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Monday, December 11, 2017

The Smash That's Gone Forgot

Smilin' Through (1932) Is Pre-Code Pure

Smilin' Through was by far the biggest Norma Shearer earner from the early-to-mid 30's. It is precode, but clean as snow. Driven by dewy romance and promise that departed lovers remain to comfort the living, Smilin' Through did not need serrated edge of precode. You could show it in a nunnery. I'll bet in some, they did. People were entranced by the film as they had been by the 1919 source play. If you asked outgoing 1932 patrons to name a movie that would last forever, they might well have named Smilin' Through. MGM did a major reissue just a few years after it was new. I emphasize all this because Smilin' Through is so obscure now. TCM lately did an HD upgrade, so it looks newly terrific. A lot call Smilin' Through dated, to which I concur, but would add charmingly so. The story is set at beginning of The Great War, characters looking fifty years back from that as if to a stone age. Anyone who remembered that far had to be mighty old, at least by '32 reckoning. Leslie Howard dons snow hair and shawl as he seeks comfort of death and reunion with Norma, who was long ago shot by Fredric March, who was father of modern Fredric March, who loves Norma the modern, who is adopted daughter of Howard, who forbids the union because he hates March's family, and ... need I go on? The story had shock value for moment of March's Dad shooting down Norma, even if accidental, on her wedding day to Howard. Viewers really took that to streets when Smilin' Through was new, positive word-of-mouth the stuff of studio dreams. Such was effect, and repeat business, as to inspire both the two-years later reissue and a color remake less than ten years aft, when you'd have thought bloom would be off such a delicate rose.

Irving Thalberg routinely tweaked films to what he considered perfection. Many as result got reshot into hamburger. It's no telling what Mask Of Fu Manchu was like before second-guessing got hold of it. Ingrained policy held fast for long past Thalberg's passing, An American Romance, Across The Wide Missouri, many others, the stuff of reshuffle legend (or infamy). Still and all, there were flops that couldn't be fixed. Story got told, I think by Sam Marx, of glum ride home from Strange Interlude, which even Thalberg genius would not conquer. Success finish, however, was norm, Smilin' Through an early 30's summit of these. Death and visitation from beyond were topics that heated up regular as sky eclipse, the 20's having done it with spiritualism, fake to a fault, but still answering a need, then as tweak to 30's romance, and finally a fullest expression when world war and widespread loss made desperate a need to keep faith with the dead. We're made to believe in Norma as ghost seeking garden visit to one-foot-in-grave Leslie Howard, if only because visual effects by Metro by then reached point of conviction not had by previous silent efforts.

Norma Shearer had from beginning shuttled between period and modern dress, this to stay relevant whatever the trends started or followed by handlers. Effort was careful to prevent her being typed with permissive precode. Shearer was ideally calibrated to segue easy once enforcement pulled teeth of her once Free Soul. Only by looking back at whole of careers can we see how brilliantly most were managed. There is a reason, in fact plenty, why these people lasted so long. A massive crowd-pleaser like Smilin' Through could forgive weaker tea served after, but Shearer at a peak, or again her handlers, rarely if ever stumbled. The Strange Interlude anecdote implies it was a flop, and many went on to present day with same assumption, but fact is, the weak-as-it-was outcome still made profit. Even poor product and B's (once Metro committed to them) could be muscled through Loew's-owned houses and season-contracted others to black ink finish. The actual list of MGM output that lost money during the 30's is astonishingly short, the more so when we recall a Depression roiling through most of that decade.

Just Two Years Later, and Metro Brought It Back With a Fresh Campaign

It seldom mattered much who was directing at Metro. That's because it was producers, or committees, or Thalberg when he ran things, that really directed. Most that got sent down to the floor were functionaries at best, switched around like chess pieces when scheduling demanded. A picture started by Jack Conway might be finished by Clarence Brown, or vice-versa. Some directors were  more independent, like Brown, or King Vidor, maybe W.S. Van Dyke, in part because he was so efficient. Smilin' Through was credited to Sidney Franklin, but that doesn't mean he did the whole thing. Close inspect of day-to-day production records would need to determine that. This is not to say Franklin's imprint wasn't firmest, but even he realized primacy of getting jobs finished on time and budget, even where that meant stepping off to let another man wrap up while he'd do as much for projects similarly in need. Directors one and all had to park egos at Culver gate. A lot of survivors (all?) probably wondered what auteurists were talking about when that school became fashion in the 60's.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

I was a sucker for Smilin' Through, as I am most '30s movies that deal seriously with spiritual/afterlife themes. Their emotions are so in your face that I wind up being more moved than most people would these days.

1:19 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I think one's enjoyment of this picture is in direct proportion to one's feelings about Shearer. While there's little that can take Howard down (he even survives that RMS Titanic known as GWTW), Shearer is just a big pieces of cheese as far as I'm concerned.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Dave, while I agree with your assessment of Shearer by and large, I have to admit to enjoying her in the pre-code "The Divorcee", where she gives a startlingly natural sexy performance. If she was anything like that in real life, it's pretty clear how she landed Irving Thalberg.

8:27 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Perfect casting for Shearer was The Women, where she could be the star among stars-- but all the others carry the picture.

That said, I agree that you get a very different picture of her from The Divorcee. It's a bit much--someone tie those arms down before they kill somebody-- but for 1929 she's trying really hard to figure out what works in sound.

10:33 AM  

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