Saturday, August 25, 2012

Columbia Pictures Pre-Code Collection: Virtue directed by Edward Buzzell (starring Carole Lombard, Pat O'Brien, Mayo Methot, Shirley Grey, Ward Bond, Jack La Rue)

Virtue (1932). Screenplay by Robert Riskin from the original story by Ethel Hill.

Mae (Carole Lombard) is a sometime con artist who's been banned from New York City for solicitation. Jimmy (Pat O'Brien) is a cab driver who thinks he knows all about women. They meet when she skips out on her fare as he drives her back into town. They meet again when she returns to pay him, and they fall for each other.

As she turns over a new leaf, her biggest fear is that Jimmy will find out about her past. Then it comes back to haunt her in the form of a former colleague (Shirley Grey) who says she needs an operation. Mae borrows the money from Jimmy's fund toward a half-interest in a gas station — his big dream — then has to go back to her old stomping grounds to get it back before he finds out. There she gets in over her head and is arrested for murder.

O'Brien and Lombard are cute with each other, and their domestic scenes together are particularly romantic. It's their interaction that cements Virtue. Otherwise, this pre-Code is a pretty standard soaper about a "bad" woman redeemed by the love of a good man.

Ethel Hill's plot depends too much on contrivances and people not telling the truth to each other (honest communication is best in any marriage), but Robert Riskin's script supplies plenty of good wisecracking dialogue. (The radiant Lombard parading around for a while in a series of flimsy, low-cut tops is another high point.)

Ward Bond also appears as Jimmy's best friend Frank, and Jack La Rue is memorable as Toots, a racketeer with his hands in a couple of different honeypots. Mayo Methot is particularly good as Lil, probably her largest screen role. (She is best known for being married to Humphrey Bogart when he met Lauren Bacall. At the time, they were known as the "Battling Bogarts.")

Director Edward Buzzell assembles a solid cast and deftly combines the seedy and romantic sides of the story. And the ending, while no surprise, still elicits a smile. All of which makes Virtue a little better than it should be, and one of Carole Lombard's more entertaining early films.

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