All art is manipulative. Horror movies use jump scares to solicit a fight or flight response. Comedies use vulgarity and banana peels to make people laugh. And porn uses. . . . Well, never mind what porn uses. The point is that by and large we are willing participants in this manipulation. Except when it comes to melodrama. Saying you like melodrama today is like saying you like K.C. and the Sunshine Band would have been in Comiskey Park on July 12, 1979. Okay, so maybe I’m being a bit melodramatic, but clearly the genre is vilified simply for attempting to accomplish its aim. Of course everyone has their likes and dislikes. It would be insufferably boring if we all liked the same things, but it seems strange that an entire genre should take on a pejorative connotation. There are good and bad melodramas, just as there is good and bad disco. Smilin’ Through, a 1932 pre-code film directed by Sidney Franklin and starring Norma Shearer, Fredric March, and Leslie Howard, is a good melodrama.
So what makes a melodrama anyway? How is a melodrama different from “regular” drama? By definition it is simply the addition of music to accompany the action. Obviously, there’s more to it than that though. Sidney Lumet, himself a director and fan of melodrama, provides a definition closer to the mark: “In a well-written drama, the story comes out of the characters. The characters in a well-written melodrama come out of the story.” Take, for instance, Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre. There are elements of melodrama in Jane Eyre, sure, but the novel itself, if not the films based upon it, is much more than that. Jane is a beloved, lasting character because she is fully realized, and it would still be her story if the title and point of view were changed. The same cannot be said for the principle characters in Smilin’ Through. The emphasis is on what happens to them rather than what happens because of them.
The film begins with the introduction of two of the principal characters. The first is John Carteret, a wealthy man who has spent his entire life pining for Moonyeen, his lost love who is accidentally killed by a jilted lover on their wedding day. The second is Kathleen, Moonyeen’s niece who has shown up on John’s doorstep as an orphan with no place else to go. Fast forward several years, and Kathleen, played by a very pretty Norma Shearer, is now of marriageable age herself and being courted by Kenneth Wayne, a dashing young man played by Frederich March, who is perfect for Kathleen in all respects save one–he just so happens to be the son of the man who recklessly killed Moonyeen all those years before. Darn the luck. Turns out this is a deal breaker for Uncle John, who threatens to abandon Kathleen if she chooses to go forward with the relationship.
Given this fun but fairly pedestrian plot and crazy character names, what makes Smilin’ Through stand out as a cut above? For starters, there’s some pre-code fun. Kathleen’s attraction to Kenneth Wayne is overtly physical, and while fortunately there isn’t a lot of overacting in the film, Norma Shearer has a lot of fun expressing non-verbally her physical attraction to him. The script follows suit in this regard as Kathleen makes no secret of her desire to get married specifically so they can consummate the relationship. Whether this makes for a feminist interpretation or not, I don’t know. But it’s fun to see at a female characterization that falls outside the Madonna/Whore dichotomy.
Additionally, there’s a supernatural element that, when coupled with the opulence of John’s house and garden, lends the film a sense of other worldliness that adds to its charm and provides a context for the theme of forgiveness versus separation via obsession and revenge. The ghost of Moonyeen frequents John several times during the film, and although he cannot see or her hear, he feels her presence, and she retains some ability to influence his actions. Seeing John through the filter of a sympathetic ghostly lens prevents him from simply becoming a villain.
Worth a watch for anyone with a tolerance for melodrama. And disco.
P.S.- Found this amusing tidbit on the TCM site. Shearer specified in the contract that “March’s and Howard’s names appear below her own, ‘in type no larger than 75% of that used to display my name.'” Looks like the characters she played weren’t the only ones with spunk.