in a week. However, the “illness” turns out to be a scam hatched by Gert and Toots. When Mae tries to get the money back, it sets off a chain of events in which Gert ends up dead, Mae is erroneously accused of her murder, and Jimmy is unsure what to believe.
The print I saw of this film is missing the opening scene–it begins with Mae and Mackenzie buying the ticket back to Danbury, and the scene with the judge’s pronouncement is nowhere to be found. This created a bit of confusion until I looked up the synopsis of the film on the TCM website and realized what was going on. I’m not sure if it was just this particular print, or whether that opening scene has since been lost for whatever reason, but you would think that if it had been lost, a title card would have been inserted into the film to explain the set-up …
That quibble aside, the biggest draw for this otherwise unremarkable film is Lombard’s performance. I find this to be true with the majority of her films, truth be told–she was just that much a star. When watching one of her movies, your eye is immediately drawn to her, much to the detriment of some of her costars. It wasn’t just her beauty, though God knows she was one of the loveliest women to grace the screen in the 1930s. It was that Lombard just seemed like fun. In most of her roles (at least, the ones I’ve seen over the years), Lombard looks like she’s having the time of her life, and that infectious joy makes you like her all the more … even when she’s playing a streetwise, smart-assed hooker. In Virtue, Lombard makes the most of a rather limited script, delivering her lines with a zing that punctuates even the prickliest barbs with a sense of wry humor. And even when the film descends into the stuff of melodrama, Lombard rises above the material, showing that even though comedy was undoubtedly her bread-and-butter, her dramatic chops weren’t so bad, either.
In a way, Lombard’s character in this movie serves as a sort of prototype for the “hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold” parable that hit its peak in Hollywood with 1989’s Pretty Woman. Indeed, like that later film, Virtue functions as a sort of fairy tale, in which the fallen dame manages to find salvation through her relationship with a “better” man, a “white knight” who, though less morally objectionable than a whore, is far from clean and shining himself. And because Virtue was produced in 1932, before the Production Code was rigorously enforced, the movie does not end with a coda in which Mae is forced to repent for her “dirty” past; instead, she gets a relatively happily-ever-after ending. Talk about your Cinderella stories!
Virtue is not the best film Lombard ever made, nor is it all that engaging of a pre-Code drama. But the movie does demonstrate that, whatever the role, Lombard was a highly capable actress. Still, it wasn’t until 1934, with her casting in the screwball classic Twentieth Century, that Lombard’s talents would be showcased to their fullest. And though her career was tragically cut short with her 1942 death in a plane accident, quite a few of the films in which Lombard starred in the ten-year period after Virtue—Twentieth Century, Hands Across the Table (1935), My Man Godfrey (1936), Nothing Sacred (1937), To Be or Not to Be (1942)–were among some of the best to come out of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Like her contemporary Jean Harlow–another member of the “gone too soon” club–Lombard’s body of work, small though it may be, is nonetheless memorable and wholly entertaining, and it makes you wonder what depths her talent would have reached had she not died so terribly young.
This post is my contribution to the Carole-tennial(+3) blogathon hosted by Carole & Co. to celebrate Carole Lombard’s 103rd natal day (which was yesterday!). Check out Carole & Co. to see entries from other contributing blogs!