Old Movies: Joan Blondell and the now-controversial Smarty

Smarty starring Joan Blondell
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Previously in our Old Movies column we focused on the career of Joan Blondell – now we’re discussing one of her best films, Smarty. 

Spoilers for Smarty lie ahead.

In my last column, I spoke about the wonderful and charming Joan Blondell. This week I would very much like to concentrate on one of her films, and certainly my favourite of hers – Smarty (1934). It also happens to be an extremely Pre-Code, Pre-Code Film. It is risqué, sexy, funny, and smart. 

Directed by Robert Florey and based on a play by F Hugh Herbert, Smarty revolves around the relationship between Vicki and Tony. Tempestuous Vicki pushes and provokes Tony the best she can. One day he slaps her at a dinner with friends, causing outrage and a divorce. Soon Vicki marries their lawyer, Vernon. However, more tempers flare when it is clear that Vicki is still trying her best to get a rise out of Tony.

Just from reading that plot, you can gather that Smarty walks a very, very thin line. In fact, the original title in the United Kingdom is Hit Me Again. The film probably has the same amount of detractors as it does celebrators. Throughout the short 64 minute runtime, so much happens to poor Vicki. She is slapped twice by her husbands, provoking divorce.

It’s very understandable, then, that some people will view Smarty uncomfortably, as though the film is making light of domestic violence. After all, even though Vicki pokes and prods at these two men until their tempers flare, did she really deserve such a smack around the chops? No. Despite its overt comedy-caper tones, there is a level of discomfort one has when watching the film and it is easy to feel dismayed leaving the film.

However, there is one line early on in the film which tells you all about Vicki’s stance on the entire affair: “If he really loved me, he would’ve hit me a long time ago.”

There’s very clearly a reason why Vicki is poking and provoking the men in her life to act this way – because she enjoys a little bit of pain in her intimate relationships. Though she goes about the affair in a risible manner, her request is plain and simple. Well, hit me again. In the boudoir. When we’re alone. The whole film culminates in a tryst with Tony in which he finally fulfills her wishes, noting a rather happy end for all. Except for Vernon, one guesses.

Fun fact: There is a moment in this film where Tony makes a reference watching a film in which a character is struck by a grapefruit. That film is most famously Public Enemy, with the brilliant James Cagney, and it also stars Joan Blondell!

Smarty starring Joan Blondell

Smarty delves into the kinkier side of sex in relationships with rich aplomb. It does tackle how contemptible a man hitting a woman is whilst also dealing with Vicki’s proclivities as well. She has pretty much most of the agency here, and is the one with the most control throughout the film. There’s a clear line that she draws for herself here. In fact, she is only truly enraged when Tony strikes her in front of guests.

Joan Blondell is truly magnificent as Vicki, and the character practically feels written for her. Blondell has these luminescent, big, round eyes that convey excitement and incredulity. The absolutely compelling glint in her eyes as she drapes around in a slip of a black dress in order to provoke her two husbands is gloriously effective.

She also has fantastic chemistry with William Warren, who plays Tony. Their jibing and ribbing is wondrous to watch as they deliver fast and heated retorts to one another. There’s also the ongoing insults towards the end of the film, as she shoves a can of the vegetables into his face, causing one of the funniest facial responses I have ever seen.

Then there’s the incomparable Edward Everett Horton as Vernon. Whenever he’s on screen, he just has to raise an eyebrow and you are in ripples of laugher. Plus, as Tony and Vernon scrap early on in the film, their fight is very reminiscent of the silly Bridget Jones’ Diary one between Hugh Grant and Colin Firth.

Smarty is extremely clever and certainly a film to watch when delving into the positively indecent world of Pre-Code films.

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