My distaste for Leslie Howard, Norma Shearer and (to a lesser extent) Fredric March, are well-documented in my various reviews of their work. So color me surprised when I settled down to watch Smilin’ Through, a 1930s romance now available via Warner Archive. The direction and acting suffer from routine issues plaguing movies till about the mid-30s (such as highly overwrought acting and soppy direction), but the sensitive telling of the story does enough to temper the movies faults.
Kathleen’s (Shearer) been raised by her uncle, John (Leslie Howard) since she was a little girl, but she’s never understood his life of bitterness and isolation. When she falls in love with American Kenneth Wayne (March), she’s shocked when Uncle John stops their romance and demands she never see him again. It turns out, Wayne’s father murdered John’s fiancée decades ago. Is history doomed to repeat itself?
Smilin’ Through is gimmicky from the first minute John starts talking to his deceased lover, Moonyeen (also Shearer), and from there the movie relies on Howard in old-age makeup while March and Shearer play dual roles. Thankfully, it all works because of the script, and original play by Jane Cowl. The movie is a sensitive tale of love persevering through the ages and John’s blindness to the individual identities of Kathleen and Kenneth; they may look like people from the past, but they aren’t the same in spirit. At a brisk 98-minutes the plot takes its time to set up John’s character more than anyone else. He’s lost a loved one, tasked with caring for a child – the scene is rather sweet – and raises Kathleen the best way he knows how. Eventually, Kathleen grows up and falls in love, leading to a slew of subtle Freudian discussions about John’s own love for Kathleen although there’s no implication that John sees her as anything more than his ward.
The mystery and revelation of John’s past happens around the 45-minute mark as we’re treated to a beautiful wedding sequence with a rather dashing Fredric March. I’ve failed to see March’s leading man sensibilities in the past, but as the tormented Jeremy Wayne, former lover of Moonyeen, he’s certainly pushing out intense vibes. March’s love for Moonyeen is frightening but alluring at the same time. His obsession’s in stark contrast to Howard’s stalwart lover, who plays the straight man to the point of woodenness. Howard is good, but he plays an old man even when young so there’s little distinction in his performance! The role of Kenneth Wayne lacks the madness of his past character, but March holds you in his spell the entire time. Shearer may receive top billing, but this is March and Howard’s movie more than anything.
Shearer is actually the weak link in the chain. Her acting is perfectly suited for the silent era, with her constantly moving hands and paroxysms of emotion bordering on the chaotic. When she clutches to March you fear she’ll grow talons and impale him. The overwrought drama is necessary for the romance’s grandiosity, but March conveys it without the theatrics. Shearer is channeling her Pierre, as embodied by Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, in the “Dueling Cavalier:” “I LOVE YOU. I LOVE YOU. I LOVE YOU!”
There must be something to tear the lovers apart and apparently the script realizes Leslie Howard isn’t providing much threat, so World War I breaks out in the final thirty minutes. It’s all well and good, but it opens up the final ten minutes with Kenneth being injured, rejecting Kathleen, and John’s redemption. It becomes rushed by story’s end, trivializing the war into a footnote and dragging the rapid pace to a halt. The only impediment required should be Uncle John, and it would have been better to watch his change come over time, as opposed to the one fell swoop happening in the end.
The war is out-of-place, but the rest of Smilin’ Through is sufficiently romantic and engaging with a passionate performance by Fredric March. Warner Archive recently released this on DVD, so if you’re watch them be sure to send them a thanks!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.