It's amazing how rapidly perceptions of classic Hollywood evolve and change over the years. Throughout the '60s, '70s and much of the '80s, films of the early '30s weren't screened or revived all that often, other than a few perennials such as "King Kong." We knew talking pictures came into being with "The Jazz Singer" in late 1927, but for the most part we considered the medium rather stilted and uninteresting during those early talkie years, not really blossoming until the mid-thirties.
How wrong we were.
There are a few people to thank for this sudden reevaluation. Ted Turner was decried by movie buffs throughout much of the late eighties for backing colorization, but who remembers that now? His purchase of vintage film libraries for his cable channels, and their airing -- initially on TNT (before the channel "knew drama"), later on the commercial-free Turner Classic Movies after its founding in 1994 -- led to a viewing of hundreds of films that had been forgotten for decades. And many of them hadn't even aired during the early years of television because, well, they were a little too risque for postwar suburban family viewing. Now the cats were let out of the bag, and the audience purred with delight.
The importance of the Motion Picture Code, and an era when it either didn't exist or wasn't enforced, didn't become widespread until the '90s. More than anyone, we can credit San Francisco-based film historian and critic Mick LaSalle for making us aware of it, and the many cinematic goodies that had been hidden away. (LaSalle personally championed the posthumous revival of Norma Shearer's career; heretofore, many of us couldn't understand why she was such a big star, or why she was higher on the MGM pecking order than Joan Crawford, other than that her husband was production mogul Irving Thalberg. Now we get it.)
Several years ago, LaSalle wrote a book, "Complicated Women," which discussed the roles women played in films of the pre-Code era (which more or less began in 1929, when talking films became predominant, and ended in mid-1934, when the Code was far more stringently enforced). It's required reading for anyone interested in moviemaking of the time. (That's Shearer on the cover, by the way.)
LaSalle didn't discuss Lombard all that much -- she didn't really hit her stride until 1934, at just about the time the era ended, and most of her pre-Codes weren't textbook examples of the period's sensibilities -- but he did have a few interesting things to say about her. In "Sinners In The Sun" (of which a lobby card is shown at the top of this entry), he noted how Lombard portrays a "kept woman," a frequent theme of the era (Crawford and Constance Bennett had success with such roles): "Lombard wants luxury like an artist in pursuit of her calling. Rewarded by her wealthy lover with a closet full of expensive clothing, Lombard sees a row of silk dresses and responds with a look that is nothing like greed...Lombard's look is the wonder of a woman seeing, for the first time, something she has imagined, pictured, and dreamed of all her life." He also said her character's desire for luxury "is hardly presented as evidence of superficiality, but rather as proof of a grand spirit."
LaSalle also cited Lombard's 1932 film "Virtue" as an example of how Hollywood viewed prostitutes. "Pat O'Brien played a loudmouth taxi driver who marries a former prostitute (Lombard) and spends the rest of the movie in a panic that she's moonlighting at her old trade," he wrote. "But the movie's point of view is that that's his problem."
Had Lombard's screen personality been fully formed during the pre-Code era -- something she showed occasionally in "No Man Of Her Own" -- her career might have been substantially different. On the other hand, the more relaxed pre-Code sensibilities enabled us to see Lombard like this (from "Twentieth Century")...
...and this (from "Bolero")...
...much to the delight of (mostly male) millions.