by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film I picked was Virtue, fifth and last in that interesting sequence of early-1930’s “B”’s from Columbia TCM showed on July 10 (the others were The Good Bad Girl, Attorney for the Defense, The Final Edition and the awesome Three Wise Girls). Virtue had some of the same virtues (pardon the pun) of Three Wise Girls: an excellent star performance in the female lead by an actress who would go on to mega-stardom elsewhere, Carole Lombard (and by a grim irony would also, like Three Wise Girls star Jean Harlow, die tragically young!); a salty “pre-Code” script by Robert Riskin; a refreshing honesty in its treatment of human relationships rare in films then or now; and a few abrupt turns to barely credible melodrama as the film started creeping to a close and the plot strands needed to be resolved — but though the twists and turns on the way to the end weakened the film, they certainly didn’t invalidate it completely and what was left was a quite remarkable piece of work.
Also like Three Wise Girls, Virtue had a director who’s not particularly respected — Edward Buzzell, whose best known works are two of the Marx Brothers’ later (and lesser) films, At the Circus and Go West — and in a way this is really a Schreiber movie since it’s Riskin’s sensibility that rules, not Buzzell’s. It also had in common with the last film we watched, Big City, that its male lead was a cabdriver, but it’s a far superior movie in that it stays on one main plot line throughout and doesn’t have the jarring and ill-managed genre shifts of Big City. It’s also nowhere near as sentimental; anyone coming to this film knowing Riskin from his work for Frank Capra will be astonished at how hard and tough his sensibility could be before he hooked up with the Capra-corn man (though Capra not only helped Riskin to an Academy Award and enduring fame, he probably helped keep Riskin’s career going through the wrenching adjustments after the Legion of Decency came in in 1934 and Production Code enforcement was toughened to a level that films like Three Wise Girls and Virtue could no longer be made in the U.S.).
Virtue opens with Mae (Carole Lombard), a hard woman of apparent ill repute, being escorted by a police officer onto a train from New York to Danbury, Connecticut. “Pretty soft for you, sister, getting the city to pay your fare to Danbury,” says the cop. “Pretty soft for the city I don’t live in Australia,” Mae fires back. It turns out she’s being thrown out of New York for moral offenses that don’t get specified until well into the running time, and that she’s determined not to leave; even before the train pulls out of the station, she’s off of it, hiding out in the home of her similarly employed (and similarly transgressive) friend Lil (Mayo Methot, Humphrey Bogart’s third wife — and given that she’s playing here a serious version of the tough, no-nonsense salty broad Lauren Bacall later kidded, it’s easy enough to see what attracted him to her) and ultimately landing a job in a café alongside Gert Hanlon (Shirley Gray),
Meanwhile the male lead, cabdriver Jimmy Doyle (Pat O’Brien, another actor from this film who became a major star elsewhere), is introduced having an argument with a friend and co-worker, Frank (Ward Bond). Frank insists that the girl he’s just become engaged to is decent — different from all the other girls both he and Jimmy have been dating — and Jimmy insists that all women are alike, all unscrupulous creatures who live just to exploit men. Needless to say, Jimmy and Mae meet (when she gets into his cab and then sneaks out again, stiffing him for the fare) and ultimately start dating; eventually they get married, only in the meantime the cops find out about Mae still being in New York (a film crew shooting some scenes of dignitaries visiting the city offices at the same time Jimmy and Mae were leaving their civil wedding caught the couple and “outed” Mae) and go to see her to arrest her. When Jimmy naturally wants to know what they’re going to arrest her for, they say, “The same thing she did to you — picking men up off the street.” (That’s as much of a clue as we get to why Mae was being thrown out of town in the opening scene, but that’s really all we need.)
Jimmy shows the cops their marriage license and gets them to back off, but his own trust in her is undermined big-time and for much of the rest of the movie he’s suspicious of her motives, and in particular he closely questions her about what she’s doing with their money and whether she’s been tapping their savings account — which is significant plot-wise because Jimmy has an option to buy half-interest in a gas station as soon as he can raise $500. He’s almost there when Gert shows up and says she’s desperately ill and needs $200 for an operation immediately, and when Mae says no Gert grabs a bottle of poison, threatens to drink it, collapses to the floor outside Mae’s apartment and gets the money out of her. Then she and Jimmy have Frank over for dinner, and Frank reveals that Gert scammed him similarly — and with Jimmy needing all their money immediately to pay for the gas station, Mae determines to find Gert and get her money back. It turns out that Gert pulled the scam in association with Toots O’Neil (Jack LaRue), a thoroughly nasty piece of work who’s also the boyfriend of Mae’s old roommate Lil — he’s cheating on Lil with Gert while also pulling scams with her — and when Gert gets an attack of conscience and wants them to give Mae back her money, Toots kills her and sets Mae up to take the fall.Jimmy, who’s been following his wife around because he’s suspicious of her, actually saw a man in Gert’s apartment the night she was killed (the police theory is that she and Mae were the only people there that night), but when he attempts to visit Mae in jail with the information that could free her, she’s so hurt that she refuses to see him.
Eventually it all ends happily — the cops figure out who really killed Gert and arrest Toots, Mae buys the half a gas station for Jimmy and herself, and there’s a cute reconciliation scene there — but in the meantime the eccentrically titled Virtue has been quite a ride, most powerful in the simple scenes in which lack of money and lack of trust both take their toll on Jimmy’s and Mae’s relationship and they struggle along to stay together in a series of powerfully intense, well-written scenes that make them come across as real people in a difficult situation, not the stick-figures of most movies. Virtue is a tough, no-nonsense story about people barely hanging on in the proletariat, and like Three Wise Girls, it makes one wonder just how many other intensely moving, emotional and highly watchable films like this are moldering in Columbia’s vaults!