If you didn't catch the Norma Shearer movie Smilin' Through (1932) on TCM recently, then you missed out on something truly special. In the 5 or 6 years I've been haunting the TCM website looking for Norma Shearer movies to be scheduled, this is the first time I've seen this film listed. So chances are they haven't shown it in that time, or I missed the one time they did! In other words, it's a pretty rare film to see. Right now it's #7 on TCM's Not-On-Home Video Ranking system with 4,231 votes, a lot of votes may have generated after the last showing. Let's hope this is a signal to Warner Bros. Archive to release this on DVD soon!
Norma Shearer stars in a dual role as both the virginal angelic Moonyean and the lively spirited Kathleen. (Shearer was not a stranger to dual roles. Check out the silent movie A Lady of the Night (1925).) The setting is WWI England and we are introduced to John Carteret (Leslie Howard), a sorrowful man who holds on to the memory of his long-lost love Moonyean. The ghost of Moonyean beckons to him but he can't sense her presence as he is drowning in his own self-pity and anger. John adopts Moonyean's orphaned niece Kathleen, raising her as his own child. She blossoms into a beautiful young woman; the spitting image of the ethereal Moonyean. Their relationship is just perfect until Kathleen falls in love with Kenneth Wayne (Frederich March), an American soldier whose major flaw is being the son of Jeremy Wayne (also Frederic March). Jeremy was violently in love with Moonyean, yet his love was unrequited as she was to marry her love John. On their wedding day, Jeremy tries to murder John but kills Moonyean instead. John keeps the terrible event a secret from Kathleen and only sees fit to tell her when he finds out Kenneth is the son of Jeremy. John forces Kathleen to promise not to see Kenneth but their love is too strong and they steal moments together until Kenneth goes off to war. Kathleen is torn between her love for her Uncle and her love for Kenneth. Will John be able to move on from the past and allow Kathleen to be happy? Or will it be too late?
This film feels very ethereal with Moonyean's ghost, the soft focus of the camera, the soft English countryside and the almost vacant town. There is an emptiness in the surroundings and this void is filled with heightened states of emotion. The slow, leisurely pace of life contrasts with the bombings of the war going on just some miles away. What I love about Victorian/Edwardian stories like this is that all emotions and reactions are so grandly exaggerated. The characters have so much time on their hands that they are left with their own thoughts and lot of time for thinking and brooding can make the heart heavy. This film is romantic and theatrical and the cast is simply wonderful. It's a veritable treat and I hope you all get a chance to see it, because it would be an utter shame if you didn't.