I was at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Md., on Sunday afternoon for its double feature of pre-Code Carole Lombard films, joined by about 150 or so other people -- which doesn't sound like much in a place that seats about 1,200 or so, but it wasn't that much less than crowds I've seen for similar fare at New York's Film Forum (and its repertory theater is a much smaller venue).
Those at the Silver could take or leave the second half of the twin bill, the over-the-top 1933 jungle melodrama "White Woman," with Charles Laughton hamming it up...but they loved the opening film, "Virtue" (made in 1932 at Columbia -- Carole's first loanout since signing with Paramount two years earlier). And deservedly so; if you don't count her breakthrough film "Twentieth Century," "Virtue" may be Lombard's best pre-Code acting, as she infuses her reformed streetwalker character, Mae, with texture, toughness and intelligence...overcoming Pat O'Brien's predictable performance as a rather stereotypical, know-it-all cab driver. (Solid dialogue from Robert Riskin also makes this a step above many of Lombard's early efforts.)
However, while Carole won over the audience by film's end, they felt 180 degrees differently at the start...and it really wasn't Lombard's fault. After the opening credits, you hear a judge order her character Mae, who has evidently been convicted of prostitution, to leave New York City. However, there's just one problem; we don't see any of this -- literally. You hear the judge impose the sentence, but the screen is black. Naturally, you heard some in the crowd complain that the projector wasn't working. This lasted for nearly a minute -- but then we actually see Lombard boarding a train accompanied by a detective, who tells her to get off at Danbury, Conn., then as now the end of one of New York's commuter rail lines. (She doesn't follow orders, getting off at 125th Street and then laying low.)
I saw "Virtue" on Turner Classic Movies last October, during its Lombard "star of the month" salute, as well as in December 2007, and neither time do I recall seeing any black screen -- perhaps it was cut out so as not to confuse the TV audience. But was this how Columbia had set up the film all along? Were 1932 audiences similarly confused?
A check of the Internet Movie Database provides no conclusive answers. In its trivia for "Virtue," IMDb notes, "Edward LeSaint in the role as 'Magistrate' is in studio records/casting call lists as a cast member, but he did not appear or was not identifiable in the movie. The role of 'Magistrate' was credited onscreen to Lew Kelly, but he also did not appear."
Moreover, one of the 10 reviews for the film, from someone in the United Kingdom, states the opening is "now sound only," which implies that for some reason, the visual segment of this scene is somehow lost. I've heard of this situation occurring in early musicals, particularly those employing the sound-on-disc feature used by Vitaphone, but "Virtue" is not a musical, nor did Columbia use the sound-on-disc format in 1932. And due to the profession of its lead female character, "Virtue" probably wasn't reissued by Columbia once the Production Code was more thoroughly imposed in mid-1934.
I am hoping some Lombard experts can explain what might have happened to the visuals of the opening scene (assuming they were shot in the first place). For now, don't let a black screen make you turn off the set or leave the theater.
P.S. There was a line in the film where someone notes O'Brien's character "is no Clark Gable," which never fails to elicit a few chuckles to contemporary ears due to Gable's relationship with Lombard. However, in '32 audiences wouldn't have made that allusion, since Carole's only film with Clark wouldn't come out until the end of the year, a month or two after "Virtue" made the rounds of theaters.