Smilin’ Through John has led a solitary life for thirty years since the death of Moonyeen Clare. But now Owens, a close friend, insists that he care for his niece, Kathleen, orphaned when her parents were lost at sea. Kathleen is five, but the years pass and now she is a young woman who is the image of Moonyeen. Willy wants Kathleen for his wife, but Sparks fly when she meets Kenneth Wayne one dark and stormy night. John is horrified for it was Wayne’s father who shot Moonyeen dead on her wedding day and John has never found him or forgiven the family. When Ken goes off to war, John forbids any marriage and Ken agrees, while Kathleen does not. When Ken returns four years later when the war is over, he is crippled. He conceals his condition and makes plans to leave for America.
A beautiful romance, one of the best movies ever made
Sir John (Leslie Howard) is devastated and disgusted as his niece Kathleen (Norma Shearer), a young woman living with him since her parents died in her infancy, falls in love with Kenneth (Fredric March), the son of the man who, in a jealous rage, killed Sir John’s bride to be on their wedding day. As Kenneth is about to join his company at the front in World War I, Kathleen is torn between her filial duty towards her uncle and her love for Kenneth.
Sidney Franklin’s film is the quintessential tearjerker, one that I have dreamed of watching all my adult life, and tonight I finally managed. Not many films outlast those sorts of expectations, I found recently that ‘Sevent Heaven’ was relatively feeble-minded, not the film I had been looking forward to.
‘Smilin’ Through’ triumphs though, soaringly so. The film is not only sumptuous in decor and cinematography, but has a real heart and real intelligence. I loved the way that almost every scene takes place in a garden with burgeoning flora, drooping flowers, heavy with romantic regret and sexual portent. One could almost smell the dizzy perfume of the plants. And I admired the way that Sidney Franklin distinguishes so clearly and yet not demonstratively between the way that young love professes itself in the 1860’s, the time of John’s and Moonyeen’s courtship, and the war years with Kathleen’s and Ken’s romance. Franklin, in his direction, subtly underlines the tender dewy-eyed romanticism of the old days, “misty, water-colored mem’ries” indeed, with Kathleen perpetually wearing her wedding gown, even in her scenes as a ghost. And in the modern story we have an altogether more practical couple, acting in the context of a world war, with the far-away guns and canons sending rumblings through the village, sending windows and panes rattling. Kathleen in the modern story is more earthy and doesn’t, in this pre-Code Hollywood picture, disguise how she is longing for her sexual union with Ken: “By the time I’m through with you, you won’t be able to fight anyway”, she claims.
The acting is a chapter unto itself. I was never a fan of Leslie Howard’s, and although it must be said that his part is probably the least interesting in the film, he conveys an endearing boyishness in the 1860’s scenes, easy-going and infectious. Fredric March strikes up a marvelous rapport with Norma Shearer, sending off sparks of a loose energy that seem almost improvised, certainly captivating. Their scenes today should even today serve as must-see footage for acting students. March shows glimpses of the impressive character actor he was to become, and Shearer is luminous and entirely lovable, great performances.
The perfect genre piece, destined to give you the most delicious heartache.