Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Norma Haunts Leslie

The here meets the hereafter in Smilin' Through  (1932), a lovely film about a man who lost the love of his life on their wedding day.

John Carteret (Leslie Howard) still mourns the loss of Moonyean Clare (Norma Shearer) after 30 years. He spends much of his time in the garden where they were happiest, and where the spirit of Moonyean visits him, assuring him of her continued love. As a result, John has virtually withdrawn from the world, until the day his friend Dr. Owen (O. P. Heggie) brings the news that Moonyean's sister and her husband have died in a boating accident, leaving her 6 year-old daughter orphaned. He also brings the child, in the hopes that she will reopen John's heart.  Though at first reluctant to take the child, John is so captivated by little Kathleen (Cora Sue Collins) that he consents to adopt her.

By 1915, the now adult Kathleen (also played by Norma Shearer) is the apple of her Uncle John's eye, as well as being nearly a twin of Moonyean; John is convinced that Kathleen will shortly marry the somewhat stodgy Willie Ainsley (Ralph Forbes). But when Kathleen meets Kenneth Wayne (Fredric March), a young American who is heir to a local home, and who has come to England to join the war efforts, any hope of that is lost. Kathleen and Kenneth fall desperately in love.  But when John learns of the affair, he is horrified; Kenneth's father was drunken lout who murdered Moonyean.  John forbids Kathleen to see Kenneth.

Based on a play by Jane Cowl and Jane Murfin, this version is the second time the story was told on screen.  The first was a silent version in 1922, with Norma Talmadge as Moonyean/Kathleen.  The third time, in 1941, was a musical version with Jeannette MacDonald as Moonyean, Brian Aherne as John, and Gene Raymond as Kenneth/Jeremy. 

Like any MGM film, especially one starring Norma Shearer this subtle movie is beautifully done.  Exquisite costumes by Adrian, along with convincing makeup for Leslie Howard (who has to age over 40 years during the course of the film), and a sensitive script that really keeps you involved make this a film that wears its age well.

Of course, we have an exceptional acting group here.  Leslie Howard is especially convincing as John. You have to believe that he is able to communicate with the spirit of Moonyean, which Howard does beautifully.  His later rage against Kenneth is equally good.  We especially enjoyed his scene with the young Kathleen.  Howard carefully unwraps the hidden man, making John blossom in this brief conversation.  We were also impressed with O.P. Heggie, who plays Dr. Owen.  Owen serves as the link between the past and the present and Heggie does a nice job.  He had a fairly short career in talking films.  He died at age 59, in 1936, having appeared, in a total of 27 silent and talking films.  Included in this list are The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) as the blind hermit and Anne of Green Gables (1934) as Matthew.
Certainly, the play suggested the doubling of Kathleen/Moonyean and Kenneth/Jeremy.  It is an especially good decision to continue that casting note.  We felt that, especially for the character of Kenneth the fact that Kenneth looks so much like Jeremy makes John's dislike more intense, and helps the audience to understand his horror at the younger man's involvement with Kathleen.  
The film was nominated for Best Picture in 1932, losing to Cavalcade.  This brief TCM article discusses cameraman Lee Garmes and his initial difficulties in filming Norma Shearer (who was sensitive about the appearance of her eyes on film).  Obviously, it was a problem his was able to overcome, because she is just lovely, as always.

To close, here is the opening scene, in which we see John grieving for his beloved Moonyean.

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