By Lara Gabrielle Fowler
When I learned that Virtue was to be a part of the pre-code festival at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco this evening, I knew I had to go. This is one of Carole Lombard’s more well-known movies, but one which is rarely seen. This was, perhaps, my one chance to see this movie and review it for the Carole Lombard Filmography Project.
At the outset, the movie plays like a pretty standard pre-code. Mae, a streetwalker, is banned from town after being caught picking up men. Despite the court order to stay away, she returns and strikes up a relationship with a cab driver named Jimmy, not telling him she has been a streetwalker. They marry and on their wedding night, they come home to find a detective in their house. The detective says he is on to Mae and informs her husband that he has married a former streetwalker. Hurt and confused, Jimmy nonetheless decides to make a go of their marriage.
Jimmy has a dream of being part owner of a gas station, and he has made plans with his friend Flanagan to purchase one to operate together. Though he has vowed to make the best of his marriage to Mae, he is constantly paranoid about her activities when he is not around. Mae assures him that he has nothing to worry about–their bank account shows only what he brings home from work, no more, no less. He is thrilled and excited about getting closer to his dream of owning a gas station, and Mae joins him in his excitement.
This is the point where the movie turns from a run-of-the-mill pre-code to something rather unique.
One day, Mae’s friend Gert falls ill and asks Mae for $200 for an operation. At first Mae says no, but ultimately gives in when Gert tries to commit suicide by drinking poison. When Mae comes home after lending Gert the money, she finds that her husband thinks he met his financial goal that day–not knowing that he was short the $200 that Mae lent Gert.
Later that evening, a friend comes over saying that Gert had asked HIM for $200 for an operation, then pretended to drink poison when he said no. Though she said nothing in order to keep her secret, Mae realizes that Gert was scamming them, and sets out to find her. She is nowhere to be found. Finally Mae tracks her down and starts beating her up, telling her that if she didn’t get the money back she would kill her. Gert swears she will, and tells her to come back tomorrow evening.
The next morning Jimmy, still suspicious, asks her what she did the previous evening. In order to maintain the secret of the $200, she replies that she had just stayed home. When asked what she would do that evening, she replies that she will probably do the same. When the evening rolls around and Mae sets out for Gert’s house, the jealous husband follows her. She enters Gert’s apartment, and her husband assumes that she is there to prostitute herself.
Meanwhile we learn that Gert has been giving the scammed money to a man named Toots O’Neill, the pimp of Lil, Mae and Gert’s mutual friend and fellow prostitute. In order to pay Mae back, Gert steals the money out of Toots’ wallet. When Toots finds out that she stole the money, he starts a fight with her to get it back, ultimately throwing her to the ground. She hits her head on a heater, killing her instantly.
Jimmy sees the silhouette of Toots lifting Gert’s dead body, and it looks like an embrace. He assumes it is Mae, and he is furious.
Meanwhile, Mae finds the door unlocked and enters. Toots hides with Gert’s body but watches her through a crack in the door. Mae finds the $200 on the table and takes it–but accidentally leaves her coat and purse.
She returns home to a furious Jimmy, and when she tries to explain, he will not listen to her and leaves. She hands him the $200 telling him that it is his, but he assumes it is her money from streetwalking and will not take it.
Mae’s coat and purse are found by detectives investigating Gert’s murder, and as they believe she was the only one there with Gert, they identify her as the guilty party in the murder and throw her in jail.
Forlorn about the failure of his marriage, Jimmy has passed out drunk at a local bar. A friend finds him and notifies him of Mae’s murder charge. He sobers up to defend her, and through a series of circumstances he sees Toots’ silhouette and recognizes it as the silhouette he saw in Gert’s apartment. He knows she couldn’t have been alone that night. When he confronts Toots with Lil present, Toots pulls a gun on him and Lil offers him an alibi, saying that she will testify that he was with her that evening. She convinces him to go to the courthouse instead of running out of town, as that will show that he is innocent and has nothing to hide.
Toots and Lil show up at the courthouse and Toots presents his testimony that he was with Lil all night. The judge asks Lil if this is true….and Lil replies that no, this is not true. She had to tell him that she would vouch for him to get him down to the courthouse, and says that he was about to run out of town. Toots is arrested, and Mae set free. The movie ends as Mae and Jimmy get back together, and Jimmy’s dream of a gas station has finally come true.
This was an extraordinarily complex, tight and well put together story. In writing this review, I felt an obligation to write out the entire story instead of the general skeleton, as the film unravels in such a straight and unwavering line that it is impossible to describe one event without all the others. Carole gives a wonderful performance, and the supporting cast is also magnificent. It is interesting to see how versatile of an actress Carole was. She plays this streetwalker with as much aplomb as her later dizzy screwball roles, and she could easily have remained a dramatic actress had her career not gone toward comedy. Had Carole lived longer, I would venture to say that she could have been comparable to someone like Barbara Stanwyck, capable of playing a wide variety of genres with equal skill.
Virtue is a movie that deserves to be seen by anyone with an interest in pre-code Hollywood, or simply classic Hollywood in general. It is unusually thorough in its treatment of its characters and its plot is meticulously thought out and detailed. The fact that this movie is so rare is a real shame, as it would be enjoyed by so many people if it were more widely available.
See you next time!