Carole Lombard: Shady Lady

Prior to her breakout role opposite John Barrymore in the screwball comedy Twentieth Century (1934), Carole Lombard was a struggling young contract player at Paramount Pictures where her talent was often squandered in mediocre projects and B-pictures like It Pays to Advertise (1931), No One Man (1932) and Supernatural (1933). There were exceptions, of course, and one of the better examples is Virtue (1932), which confirms Lombard’s promise as an actress in her pre-stardom years.  

Synopsis: When Mae (Lombard), a New York City prostitute, is sentenced to a ninety day sentence for solicitation, the judge takes pity on her and suspends the ruling if she will return to her home town of Danbury and not come back. Accompanied by police officer MacKenzie (Willard Robertson), Mae boards the train but slips back into the station before it departs and rushes to a taxi stand where she hires Jimmy (Pat O’Brien), one of the drivers, to drop her off in her old neighborhood. Penniless, she stiffs Jimmy for the ride but feeling guilty, she later returns to pay him the fare, and a romance begins to develop between them.

Pat O’Brien and Carole Lombard star in the Pre-Code melodrama Virtue (1932), directed by Edward Buzzell.

Jimmy, who considers himself an expert on women, pegs Mae as an out-of-work stenographer, a misconception she doesn’t correct, and soon the two are married. On their wedding night, however, the couple are confronted by Officer MacKenzie who prepares to arrest Mae until Jimmy produces the marriage license. Despite Jimmy’s bitterness at being taken for a sucker, he doesn’t annul the marriage and the couple try to make a go of it with Mae playing the happy homemaker. For a while the future looks bright with Jimmy about to close a deal with a partner on his own business – a gas station – but complications arise when Mae secretly borrows some of his savings to help Gert (Shirley Grey), a former friend, pay for an operation. Gert’s emergency surgery turns out to be a hustler’s scam and Mae desperately tries to get Jimmy’s money back before he’s the wiser, a situation that ends in a murder, imprisonment and a possible life sentence for Mae…unless someone comes forward with the real facts in the case.

Gert (Shirley Grey, left) figures out a way to scam her waitress friend Mae (Carole Lombard) out of some money in Virtue (1932).

An early Columbia programmer, Virtue paired Lombard (on loanout from Paramount) with Pat O’Brien prior to his emergence as one of Warner Bros.’s top stars. Although the film is a formulaic melodrama, it is elevated by the spunkiness of its cast and some snappy, streetwise patter from scenarist Robert Riskin, who would soon pen some of Frank Capra’s biggest hits (It Happened One Night [1934], Mr. Deeds Goes to Town [1936]). The title is ironic since virtue is that one unobtainable quality that eludes the movie’s streetwalker heroine and the film’s Pre-Code status is easy to determine by the happy ending which allows Mae to return to a normal married life without punishment for her previous unlawful behavior. Typical of the film’s hardboiled dialogue is this bit of advice from Jimmy to his not-so-bright coworker Frank (Ward Bond) about women: “Let me give you a tip. Buy yourself a hot water bottle. It’s just as warm as a wife and it’s less trouble.”

Taxi driver Pat O’Brien falls in love with former prostitute Carole Lombard without knowing about her past in Virtue (1932), a Pre-Code melodrama.

In the film’s more lighthearted first half, Lombard reveals the excellent farceur she would soon become with her deadpan insults and crack comic timing; Pat O’Brien is equally appealing as Lombard’s cynical but incurably romantic working class hubby and the two have an amiable, easy-going screen chemistry together. Virtue is also notable for supporting roles by the aforementioned Ward Bond (who would soon become a regular fixture in the films of director John Ford) and Mayo Methot as Lil, a madam with a weakness for no-good thugs, who comes to Mae’s aid in the end (Methot would become Humphrey Bogart’s first wife in 1938).   The film is photographed by the great Joseph Walker (a four-time Oscar nominee for such films as You Can’t Take It with You [1938] and Only Angels Have Wings [1939]) and was an early effort for director Edward Buzzell, a former Broadway musical star, who would become best known for his work at MGM where he specialized in musicals (Honolulu [1939]) and comedies (At the Circus [1939]).

1932 – Actresses Carole Lombard and Shirley Grey in Virtue

In Lombard’s filmography, Virtue might be more famous for its behind-the-scenes first meeting between Lombard and Harry Cohn, the foul-mouthed Columbia Studios mogul. “When Carole Lombard reported to his office for the first time,” according to biographer Larry Swindell (in Screwball: The Life of Carole Lombard), “there were no polite preliminaries. He said, “Your hair’s too white…you look like a whore.” Carole shot back, “I’m sure you know what a whore looks like if anyone does.” He was startled and captivated by her. He tried to soften his approach, but if the purple verbiage slipped out beyond his control, Carole replied in kind, and they waged a sort of card-stacking profanity contest. Harry Cohn decided that this here was one tough dame, but a looker, and he made a sensuous overture. Carole said, “Look, Mr. Cohn, I’ve agreed to be in your sh*tty little picture, but f*cking you is no part of the deal.” According to fable, Harry Cohn straightened his trousers, cleared his throat, and said, “That doesn’t mean you can’t call me Harry.” To his surprise and delight, he and Carole Lombard would always get along.”

Carole Lombard stars in one of her better pre-stardom vehicles – Virtue (1932), co-starring Pat O’Brien.

While filming Virtue, Lombard was surprised to discover that she had been given the largest dressing room on the Columbia lot and soon transformed it into a suite for entertaining old friends and film crew members during her brief stint at the studio. One of the more significant aspects of Virtue according to Swindell’s biography of Lombard, “was its introduction of a new Lombard hairstyle, of her own creation. Topically called the Olympic bob in homage to the international games then under way in Los Angeles, it featured a cloud formation of loose curls covering most of her forehead. Previously her blond tresses had been distinctly parted and combed back and upward to reveal a high hairline and a shiny large forehead that conveyed ice glamour. Whether or not she was responding to Harry Cohn’s advice for an unwhorelike appearance, the hair shading was darkened slightly for an ashen rather than platinum effect. Altogether she acquired a softer physiognomy more nearly realizing her own personality.”  Virtue proved to be a hit with audiences and most of the reviews were positive without making claims that the film was anything more than an entertaining programmer. Typical of the critical response was this review in The New York Times: “The seasoned film-goer needs no diagram to follow the well-trodden path that “Virtue” takes once the ingredients for the formula have been introduced. But if the story is emotionally adolescent, the production has its merits. Pat O’Brien creates a fresh and believable character out of the cab driver….Carole Lombard brings her alabaster beauty and her talent for looking cruel and tender at the same time…The whole thing moves briskly and yesterday’s audience seemed to like it.”   Virtue was a difficult film to see for many years but in November 2014 it was packaged with four other films in Columbia Pictures Pre-Code DVD Collection; the other titles include Arizona, Ten Cents a Dance, Three Wise Girls and Shopworn. None of the titles are available as single discs (with the exception of Three Wise Girls) and this collection may be the only way you can see Virtue except for an occasional airing on Turner Classic Movies.    *This is an updated and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

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