Smarty (1934). 65 minutes. Directed by Robert Florey. Starring Joan Blondell (as Vicki Wallace Thorpe), Warren William (as Tony Wallace), Edward Everett Horton (as Vernon Thorpe), Frank McHugh (as George Lancaster), Claire Dodd (as Nita), Joan Wheeler (as Mrs. Bonnie Durham), Virginia Sale (as Vicki’s maid), and Leonard Carey (as Tony’s butler).
We live in an era where filmmakers deliberately produce raunchy comedies that exceed the limits of good taste in an effort both to thrill their target audiences and to be thought of as cutting edge. But I find most modern comedies rather tepid when it comes to the task of truly offending me. For something that has more punch, I have to look back to the pre-Code era, the time before Hollywood’s internal censorship office began enforcing the moral guidelines known collectively as the Production Code. Smarty, a late pre-Code movie, is about as far away from being a politically correct comedy as you can get, and it came into being decades before the idea of political incorrectness even existed. It is part witty comedy about (get ready) spousal abuse and part exploration of one woman’s penchant for what amounts to rough sex. Smarty is, as you may have gathered by now, not for the meek or faint of heart. But I enjoyed it, thought it daring, and recommend it to the curious and inquisitive movie-goer.
Vicki and her husband Tony host a dinner party one night, and while playing bridge, she taunts him horribly and he slaps her across the face. Vernon, a lawyer who is present at the party and in love with Vicki, proposes that she get a divorce. She proceeds to do this successfully and marries Vernon, but soon she finds herself longing for Tony. She invites her ex-husband to a dinner party in her new home, where she deliberately provokes Vernon until he also slaps her. She then flees to Tony’s apartment with Vernon in tow, where she explains to Vernon that she wants a divorce. She suggests that she has recently slept with Tony and that Vernon can divorce her for infidelity. Although Tony is not convinced that they should be together, once Vernon leaves she taunts him until he hits her once more, and they fall onto the couch together with Vicki in ecstasy.
Danny Reid of Pre-Code.Com observes that most people have a strong reaction to Smarty—hardly anyone likes it. But he simultaneously makes a compelling case for it as a fascinating artifact of the period’s mores, and I am inclined to appreciate the movie in a similar light. Smarty is full of outrageous pre-Code details, particularly as they apply to the characters’ physical relationships. The slapping is obviously a big part of this, but we also learn that Tony has recently bitten Vicki on the balcony in what seems like probable foreplay. Additionally, Vicki has been bruised by an errant shoe tossed at her while she wore a nightie; she is eager to show men the bruise, located in a private place. Furthermore, we hear at least one allusion to spanking for pleasure.
Still other details independent of Vicki’s harsh corporeal experiences contribute to this decidedly kinky story. Vicki’s friend Nita has been married and divorced multiple times, and at one point when she objects to sleeping over at Vicki’s in a strange bed, someone else points out that strange beds are precisely what ended Nita’s former relationships. Then there is Bonnie (Mrs. Durham), who is married but playing around with Tony on the side while her husband is away. The clothing is also daring: Vicki wears a scandalous, slinky backless gown in the final act, and she subjects Vernon to a fashion show at a department store, where he is flashed by models who open their robes to reveal skimpy negligees. And of course, there is the line that brings on the original slap: as Vicki provokes Tony over a game of bridge, he tells her that she is driving him “impotent with rage,” and she responds with “diced carrots!”–an allusion to something private between them that is never fully fleshed out. Does it relate to the word “impotent”? Is it a clever code word for some sexual problem? The film is content to leave the expression shrouded in mystery, but it does not let it drop; in the final scene where Vicki provokes Tony in his apartment, she reaches into the refrigerator and produces a jar of diced carrots, much to his irritation.
But it would be wrong to suggest that Smarty is all about the outrageous. It is also cleverly written and rather disciplined. The dialogue is crisp, intelligent, and playful (observe the line about strange beds I mentioned earlier), and the structure is also intriguing. Smarty is based on the play by F. Hugh Herbert, so it is not surprising that it feels theatrically structured along the lines of a three-act production. It is surprising, however, to see the three slaps that Vicki endures serving as punctuation marks to the major phases of the film. Their use as organizational elements underscores how unconventional this movie is.
Like many other pre-Code movies, Smarty creates its own ethical universe in which the daring and unacceptable become normalized. The film raises many questions about healthy marital and sexual behavior in particular. For example, if Vicki desires to be slapped and even provokes the slaps, does that make what Tony and Vernon do not spousal abuse? I am not sure. The first time Tony strikes Vicki, she does not consent to being hit, but this is part of where the movie’s edginess lies—not merely in the fact that Tony strikes her, but because although she is apparently caught off guard by the first slap, the slaps that follow do weirdly seem to be what she is after.
Vicki is undergoing a major awakening, an unconventional sexual epiphany. She is clearly aroused by the final slap: when Tony strikes her, her eyes widen, and her face goes wild. But the movie’s conclusion is not the first time we see her as the eager recipient of physical violence. Earlier when she calls for Vernon to slap her, she locks herself in her bedroom and listens at the door to Tony as he counsels her husband. Break down the door and grab her, Tony says (he is beginning to understand his wife). We see Vicki growing excited. But Vernon will not break down the door. He eventually goes downstairs to their dinner guests and broods while they eat something like chilled compote. The dish is suitably reminiscent of the host at that point, and we can understand perhaps why their relationship will not work out: because what have amounted to small acts of violence, intentional or unintentional, in Vicki’s life upon until the start of this story (the shoe that bruised an intimate part, the biting on the balcony) were actually not incidental but the beginning of her realization that she craves violent romance. Rather than hating her partners or herself for these collisions, she actually treasures these incidents for their ability to excite her—hence her inappropriate enthusiasm in the courtroom when she offers to show the attendees her private bruise from the shoe.
It is difficult to accept the idea that anyone could enjoy abuse, even abuse reconfigured to be a kinky kind of pleasure. Perhaps part of what is unsettling is that, understandably, we do not like to hear that women enjoy being slapped. Physical violence (as evidenced in the first slap, possibly in the others) is intolerable, we might argue, and we would be right. But part of what makes Smarty so difficult for many to process is that this movie is not merely about the intolerable deeds of Vicki’s husbands. It is also about the intolerable Vicki. She seems unable not to provoke the men in her life, and the things she says to them are rather horrible. She antagonizes them with a bullying energy, placing her face close to Tony and Vernon’s and directly confronting them in a demeaning fashion. It is not pleasant to watch, and Joan Blondell as Vicki does a marvelous job of making us squirm.
Vicki berates her men for a reason. She is stimulated by physical punishment, yes, but she is also aroused by provocation itself. There is something about making others angry that provides her with a perverse thrill. Does this seem unbelievable? I have certainly known people who say terrible things to others, almost compulsively, in spite of what they know to be the consequences of their behavior. I have not witnessed their sexual arousal as they do so (as far as I know), but I can see how for a particular psychology, sex and merciless taunting could become linked. It is a form of what we call sadism, and in Vicki it is coupled with a concurrent streak of masochism. Perhaps part of what makes Smarty so strange is that while Vicki’s husbands act out physically towards her, she acts out mentally and emotionally towards them. I am not asserting that those are equivalencies. But the abuse in this movie, if we are comfortable calling it that in its final form, is complicated by the actions of both Vicki and the men in her life. The fact that these actions are infused with transformative sexual passion will be too much for some audiences. Vicki’s relationships are not something that most or many people will easily understand.
In writing about this movie, as should be clear by now, I am not attempting to justify any of the behavior exhibited by its characters if they were to suddenly manifest themselves in real life. One of the glorious things about movies, of course, is that although they give us the illusion of being about real people that we have experiences of and feelings for, they are decidedly not real life. I have seen many movies that I deeply cherish—Golden Age movies such as Scarface (1932) and Night Nurse (1931), or even later movies such as Blue Velvet (1986)—about people who fascinate me but whom in real life I would have no trouble calling terrible people, monsters even. Does that make me a bad person, because I enjoy watching their stories? I say no, because I believe that one of the greatest aspects of the human mind is its ability to interact with narratives as creative things that live outside of them. Smarty may be a test of our willingness to fully engage with unsavory stories, but having mixed reactions to the wild events we see on screen is precisely what watching pre-Code cinema is all about for a modern audience. As strange as Smarty is, I enjoyed its pre-Code spirit of extreme naughtiness, its brazen invention of its own moral and sexual codes, and I am happy that it was possible to make it.