Monday, September 02, 2002

SMARTY (1934)

This is an infuriating little comedy, an early (1934) screwball, with a lead female character who manages to be more irritating than the Hepburn character in BRINGING UP BABY--and for me to say that, you know she had to be a truly unlikeable bitch. Despite my intense dislike of the character, Joan Blondell, who plays her in one of her few leads, is very good, a little different in tone than I've ever seen her. She's not quite tough, but she's not a whimpering wallflower. She's not dumb, but she's not all that smart, either (I have no idea where the title comes from; the British title, HIT ME AGAIN, makes much more sense). I laughed out loud several times, even while I was grinding my teeth at both the Blondell character and the way she was treated.

Plotwise, Blondell has a fight with her husband (Warren William, also cast a smidge against type, where he seems NOT to be a ruthless and callous bastard businessman) and he slaps her in the face at a dinner party. She doesn't actually seem to be all that hurt, physically or emotionally, but she nevertheless decides to get a divorce, egged on by lawyer friend Edward Everett Horton, who is himself in love with Blondell. After the divorce, Horton marries Blondell and is eventually driven to slap her as well, which sends her back to William, who not only slaps her again, but also rips her dress off before carting her to the bedroom for what looks to be consensual sex.

The message, honest to God, is that some women just need to be slapped around every so often, and when they (and their husbands) realize that, happiness will reign supreme. Yes, the Blondell character was incredibly obnoxious, always choosing to do the stupidest, most irritating thing in any given situation, but how even mild physical abuse is the answer to that is beyond me. What these men see in her (aside from her physical charms, which are nicely displayed) is also beyond me. I thought William and Horton should both have dumped Blondell and gone off together at the end. The acting all around is quite good. Claire Dodd and Frank McHugh provide nice comic relief (relief, that is, from the "comic" arguing and violence that occurs among the three leads). I've rarely enjoyed a movie and been so exasperated by it at the same time. The fact that it's only an hour long helps; if it were made a few years later, it would have been stretched out to at least 90 minutes and probably would have been unbearable. Even though this would seem to be an early example of screwball comedy (it came out the same year as IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, which many claim to be the first screwball), I have yet to find a reference to this film in any critical histories or even in the standard reference books, like Halliwell or Maltin. Perhaps it deserves to be mostly lost.

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