Beginning in November 2019, I embarked on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.

*****

  • Film & Year: Smilin’ Through (1932)
  • Standing: Nominated for Best Picture (Outstanding Picture) of 1932/1933
  • Type: Drama, Romance, Pre-Code
  • Other AA Nominations: 0
  • Other AA Wins: 0
  • Director: Sidney Franklin
  • Studio/Producer: MGM / Albert Lewin
  • Cast: Norma Shearer, Fredric March, Leslie Howard, O.P. Heggie, Ralph Forbes, Beryl Mercer, Margaret Seddon
  • Production Notes: Based on the play by Jane Cowl and Jane Murfin, Screenplay by Ernest Vajda and Claudine West with dialogue by Donald Ogden Stewart and James Bernard Fagan, Sound by Douglas Shearer, Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons, Gowns by Adrian, Cinematography by Lee Garmes
  • Viewing Order: 29 / 270

 

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Summary & Viewing Experience:

Though the opening scenes are reminiscent of a gothic horror with wealthy Sir John Carteret (Leslie Howard in old man makeup) mourning at the grave of his love Moonyeen Clare (Norma Shearer) who then appears to him in spirit form, you know from the first seconds of the overtly sentimental title music that it will be equal parts soapy tearjerker, as well. John’s friend Dr. Owen (O.P. Heggie)brings him the news that Moonyeen’s sister and husband have died and left behind a young daughter who the doctor hopes John may adopt. Neither John nor the child Kathleen (Cora Sue Collins – who delivers her lines like Shirley Temple sans dimples or ringlets) take to each other immediately though years pass and they become close.

Years and a scene later and Kathleen is a young adult (and also now Norma Shearer in a dual role) and John (now Leslie Howard in yet another layer of old man makeup) begins to see the uncanny resemblance between Kathleen and her long dead aunt Moonyeen.

Kathleen is tolerant, but mostly dismissive about the attentions of her cute but boring friend Willie (Ralph Forbes) who puts the moves on her in a violent rainstorm, proving he is not only blah but also has terrible timing. They take refuge in an abandoned house and Kathleen instantly senses a curse there. On cue, Kathleen and Willie find a crumpled invitation, addressed to Jeremy Wayne, to the wedding of her guardian John and aunt Moonyeen, a marriage which never happened because of Moonyeen’s death. Kathleen has no sooner voiced her suspicion that Jeremy was in love with Moonyeen and crumpled the invitation up upon news of her wedding than she is startled by the sounds of another occupant in the house. Kenneth Wayne (Fredric March) steps out of the shadows and Kathleen instantly forgets that she’s there with another man. He, the son of Jeremy Wayne, falls immediately for Kathleen and she with him, though when John gets wind of their budding romance he forbids her from seeing him. Confused, she presses him why and he spills the beans:

Flashback to the night before their wedding, John (now Leslie 1.0 sans makeup) and Moonyeen (Norma with a blonde wig) are exuberant, but a raincloud in the form of Jeremy Wayne (Fredric March again but with mustache) is threatening a downpour. He professes his love for Moonyeen, who is really kind of a jerk in how she flippantly brushes off his feelings with a “you’ll get over it!” attitude and then goes on to fuss about her dress. Jeremy has more on his mind than lace and vows to kill his rival, getting his chance the next day at the wedding. Before the ceremony is complete, he shoots at John only to kill Moonyeen instead.

With this knowledge, Kathleen agrees not to see Kenneth to appease her grudge holding guardian, but breaks her promise once Kenneth heads off to fight in World War I. She tells him of their families’ tragic legacy and they agree to see each other on the sly. They wish to marry, but with impediments like the war and John’s wrath in their way, will love really prevail?

The film was adapted from a play and it feels it, especially from the dialogue and the way most of the actors recite it. I can lovingly say that Norma Shearer’s acting style has always struck me as overly rehearsed with a tendency of dusting over the deeper emotions of her characters without actually breathing them in (she does melodrama well, but is a pretty transparent faux cryer) and it appears even more so when paired with Leslie Howard, who I could make the same comments about. These are not qualities I dislike about either of them, in fact I enjoy that recognizable part of their style, but it does occasionally remind you that they are Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard and not Moonyeen/Kathleen and John. Still, each had some great moments. Fredric March kept up with them with his slightly more natural approach.

Screen Shot 2020-05-05 at 12.38.03 AM
Howard and Shearer (as Moonyeen) in Smilin’ Through

Behind the Scenes:

Smilin’ Through began as a 1919 play by Jane Cowl and Jane Murfin. Cowl was not only a playwright, but an actress who was perhaps best known for playing Juliet (in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet) for over 1000 performances in a row in 1923. Coincidentally, Norma Shearer would also play Juliet in the 1936 film version of Romeo and Juliet, another Best Picture nominee which would earn her a Best Actress nomination.

This was not the first film version of Smilin’ Through, but the second of three, first in 1922 and later in 1941.

The song “Smilin’ Through,” was written by Arthur A. Penn in 1919, the same year as the play, though independent of it. It ended up being used in the play as well as all 3 film versions. In the 1932 version, one of Norma Shearer’s characters (Moonyean) sings it, though Norma’s voice was dubbed.

Fredric March was borrowed from Paramount for this film. In return, MGM loaned them Clark Gable for the film No Man of Her Own, the only film he would make with the woman who would later become his wife, Carole Lombard. At the time both were married to other people and were mostly unimpressed with one another.

Screen Shot 2020-05-05 at 12.39.54 AM
March and Shearer (as Kathleen) in Smilin’ Through

 

Why was it nominated Best Picture?

The mix of romance and pathos thrilled audiences. It did extremely well at the box office and was the 5thhighest grossing film of 1932.

 

How does it hold up today?

Despite having all of the elements present (Norma, MGM, gowns by Adrian), this film appears to not be one that stood the test of time, judging by the measly amount of user reviews. While those who did see it seem to have enjoyed it, it doesn’t appear to be one that is topping many people’s favorite films list. Having seen it, I’m assuming a large bit of this may be due to the overly stagy acting. 

  • IMDb rating= 6.9 out of 10 (with 1,037 ratings)
  • Rotten Tomatoes rating= 75% fresh by critics (3 fresh votes vs 1 rotten) and 78% fresh user ratings (out of 156 ratings)

 

Would this be my pick for 1932/1933’s Best Picture?

My initial assumption of the makeup of the film ended up being mostly correct: part gothic romance, part soapy tearjerker, and add in part war melodrama for good measure. In that and other respects it was fairly predictable. I can see why the ratings tended to be a high middle; the film did most things well, but nothing excellent. Enjoyable, but without a definitive wow factor.

 *My full 1932/1933ranking will be updated after all films from the year are watched