Saturday, October 8, 2011

Carole-tennial(+3) Blogathon: Virtue (1932)

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to Carole-tennial(+3)!, a blogathon being hosted at Carole & Co. from October 6-9 in honor of the actress’ 103rd natal anniversary.  For a full list of the participants, check out these posts here and here. (Oh, and I give away the ending to this one so if you haven’t seen it you might want to move along.)

A young woman named Mae (Carole Lombard) is escorted onto a train that’s leaving New York City and headed for beautiful downtown Danbury, Connecticut.  And by “escorted,” I mean that she’s in the company of a police detective…because she’s been ordered by a judge to leave the Big Apple and never come back.  Pulling tags off mattresses?  Getting in the “12 Items or Less” aisle with 13 items?  No, she’s being exiled because she’s what my father always colorfully refers to as a “camp follower.”  But Mae has no desire to leave NYC for clean Connecticut living…and gets off the Danbury Express at 125th Street, because as her hooker friend Lil (Mayo Methot) later observes about Danbury: “They don’t bury their dead…just let ‘em walk around.”

The director of this film, Edward Buzzell, probably won't turn up on an auteur list anytime soon but I liked this shot of which a financially-strapped Mae (Lombard) notices that Lil is giving her an assist and she quietly thanks her.
To get to her friend Lil’s apartment, she flags down cabbie Jimmy Doyle (Pat O’Brien)—a hard-boiled egg who’s pretty sure he knows all there is about women (“Nobody can tell me nothin’ about dames…”) and in a previous scene chastises his pal Frank (Ward Bond) for wanting to marry his girlfriend and falling for her “hook, line and donut.”  (Frank: “Well…maybe I like donuts…”  Jimmy: “Okay—it’s your donut…dunk it.”)  As a courtesy to his passenger, he stops off at a drugstore to get her some cigarettes…only to find that when he returns to his cab, she’s skipped out owning $1.40 on the meter.  Later, he tells his fellow hacks that he caught up with and exacted what she owed him by having her arrested…just in time for her to walk up and announce she’s paying him what she is in arrears.  (She didn’t have it at the time because she had to borrow some money from Lil; he’s a little embarrassed at being caught in a fib by his friends.)  The two have a lively verbal exchange…and then finally patch things up over a soda, where Jimmy brags to Mae about his extensive knowledge on the subject of the fairer sex, and demonstrates by pegging her as an unemployed “stenog” from out-of-town.  He agrees to put in a good word for her with a friend of his who can find her work.

Determined to walk the straight-and-narrow, Mae gets work as a cashier at a diner where another ex-whore pal of hers, Gertie Hanlon (Shirley Grey), slings hash.  With the arrival of Lil and her creep of a pimp, Toots O’Neil (Jack La Rue), it’s Old Home Week…and Lil gets an earful from Mae about how she’s fallen for Jimmy in a big way.  Sure, Jimmy might seem like a macho tool but he’s an ambitious one—he plans to buy his way into a gas station setup with the money he’s earned driving a taxi and those plans don’t include getting involved with a woman.  Not surprisingly, it isn’t long before he and Mae tie the knot and become Mr. and Mrs. Doyle…and returning home from their Coney Island “honeymoon,” Mae finds one of New York’s finest (Willard Robertson) waiting at her place because there’s that little matter of relocating to Danbury over her head.  The cop mistakes Jimmy for another of Mae’s johns (his name is Jimmy!) and when Doyle shows the flatfoot that their union is legit, he backs off.  Upset at not being told what she used to do for a living, it looks like at first glance that Jimmy is going to be a real piece of work and leave Mae…but he loves her too much to do that, and he reconciles with her quickly.

Jimmy continues to work hard for the money (so hard for it, honey) because he needs 500 simolians to get a half-interest in a garage run by an older gent named Flanagan (Arthur Wanzer)…and Mae is doing what she can, even giving up part of her household money to kick in.  Mae soon learns that Gert isn’t well; her friend tells her she needs $200 for an operation and asks Mae for help.  Mae can’t give her the money because it’s technically Jimmy’s…but when Gert tries to commit suicide by drinking poison, Mae acquiesces and gives her the necessary funds.  Wouldn’t ya know—Jimmy then informs Mae that Flanagan has agreed to let Jimmy buy into the business despite his being short of the five hundred.

This is the "Invent Your Own Caption" segment of this review.  Try and keep it clean.
Mae’s problems are just beginning: Jimmy’s pal Frank stops by to tell the couple of an old acquaintance who’s been cadging money from suckers by pretending to be sick and needing an operation…and I guess I don’t have to tell you who that someone is (hint: it rhymes with “Myrt”).  After searching high and low for her all over town, Mae confronts Gertie in a sleazy hotel room to tell her that she has to have that $200 back ASAP and after slapping her around Gert comes around to Mae’s way of thinking.  Mae has paid her friend this visit in the middle of the night, while Jimmy is working the swing shift in his taxi; he comes home for a little snack and finding their apartment empty, assumes the worst.

So Jimmy follows Mae the next evening and sure enough, she turns up at the hotel while Jimmy watches from his cab downstairs.  He sees the silhouettes of a strange man and a woman he thinks is Mae, and goes nuts. The man in question is our ol’ pimp pal Toots; he’s in with Gert on her little racket and when she tries to get the $200 back from him he shoves her around…

…and into the room’s radiator.  (I’ve seen this happen in at least one other film—those things are clearly a safety hazard.)  Because Mae left her bag in Gert’s room (Toots was conveniently hiding out of sight) the police suspect her of her friend’s murder…and even though Jimmy’s been on a three-day bender because he’s convinced Mae has been playing around on him he sobers up to the point where he exposes Toots as the real killer and by the film’s end, lives happily ever after with Mae as he starts his new career as a grease monkey.

As Mae and Jimmy go in for the final clinch, gasoline begins to spew from the tank at the left.  Subtle!
A gem of a pre-Code mellerdrammer made by Carole Lombard at Columbia (on loan from Paramount), Virtue (1932) has more than a few fans for its fine lead and supporting performances and often snappy patter courtesy of Frank Capra’s frequent collaborator, scenarist Robert Riskin (from a story by Ethel Hill).  It’s short and sweet—it gets the details down in a scant sixty-eight minutes…but the movie is not totally problem-free, though you could argue that it’s more a matter of opinion in my case.  I liked Lombard in this film a great deal, but I often had difficulty believing at times that she was a prostitute (despite her earthy, “just-one-of-the-boys” demeanor off screen, there’s a gentility to many of her performances that always makes me a little leery when she tries to play tarnished women)..  There’s a famous show bidness story, of course, that when Columbia Studios head Harry “White Fang” Cohn noticed Lombard’s platinum coiffure in Virtue he complained that it made her look too much like a whore (apparently he had not been clued into the film’s plot) and Lombard shot back: “If anyone would know a whore it would be you!”  (Cohn, who was a real dickhead because he worked hard at it, liked people who fought back and he and Lombard became friends afterwards.)  In the scene where Lombard is trying to convince Grey’s Gertie to come clean with the $200 her slapping of the woman isn’t just convincing (if the Three Stooges had been employed at Columbia at this time they could have given her a few pointers); I have to be honest—this would have been a perfect vehicle for Jean Harlow.

I think my main problem with the film is that I’m not all that big a Pat O’Brien fan; if he’s playing a priest alongside James Cagney or trying to keep Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis from being rubbed out by George Raft I don’t have a problem with him…but I’ve seen him in quite a few early movies and he’s a graduate of that Spencer Tracy Brute Academy that I don’t always find particularly charming.  I prefer O’Brien’s later roles—like Melvyn Douglas, he improved with a little seasoning—like in The Last Hurrah (1958); he also did a guest shot on WKRP in Cincinnati that I particularly enjoyed in which he played a rich friend of Jennifer Marlowe’s who makes sure she’s taken good care of in his will.  His character has a nephew who’s a real sponge and every time he pronounced his name (“Skip…”) it was like he just discovered on his shoe that he stepped in something.  To me, the happy ending on this film seems a little tacked on; it would have had a little more punch if the couple never reconciled, particularly in light of the lecture Lombard’s Mae gives Jimmy when he confronts her about her alleged infidelity.

Great Moments in Movie Coincidences: It's a good thing Toots (behind door) is going to wear that chapeau...otherwise Jimmy wouldn't be able to identify him as the male silhouette in Gert's room that night and provide the evidence to save his ex-hooker wife from a murder rap!
But because Virtue’s running time is brief (which means you only notice the seams after it’s completed) and the dialogue so sparkling it’s definitely one you’ll want to put on your must-see list.  There are two laugh-out-loud moments in this one (well, for me, at least)—the first is a throwaway line from Ward Bond’s Frank; when O’Brien remarks that he had to shave and clean himself up to see Lombard in prison: “I guess I must have been a sight, huh?” O’Brien asks Bond, who returns with “You wasn’t no Clark Gable.”  (I realize Lombard was still married to William Powell at the time of Virtue’s release but I still found it presciently amusing.) 

The other giggle comes from Mayo Methot’s Lil, who empathizes with how bad Lombard’s Mae has it for O’Brien by observing “I’ve been that way ever since I met that momzer over there,” and pointing to Toots.  For the non-Jewish fans in the audience, “momzer” is a Yiddishism that literally means “bastard”…but like “putz” and “schmuck” have become so popular with use that their original meanings have become sort of sanitized.  Writer Milt Josefsberg tells an anecdote in his book The Jack Benny Show about how when he was a scribe in Bob Hope’s employ he wanted to name a gangster in a sketch “Milton the Momzer” because his parents used to use the word to describe a young Milt (momzer had been transformed into an expression to describe a kid who was full of the dickens) and, of course, his fellow writers started to rib Josefsberg about his questionable parentage.  Jack Benny wandered into the conversation and Hope asked him “Jack, what’s a momzer?” prompting Benny to crack “Don’t tell me that your sponsor is calling you that already.”  Benny then explained that, yes, the word did mean “bastard” but that it was also used as a term of affection to describe a Dennis-the-Menace-type kid and that his parents used the term to describe Jack as a youngster, too.  (Whereupon Hope announced “If these two bastards are finished, maybe we can get back to work!”)

Methot’s performance as the still-working-the-streets Lil is one of the major pluses in Virtue—maybe I’m so ready to believe that she could be a hooker because she didn’t star in Twentieth Century (1934) or To Be or Not to Be (1942).  (Methot has become more well-known as one-half of the “Battling Bogarts”; she was married to Humphrey Bogart from 1938-45, having met Bogie on the set of 1937’s Marked Woman…a film also about the world’s oldest profession.)  I also liked La Rue as her greasy pimp; Methot’s character is in essence the heroine of the film and when she turns La Rue over to the cops at the movie’s end it’s particularly gratifying because for most of the movie it’s hard to resist the urge to swat him with a huge stick.

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VP81955 said...

Thanks for your contribution to "Carole-tennial(+3)!", and for your observations.

Might have been interesting to see a Jean Harlow "Virtue"; at this point in their careers, Jean certainly had a tougher persona.

How about a trade-off in our alternate movie universe -- Harlow replaces Lombard in "Virtue," while Lombard replaces Loretta Young in another '32 film involving a cabbie of Irish descent, "Taxi!" (Carole could have been the female lead in this James Cagney vehicle, pardon the pun, when it was planned in late '31, but rejected it because she deemed loanouts demeaning. When "Taxi!" became a hit, she regretted the decision -- it would have been fascinating to see her work with Cagney -- and "Virtue" was her first loanout from Paramount.)

Now we have to even things out for Loretta...

The Lady Eve said...

I haven't seen "Virtue" (though almost feel as I have, thanks to you, Ivan). Realized I'd never seen Mayo Methot onscreen, only in books and stories about Bogart. Director Edward Buzzell's name also caught my attention. Remembered that he was originally set to direct "Platinum Blonde" (1931) but Frank Capra took it over (and the rest is history, etc.).

Very enjoyable reading as always, Ivan, and a great contribution to the Carol-tennial (+3)...

Aubyn said...

Hey, a Mayo Methot sighting! I've always been curious to see what her acting was like.

If you want to make "Invent Your Own Caption" a regular feature of this blog, Ivan, I would support you.

Great review, as always. The only early Lombard I've seen is The Eagle and the Hawk and that hardly counts as her movie so I'll keep an eye out for this one.