This is a film where characters have names like Mae, Gert, Lil and Toots O’Neill. The women are all hookers and waitresses; the men cab drivers and pimps. The film’s world is the New York of the Great Depression, a place where women have to do what they can to get by but once they do…. ‘You’d think there’d be some men you could tell that kind of thing to and they’d understand,’ says Mae (Carole Lombard), referring to her street-walking past. ‘There were some but they all died in the Civil War,’ says Lil.
The film begins with Mae being run out of town by the cops, placed on a bus and told to go home. She immediately gets off at the first stop, hails a cab and then stiffs the driver for the money. When she sees him later and tries to return the money she catches him in the middle of telling the story but with him getting the money back as no woman is going to get the best of him. It’s a meet cute where they end up arguing: ‘I don’t like your face’ My face is ok’, ‘Yeah it’s ok for you, you’re behind it’. The driver’s name is Jimmy (Pat O’Brien) and of course he helps get her a ‘decent’ job as a waitress, they fall in love, and he does what he’s said he’d never do, marry before he’s got enough money to set up his own business. Needless to say, the past comes back to haunt them. They overcome that but once he knows of her past, trust becomes an issue. It all gets resolved at the end but not without a bit of murder and lot of melodrama.
Poverty-row Columbia was where Carole Lombard went to in the early 30s for the meaty parts she wasn’t getting at Paramount, her home studio. On the evidence of Virtue, she was smart to. Robert Riskin, already contributing depth and crackle to Capra’s films (The Miracle Woman, Platinum Blonde, American Madness) and soon to be even more famous as the screenwriter of Capra’s most celebrated and successful films of the 1930s (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take it With You) also wrote the screenplay for Virtue. It has a hackneyed plot but it’s hard-boiled, tries hard to be unsentimental, and has crackling dialogue: ‘Ya ever been married’, ‘So many times I got rice marks all over me’.
Perhaps even more important than the film’s themes of acceptance and forgiveness are the ways the film first articulates misogyny (everything Pat O’Brien’s Jimmy thinks about women and spouts to the character of Frank played by Ward Bond) and then condemns it (all the plot points prove Jimmy wrong). The film also intelligently dramatises the importance of friendships between women (Mae’s relationship with Lil) without being blind about them (what Gert ends up doing). One gets a real sense of the precariousness of good people’s existence in a harsh economic climate, how humour ennobles, and the priggishness of people yet to understand that there are many types of virtue.
At the heart of the film is Carole Lombard who is the main reason for seeing it. How someone so beautiful can seem believable as a down-and-out streetwalker and so emotionally transparent whilst evoking a wide range of sometimes contradictory feeling and simultaneously cracking wise is one of the miracles of 1930s movies.
According to Michelle Morgan in Carole Lombard: Twentieth-Century Star, the film was well-reviewed with the Motion Picture Herald addressing a serious issue: ‘Possessed of a certain dramatic effectiveness and succeeding in becoming reasonably entertaining, this picture nevertheless presents the exhibitor with something in the nature of a problem in selling. The reasons is that the theme is concerned primarily with the attempted and finally successful return to respectability of a girl of extremely easy virtue.