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Saturday, 2 July 2011

Smarty (1934)

Director: William A Seiter
Stars: Joan Blondell, Warren William, Edward Everett Horton, Frank McHugh and Claire Dodd

Based on a play by F Hugh Herbert, this is one of those films that highlights just how far we have changed as a society in such a short time. If you can believe this, the message behind Smarty is not just that domestic abuse is fine and dandy but it's actually the key to a successful marriage. Happiness can be found by husbands not being afraid to slap their wives when they deserve it and wives understanding that it's needed to keep them in line. Oh, and it's a comedy. Can you imagine the outcry if such a film was released today? Well Warner Bros snuck this one in as the shadow of the Production Code was descending, a mere month and a half before far more than wife slapping would become beyond the pale. Don't be mistaken that the code aimed to protect women though. It crippled female characters on screen by removing what code administrators saw as moral depravity and placing women back in the kitchen where they belonged.

Regardless of the message, Smarty has a female lead who is strong and dynamic, precisely the sort of character who would promptly disappear from Hollywood movies when enforcement of the code began on 1st July, 1934. She's Vicki Wallace and she's celebrating her birthday as the film begins. As you might expect in the hands of Joan Blondell, Vicki is fascinating to watch but she's also utterly unfuriating, her hobbies apparently being to wind up her husband every way she can and to ruthlessly manoeuvre everything to her own benefit. Her husband Tony is played by Warren William and it's truly shocking to see him wrapped around someone else's finger. This may be a Warren William picture, but Joan Blondell is bizarrely playing the Warren William part. I'm sure that's the point. While William is unjustly forgotten today, audiences of the time knew and loved the bad boy of the precodes and would have understood exactly what was going on.

For a start, even though Tony is a thoughtful husband and has a pleasant birthday evening all planned out, Vicki invites Vernon Thorpe over to play bridge, knowing full well that her husband can't stand him. Their fourth is Nita, Thorpe's guest, and hanging around for comic relief is their neighbour, George Lancaster. We don't get to see a lot of cards, we get to see Vicki torment her husband shamelessly, winding up him up throughout until he breaks down and slaps her. The reactions are amazing. Tony is horrified at what he's done, unable to forgive himself for such a cruel act, even though he was totally driven to it. Nita enjoys it. While she doesn't excuse Tony's action, she freely admits that his wife is annoying and she explains to her date that 'a good sock in the eye is something every woman needs, once in her life'. Thorpe is appalled, which is easy to visualise given that he's played by Edward Everett Horton, who knew that reaction well.

It all makes for a surreal scene. Joan Blondell torments Warren William, even though we would expect the exact opposite. William is ashamed of his action, something we never thought we'd see. Witnessing an act of violence against a woman, another woman wittily approves while a lawyer is appalled. The only part that seems familiar is the humour, given that Frank McHugh is George Lancaster, breezing in and out of rooms and conversations just as we expect him to. Of course humour in this situation is of itself surreal. Well, while we're off balance, the story decides to keep us there, because whatever lesson Vicki and Tony should have learned from the incident is not learned and Vicki escalates instead. She demands an end to their marriage, hires Vernon Thorpe as her divorce attorney and promptly marries him as soon as she's a free woman. He's always loved her, it seems, so there's no possible conflict of interest there.
By this point, you probably won't be too surprised to find that Vicki continues being infuriating, merely tormenting Vernon instead of Tony. After waiting a year, she mixes them back together, inviting Tony over to dinner, calling him darling and pursuing him unashamedly while he keeps asking, 'How's Vernon?' in vain. Watching these shenanigans, I started keeping track of just how precode this movie was. When you think about it, it's astoundingly outrageous, with absolutely nothing viable for release a couple of months later. A wife spurs her husband into abuse so she marry her divorce lawyer, then repeats the action with him so she can leave her new husband for her old husband, who's seeing a married woman. Sure, it sounds like a random soap opera episode today, but in 1935 the Legion of Decency would have had kittens. The only way it could possibly even be released was to make it onto screens in 1934 before the code was enforced.

It ends up too strangely against type to fully work. Joan Blondell is capable in the Warren William role, not a usual place for her, but one that provides her with plenty of opportunity to dominate. William has fun being the recipient of this treatment for a change but it's not right for him. There are a few moments when the old William shines through anyway, such as when he arrives at her party and looks at her in a new, very revealing dress. He does get better as the picture runs on, especially once Vernon shows up and proves totally at unease, but it's unusual territory for him that he can't be comfortable in. Horton is a weasel of a divorce lawyer, which means he's doing his job right. It's good to see an edge on the bewilderment that didn't always get the chance to manifest itself. Claire Dodd radiates joy as a much divorced woman, though she's underused in this film. Frank McHugh, of course, could do this sort of thing in his sleep.

As to the plot, there is precedence to the violence and it's even explained in the film, as another knowing nod to the end of the precode era. The source play opened in 1927 so had no idea what was around the corner in the thirties, but the adaptation was by the playwright himself, working with Carl Erickson, who would ironically kill himself only a year later after receiving a letter from his wife asking him for a divorce. Vernon Thorpe calls Tony's slapping of Vicki 'extreme cruelty', enough on its own to guarantee divorce, which it promptly does. Without seeking justification, Tony later explains that he'd been going to the movies a lot, and discovered that girls apparently love to be hit, even with grapefruit, a reference to Jimmy Cagney and Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy. In the precodes, where men were gangsters and women were prostitutes, it was hardly the worst crime in play, but this commentary seems out of place.

This scene almost feels like an apology to the public on behalf of the filmmaking community, a reinforcement that just because actors do things on screen doesn't mean you should copy them at home. It's half hearted and inappropriate, even before it schizophrenically proceeds to push the concept that hitting women is absolutely something you should copy because your marriage would benefit from it! This inconsistency of approach seems fraudulent rather than careless, for it's carefully scripted otherwise. Both Tony and Vernon are immediately horrified by what they do, while Vicki literally asks for it and Nita is all for it too. What it really boils down to is a couple of men writing this story as if it was advice from women. Hitting your wife is fine, these female characters tell us, as long as you love her. Only if you don't is it offensive. A woman even gets the last word, reinforcing the concept. She says, 'Hit me again.' Wow.

1 comment:

drachma bitterness said...

1st July 1934, truly the saddest day in the entire 122 year history of the medium of the moving image so far, since its invention circa 1889.