Thursday, January 7, 2021

VIRTUE (Edward Buzzell, 1932)


Mae is a Street Walker who is tired of being walked upon and she aims to make a living standing on her own two feet. Jimmy is a Taxi Driver who knows all the “tricks” about women yet remains blinded, unable (or unwilling) to see Mae as nothing but a stereotype. It’s this friction that causes the story to heat up!

The film begins with a Censorship declaration: The first few minutes are blacked-out because it was improper to show the Judicial System in an unflattering light. (Ha! I have 21 years experience in the Judicial System and there is nothing flattering about it!) Yet sound is retained so we can hear the Judge bang his gavel and sentence a gaggle of prostitutes to 90 days on a Work Farm or choose to leave NYC on the next train, never to return. The film then fades-in to Carole Lombard as Mae (who must have been one of the aforementioned prostitutes) being forced by a Detective to buy a one-way ticket to Danbury. Of course at the first opportunity she disembarks and makes her way back to the City. Her confidante Lil (a wonderfully nuanced performance by Mayo Methot!) warns her away from her old haunts and habits and tries to set her straight. Lil slips her a loan and Mae goes to repay a cab driver she stiffed (not sexually, mind you) when she fled from the train.

Jimmy and Mae begin to fall in love but she keeps her past a secret, the courtship lasting while she has honest work at a restaurant. They are soon married and Jimmy works overtime to afford a partnership in a gas station: all he needs to save is $500. Through a series of mishaps and miscommunication, coincident and causality, Jimmy believes Mae is “earning” her money on the side while also being accused of murder! Jimmy sinks towards despair while Mae is resolute, resigned to her fate in prison, knowing the circumstantial evidence points directly to her. Jimmy and Lil actually hold the key to her salvation and the true murderer is finally exposed.

VIRTUE is extremely well written and the characters are interesting and multi-faceted, not mere tropes in a genre film. The narrative twists and turns are surprising and create suspense because we care for Mae, Jimmy and Lil and hope everyone lives happily ever after. For Mae, she has to come to terms with her past so she has no secrets from her husband; Jimmy needs to learn to trust Mae and realize he has no right to judgment upon her; Lil must do the right thing for Lil and her own conscience. The film ends with Mae pumping gas, grease streaked upon her face, as Jimmy finally realizes his dream of ownership (of the gas station, not Mae.) Virtue has multiple definitions: for Mae it’s about finding merit in herself despite her past and for Jimmy it concerns the restructuring of his high moral patriarchal standards. It’s to the story’s strength that they all change...for the better.

Final Grade: (B+)