The Particulars of the Picture
Edward Everett Horton
Smarty: Slap Happy
Spanking, slapping, screwing. If any of those intrigue you, you may be interested in Smarty, one of the dirtiest pictures American pictures produced in the 1930s outside of sex education flicks.
It stars Warren William as Tony, a henpecked husband. He’s married to Joan Blondell’s Vicki, a fiery pit of aggression who constantly tests the limits of her husband’s patience. It’s her birthday, and she decides that they’re going to ditch Tony’s plans for the theater and play bridge with a trio of friends.
Tony is especially frustrated by this since Vernon (Edward Everett Horton) has become a romantic rival for his wife’s affections. Anita (Claire Dodd), meanwhile, is a divorce happy socialite who simply enjoys commenting on the situation, and Tony and Vicki’s neighbor, George (Frank McHugh), shows up to make inane commentary and eat all of the pretzels.
Vicki’s calculated invitation and overtures to Vernon as well as a great deal of of goading infuriate Tony to the point that he slaps her across the face. He’s instantly remorseful, but she’s delighted; with his fretting, she knows that she can finally get a divorce!
Things escalate as Vernon, whom we discover is a divorce lawyer, begins to prod at Tony, and soon that’s escalated into perhaps one of the wimpiest (and funniest) fistfights portrayed on screen. Vernon admits to Vicki that he loves her after a great deal of unsubtle badgering that Vicki specializes in. It drives her wild, and soon we’re at divorce court.
Toni doesn’t contest the divorce, and we leave the characters for a year. Vicki and Vernon have gotten married, though it’s less happy than they pretend it to be. Vicki decides to invite Tony and the old gang over for a dinner party, and even picks out a scandalous looking dress to be sure that she’s got Tony’s eyes planted firmly on her.
Needless to say, putting together your ex-husband and current henpecked husband doesn’t go very well. Vicki gets Tony alone and plays every seductive, hyperactive trick in the book, from fondling him to insisting he fondle her. He simply keeps bringing up Vernon, who luckily arrives before Tony gets too far gone towards Vicki’s charms.
Vernon and Vicki fight after she insists on wearing the revealing dress, and she taunts him until he, too, slaps her across the face. She retreats into the bedroom, and becomes overtly disappointed when Vernon ignores Tony’s advice to break down the door and take her into his arms. Like all reasonable people, Vicki decides to run away, and makes off towards Tony’s.
Tony has been miserable for the last year without Vicki, and now spends a great deal of time with Bonnie, a socialite who is ditching her own husband for a fairly conspicuous affair. Bonnie wants to take things to the next level, but Tony still has a picture of Vicki next to his bed. And on his piano, just for kicks.
This leads to a farcical ending, with Vernon barging into Tony’s apartment, and Tony having delicately stored both women in different rooms. Will everything end up happily ever after? Or, at the very least, are Tony and Vicki going to knock boots?
The Unenviable Task
“Love is the illusion that one woman differs from another.”
“Shut up, George!”
So in the course of writing my weekly reviews, I do a lot of research, often trying to find people with different opinions than me or new interpretations to compare notes against. While researching Smarty, I discovered one unwavering fact: everyone hates this movie.
The dividing line here seems to be this: either you overcome the film’s subject and enjoy Smarty because of how much Joan Blondell you get to see (and you do get to see a fair bit), or you hate it because it endorses spousal abuse.
I won’t pretend that the Blondell’s body isn’t appealing, but in terms of the latter, I think a lot of people are getting caught in a knee jerk reaction rather than looking at how the themes actually play into the film itself.
Before I get into this, I want to make absolutely clear: I do not condone spousal abuse. My wife punches me all the time, and it’s not fun! (Please ask her to stop.)
It’s important to note that a film’s portrayal of an action isn’t necessarily an endorsement, and while Vicki sure likes getting slapped, at no point until the final few moments is this shown as the way to solve any marital difficulties. While Anita at one point mentions that women all need a good sock in the eye once in a while, that’s laced with enough innuendo that it furthers my beliefs about the film.
The reason she likes being slapped around is that Vicki gets off on rough sex. The entire plot of Smarty is her trying to get this across to her husbands, albeit unsuccessfully more often than not. That’s because the only way she figures she can get what she wants with any subtlety is to goad men into it.
The first fifteen minutes of the movie clearly establish the problem. The first shot of her husband features him unable to insert his cufflinks into the attendant buttonholes in his dress shirt; fittingly Freudian. As we get into the evening, watch as Tony stumbles over the word ‘impotent’ or look as Tony’s rage becomes triggered by the words, “diced carrots.” If that last one leaves you puzzled, a carrot looks like a certain section of male genitalia, and them being diced would indicate merciless emasculation to say the least.
Through the film, Blondell’s character demands to be handled roughly. After Tony slaps her, that night she confides to Anita, “If he had really loved me, he would have hit me long ago.” I think the interpretations of this moment speak to the agency that a lot of reviewers are removing from Vicki’s character. They think this comes as a moment of revelation, where she sees what a brat she’s been and thinks her husband should have hit her sooner.
The scene could be read this way, but you have to twist the way she actually states the line. It’s not sorrow that informs her, but resignation. She’s been trying her hardest to get a rise out of Tony, to get something physical happening between them. If he’d loved her, he’d have stepped up to the plate ages ago.
In an unguarded moment after she’s slapped by Tony and before he’s caught up to her, Vicki takes a second to primp herself. It’s not for Vernon, it’s for Tony. She’s crazy about him, and always is. Her marriage to Vernon is an attempt to ignite jealousy, and she’s not above doing anything to get a rise out of him.
The film ends with the final straw being broken. Vicki has told Vernon that she was ditching him for Tony, though Tony still seems awfully bitter about her presumptions. She goads and taunts him again, even going so far as to grabbing a jar of diced carrots out of the fridge and shoving it in his face. He does not react well to this.
She begins laughing and goading him this time, making notes about her dress and he can’t hold it in any more. He rips off her dress and finally slaps her again. Without an audience to play to, Vicki begins to smile wildly and talk about their future. He keeps threatening her with more abuse until he finally throws her on the sofa.
“Hit me again,” coos Vicki, as the camera pans down. This isn’t a, “Hit me again to teach me a lesson”, people. This is a, “hit me again, because I’m loving every minute of it.”
I loved, loved, loved Smarty. It’s weird and abrasive, fun and cutting, silly and nasty and all often at the same time. It’s as messed up movie as you’ll get about American sexual mores for decades afterwards, and its performers give a weird mixture of style and class that the material probably doesn’t deserve.
It’s one of the most Pre-Code movies I’ve ever seen, because not only could you not have made this movie after the Production Code came about, you couldn’t even make it today. This thing is nuts.
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Holy crap.
- Here’s the opening shot as well as a tasteful glimpse of Joan Blondell’s backside:
- “I don’t mind strange beds at all!”
“If I recall, that’s what led to your divorce!”
- No one married is very happy about it. Anita is a happy divorcee, Bonnie is just philandering like crazy, Vernon is after someone else’s wife and so is Tony… weirdly enough, dumb old George is the most moral character in the picture!
- Also, Bonnie radiates a sexual desire with a frightening intensity.
- While waiting for Vicki in a department store, the straight laced Vernon has to keep covering his eyes while lingerie models keep demonstrating their wares for him.
- The film climaxes with Warren William ripping off Joan Blondell’s dress. And just to cravenly attempt to boost my web traffic, “Joan Blondell nude nudity sexy pics O_O_O penis enlargement”.
- You can’t give a playful slap to a woman when she’s sitting down, because, you know. *cough* Her chair is covering her rear.
Here are some extra screenshots I took. Click on any picture to enlarge!
Trivia & Links
- User reviews over on IMDB absolutely savage Smarty, calling it “incredibly irritating”, “just awful”, and “disturbing.”
- Let’s Misbehave, another Pre-Code blog that I enjoy checking out, is baffled by the film, but overcomes most of their negativity because Blondell and Warren are so good together.
- Noir and Chick Flicks also covered this, though they seem pretty wary on it. Any time your entire critical evaluation is “If you like Joan Blondell, you’ll like this” you know it ain’t a positive review.
- Apocalypse Later is another outlet that views the film as endorsing wife beating (which I humbly disagree with), but it did have this gem of an observation:
“This may be a Warren William picture, but Joan Blondell is bizarrely playing the Warren William part. I’m sure that’s the point.”
- Because I like you guys, here’s a giant gallery of Joan Blondell pictures.
- Oh man! I won’t lie: I love Joan Blondell, but I spent some of this movie thinking about how much better Genevieve Tobin would be in her part (especially since it’s so close to the part she played in Kiss and Make Up). Strangely enough, TCM says that Tobin was actually director Robert Florey’s first choice for the role!
- Also of note: Williams and Blondell starred together the previous year in Gold Diggers of 1933, while Williams, Blondell, and Tobin all starred together in another 1933 film, Goodbye Again.
- The characters keep referencing a movie where a man rightfully hit a woman in the face with a grapefruit. That was The Public Enemy (1931) with James Cagney in case you were curious.
- Unsurprisingly (and scandalously), the British title for this film is Hit Me Again.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is available in a double feature pack with The Merry Wives of Reno (1931) via Amazon and Warner Archive, and Smarty can be rented from Classicflix.
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Cliff Aliperti · May 17, 2013 at 8:49 am
Nice coverage of a difficult movie to cover. I’m in the “irritating” camp, finding Smarty pretty lousy on its own merits, wasting three out of four of my favorite pre-Code era stars (yeah, all but Joan), with the wife-beating stuff just putting it over the top and making it a target for the “tasteless” label that it probably could have earned had nobody been smacked. I always kind of felt like it aimed at somehow being sophisticated but wound up coming off like a really bad ’80s teen sex romp–with adults. That said, your Joan Blondell spam line is hilarious as is just about every image included here of Warren.
Danny · May 17, 2013 at 12:52 pm
Thanks Cliff. It’s a very crazy movie that reeks of 1934 pushing-boundaries-we-can’t-even-define recklessness, and it has a lot more in common with modern day sex comedies rather than any other thing Golden Age Hollywood put out. I really got into it just because it’s so strange and really makes you have to try to put yourself into the shoes of the filmmakers. I don’t blame anyone for disliking it, but I hope they don’t begrudge me for enjoying it so much!
Kimbutgar · May 17, 2013 at 9:23 am
I saw this movie and I loved it. When he slapped her I was shocked and was curious as to how wife abuse would be handled in this comical movie. Thanks for the clarification of the carrots reference. The adult nature of this movie must have drove the censors crazy. Joan and Warren are two of my favorite pre-code actors. Thanks for the link at Amazon. I have this movie on my DVR because I wanted to watch it again. I brought the DVD for my Pre-code library. W
Danny · May 17, 2013 at 1:40 pm
I can only imagine the fights it had to undergo to get to its current crazy form. I’m glad you grabbed the DVD; I’m certainly thinking of doing the same!
justjack · May 17, 2013 at 2:36 pm
oh. my. gawd. I have to see this movie.
Now you have me thinking of that Jean Harlow Fatal Attraction type picture that I can’t remember the title of anymore (I’m pretty sure you reviewed it, though). She’s the secretary with her cap set to steal her boss away from his wife. There’s a scene where the desparate boss finally slaps Jean hard across the face, and her eyes light up with orgasmic ecstasy and she yells, “do it again! I like it!”
Danny · May 17, 2013 at 4:35 pm
Red Headed Woman. Yeah, there are shades of that one here, though this one isn’t quite as carefree and filled with a lot more insinuations. Some people in Hollywood really wanted people to know that rough sex was less taboo than they’d been led to believe…
Grand Old Movies · May 17, 2013 at 5:34 pm
I haven’t seen this film, though I’ve heard of it and the unfavorable opinion it provokes today. However, I like your (dare we say non-PC) take on its characters and sexual relationships. Pre-Code was willing to delve into a lot of stuff even more than today’s films – perhaps the early 30s were a lot more liberated. (I admit, though, I can’t wrap my head around the image of Edward Everett Horton as a romantic rival to Warren William. It just doesn’t pan out for me.)
Kimbutgar · May 17, 2013 at 5:48 pm
Horton was very stiff being a love struck man to blondell.
Danny · May 18, 2013 at 11:53 am
*cough* I would be too.
Danny · May 18, 2013 at 12:01 pm
Horton is less a rival than an annoyance– I don’t think Blondell’s character ever saw him as much more than a rich bargaining chip. I don’t know if I’d label the 30’s as more liberated… it’s just that spousal abuse was more widely accepted as a comedy plot development than rough sex. Times have changed!
justjack · May 18, 2013 at 1:10 pm
Horton played a raffish womanizing lawyer in “Lonely Wives” (1931), also.
Danny · May 18, 2013 at 4:25 pm
He also has a really nice duet in Kiss and Make Up with Helen Mack; they’re actually a better romantic couple than Mack and Cary Grant!
Andrew · July 19, 2013 at 1:42 pm
I enjoyed it while I was watching it- it wasn’t until after the fact that I went “Wait a minute, that was really messed up!” I don’t think I want to see it again any time soon.
Danny · July 19, 2013 at 6:47 pm
My wife had the same reaction.
Andrew · July 20, 2013 at 7:21 pm
Gosh, does that mean I’m your wife?! Somebody should have told me…
Danny · July 21, 2013 at 6:46 am
Trust me, no one is as surprised as I am.
Andrew · July 21, 2013 at 3:51 pm
I want a divorce!
JennyG · November 23, 2014 at 10:13 am
I love your review of this one and completely agree: s&m is the subtext. Plus Vicki and Tony are simultaneously, or alternately, both sadist and masochist: Vicki likes the masochist role of being hit in bed, but she is happy to take the sadist role to goad Tony into acting the sadist. And Tony of course SAYS he hates being treated like that, but he doesn’t because his emotions are tied to it. He’s most miserable when he’s out of the cycle.
I’d love to hear Blondell’s take!
Danny · November 24, 2014 at 11:04 pm
I can only imagine what Blondell’s take would have been, though her biographer has less than kind words about it. Ah well, I’m just glad I’m not alone on this one!
invincabl4ever · March 19, 2016 at 3:20 am
I’m sorry.. I must agree with “I Loved, Loved, Loved Smarty” -and all for the exact same description! All my years watching classics- and what a surprising gem this one was for me.
Danny · April 13, 2016 at 12:42 pm
Always nice to hear I’m not the only one. 🙂
Terence · March 20, 2016 at 12:05 am
I just watched this on TCM and I like your take on it. I think modern viewers overreact from a vaguely bourgeosie perspective. First of all, despite what all the mild-mannered people on IMDB say, I’ve known many, many couples like the one in the movie. Several IMDB reviewers went so far as to say that Blondell’s character — what we cavemen would call a c-teaser — couldn’t possibly exist in real life. Au contraire — she is practically a Jungian archetype. And those same viewers consider it high art when Stanley and Stella Kowalski play out the same dynamic. But they find it offensive when it is played out by respectable people who play bridge in evening clothes.
JennyG · March 20, 2016 at 1:29 am
I very much agree with your analysis of the role of class in the reception and perception of the film. S&M exists across class lines, but upper middle class ideology erases it. That’s a big part of the delightful iconoclasm of Smarty. It wouldn’t have the same power if it were set among the working class, because then booshie audiences would be able to distance themselves from the dynamic.
Dave C. · May 5, 2017 at 9:41 pm
I just finished watching this as part of the two-disc Smarty/Merry Wives of Reno set, and thought it a very strange delight indeed–in what other film ever made is “diced carrots” a catalyst for mild violence? This film is a lark, a sort of pre-code drawing room comedy, a laugh at a class of folks who perhaps have enough cash not to worry about bourgeois behavior, but are able to blithely choose to choose revealing dresses just for fun or have servants who put up with sexual shenanigans. I cotton completely to your most excellent review, and think today’s viewers bring too much P.C.thinking to what is obviously a lark for members of the cast, some of Warner’s best having a lark–even stodgy old Edward Everett Horton, perhaps a little old for his role, gets into the spirit of the thing, and if one allows oneself to accept the undercurrents dealt, it’s a good deal of fun. Thanks for your take–you helped me concretize mine!
randcoolcatdaddy · July 29, 2018 at 6:07 am
Your review is the only one I’ve seen of this film that really “gets” what it’s about. It’s basically a Pre-Code comedy version of “Fifty Shades of Grey” with a role reversal – the female in “Smarty” is dealing with a spouse that is clueless that she’s into SM and we don’t get a happy ending until he figures it out.
justjack · July 29, 2018 at 11:21 am
Finally saw it, Danny. It was everything you said it was. Can’t believe it’s been five years since I first read your review!
Stacey · March 19, 2020 at 11:47 am
Thank you for this review/analysis. I loved this movie on so many levels. I think Vicki’s agency, in fact all the women’s agency is key to the film. The men are the bumbling idiots and the women are trying to get their sexual needs met by pursuing the men. What? Women have needs too? I can’t believe we are still uncomfortable with this in 2020. This is definitely a movie that I will be adding to my favorites list.
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