When Mae (Carole Lombard) gets arrested for prostitution, she’s lucky to get a judge who believes that streetwalkers have a good chance to turn their lives around if they are sent back home. So instead of being sent to jail, she is put on a train to her hometown of Danbury. But she has no intention of actually going to Danbury so she gets off the train before it even leaves New York City and gets into a cab being driven by Jimmy Doyle (Pat O’Brien). When she asks him to stop at a store for her, she sneaks off without paying and goes to see her friend and fellow streetwalker Lil (Mayo Methot) for advice on what to do next. Lil suggests that she get her life on the right path and find a legitimate job.
The next day, Mae decides the first step to getting on the right track is to find Jimmy and pay him the fare she stiffed him. She finds him, but he doesn’t want to take her money. The two of them get into a big argument, but a mutual attraction between them wins out and their conversation quickly turns civil. Jimmy thinks that Mae is an out-of-work stenographer and Mae doesn’t correct him, so he helps her get a job as a cashier in a restaurant. As it turns out, Gert (Shirley Grey), an ex-streetwalker friend of Mae’s, also works at the restaurant. Things are really starting to turn around for Mae. She’s got a real job that she enjoys, she’s got a good friend in Gert, and her relationship with Jimmy has been going so well that they get married after only three weeks.
But her happiness comes crashing down when she and Jimmy get back from their honeymoon and find a police officer waiting to arrest her for coming back to New York. Since Mae is a married woman now, she’s allowed to stay free, and even though Jimmy is a bit shocked to find out about his new wife’s past, he still wants to give their marriage a chance. The two of them make a good team and work together to save enough money to make Jimmy’s dream of owning his own gas station a reality. Just when they get very close to their goal, Gert gets sick and asks Mae to lend her $200 for an operation. Mae reluctantly agrees and is horrified to find out that it was all a scam and Gert has skipped out with their money. And to top it all off, Jimmy needs the money immediately because the asking price of the gas station he wants to buy has suddenly come down. Not about to take this sitting down, she hunts Gert down and smacks her around until she agrees to repay the money the next day.
Only getting the money back isn’t exactly easy since Gert gave the money to Toots (Jack La Rue), her new boyfriend and pimp, and he doesn’t want to give it back. She takes it from him when he isn’t looking, but he notices and kills her in the ensuing fight. When Mae comes to collect the money, Toots and Gert’s body are still in the apartment, but hidden in another room. Mae doesn’t see Gert so she just takes the money and leaves, totally unaware of anything being wrong. She’s also unaware that Jimmy had followed her because he was afraid that she was turning tricks again. He saw a silhouette of what appeared to be Mae embracing another man in front of a window, but it was really Toots holding Gert’s corpse. When she comes home, Jimmy confronts her and later she is arrested as a suspect in Gert’s death. Jimmy had been so heartbroken that he went on a bender for several days and was totally oblivious to the news that Mae was arrested. When he sobers up, he knows that Mae couldn’t have killed Gert and sets out to prove it.
Virtue is one wonderfully sordid movie, a pre-code through and through! I loved everything about it! It’s an excellent story and Carole Lombard and Pat O’Brien were both terrific in it, they had great chemistry together. The rest of the cast was all pretty great as well and there isn’t a single dull moment in the movie. It instantly became one of my favorite Carole Lombard movies. Although, I must say, Toots has got to be the worst name for a pimp I have ever heard.