Smile (1975): The Miss America Satire Lost Some of Its Sheen

Smile_(1975_film).jpg“Smile” is a timeless hit among a plethora of classic Nat King Cole tracks. The innate warmth and the soothing nature of his vocals shine through every note. It took me many years to realize the tune was actually a Charlie Chaplin composition from City Lights later reworked with lyrics.

However, this is not a review of The King or The Tramp. It is about a movie, but to consider it, one must acknowledge the song is so very sincere, it can be used in highly ironic ways.

Case in point is Smile the movie, which was obviously fashioned as a genteel satire of Miss America culture.

It is a depiction of a different America that we can never go back to. Sometimes those words might sound wistful though, in the case of Smile, it’s more of an assertion. Because this lightly-handled prodding of societal mores, full of its share of cutesy and sickening moments, is really a commentary on a very suspect culture.

Still, one must ask the question: how much does the industry get inadvertently glorified by such a comedic extravaganza throwing all these young girls, harried folks, and inquisitive onlookers into an environment complete with plenty of pizzazz and a full-fledged happy ending?

There’s a moderate danger of missing the point — even if it is twofold. We can laugh or “smile” but we must also consider how ludicrous this all is. Thankfully the movie is aided by some of its wonkier inventions in case we’re tempted to take it at face value.

Smile is, of course, easily overshadowed by Nashville (1975) with its more discernible social significance, a grander ensemble, and a lot more going for it on all fronts. That’s not to say Smile is a bad movie. In fact, it is probably an underrated one, generally forgotten with the myriad of other 70s entertainment options moviegoers will normally flock to.

The story itself has the ring of something terribly agreeable. It’s a lightweight day-to-day observation of the annual Young American Miss Pageant in beautiful Santa Rosa, California. All the would-be “Misses” are bussed in to take part in the competition and all the laurels that come with such a crown.

Their hearts are a tizzy with excitement. Former champion Brenda DiCarlo (Barbara Feldon) knows just the feeling. Her advice is, as always, to “smile” as she helps to prepare the girls for their exhibition (which is not a competition). Although everyone knows otherwise.

Meanwhile, a Hollywood choreographer (the esteemable Michael Kidd) is brought in to work on the routines, the janitor worries about the undue stress that will be put on the pipes, and local used car salesman Big Bob Freeloader (Bruce Dern) gets ready for his civic responsibility to judge the contest.

He’s the epitome of a square, wheeler-dealer, car salesman who in his own way sees himself as a pillar of society, even if he helps to propagate the dubious cultural practices of the times.

Meanwhile his son, “Little Bob” looks to snag a polaroid camera with his friends so they might capture the recently arrived pageant hopefuls in various states of undress. Though played for comedic effect, it really is a jarring, uncomfortable digression.

Because already implicit in the content are the strains of midcentury misogyny, essentially built into the fabric of society. It begins with the grown-ups as good, healthy All-American fun, until it easily seeps down to their children, teaching boys how they are to perceive girls.

Meanwhile, the local male fraternity initiation feels dangerously close to a white supremacist meeting, albeit with strange rituals (ie. kissing a dead chicken). On the ethnic front, the one non-Caucasian character, a Mexican-American, is looked on with immense derision by all the others and with the depiction, I wouldn’t blame them.

Her starry-eyed ambitions to be American are seen in a handful of characters, though she’s the only one hampered by a very pointed accent. Again, it’s these obvious red lights that are being poked fun at. There’s little question about it, but if these are the issues we are dealing with, there are still other de facto problems that probably slip through the cracks.

It has not aged well even as we still have rampant issues of sexual objectification and any number of prurient problems. It could be very well that I am not in touch with the current cultural moment. If so, I stand corrected. But the odd mixture of nostalgia with light satire does come off as a weird, messily concocted cauldron of tones.

The free-flowing contact with the wide range of characters also means we never ably connect with anyone in a resonate manner. Likewise, director Michael Ritchie’s story, like The Candidate before it, is taking aim at society but in this instance, it feels like there are too many marks. It cannot cover all the ground and therefore feels a bit scattered.

Unfortunately, it’s lost some of its comic zing with the passage of time. Still, one of the finest bits of humor comes in an outrageous sequence when a man looks to end his life with a pistol.

His wife the former American Miss tells him he should deal with his problems instead of taking the coward’s way out. He proceeds to point the gun at her and let it go. He winds up in jail and she’s only scratched, agreeing not to press charges, much to his chagrin.

In fact, Andy DiCarlo might be the most genuinely enjoyable character for the very reason he sees the utter insanity of this world, even if everyone else brushes him off as being a little strange.

They think he needs to loosen up some like all his peers, kissing the butts of dead chickens and cheering for girls, paraded up on a stage like glorified cattle. Now that’s entertainment! In this light, Smile does sound somewhat hilarious. Chalk it up to a misanthropic mood if you want. However, I’ll maintain people weren’t made to always be smiling. Sometimes a smile just won’t cut it.

3/5 Stars

NOTE: As a childhood Get Smart fan, I tried not to hold it against Smile for casting Barbara Feldon in her part. I tried my best to be objective, but, for me, she will always be 99.

 

Nebraska (2013)

Nebraska_PosterDirector Alexander Payne tackles his native Nebraska in this character study that is part road trip movie, part father-son drama. Honestly, I never knew much about Bruce Dern, but at well over 70, I think it is safe to say he gave one of his great performances as Woody Grant. In this story, he is convinced that he has won a million dollars. It’s not a scam to buy magazine subscriptions like everyone seems to tell him. Including his weary, but good-natured son David (Will Forte). Woody’s ornery wife Kate is fed up with his behavior. He’s feeble, absent-minded, and not as sharp as he used to be. In fact, David and his older Ross (Bob Odenkirk) are thinking of putting their dad in an old person home sometime soon.

However, Woody is bent on getting that money, even if he has to walk all the way to Lincoln Nebraska, from Billings Montana where he lives. It’s utterly ludicrous and everyone knows it except Woody. But instead of fighting it, David sees it as a chance to spend some quality time with his dad away from his job in an electronics store. So the two of them set off to Nebraska to spend time with Woody’s family in his old stomping grounds.

Now Woody’s not much of a talker similar to his brothers (including Rance Howard), however, David and the audience soon come to realize that despite a rough exterior and alcohol problems, he really is a kind man. He’s a giver. That’s evident whether it was his family or his former partner, the opportunistic Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach). Because when all of these folks catch wind of the money, Woody becomes somewhat of a local celebrity and no one will believe that it’s not the case. They think it’s simply a dodge to avoid sharing the wealth.

Really most of the townspeople are petty, opportunistic, folks looking to gain from somebody else’s good fortune. However, it also revealed the shallowness of some, who were quick to ridicule when the money turned out not to be real. This film made me appreciate my own family in the Midwest and some of the more good-natured characters did strike a chord with me. There’s something so attractive about a community that remains so close-knit with each other over the years. I can never have the experiences of my grandparents. Even if I manage to be married for 50 or 60 years, I can never have that wonderful small town feel of returning to my roots and seeing all my classmates from bygone years. Although sometimes I suppose it can be a blessing and a curse because in small towns people will talk and that’s not always conducive to quality relationships.

That’s why when David lets his dad ride through town in front of all his old friends, it is such a poignant moment because he gifts his father one final moment of freedom to relish in front of his friends. All he got was a stupid hat that reads “Prize Winner,” but his son sold his car to allow his father to live out his dream one last time.

Because if you strip it down and take out all the white noise, this is a father and son film. It’s beautifully stark at moments with its modern black & white visuals. Yet it still has intimate scenes between father and son, that sometimes are incredibly sad, but also have a shard of hope attached to them. It took reading several other articles to latch onto the fact that this is seemingly Payne’s nod to the great Japanese director Ozu. Or at least he shares a lot of the same issues in this film and in some respects very similar pacing. It’s not some high-speed action flick, but it cares about deeper issues and reality. This is not California, but Nebraska and still relationships are universal. They look a shade or two different wherever you go, but never lose that personal meaning. It breaks through time and place, to speak to each of us on a personal level. Honor your father and mothers, because those relationships have great value even when they are a struggle.

4/5 Stars

Support Your Local Sheriff (1969)

2e4c1-localsheriff5Funeral sequences are a mainstay of the western genre because they give us a chance to peer inside of characters and examine the time and place that is the west. It can be tough, hard, and most certainly brutal. Support Your Local Sheriff is a barrel full of fun because it takes many of these set pieces and subverts them for the sake of humor.

It opens with one of these typical solemn wakes for a man that no one seems to know or care much about. All too soon everyone is distracted by a speck of gold and mayhem commences. It sets the tone for the entire film and the people we will soon become acquainted with. All the action is wonderfully exaggerated by a frantic harmonica-laden score with jaw harp included. It’s twangy madness that works to a tee. But enough of that.

The mining town of Calendar is a wild, untamed place built for the sole purpose of mining. The rough and tumble Danby Family seem to have a monopoly on the gold trade controlling the only road out of the town. It’s a big mess.

That’s the climate that Jason McCullogh walks into (James Garner) on his way to Australia. After seeing Joe Danby (Bruce Dern) kill a man, he decides to sign on as the town’s sheriff. Town “mayor” Olly Perkins and his entourage are surprised that any person would want to take the job, but after seeing Jason’s marksmanship they giddily agree. Quickly he astutely breaks up mud fights, puts Danby in jail and finds himself a deputy in Jake (Jack Elam).

Most of the rest of the film follows Pa Danby (Walter Brennan) and his two nitwit sons as they try and get their equally dumb baby brother out of prison. It’s followed by a long line of hired gunman who all fail out knocking the sheriff off.  Jason also has encounters with Perkins’ often ditsy daughter Prudy (Joan Hackett). It would be wrong to say that Prudy is the only whimsy one, because it feels like everyone in town has a screw loose, from the hero to the villains.

That’s what makes Support Your Local Sheriff so appealing. James Garner is as charming a wisecracker as ever, but on a whole, this film is full of comedic misunderstandings, caterwauling, and stupidity with an ignoramus around every corner. There’s a jail without bars, villains who are wimps, a girl who hides in a tree and lights herself on fire, even a protagonist who seems bent on heading off to the real frontier in Australia. What?

Thus, this rewriting of your typical western trope of a man taming the west works out quite well and in many ways feels like a precursor to Blazing Saddles. It was a lot of fun to have two personal favorites in James Garner (The Rockford Files) and Harry Morgan (MASH) in a film together. Joan Hackett was a lot of fun too. I really want to see more with her (ie. Will Penny, The Last Sheila).

3.5/5 Stars