Sunday, August 10, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: VIRTUE (1932)

In the Pre-Code era, you probably could have taken it for granted that a film called Virtue would be about a fallen woman. So it is in this Columbia release directed by Edward Buzzell and written by Frank Capra's frequent collaborator Robert Riskin. It's about the redemption of such a woman, a convicted prostitute played by Carole Lombard. I don't know if the picture is lost (while the soundtrack remains) or if Turner Classic Movies simply had a technical problem this morning, but the film opened in complete darkness as Mae (Lombard) gets a suspended sentence and is warned out of the state of New York. She gets a train ticket to Danbury but gets out in the big city, where she meets cute with cab driver Jimmy (Pat O'Brien), who boasts to roommate Frank (Ward Bond) that he's wise to women's ways. The joke is that he claims he can figure a female on sight but never guesses Mae's past until after he marries her. Jimmy simply isn't as hard-boiled as he pretends to be; his true sentiments come out when he confronts an unforgiving policeman: "The problem with you hard-boiled guys is when someone's on the level you can't see it." He assumes that Mae is on the level, and the film proves his instinct correct, until the cop sets him straight. Mae and Jimmy have come home from City Hall after an amusement-park honeymoon to find the cop sitting in Mae's apartment. What's Mae wanted for? Jimmy asks. "Same thing she's doing now," the cop answers, "Bringing guys up to her room at night." Jimmy is stunned and humiliated but steps up to admit his marriage, which saves Mae from being taken away for a parole violation. After the cop leaves, Mae pleads for understanding, but Jimmy slaps her and storms out the door. This scene is Pre-Code to the core.

Soon enough, Jimmy reconciles with Mae and they start a little household while he saves money to buy an interest in a gas station. He has an inexhaustible appetite for flapjacks and begrudges her purchase of new lace curtains, but he's still a good guy at heart and still, in his own mind, a candidate for World's Prize Sap. He gets suspicious again when Mae isn't home at night when he stops for something to eat. What he doesn't know yet is that Mae has been suckered by her fellow waitress Gert (Shirley Grey). Gert has fallen ill and needs emergency surgery, begging Mae to loan her the money for proper medical care. Mae and Jimmy have a bank account so he can save up to buy that gas station and Mae doesn't dare withdraw any money until Gert attempts suicide in desperation. Having come up with the dough, Mae goes home to hear that Jimmy plans to close on the gas station in two days, while Frank grumbles about how his girl suckered him out of $100 with a fake illness and suicide attempt. You can practically see the cartoon jackass head appear over Mae's face as she realizes she's been conned, too. It turns out that Gert is in on a grift with Toots (Jack La Rue, the villain from The Story of Temple Drake), the boyfriend of Mae's BFF Lil (Mayo Methot). Gert promptly quits her flat but Mae tracks her down to a hotel where women like them ply their old profession. She slaps Gert silly but has to take her word that she'll have the money the following day. Toots isn't cooperating, however, and when Gert tries to snatch the mazuma from his wallet he shoves her to the floor, but is shocked -- doesn't he watch movies? -- to find that she cracked her bean or broke her neck on the proverbial radiator. One way or the other, you get the idea. Meanwhile, Mae sneaks into another room and takes her money, but leaves a purse behind. Knowing the story about Mae, Toots figures he can frame her for Gert's death as long as Lil gives him an alibi. Meanwhile, a suspicious Jimmy has seen some of this, watching silhouettes in the window from his cab, and assumes that Mae, reverting to her old ways, is entertaining a paying customer while Toots is actually dragging Gert's corpse from one room to another. He confronts Mae, who gets defensive, accusing him of wanting to crucify her, so that the straight story never gets told. While Jimmy goes on a three-day drunk, Mae is arrested for murder....

This grim little story gets a happy ending, if only because Toots proves an even bigger sap than Jimmy as Lil saves Jimmy from a bullet and tricks Toots into putting himself in the law's hands by promising that alibi. They call it Virtue but it could just as easily have been Men Are Dumb. The stupidity of the male characters -- it's probably no accident that Ward Bond has one of his bigger roles of the period here -- edges the potential tragedy toward the farcical as Jimmy infers far too much from the shadow play in the window, while for some sort of gangster Toots seems to lack basic survival skills. I guess that makes this a women's picture, albeit one with that special Pre-Code emphasis on survival at all costs and little apology for Mae's past. Like many Columbia Pre-Codes it looks great in restored form, thanks much to Joe Walker's cinematography. His work reminds me of one difference between Pre-Code and film noir. The earlier films are often as dark as the later ones, but noir is about the play of shadows while Pre-Code is often just plain dark, with luminous figures briefly illuminating the default darkness. The scene with the silhouettes in the window is a little silly but the way Walker films it, with streams of rain running down the window, is almost magical. As for the actors, Carole Lombard didn't really come into her own until the screwball era, but she makes a compelling, sympathetic heroine, while Pat O'Brien definitely makes a convincing sap while remaining likable enough, barely, for us to forgive him. It's definitely the sort of film they weren't making anymore for a long time afterward, and it's good enough, if no classic, to help you appreciate what Hollywood sacrificed to save itself.

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