Welcome to a new Film Friday, and the final post in our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of Joan Blondell (1906-1979), an iconic Warner dame known for her snappy speech and straight-shooting style. We’ve covered Illicit (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Night Nurse (1931), but haven’t even yet scratched the surface of her miraculous Pre-Code career. We’re making up for lost time, and so far we’ve featured Blonde Crazy (1931), Union Depot (1932), The Greeks Had A Word For Them [a.k.a. Three Broadway Girls] (1932), Miss Pinkerton (1932), Three On A Match (1932), Lawyer Man (1932), Blondie Johnson (1933), The Gold Diggers Of 1933 (1933), Goodbye Again (1933), Footlight Parade (1933), Havana Widows (1933), and I’ve Got Your Number (1934). Today…
A squabbling couple can’t seem to make it to the divorce court. Starring Joan Blondell, Warren William, Edward Everett Horton, Frank McHugh, Claire Dodd, and Joan Wheeler. Screenplay by F. Hugh Herbert and Carl Erickson. Based on a play by F. Hugh Herbert. Directed by Robert Florey.
“Despite Tony Wallace’s plans to celebrate his wife Vickie’s birthday by taking her out to dinner and the theater, Vickie decides to spend the evening playing bridge with some friends, including her admirer, Vernon Thorpe. During the evening she and Tony quarrel and exasperated, he hits her. Vernon is outraged and encourages Vickie’s decision to divorce Tony, volunteering to act as her lawyer. Realizing that Vernon is in love with her, Vickie thinks the divorce is good fun, while Tony sees it as the end of his happiness. As soon as the divorce is granted, Vickie marries Vernon. She is not ready to let go of Tony, however, and invites him to dinner. Meanwhile, she insists that Vernon grant her every whim. At her request, he leaves work to spend the afternoon with her at a dress shop, but when he disapproves of the dress she wants, thinking it is too revealing, she buys it anyway, intending to wear it at dinner to impress Tony.
“Bonnie, a young married woman, is pursuing Tony, so he invites her to come to dinner with him. Two other friends, George and Anita, are also invited. Tony and Bonnie arrive before Vernon, and Vickie invites Tony to her room to talk. She teases Tony until he admits that he is still in love with her. When Vernon arrives and sees that Vickie is wearing the dress he ordered her not to buy, he asks her to change. After they argue the point a while, she refuses to go to dinner at all. Their quarrel ends when Vernon slaps her, to Tony’s amusement. After Tony and Bonnie leave for a nightclub, Vickie sneaks out to wait for Tony in his apartment. Her plans are somewhat thwarted when Tony brings Bonnie back with him . . .” (This summary, abbreviated to avoid spoilers, is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
This will undoubtedly be a complicated film for modern audiences to enjoy for the view it seems to take regarding domestic abuse: sometimes a woman is so frustrating that she deserves a hit. While I do think that there is a way to express this view in both a humorous manner and in a way that doesn’t condone the activity (see: Noel Coward’s Private Lives, which paints the characters as mutually destructive), Smarty suffers from not being funny enough to pull it off. It’s no Noel Coward! But the biggest problem is that the film tries too hard to paint Joan Blondell as the obnoxious, antagonistic anti-heroine, all the while keeping her true romantic sensibilities relatable and root-wrothy. This is impossible, for not only is the script inferior, but Blondell is too likable — and her persona is WAY too self-aware — to be believable as the shrew that this film needs her to be. And it’s not that the actress doesn’t commit to the part, because she does so with apparent glee, but that Blondell is simply wrong for the role. She’s too smart, too tough, and too fun.
The rest of the cast is talented, but William’s character, despite the slap, is portrayed as a goody-goody, but without the necessary nuance that would actually make him MORE likable (because he would appear more realistic). Meanwhile, Horton’s perfectly in type and although he’s an obstacle for our good-guy William, we don’t really consider him the villain. Frank McHugh and Claire Dodd, both of whom we’ve seen in MANY films in this Blondell series, make appearances, but neither one gets to do as much worthy stuff as they have in the past. No, this is Blondell’s show, and for once, she disappoints — and it’s not because of anything she does or doesn’t do — it’s (again) that she’s wrong for the role and way too good for the script, which gives no motivation for her character’s action. Thus, I can’t recommend this film to anyone who doesn’t want to watch a misbegotten motion picture; if you like films that don’t work, then Smarty‘s for you.
Come back next Friday for the start of a whole new Pre-Code series! Plus, be sure to tune in again on Monday for the another whole week of fun on That’s Entertainment!