Monday 13 August 2012

Not for the Faint-hearted: Smarty (1934)

Some people have seen ‘Gold Diggers of 1933’ (1933), but here is a review of a little known Warren William/ Joan Blondell film, ‘Smarty’ (1934). It is a story of marriage and divorce and how to keep the spark between husband and wife. It was one of the last films to get through before film censorship and, I have to admit, its themes are definitely Precode.


Vicki and Tony Wallace (Joan Blondell and Warren William) appear to be a happily married couple. Tony is deeply in love with his wife and her with him. But there is one problem or stumbling block, Vicki is a perpetual joker. She loves teasing her husband, playing tricks and humiliating him; however, up until now, he has allowed her to behave as she likes with the understanding that it is better to keep the situation the same then anger her. The couple have a small party for Vicki’s birthday with their friends: the annoying George (Frank McHugh), the worldly and multi-divorcee Anita (Claire Dodd) and the stuffy, moralistic, superior Vernon (Edward Everett Horton). They are playing cards when, as usual, Vicki begins teasing Tony in front of Anita.
           Vicki: Don’t grunt darling, it’s not ethical
           Tony: I never made a sound
           Vicki: Didn’t he make a grunting noise
           Anita: Maybe it was something he ate
           Vicki: Yes, darling would you like some bicarbonate of soda
           Tony: Vicki this flow of humour I just a little ore then I can bare
          Vicki, mockingly: Oh, don’t be irritable precious

Vicki continues until, infuriated, Tony over-turns the table and hits her.

Shocked she pulls back from him. Tony is guilty and contrite, but calm, level-headed Vicki has one decree – she wants a divorce and turns to lawyer Vernon for help. He convinces her that it would be a simple and quick procedure to get rid of Tony, that she could claim physical cruelty. Later, Vernon goes to talk to a depressed Tony to tell him of the situation. After a little prodding, Vernon admits he is in love with Vicki as well and Tony punches him. Anita and Vicki break the fight up and Vicki, steadfast, gives Tony some advice:
“You know, exit smiling.”

As quick as the fight started, Vicki is divorced and remarried to Vernon. Meanwhile, broken-hearted, Tony is out partying every night, cavorting with different women and drinking too much. Vicki, who can’t seem to get Tony out of her mind, asks him over for dinner with her, Vernon and the group. He accepts and she begins scheming for a way to get Tony back in her life. Without the approval of stuffy Vernon, Vicki buys a daring backless dress for the occasion. As soon as Tony arrives, accompanied by one of his lady ‘friends’ Mrs Bonnie Durham (Joan Wheeler), she asks him up to her room, alone. He is instantly smitten with her in the racy dress and Vicki makes it worse by asking him to hook the back of her dress together. After several attempts, Tony caves and admits he is still in love with her.   

At that moment, Vernon comes home and finds Tony in Vicki’s room. After an argument Tony leaves and, characteristically Vicki begins teasing Vernon.   

“Why don’t you act like a man and hit me or as Tony says with a grapefruit. Have we any grapefruit?”

Enraged, Vernon hits her. Upset, but not overly surprised, Vicki locks herself in her room. Tony, meanwhile, has left taking Bonnie with him intent on getting drunk first at a nightclub and then back to his house. Before they can get there, Vicki has climbed out her window and has gone up to his apartment and hides in Tony’s bedroom as he and Bonnie arrive. With the intention of finding the now missing Vicki, Vernon and Anita arrive at Tony’s but he is, as yet, unaware of Vicki’s scandalous presence in his bedroom. They are about to leave, satisfied that only Bonnie and Tony are in the apartment, when Vicki calls out from the bedroom.  They find her cross –legged on his bed, draped in his dressing gown provocatively smoking a cigarette.  

Will she stay or will she go?


Understandably, like lots of Precodes, the plot has not many twists or surprises; however, it is invariably a character driven movie and the actors don’t disappoint. I love Warren William and Joan Blondell together they play perfectly off each other and have blatant sexual chemistry. Also, the supporting actors Claire Dodd as the all-knowing, cynical society divorcee, Edward Everett Horton as the moralistic, stuffy lawyer with too pale makeup and the odd, wise-cracking Frank McHugh as George are all great. Although, it is odd to see Joan in a negative role, she isn’t a villain, but appears to be motivated by some unknown reason to torment the men in her life and provoke them to react badly.  

To say the least, ‘Smarty’ is a controversial film and if it was shown readily today would create uproar due to its Precode themes. Indeed, read some of the reviews from IMBD, “Well made but disturbing and hard to like”, “Slight tale of masochistic woman in control”, “Smarty - unguarded look at sadistic male fantasies” and “If this film were remade today the title would be changed to the more appropriate "Slutty."” Not very positive. Most of these comments come from the main theme of the movie and the controversial ending. It is all up to interpretation, but the character of Vicki appears to be outspoken and out of control and the solution – as the film comments – is for her husband to hit her. She seems, in ‘Red-headed Women’ like fashion, to want it, with the lines, “That’s just it, if he really loved me he would have hit me long ago” seemingly showing it. Therefore, as I can gather the moral of the film is to keep a marriage stable and passionate a man must take control of his woman, by force if he has to, and that unions where the women is in control (for example the short coupling of Vicki with Vernon) do not last. It is this feature that turns the movie from entertaining and great to somewhat strange and, above all, dated.

I haven’t even mentioned the most scandalous bit, the ending. After Anita and Vernon leave, Vicki thinks that she and Tony will fall back into a happy marriage, however, he isn’t so easy. Vicki provokes him again with the odd symbol of diced carrots; Tony smashes the bottle. He tells her to leave, but before she goes, Vicki asks him to hook her dress up. They argue about it and Vicki says:
“What are you going to do about it?”

Tony replies: “I’ll show you,” and rips the dress off, leaving her in a short black negligee.

He then shakes her, grabs her hair and violently hits her. He throws her on the couch and she says: “Tony dear, hit me again.” And the camera fades out as he leans in to kiss her.

Racy? It is definitely a Precode treatment of feminism and marriage and not what I expected. Plus the light-hearted treatment of infidelity, alcoholism and promotion of an easy divorce to continue with the sinful nature of the movie.

 A lot of people will hate this movie, but from my point of view, I am too obsessed with Joan and Warren to the point that I don’t really care about the particulars of the plot or themes; I just love to watch them. That is why with this film, I leave it up personal opinion of the individual.  Also, I would be much appreciated if anyone can tell me the significance of the diced carrots?     

    You cant tell me they dont look cute together

Blink and you will miss it....


  1. Joan Blondell, is very good, a little different performance than I've ever seen her in before. If you are a Joan Blondell fan, you will enjoy this movie.

  2. I agree. I loved this movie for Joan and Warren, but it is indeed a strange film!!

  3. Ha! Well, the diced carrots are pretty easy to explain-- what does a carrot resemble when it's not diced up?

    The whole film is about Williams' impotence in regards to his wife's demands. She likes it rough, he won't comply. Finally she breaks him down. It's really raunchy stuff, and I enjoyed it, though reading most of the negative reactions is almost as much fun!

  4. Haha thanks, that's been on my mind ever since I watched 'Smarty' and it make sense. It reminds me what a shocking movie it is even today.
    It something similar came out it would probably be consider 'indie' or go straight to DVD. But in the Precode era, the subject has several famous actors and was widely released. Precode is such an interesting part of film history.

  5. As usual, I'm with the minority in liking this film. Why? Because it's honest. Like "Red Headed Woman" it has an unlikable but real character. She's spoiled, manipulative, selfish but not at all stuffy. She is who she is. It always seems to come as news to people that some women are privileged jerks. Although I will say that if she likes getting bapped occasionally why divorce Tony in the first place?