The title Smilin' Through almost seems ironic, considering that this 1932 melodrama might be the weepiest weepy that ever weeped. An also-ran for the Best Picture Academy Award of 1932/33, this is actually the second of three adaptations of a popular 1919 play by Jane Cowl and Jane Murfin. Directed by Sidney Franklin, who also directed the original silent film adaptation in 1922, the story still plays quite well, with only a few scattered moments feeling a bit stilted or dated stylistically.
The film opens in 1890s England, with Sir John Canteret (Leslie Howard) communing with the ghost of his thirty-years-dead lover, Moonyeen Clare (Norma Shearer). Moonyeen is wearing a wedding dress, so you know something bad happened there. Also not so positive: Moonyeen's sister has just died in an accident, along with her husband. The care of their daughter Kathleen (played at this age by Cora Sue Collins) has been put to Sir John. He is reticent, but he is soon won over by the adorable little moppet who first sees him and says, "I don't think I like you." Obviously, she must have gotten used to the old man pretty quick, because soon after, we flash forward twenty years, and Kathleen (now played by Shearer) has been living happily in Sir John's mansion the whole time.
Fate seems to draw Kathleen to an old abandoned house one rainy night, as she and her date Willie (Ralph Forbes) try to get out of the rain. It turns out to be the home of Jeremy Wayne, abandoned for fifty years, with everything left just as it was then. Kathleen and Willie find an old crumpled invitation to the doomed wedding of Sir John and Moonyeen. Kathleen puts two and two together and realizes that Jeremy Wayne (played in flashback by Frederic March) must have also been in love with Moonyeen. That thought gets side-tracked momentarily as Wayne's son Kenneth (also March) appears, in from America, on his way to be shipped to battle in France. Kathleen and Kenneth have immediate chemistry, and poor Willie is soon forgotten.
It turns out that Kathleen and Kenneth's burgeoning love affair is to be star-crossed. Sir John refuses to let Kathleen see Kenneth because of who his father is. Kathleen tries to be the obedient child, but she can't deny her feelings. She tries to get Kenneth to marry her, before he is sent off to war, but he doesn't want Sir John to disown her. Things get even more complicated when Kenneth returns from the war and tries to get Kathleen to stop loving him.
Shearer and March make a charming screen couple in their 1910s incarnation, and their alternate flashback roles show their nimble ability with different characterizations. March, in particular, acts and even looks like a completely different man when he plays his character's father. Shearer plays Kathleen as a relatively liberated woman, much like her contemporary Katherine Hepburn might have, and Shearer pulls off the witty banter as expertly as the sobbing. Leslie Howard is usually a joyful presence to watch, but he is a bit hamstrung here, covered in old-age make-up, playing an embittered coot whose heart has been hardened over the years and whose mind has been clouded by hate.
The plot is a mite bit predictable for a modern audience, with the romantic fate of the young lovers hinging on Sir John's ability to forgive and forget. Yet when all is said and done, and the Kleenex box is empty, Smilin' Through is a memorable, moving little story.
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