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In England, elderly Leslie Howard (as John Carteret) still mourns the
death of blonde-trussed teenager Norma Shearer (as Moonyeen Clare). As
we see in a flashback to 1868, Ms. Shearer was shot to death by Mr.
Howard's alcoholic rival Fredric March (as Jeremy Wayne) while the two
exchanged wedding vows. A flashback to 1898 reveals how Howard adopted
five-year-old Cora Sue Collins; in 1915, she grows up to be adult Norma
Shearer (as Kathleen Sheridan). Presently, Shearer falls in love at
first sight with handsome American traveler Fredric March (as Kenneth
"Ken" Wayne). As Mr. March happens to be the son of the man who killed
his bride, Howard makes Shearer promise to stay away from their new
MGM's box office star, named "Quigley Publications" #6 for 1932, acts giddy and girlish in soft focus. Director Sidney Franklin, who helmed both this and the earlier silent film version, does excellent work with windows.
"Smilin' Through" was originally a tremendous hit for popular stage actress Jane Cowl, who wrote the strongly romantic story with Jane Murfin (using the alias "Allan Langdon Martin"). Ms. Cowl starred in only a couple of silent films, unfortunately. Even worse, the 1922 "Smilin' Through" with Norma Talmadge in the leading roles is not available for viewing. There are prints of this film surviving in the U.S. Library of Congress and the Netherlands Film Museum. It was one of Ms. Talmadge's most successful, winning a "Quigley Publications" honor as 1922's best picture, and should be restored. The Shearer version won the 1932 "Photoplay" award. MGM did it again with less success, in a 1941 musical starring Jeanette MacDonald.
Note this version's unaccredited gardener David Torrence played Howard's pal "Owen" in the 1919 stage version; and, the 1941 version's unaccredited doctor Wyndham Standing played Howard's role in the 1922 silent version.
****** Smilin' Through (9/24/32) Sidney Franklin ~ Norma Shearer, Fredric March, Leslie Howard, O.P. Heggie
I cannot imagine a movie being classier than this one. The lilting mood of the story is felt all the way through the film until its closing moments. The swell of music followed by the appearance of a 'The End' card, like a surrendered afterthought on the screen, make Smilin' Through seem as if MGM meant to deliver a movie on a cloud in 1932. Fredric March and Norma Shearer's conversations have a sense of 'sway' or dance about them. From her refusal to see his soldier off at the train station then following him there in the very next scene to his simple but imploring, "There's a war on, and I'm in it!", the well-drawn characters demonstrate nobility, humor, and attachment to each other that are poetic in their simplicity. Even an elderly man, as painted by Leslie Howard's portrayal, commits his loving then selfish then last surprising acts with grace. Director, Sidney Franklin motions us into the fold to experience the drama alongside the characters with his special touches: distant gunfire rattling windows, doors shutting on a church shooting while we wait for them to be reopened to discover how the characters are reacting. No leotards or shades of pink are glimpsed here, but surely we have been to a ballet of sorts.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a wonderful old-time romantic film, though sadly it's been
pretty much forgotten today. It's a real shame, because this is one of
the best romantic movies of the 1930s--one that should be remembered.
The film begins with Sir John Carteret (Leslie Howard) living all alone in his British mansion. He's been alone there with his memories for decades, though why exactly he lives this life of seclusion isn't totally clear. You know that his lady love, Moonyeen (now THAT'S an odd name), had died many years earlier and that he's been pining for her all along. Well, into this morgue-like life appears an old friend, Dr. Owen. Owen is there to tell Carteret that the niece of his dead love is now an orphan and in need of a home--and he brings the child to Carteret to be raised.
Years have passed and now this child is a vivacious 22 year-old, Kathleen (Norma Shearer). She and her adopted father are quite happy and fortunately Carteret is less melancholy. Having Kathleen to raise has obviously lifted his spirits. That is, until Kathleen meets Kenneth Wayne (Frederic March). They fall almost instantly in love and everything seems great until Carteret learns of this. Then he reluctantly tells her a sad tale that he's kept to himself all these years. You finally learn what happened to Moonyeen. It seems that on her wedding day with Carteret, a jealous suitor (Kenneth's father) stormed into the wedding and tried to kill Carteret--accidentally killing Moonyeen in the process!! His bitterness about this understandably demands that Kathleen break off her relationship with Kenneth once and for all.
Unfortunately, while she and Kenneth tried to call it quits, they were just too much in love. Try as they might, they couldn't ignore that they were head over heels in love. However, Carteret was determined to destroy this relationship at all cost--as he NEVER could forgive Kenneth for his father's heinous act. Where the story goes from there, you'll just have to see for yourself. It becomes a lot more complicated--particularly when Kenneth goes off to war. See this wonderful film for yourself to see how it all unfolds.
There are a few silly clichés that prevent it from earning a 10, though this is still an amazing film. Having Moonyeen and Kathleen as well as Kenneth and his father played by the same actors was a silly but accepted cliché back in 1932. While the idea of a son looking exactly like his father is silly, having Kathleen look almost exactly like her aunt is even more ridiculous. Plus, having no British accent whatsoever for Kenneth's dad was also pretty silly (you could understand this with Kenneth, as he was raised in America).
As to what there is to like, where do I begin? The film has such a luminous and romantic quality about it start to finish, I just couldn't get over it. Only MGM could have done such a perfect looking film during this era. Shearer is magnificent--and it might just be her best film (even better than THE WOMEN) and Howard and March are also quite good. The characters are lovely--very complex and tender. You just can't help but find yourself sucked into the film--so be sure to have a box of Kleenex nearby. An amazing film.
By the way, towards the end, you can sure see that one of the plot twists was later reused in the great love story LOVE AFFAIR (with Iren Dunne and Charles Boyer, 1939) as well as in LOVE AFFAIR's remake, AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER. Wow. Think about seeing LOVE AFFAIR followed by SMILIN' THROUGH--now that would be a terrific double-bill.
Sidney Franklin was perhaps MGM's safest director of the '30s, being handed a series of prestige projects and always bringing an unadventurous classiness to them. This one, from a Jane Cowl Broadway war horse, has two sad love stories in different eras, sumptuous photography, and a small, starry cast. Leslie Howard, forced to spend most of the movie behind unflattering I'm-a-70-year-old makeup, lends it dignity, and Norma Shearer and Fredric March deliver a one-two punch of star quality. She was always a little artificial, a little too love-me, but she did have the individuality that spells 1930s movie star. He was usually excellent, and he is here, infusing his noble-soldier persona with a modern immediacy that's the antithesis of her actressy histrionics. Speaking of actressy, I've never been able to tolerate Beryl Mercer, and she's at her most unforgivable here, but at least it's a small part. It's less arthritic and overproduced than the Jeanette MacDonald remake, and if the ending steals from "Viennese Nights" and presages the MacDonald-Eddy "Maytime" right down to the double exposure, it doesn't ruin a still-affecting love story.
I found this film unbearably corny and dated, even for the period.
Norma Shearer never impressed me when she played any sort of a period
or costume role, as she became too self-aware and phony. Some
actresses, Garbo for one, could slip in and out of costume dramas and
more modern roles with believability, but not Norma. The only times I
found her to be natural were in her early roles as a young actress when
she wasn't playing Mrs. Thalberg.
This one was just a little too old-fashioned and sentimental for my tastes. I had hoped for more, for a pre-code film.
Leslie Howard is generally good in anything he does, and he performs well enough here. But I don't feel a whole lot of chemistry between the pair. And maybe it is the black and white format, but in the portions where Norma is in the blond role, her hair looks more gray than blond, which ages her.
I guess I am not a softy...sorry, I don't mean to be harsh, but just did not like this one very much.
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