Smilin’ Through struck me as an odd Best Picture nominee before I actually sat down to watch it. I suppose it was merely the title that struck me oddly; there’s quite a few nominees for Best Picture in its history that just have very strange titles for films, and this one seemed to be one of them. It was probably because of the title that I went into watching the film largely blind, expecting to write it off as a silly and frivolous creampuff and little more. Well… then I watched it. It wasn’t a severe case of storytelling whiplash, but it certainly did throw me for a loop, especially with how dour and mysterious the whole film was. For a film titled Smilin’ Through, there definitely wasn’t a whole lot of smiling done through it.
It seemed to be a bit of luck that I went into this largely blind, as I checked the Wikipedia article after I’d seen it, and found the whole central mystery spoiled in the opening paragraph of the synopsis, so heads up; if this does interest you or you do intend to see it, see it without looking into it on the interwebs. That said, the film follows John Carteret, an old man who presides to stand over his dead fiancee Moonyeen’s grave every year mourning her, until he is given the chance to adopt Moonyeen’s niece Kathleen, played by Norma Shearer, when her parents end up killed as well. Years pass, and Kathleen grows up to look extraordinarily like Moonyeen once did, and Carteret treasures her almost as much as he once treasured her deceased aunt. Matters, of course, are complicated when she falls in love with a young man named Kenneth Wayne, played by Fredric March, and when Kathleen’s uncle and foster parent finds out the young man’s name, he is sworn to keep them apart for reasons unbeknownst to Kathleen; reasons that become clear through the course of the film, as the two lovers struggle to find a way to be together, despite the troubles of family and the encroaching war that Kenneth is signed to fight in. There’s actually quite a lot to like about Smilin’ Through, which begs the question of why I ended up only moderately liking it. I guess the answer would be; because the film didn’t seem all that interested in selling itself. For one, there was an almost complete lack of musical score, especially during the parts that were supposed to be the most affecting, and thus most of the film’s most moving aspects came off as being hollow and uncaring as a result. The central romance between Kenneth and Kathleen could’ve done with either some better casting or better writing as well; there wasn’t a whole lot of chemistry between March and Shearer, but damn if Shearer still wasn’t trying to sell it regardless of whether or not it was there. With all that said, though, the decision to go into this film mostly blind ended up being a good one, as the whole mystery behind Carteret’s grief and the history of Kenneth Wayne’s father ended up unfolding at a very natural pace, though all the mystery ended up resolved with a good half hour or so left in the film, leaving us with nothing but forward momentum bringing us toward the resolution and the finale, as there isn’t a whole lot of personal investment on our part with the characters or what’s been happening.
I guess I understand why the film is titled the way it is, and why the film is shaped the way it was, but I couldn’t help but have a slight bit of expectation that this would be a much more pleasant endeavor than it ended up being. Really, if it weren’t for the small mystery angle of what happened years ago, and of course the need to know how everything resolves in the end, there really wouldn’t be too much reason to see this one; everything else either doesn’t work very well, or works just well enough to be satisfactory, and nothing more. I could give it a point or two for being fairly watchable, but I think I’m ending up with more points taken off for not being as watchable as it could’ve been; I’m really stymied as to the actual merits of this film, especially compared to other films that likely do a much better job with what they have than this one did. I don’t know; I’ll have to think about this one come time for the next Oscar segment. Should you watch this one? I guess so; there’s nothing all that bad about it. But, then again, there isn’t too much that’s all that good about it either.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10