Smilin’ Through (1941)


CREDITS
BACKGROUND
PLOT
REVIEWS
RECORDINGS
MUSIC IN THE FILM
TRIVIA
MOVIE GOOFS


MGM.
Released October 1941.
Directed by Frank Borzage.
Produced by Victor Saville, Frank Borzage.
100 minutes.
Technicolor.

French title: Chagrin d’Amour (The Grief of Love)
Italian title: Cantene del Passato (Chains of the Past)
Dutch title: Liefdesmart (Heartache)
Portuguese: O Amor que Não Morreu (The Love that Didn’t Die)

From the play by Jane Cowl and Jane Murfin. Screenplay: Donald Ogden Stewart and John Balderston. Director of Photography: Leonard Smith. Technicolor Director: Natalie Kalmus. Technicolor Associate: Henri Jaffa. Music Director: Herbert Stothart. Recording Director: Douglas Shearer. Art Director: Cedric Gibbons. Art Associate: Daniel B. Cathcart. Set Decorations: Edwin B. Willis. Special Effects: Warren Newcombe. Montage Effects: Peter Ballbusch. Gowns: Adrian. Men’s Costumes: Gile Steele. Makeup: Jack Dawn. Editor: Frank Sullivan.

Smilin’ Through, written under a pseudonym (Allan Langdon Martin) by its star, Jane Cowl, opened at the Broadhurst on December 30, 1919, and featured Orme Caldara as Kathleen with Henry Stephenson as John. It ran for 175 performances, and was a tremendous hit on the road. First National filmed it in 1922 with Norma Talmadge, Wyndham Standing, and Harrison Ford (not related to the Star Wars Harrison Ford). Sidney Franklin was the director. Franklin was again at the helm of the first sound version in 1932 for MGM, starring Norma Shearer as Moonyean / Kathleen, Fredric March as Jeremy Wayne/Kenneth Wayne, and Leslie Howard as Sir John.

Vincent Youmans wrote an operetta based on the stage play, calling it Through the Years. It starred Natalie Hall, Charles Winninger, Reginald Owen, and Michael Bartlett, and its book was by Brian Hooker (The Vagabond King) and lyrics by Edward Heyman. However, it ran only 20 performances after opening January 28, 1932.

Jeanette MacDonald (Kathleen / Moonyean Clare)
Brian Aherne (Sir John Carteret)
Gene Raymond (Kenneth Wayne / Jeremy Wayne)
Ian Hunter (Rev. Owen Harding)
Jackie Horner (Kathleen as a child)
Frances Robinson (Ellen, the maid)
Patrick O’Moore (Willie)
Eric Lonsdale (Charles, the batman)
Frances Carson (Dowager)
Ruth Rickaby (Woman)
David Clyde (Sexton)
Emily West [later Jeanette’s real-life secretary] (Chorus singer in “Land of Hope and Glory”)
Wyndham Standing (Doctor) [Wyndham Standing played Sir John in the 1922 film version] Smilin’ Through was presented on Cecil B. DeMille’s Lux Radio Theatre, 1/5/42, with Jeanette, Gene Raymond, and Brian Aherne.


Background

In 1941, the world was at war. Some Americans were still convinced that it was not our war, but the majority were clinging to the last bright days before darkness fell. Just after World War I, actress-author Jane Cowl had fashioned a sentimental tale of lovers in wartime, mixed with the popular theatrical device of their ghostly counterparts from a bygone age. MGM had successfully filmed this play in 1932 with Norma Shearer, Fredric March, and Leslie Howard. Now it seemed the ideal vehicle for the real-life team, Mr. and Mrs. Gene Raymond.

Sidney Franklin had directed both the 1922 Norma Talmadge silent for First National and the 1932 MGM talkie. Now Frank Borzage directed the musical remake. Although his few musicals were minor efforts, he was an expert at tales of bittersweet love (Man’s CastleSeventh Heaven). The 1932 MGM script was reused almost scene for scene and line for line, allowing for song insertions (just as MGM would do in Eddy’s The Chocolate Soldier, a remake of its earlier The Guardsman). The music was culled from the ballads of Scotland and Ireland, with a few classical numbers and hymns thrown in. The MacDonald-Raymond combination seemed per­fect for a story of lovers separated by war. In real life they would soon be parted.

With so many pluses and the tremendous emotional appeal that a strong film on men and women in wartime would have had, it is almost heartbreaking that the film registers as a stan­dard competent musical, no more. Mr. Raymond gives a surprisingly wooden performance, con­sidering his fine work in other films. (Both Gene and Jeanette said later that their love scenes together were among the hardest they ever had to do.) Jeanette is also a bit too elegant to be convincing as the teenaged Kathleen. The man­nerisms in her performances were beginning to intrude: the delicate gripping of the bridge of the nose in moments of stress, the slight intake of breath and lifting of chin before delivering an important line, the thrust of the open palm in dramatic confrontations. Many fine performers have based their careers on mannerisms, to the delight of their impersonators, but in this case they get in the way of the character.


Plot

The valentine mood of the film is set by titles decorated with highly romantic eighteenth century tapestry figures. In a slightly ponderous piece of exposition, we join the elderly Sir John (Brian Aherne) and his equally aged friend Owen, the town vicar (Ian Hunter), on Queen Victoria’s sixtieth jubilee. A service of celebra­tion takes place at the vicar’s church, but Sir John is in a somber mood as he leaves through the tiny cemetery behind the chapel.

He walks home sadly, pausing in his garden to remember. There the ghost of his dead sweetheart, Moonyean, comes to him, telling him they will soon be together again.

Owen interrupts Sir John’s reverie. He has come for a game of chess and to urge Sir John to join the villagers for the speeches and fireworks that night. Sir John mustn’t live so much in the past. Owen has also brought bad news. Moonyean’s sister and her husband have died in Ireland, leaving their little daughter completely alone. What would John say to bringing the little girl to live with him? Impossible, John answers. But, Owen urges, a little girl would give him someone else to think about. John offers money for her care, but that is all he can do.

Owen leaves, and John finds a little girl (Jackie Horner) standing quietly at his elbow. Her name is Kathleen, she tells him, and she will be five in August. Awkwardly, John tries to make friends and finally invites her to sing for him. Accompanying herself on the piano, she sings “The Kerry Dance” in a childish trill. A montage begins of a child romping through flowered fields, and the voice is joined by that of the grown Kathleen. The camera tracks from the trees outside the window to Kathleen (Jeanette) at the piano.

It is Kathleen’s birthday and “Uncle” John presents her with Moonyean’s pearl ring. Kathleen is growing more like her aunt every day, Owen tells her. John tries to slip the ring on her finger, but can’t bring himself to do it. She must do it herself. The distant sound of cannons across the channel in France throws a further pall on their celebration. World War II—“the Great War”—has begun.

Kathleen’s current suitor, Willie (Patrick O’Moore), calls to take her out, and they get caught in a thunderstorm. Willie keeps trying to propose, but the practical Kathleen is more concerned with getting away from the rain and lightning. At her instigation, they break into a deserted house nearby. It is the old Wayne house, and its dusty interior indicates no one has been there in decades. As Willie makes a fire, Kathleen contemplates the strange chaos of the room. A newspaper dated 1864, the remains of a half-finished drink, a chair overturned, a riding crop on the floor. She is fascinated by the untold story. Something terrible happened in this room. Someone shut the doors and never came back.

Ominous footsteps are heard in the hallway and, in spite of themselves, the two shrink back in fear. A shadowy figure emerges into the firelight. It is a handsome blond American who acts as if he owns the place. In actual fact, he does, for he is Kenneth Wayne (Gene Ray­mond), son of the owner, Jeremy Wayne. Willie is all for getting out, but Kathleen is taken with the young man. Kenneth brings out a bottle of ancient port, and they exchange toasts. They discuss the difference in their accents, and, since Kathleen has not a trace of a brogue, this is somewhat puzzling. Kathleen plays an old spinet (in tune after 30 years!) and sings “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” as Kenneth raises his glass to her in the flickering firelight.

They meet a few days later for a picnic beside a lake. The thunder of cannons is heard in the distance, and Kenneth tells her he has come over to England to join up. Their meal is interrupted by a passing goat with a loud bell. (A human hand is clearly visible on its shoulder at one point, keeping it from wandering off.) It is a charming scene, although they again discuss the difference in their accents, with Kenneth launching into a mock brogue that makes her lack of one even more apparent. As the sun sets, they canoe on the lake, and she sings “A Little Love, a Little Kiss” against a shimmering pink and orange sky.

Kathleen cheerfully reports their unusual first meeting to her “uncle” and is astonished at his rage. He orders her never to see the son of Jeremy Wayne again! John rushes from the room, and Kathleen begs Owen to tell her what is wrong. He refuses, and she follows John into the garden.

Reluctantly, he tells her of a night fifty years past, the night before his wedding. The house was full of people. The garden dissolves back to that night, and young John is walking with his beautiful Moonyean (a brown-haired Jeanette). Moonyean goes off to her guests, and a dashing Owen takes John aside to warn him. Jeremy Wayne is at the tavern drinking heavily and making threats against John. But John dismisses it as too much brandy. From the next room, Moonyean is heard singing “Ouvre ton coeur.”

Ellen, the maid (Frances Robinson), tells Moonyean that Jeremy Wayne is in the garden acting very strangely. She had best get Sir John. No, Moonyean tells her, she will handle it. She finds Jeremy (also played Gene Raymond) and tells him how glad she is that he has come to wish her well on her wedding eve. The tormented Jeremy insists that she marry him, that he won’t let another man have her. He kisses her wildly and rushes off as John enters the garden. Shuddering, Moonyean clings to John. He is unaware of Jeremy’s visit and thinks she is having an attack of nerves before their wedding. He slips her pearl ring on and off, practicing for the ring ceremony the next day, and they waltz around the garden to “Smilin’ Through.”

At the Wayne house, Jeremy acts out the sequence that created the confusion discovered by Kathleen. He sees the wedding announce­ment in the paper. It is too much. He pushes aside his drink, hurls down his riding crop, and knocks over a chair as he rushes off to the church.

In the churchyard, the villagers are gathered as Moonyean arrives in a garland-draped carriage. The ceremony is proceeding, with the bride in a lovely white gown and flowered snood (a popular 1941 fashion). John has only to slip the ring on Moonyean’s finger when Jeremy Wayne appears, waving a pistol. “You shall never have her!” he cries. Moonyean flings herself in front of John as the gun goes off. She sinks slowly to the floor and Jeremy flees. As she hangs suspended between life and death, she asks John to put the ring on her finger. “If you ever need me, I’ll find a way to come to you,” she whispers and she dies. (Jeanette said she knew they had done a successful “take” when she looked up to see most of the crew in tears.)

We are back in the garden with Kathleen and Uncle John. She weeps for him and accepts his will that she never see Kenneth again. Later at the canteen, she sings for the troops, a dreamy rendition of “There’s a Long, Long Trail Awinding.” (Considering the many stirring songs that came out of World War I, it is a pity that more didn’t find their way into the film.)

Ken waits for her outside and insists on walking her home. He has to know more than what she told him in her letter. Of course, he can understand her feelings since he is going away to war. It would be wrong to tie her down Kathleen breaks down in tears. What are they going to do?

They have one last picnic together, with the distant cannons sounding ominously in the background. Ken tells her that he is leaving for France tomorrow. She begs him to marry her that night. They go to tell Sir John, who bitterly denounces them. If Kenneth takes Kathleen away, she need never come back.

In a tearful scene, Ken decides that he can’t deprive Kathleen of her security and leave her with nothing. Kathleen returns home, alone and devastated. Ken has refused to marry her, she tells Sir John. Now she may never see him again. If God is just, John tells her, she never will. Kathleen flees in horror, and Owen denounces John for his curse. Their friendship is over. Alone, John is visited by Moonyean, who tells him that his hate has come between them.

Four years later, Owen’s church is the scene of a victory celebration. Kathleen, in choir robe and smart Adrian cap, leads the choir in “Land of Hope and Glory.” Outside, Kenneth Wayne approaches the church and enters in time to hear her finish the song. He has been sent to the church from the city hall to find his father’s birth certificate. Owen greets him joyously, but Kenneth tells Owen he has only come to settle his father’s estate. Then he is leaving for America. He won’t be seeing Kathleen. Does Owen think she would want him now? He gestures to his crutches.

As a captain, Kenneth has been assigned an aide, Charles (Eric Lonsdale), who helps him pack up things at the old house. Kenneth sits in the room where he first met Kathleen, brooding and sipping port. As he stares into the glass, he hears Kathleen’s voice singing “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes.”

Kathleen herself rushes in, crying “Ken! Ken!” He barely has time to hide his crutches under the couch. At first she is too busy laughing and crying and talking to notice his silence. Why, oh, why did he stop writing? She thought he’d been wounded, but he’s all right. She can see that. How long is his leave?

He tells her he doesn’t have to go back. As an American, he can’t be kept in the service if he doesn’t want to stay. Kathleen happily concludes that he has come to fetch her before returning to America, but again he disillusions her. He is going home alone.

Owen visits John for the first time in four years. He tells him about Kenneth and begs him to stop opposing the marriage. Kenneth has lied to Kathleen. John must tell her the truth.

John refuses. Using John’s own words, Owen tells him that “if God is just,” he and Moonyean will never be together if he keeps Kenneth and Kathleen apart.

Kathleen arrives home, completely shattered. John tells her that she will get over it. “You didn’t,” she replies. John has always had the memory of someone who loved him, but she has nothing. John relents and tells her what has happened, that Kenneth is crippled and doesn’t want to burden her. His train is leaving soon. She must hurry and bring him back with her.

In a joyful rush, she drives off in her car, passing Owen in the road. “Go to Uncle John,” she cries. John and Owen gruffly shake hands and settle down to a game of chess. Someone else, Owen tells him, will be very glad at what he has done. “Yes…she is glad,” says John. Concentrating on his move, Owen looks up to find John dozing and smilingly leaves.

John’s sleep is deeper than Owen knows. Moonyean comes to him for the last time, and the ghost of the young John rises to greet her. “Moonyean, at last you’ve come to me.” “No, John,” she says, “you’ve come to me.”

To the strains of “Smilin’ Through,” they walk out through the garden to their wedding carriage, surrounded by happy neighbors. On the road, they pass the young lovers happily driving back to the house. Kenneth has his arm around Kathleen. The flower-covered wedding carriage continues down the road, and Moonyean’s voice is heard in the last verse of “Smilin’ Through.”


Reviews

The reviewers were nearly unanimous in a qualified thumbs-down on Smilin’ Through, but remarkably diverse in placing the blame. The word “tearjerker” appeared in almost every review, followed by descriptive phrases like “indescribably dull” (Cue), a “museum piece” (New York World-Telegram), “satisfactory but not exciting” (Variety), “lachrymose, sticky, super-sentimental” (Time), and “mawkish” (New York Times).

The performers got mixed reviews. “Miss MacDonald has a fine voice and makes you listen every time she sings…but she is not an emotional actress,” reported Bosley Crowther in the New York TimesVariety disagreed: “On the credit side…is the fine acting by Miss MacDonald and, of course, her voice.” They regretted the lack of “production” numbers and liked Gene Raymond’s performance, but not Brian Aherne’s.

The New York World-Telegram took an opposite view, calling Aherne “fine” and Raymond “monotonous.” Archer Winsten in the New York Post gave the film a fair to good rating on their movie dial, thought Aherne “a perfectly splendid old man” and rated Raymond’s performance “good enough,” noting that Jeanette sang “with her customary polish.”


Recordings

Jeanette recorded a 78 RPM album called “Smilin’ Through” with the following songs:

“Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes”
“The Kerry Dance”
“Land of Hope and Glory”
“A Little Love, A Little Kiss”
“Ouvre ton coeur”
“Smilin’ Through”


Music in the Film

In listing performers after each title, “and” denotes a genuine duet, while commas between names indicate a sequence of singers.

Overture: “Smilin’ Through”
“Recessional” (Douglas Beattie, Nan Merriman, and chorus) – music by Reginald de Koven,
lyrics by Rudyard Kipling, written for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee
“The Kerry Dance” (Jackie Horner, MacDonald) – by James Lyman Molloy
“Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” (MacDonald) – music anonymous, lyrics by Ben Jonson
“A Little Love, A Little Kiss” [“Un Peu d’Amour”] (MacDonald) – music by Leo Silesu,
English lyrics by Adrian Ross
“Rose of Tralee” (orchestral waltz at ball) – music by Charles W. Glover
“Ouvre ton coeur” [“Open Your Heart”] (MacDonald) – music by Georges Bizet, lyrics by
S. Louis Delatre
“Smilin’ Through” (MacDonald) – music and words by Arthur Penn, written in conjunction with
the 1919 stage production
“There’s a Long, Long Trail Awinding” (MacDonald and male chorus) – music by Alonzo
Elliott, words by Stoddard King
“Smiles” (male chorus) – music by Lee S. Roberts, lyrics by J. Will Callahan
“Land of Hope and Glory” (MacDonald and chorus) – based on “Pomp and Circumstance” by
Sir Edward Elgar, lyrics by A.C. Benson
“Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” reprise (MacDonald)
Finale: “Smilin’ Through” reprise (MacDonald)


Trivia

For people who care about such things, the dates of the various flashbacks are inconsistent. If Jeremy Wayne was about twenty-five when he killed Moonyean in 1864, and his son Kenneth was old enough to fight in World War I (1914-1918), then Jeremy was over fifty before he sired a son. Not impossible. However, Moonyean’s niece, Kathleen, came to John on Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, 1897, at the age of five, putting her birth in 1892, fifty years after Moonyean’s birth. Therefore, Moonyean’s sister (Kathleen’s mother) would need to be at least years younger than Moonyean!


Movie Goofs

When the young Kathleen sits down to play the piano, Uncle John sets her little purse and gloves on top of the piano twice—first in a long shot and then again a split second later in a medium shot. Then the purse and gloves change position during the scene. (Claudia J. Sysock)

During the picnic scene, the hand of the goat wrangler is clearly visible on the goat’s shoulder, keeping him from fleeing into the nether regions of the soundstage. (Tricia Lutz)

In the picnic scene, Kenneth says, “You’d make someone a good wife,” without ever moving his mouth. He just sits with it wide open, half stuffed with sandwich. (Kayla Sturm)

When the ghost of Sir John rises, his chair creaks. I thought ghosts went right through their surroundings. (Julie Illescas)