This is my contribution to The Romantic Comedy Blogathon.
I love participating in blogathons for a number of reasons. One is that it showcases my blog to various people who may not have been aware of it. Another reason is that it gives me a challenge--I always try to pick a movie that is not well-known, or I try to look at the subject being blogged about from a different angle.
When it comes to romantic comedies, I'll admit I'm certainly no expert on the subject, being a pathetic single guy and all. The "comedy" I've chosen to look it dates from 1934, which makes it an entry from the pre-code era. The term "pre-code" has now become a marketing slogan, and just about every Hollywood film made between 1930 and 1934 has been called a pre-code classic. But not all pre-code films are provocative, or subversive, or scandalous....some of them are just plain weird.
Which leads us to SMARTY, released by Warner Bros. in 1934 and directed by Robert Florey.
SMARTY starts out with upper-class married couple Tony (Warren William) and Vicki (Joan Blondell) getting ready for a night on the town. Vicki suddenly changes her mind about going out, and decides to have a bridge party at home with friends, which does not make Tony happy.
While playing bridge with Vernon (Edward Everett Horton), Anita (Claire Dodd), and George (Frank McHugh), Vicki goes out of her way to aggravate Tony. Tony finally loses it, knocks over the bridge table, and slaps Vicki.
This is a pretty shocking act--but almost immediately everyone in the cast begins making bad jokes about it, and it is rather obvious that Vicki is not exactly emotionally torn by the incident. Vicki starts immediately making a play for Vernon--who happens to be a divorce lawyer--and the next thing you know, Vicki is married to Vernon. But Vicki starts tormenting Vernon, all the while keeping and eye on Tony.
Joan Blondell had the best smile (and the best curves) of just about any actress of the early 1930s. She became hugely popular during the decade for playing several tough, working-class girls with a wicked sense of humor. The character of Vicki, however, is about as far removed from the typical early 30s Blondell role as you can get. Vicki spends the entire film being as annoying to Tony and Vernon as possible, all with a coy smile on her face and her expressive eyes working overtime. To Vicki being slapped in the face seems to be an excuse to have fun at every one's expense. Vicki knows she's attractive enough to wrap Tony and Vernon around her fingers, and the more angry both men get at her the more happier she becomes.
Vicki drives Vernon nuts by phoning him at his office, demanding that he meet her at a clothes boutique, and making him wait there for her for over 90 minutes. After Vernon leaves Vicki buys a dress that Vernon specifically told her not to buy, and then wears it at a dinner party that the couple are hosting that evening. Of course, Vicki invites Tony, and he shows up with a date (this being a pre-code film, Tony's date happens to be married to someone else). Vicki then enrages Vernon enough to the point where he slaps her, which causes Vicki to run out. She goes to Tony's apartment and hides before Tony and his date get back. Tony arrives, followed soon by Vernon, looking for Vicki. One thing leads to another, and Vernon says he's going to grant Vicki a divorce, and Vicki and Tony decide to get back together--but not before Vicki starts aggravating Tony again, casing him to rip off her dress, grab her hair, slap her, and pick her up and throw her on the couch, where Vicki looks up at him and moans dreamily: "Tony...hit me again!"
To paraphrase Bugs Bunny: "Romantic...ain't it?"
A description of the plot of SMARTY can not really give it justice.This is a movie that features lines of dialogue such as "Every girl needs a good smack at least once in her life" and "If he had really loved me, he would have hit me a long time ago." Apparently this is all supposed to be hilarious. Maybe if the movie where more of an out-and-out slapstick riot it could be understood as a satire, but it is hard to figure out what SMARTY is trying to be. On one hand, the movie seems to be trying to have the audience get a kick out of Vicki being adorable and annoying--but at the same time, the movie also seems to be saying that Vicki deserves to be slapped. There doesn't seem to by any reason for Vicki to act the way she does--you could understand her trying to get revenge on Tony for slapping her, but she aggravates Vernon for no good reason either--all the while trying to get back to Tony.
As most film buffs know, Warren William was the King of Pre-Code, the ultimate scoundrel and cad. Here he's not a cad at all--Tony is genuinely sorry that he struck Vicki, and he's the only character in the story that seems disgusted by all the outlandish behavior. (As a matter of fact, William looks as if he's not all that happy about being in the film period.) William and Blondell have a great chemistry together, just like they did in the earlier GOLDDIGGERS OF 1933. Unfortunately that chemistry is wasted in a story like SMARTY.
If there is anything stranger than a comedy about a woman getting slapped by her husband, it is a comedy featuring a love triangle of Warren William, Joan Blondell, and....Edward Everett Horton? Horton was best known for playing stuffy, prissy white-collar types--and seeing him lick his chops over winning Joan Blondell is somewhat off-putting. Horton's Vernon spouts several lines about how horrible it is that a man would strike his wife--and the way Vernon says these lines, you would think he was speaking out against Mom, America, and apple pie.
And that is the big problem with SMARTY--the whole attitude of the movie is that wife-slapping is pretty funny. I know that this is just a 1930s film comedy, and maybe one shouldn't read too much into it (I can only imagine what kind of blog a college-graduate feminist would write about SMARTY), but I have to wonder--did movie-goers back in 1934 actually think this was funny? Did they really think this was entertaining?
SMARTY was directed by Robert Florey, who is considered today as a visual stylist. The thing is, SMARTY is basically a filmed stage play (it was based on one), with almost no visual touches whatsoever. It is only 65 minutes long, and like most Warner Brothers pictures of the period, it moves. All the characters spend almost the entire movie wearing either tuxedos or evening dresses, and Joan Blondell in particular looks fantastic (the very first thing we see in the movie is a shot of Joan's legs). SMARTY has all the elements to be a great romantic comedy--but it's almost impossible to laugh at the subject, no matter what context you place it in. SMARTY is one rom-com you don't want to take a date to.
(NOTE: According to various sources on the internet, the British title of SMARTY was....HIT ME AGAIN!)