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They Knew What They Wanted (1940)

Approved | | Drama, Romance | 19 October 1940 (USA)
While courting a young woman by mail, a rich farmer sends a photograph of his foreman instead of his own, which leads to complications when she accepts his marriage proposal.


Garson Kanin


Robert Ardrey (screenplay), Sidney Howard (from the Pulitzer Prize Play by)
Nominated for 1 Oscar. See more awards »




Complete credited cast:
Carole Lombard ... Amy Peters
Charles Laughton ... Tony Patucci
William Gargan ... Joe
Harry Carey ... The Doctor
Frank Fay ... Father McKee
Joseph E. Bernard ... The R.F.D. (as Joe Bernard)
Janet Fox Janet Fox ... Mildred
Lee Tong Foo Lee Tong Foo ... Ah Gee, the Cook (as Lee Tung-Foo)
Karl Malden ... Red
Victor Kilian ... The Photographer


Tony (Charles Laughton), a successful but illiterate middle-aged grape farmer, sends the photograph of his handsome young foreman, Joe (William Gargan), instead of his own, hoping to woo and marry Amy (Carole Lombard), a waitress in a San Francisco restaurant. Through a series of letters, the two become close and Tony invites his "future wife" to visit. When the beautiful, young Amy arrives at Tony's Napa, California ranch she falls for the wrong man thinking that Joe is the wealthy Tony. When Tony tries to win her over in broken English, she is at first furious and then charmed. But Tony breaks his legs while showing off to impress Amy, and -- left alone to care for a cripple -- she reluctantly succumbs to Joe's charms and becomes pregnant. Although Tony discovers that he has been cuckolded and that Joe has run off, his anger turns to genuine love and he offers to take Amy back unconditionally for the sake of the child and his own true feelings for Amy. Written by E. Summer

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


You have seen great motion pictures! We believe you have not seen a greater motion picture than this!


Drama | Romance


Approved | See all certifications »

Did You Know?


The Broadway production of They Knew What They Wanted by Sidney Howard opened on November 24, 1924 at the Garrick Theater, ran for 192 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1925. See more »


Tony Patucci: Looka me, Tony!
See more »


Remake of The Secret Hour (1928) See more »


Ricca Ricca
Arranged by Roy Webb
See more »

User Reviews

Incredible performances
21 August 2020 | by HotToastyRagSee all my reviews

Any fans of the Frank Loesser musical The Most Happy Fella? Did you know it was based off the play They Knew What They Wanted, adapted into two movies before Frank added songs to the story? I'm looking forward to seeing Edward G. Robinson's interpretation, as I'm sure he'd be wonderful, and I was so excited to see my beloved Charles Laughton's 1940 version.

Charles was perfect. He's practically unrecognizable as he transforms into an Italian peasant, trying to make it in America. He's shy and self-conscious, but he still wants to brag and prove himself worthy. He creates a great complex character, so believable as a lonely immigrant looking for love.

For those of you who don't know the story, Charles falls in love with a waitress in San Francisco, Carole Lombard. He observes her from afar and writes to her, offering marriage and a comfortable life on his vineyard in Napa. Carole doesn't have very many options, and she impulsively agrees. However, Charles didn't send his photograph in his letter; he sent the picture of his young, handsome friend William Gargan. I don't know why Bill was the one nominated for an Academy Award when he had the least to do. The other two leads were ignored, and here at the Rags, we were happy to rectify the error.

Who impressed me to no end was Carole Lombard, the queen of screwball comedies thrust into a heavy drama. She completely embodies her character, and you can see her entire history written on her brow. She's exhausted and has very little hope of a better life, and she's endured an incredible amount just to make ends meet. When she arrives in Napa, she's nervous, and even though she thinks it's silly, she's hopeful. She tries to make Charles a good wife, and she hates herself for being attracted to Bill. She doesn't want to ruin her one chance, she doesn't want to be as common as she knows herself to be, and she doesn't want to cause pain in a world that has enough pain in it.

Chances are you've never seen this movie, since it's rather hard to find and hasn't been remastered. Try to find it and get ready to be very impressed.

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English | Italian

Release Date:

19 October 1940 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

They Knew What They Wanted See more »

Filming Locations:

Napa Valley, California, USA See more »

Company Credits

Production Co:

RKO Radio Pictures See more »
Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs

Sound Mix:

Mono (RCA Sound System)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
See full technical specs »

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