A young, poverty-stricken boy wanders into the garden of Carrie Snyder (Gladys George), a woman shunned by almost everyone in the neighbourhood. Talkative and friendly, Paul Donnelly (Jackie Moran) takes a shine to Carrie, who comes to love him too, even though their friendship spurs the locals to drive her out of town. Although censorship restrictions of the period mean their reasons are never made explicit, it isn’t hard to discern that Carrie is the proverbial whore with a heart of gold. Hoping to keep Paul from harm, Carrie leaves for the city.
She returns after his ailing mother and abusive father pass away, only to find the boy living in squalor alongside Lady (Charlene Wyatt), a plucky little orphan girl who, heartbreakingly, was on the verge of being given away as first prize in a magazine contest. Carrie adopts them both and years later, goes on to prosper in the dry-cleaning business, enough to buy a comfortable home and send Paul to college. But she and her family are set to face an onslaught of trials.
Adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel, Valiant Is the Word for Carrie is a film of two halves and its first half is a deeply affecting piece of work. Hard-hitting at times, with a gutsy lead in Gladys George (who was Oscar nominated) and impressively naturalistic performances from its child actors, this socially-conscious drama attacks small town bigotry and intolerance. The touching bond that grows between Carrie and Paul - each in desperate need of a friend - forms a frail shield against the vindictiveness and prejudice that brews amidst the well-spoken, respectable, small town folk. This theme of outsiders doing whatever they can to get by must have resonated strongly with a Depression-era audience.
Unfortunately, the film loses momentum in its second half which settles into a more conventional melodrama. Grownup Lady (Arline Judge) yearns after grownup Paul (John Howard), neither of whom prove as endearing as their childhood counterparts. Though director Wesley Ruggles keeps up an agreeable pace, events grow florid and stage-bound. Things take an unexpected turn when Paul is indirectly responsible for the death of a passenger aboard a crowded train. He is so wracked with guilt he brings the dead man’s scheming sister, Lilly (Isabel Jewell), home to live. Everyone turns against the interloper in a manner that uncomfortably parallels how Carrie was treated in her hometown. Thereafter, Carrie resorts to increasingly desperate measures to keep her family together. She succeeds after a fashion, but in a manner that unpalatably implies her fate was always written with a downbeat ending, tinged faintly with hope.
Former silent screen cowboy Harry Carey takes a supporting role as Carrie’s stalwart lawyer (and, it is hinted, her onetime client) alongside another western veteran, George “Gabby” Hayes. Throughout proceedings, Gladys George holds the screen with a performance of great depth and dignity. Best known for memorable supporting roles in The Roaring Twenties (1939) and The Maltese Falcon (1941), she enjoyed great success on Broadway but her only other leading role came in Madame X (1937), a hymn to martyred mothers, twice remade with Lana Turner and Tuesday Weld.