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Michael Ritchie must have felt robbed in 1975. With Smile he brought forward a new, fresh, hilarious madcap comedy in a satirical style all his own - and that summer Steven Spielberg's Jaws rewrote the rules for moviegoing. The boxoffice shark had people coming back three and four times to re-experience the rollercoaster ride, and a sophisticated show like Smile didn't have a chance.
The darling of the critics, Smile is the story of the Young American Miss Pagaent, Santa Rosa's answer to municipal mediocrity. A beauty contest that's all flash and no content, it quickly brings out the hypocrisy in everyone from the town boosters to the participants themselves. But don't try telling that to any of the organizers.
Great work starts with the script and Jerry Belson's is a winner, riding a fine line of satire without ever sliding over into ridicule. Everyone's corrupt in their own innocent way; a lot of Santa Rosans are deluded fools but nobody's really malicious. It's just that their values are twisted by the dubious virtues of this contest. What else could make a decent teenaged girl think that showing off her underwear to the newscameramen - with the day of the week embroidered on them - is a good idea? Those underwear provide a smirkingly appropriate signal every time a new day has begun during pageant week.
Everything in Smile is hilarious without any of the actors having to play a comedy role. The girls are poor put-upon puppets, really the victims of the local mania made to strut and humiliate themselves for the adults and their ridiculous fantasy of an ideal Young American Miss. Just the talent acts, with kids doing grotesque recitations (and one girl packing a suitcase) are painfully funny to watch. Unlike the 'smart' comedy Waiting for Guffman, there's nothing outrageously stupid about any of the girls, and they aren't played by actors forcing the roles.
The locals cope as best they can. There's a running gag with the janitors (Titos Vandis and Dennis Dugan) about hopeless efforts to keep the pipes clear of Tampax napkins. The local money man (Geoffrey Lewis) is chiseling costs in all directions, especially with his hired choreographer. Michael Kidd is wonderful as the sarcastic Tommy French, trying so hard to get 30 green kids to behave like Las Vegas hoofers and doing dumbed-down versions of songs like Me Old Bamboo from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. French may regret it, but he has integrity, something we latch onto. Even the horny 13 year old has his scam going, if only the cops and social workers don't get in the way.
The strain is really felt in the DeCarlo household, where poor Andy with his drinking problem and understandable disillusion with life has made him a target for the impatient Brenda. Big Bob tries to cheer him up with a secret lodge ceremony that involves the "fun" of a digusting ritual (kissing the rear end of a raw plucked chicken) but that's far too bizarre to serve as therapy. Santa Rosa has its own mob mentality that brings out the worst in everyone, including a priest who confuses a contestant with an out-of-left-field question about abortion. But Brenda shows that her complete absorbtion into the contest is her way of escaping making her real life function.
The ensemble cast is charming beyond words. The movie introduced us to Melanie Griffith (as one of the ditzier contestants) and the spunky Annette O'Toole. Her veteran pageant advice is priceless. Joan Prather stays reasonably sane throughout the whole experience, an excellent decision which allows us a good perspective: nothing fails more than a comedy without anyone we can identify with (I'm thinking of 1941 here).
This is great forum for unused/ill-used actors. Michael Kidd carries his part beautifully, and we realize how intelligent and versatile Barbara Feldon can be. Nicholas Pryor and Bruce Dern have the toughest parts as the key clowns who need to remain human. Bruce Dern is especially good in a role that doesn't ask him to be a psycho. We see the effort he has to apply to keep his "Big Bob" mask going, and the film starts to touch on profundity when the sour vibes of the pageant finally get to him.
MGM's DVD of Smile is an okay disc but it kind of shows the general unfair treatment this comedy classic has been getting for the last 29 years. The transfer is flat letterboxed and Conrad Hall's classy cinematography doesn't look as bright or snappy as it should. The only extra is the picture's manic trailer and the unpleasant-looking cover illustration shows the uphill battle faced by the film's original marketing team: how do you sell a movie with no stars and such a complicated concept? Smile is one satire that's funny without being terminally misanthropic.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Smile rates:
Video: Good -
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 12, 2004