Director: Sidney Franklin
Cast: Leslie Howard, Norma Shearer, Fredric March
After having reviewed a few graphically violent horror films the last few days, a change of pace is certainly warranted. Smilin' Through(1932) seems like an odd choice for a site primarily devoted to the genre of the fantastic, but in this bittersweet romance lies a thread of the supernatural that gives the film an underlying strength that has made it among the most celebrated romantic films of the period. This was actually a remake of a 1922 film of nominal success. This was also followed by a 1941 technicolor remake, but most aficionados agree, that this is the definitive take on the story. MGM films from the 30s were often known for the production values and star power, though many of them may appear maudlin and dated by today's jaded audiences. Luckily, Smilin' Through still has success as a weeper and this works as one of the finest tearjerkers imagined.
The film follows the tragic Sir John Carteret(Leslie Howard), a broken man who had lost the love of his life, Moonyean(Norma Shearer) the day of his wedding and continues to speak to her spirit, decades after her passing. Carteret's best friend, Dr. Owen(O.P. Heggie, the blind man from Bride of Frankenstein(1935) informs him that Moonyean's sister and husband have died in a shipwreck and this leaves they're daughter, Kathleen, is homeless and orphaned. Despite initial reservations, Sir John finds the child to be just what he needs to fill a gap in his life and raises her as his own.
She grows up into gorgeous Norma Shearer, the very image of his departed, Moonyean. She is a sweet girl and has her personality, but is ignorant of Sir John's tragic past. One evening, while stranded in a storm, she seeks refuge in an old abandoned mansion(which looks like something out of a Universal horror film) and feels that such a place has a great mystery to hide. That night, handsome, young Kenneth Wayne(Fredric March) arrives and Kathleen becomes instantly smitten and they quickly fall in love. When Sir John finds out, he feels he has to explain to Kathleen his torturous past.
He reveals that Kenneth's father, Jeremy Wayne (also played by Fredric March) was jealous of John's marriage to Moonyean and could not get over it, so he brought a gun to shoot John at the wedding, but killed Moonyean, instead, who died in John's arms. Jeremy fled the country and never returned and thus formed John's bitterness and resentment. Kathleen understands and agrees not to continue seeing the young man.
Kenneth keeps trying to see her, but to no avail. However, when Kathleen finally does tell him the truth, they realize they are in love and continue the romance and plan to elope. This infuriates Sir John, who cries that he would rather see Kathleen dead. He refuses to see Kenneth, even though the young man is going off to war(it's 1915) and he may never see Kathleen again. Despite her protests to go with him, Kenneth says that it would be unfair to marry her before war and says they will marry when he returns. Kathleen is heartbroken, and watches him leave by the train station.
Years go by and finally the armistice and the soldiers return home, but Kenneth is not at the train station. Later that evening, Kenneth does return home, but his legs are crippled. He plans on going back to America and not seeing Kathleen, though running into Dr. Owen, he is urged to change his mind. Kathleen finds out and Kenneth hides his injury from her, and tries to tell her to go away and that they are finished. She is devastated and runs away, and as she does, Kenneth breaks down, still very much in love with her.
Sir John believes this is the right thing, but is driven by the wrong emotions and Dr. Owen reprimands his old friend for his callous attitude, reminding him that they are very much him and Moonyean. Her spirit visits John and he finally sees the light and realizes the right thing to do is give his niece, his blessing. Sitting down to play chess with Dr. Owen, he apologizes to his old friend and passes away, Moonyean returning to him to claim his spirit. They witness Kenneth and Kathleen return to the home and bless them, as they rejoin their wedding party in the hereafter and take off for they're long overdue honeymoon in a phantom carriage to heaven.
Smilin' Through is a beautiful film. It's romance is both tenderly handled and lovingly rendered with some of the greatest(and most haunting) romantic imagery on film. Despite the appearance of specters and spirits, this is not a ghost movie, though technically it can be described as such, though not purely in the supernatural sense. This is a film about the most common ghosts, those of our past. Sir John is a truly sad figure, a kind and noble man, besieged by reminders of a never ending nightmare from his past that keeps recurring in his subconscious. It was wise of the filmmakers to not empathize the fantasy elements, giving the film a psychological edge, though the ending hits just the right note and is especially satisfying, giving credence to the old adage that love never dies.
This is a film for the romantic and the sensitive, it's images coming to life like the works of Byron and Shelley, epitomizing the world as a beautiful, yet fragile, place, where love is always alive, but trapped by the confines of man's need for war, aggression and ultimately, death. Certainly, the film harbors it's own specter of guilt, as March's returning soldier, represents the millions of many such poor souls who returned maimed and injured, fearful of the future and the love lives that many left behind and hoped to begin anew. March is always a fine actor, but he is rarely better than his bitter speech to O.P. Heggie at the train station, ditto his passive aggressive stance towards Shearer, later. He's a heartbreaking and subtle in his pain and makes it all very real for the audience, though he is only one victim. This is a film full of victims and virtually everyone is sympathetic.
Leslie Howard makes Sir John a tragic figure, no matter how cold he acts later, we see him as a lost and lonely man, and right from the opening scene, where Moonyean's spirit visits him in the garden, our sympathy is ultimately on his side. Howard was a very sensitive and gifted performer and one that needs to be analyzed more. Very few actors were able to get inside the souls of their characters as well as Howard, who portrays real pain and bitterness as a man who has lost it all, and has lost the very love that spurred him. There's a real pay-off in the conclusion, because he has finally accepted his past, realizing that it's the only path to not just his own happiness, but that of his niece.
Norma Shearer was one of the most beautiful movie actresses of all time, and one of the most talented. She is incredible in the dual role of Moonyean and Kathleen. Her character of Moonyean acts as the conscience of Sir John and her ethereal beauty makes her come to life, like the great spirits of classic romantic literature. Likewise, her performance of Kathleen is so warm and likable, it's hard not to get caught up in her plight, especially as March rejects her in the end. We know these two belong together and it's a tragic sequence that she(and her co-star) play to the hilt. This is one of her best performances and one that manages to inspire and enchant, even on repeated viewings and after nearly eighty years.
Smilin' Through is sadly known to only the most ardent movie aficionados, as it is currently unavailable on DVD, for reasons unknown. Early romantic films probably hold little interest for many of today's moviegoing public, but I find these early films to be more honest and optimistic. The shotgun marriage of romanticism and cynicism, just does not work and is as schizophrenic as it sounds. This is an honest and innocent film, even though there is a real mature underlining to the film's plot, which is actually pretty extreme. Leslie Howard's character has to not just face the death of his fiance on his wedding day, but raise a girl, who becomes his daughter, looks just like his lost love and she ends up falling for the son of the man who killed his fiance. Yeah, that's a pretty tall order and i'd love to see contemporary Hollywood try anything like it. Or maybe not. Part of the magic of such a picture are the performances, which are rich and varied by some of the greatest actors in Hollywood history, including the wonderful character actor, O.P. Heggie, who will always hold a special place for us horror fans.
It's also a deftly directed film with shockingly modern techniques and fluid camerawork that seems far ahead of it's time and it's a surprise to see how well music and editing was melded in this very early stage of the talkies. Smilin' Through seems modern in it's production techniques and also it's story is timeless, for surely love will never end, if we expect to continue on as humanity. That message is one to be embraced, however corny it may sound, though i'm sure only the cynics would think so, and Smilin' Through is not a film for cynics.