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Just Be Yourself
Michael Ritchie's 'Smile' consistently tickles my funny bone, even as it always breaks my heart.
Now on Blu-ray: When were beauty pageants a thing?
Contests to judge people based on their physical appearance can be traced back to ancient Greece, according to one source, while in the U.S., many of us who are older will think first of the Miss America pageant, which was first televised nationally in 1954.
By the 1970s, beauty pageants had lost their luster, even as they spread out to all corners of the world. Reportedly, film director Michael Ritchie served as a judge at a local beauty pageant in California and shared his stories with television writer Jerry Belson, who then fashioned them into his original screenplay.
The possible origin story of Smile is mentioned by film curator Jim Healy as part of the audio commentary he recorded with actor/filmmaker Pat Healy, included as part of a Blu-ray released by Fun City Editions last year. Whatever the origins of the film, what stands tall on screen is a marvelously funny film that has stood the test of time.
Bruce Dern, who I mentioned recently as passing through the cinematic despair of The Great Gatsby, stars as Big Bob, a used-car salesman in Santa Rosa, California, who serves as a judge for the statewide Young American Miss beauty pageant, which is run by former winner Brenda (Barbara Feldon). The winner qualifies for the national pageant, held in Louisiana.
This pageant feels very much like a small-town event that gets all the locals excited and energized, save for Big Bob's best friend, and Brenda's husband, Andy (Nicholas Pryor). The owner of the only trophy shop in town, he has become disinterested in life and is sloping into depression, in part because Brenda ignores him, focusing her attention on her responsibilities as pageant director.
Though there is no romantic attraction between them, Big Bob and Brenda display a similar, optimistic outlook on things, and are somewhat oblivious about the true emotions of important people in their lives: Brenda doesn't realize that Andy has become seriously depressed, and Big Bob accepts the cheerfully deceptive face that his son Little Bob (Eric Shea) wears, the better to mask his devious plan to snap Polaroid pictures of beauty contestants in various stages of undress and then sell them.
The teenage contestants themselves are a mixed lot, such as the naive Robin (Joan Prather), who comes of age during the few days portrayed, and her more experienced and sage roommate Doria (Annette O'Toole), who can't help but 'play the game,' even as she succumbs to emotional trials.
Famed choreographer Michael Kidd, who choreographed the great Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and many Broadway musicals, plays the cynical Tommy, who does his best to train the girls a couple dance numbers under the pressure of their mediocrity; he can't but help succumb to his empathetic heart, either, especially in contrast with the businessman Wilson (the great Geoffrey Kidd), whose eyes are always on the bottom line.
What unites all the wonderful, disparate cast of characters, including a young Melanie Griffith, Dennis Dugan, and a number of first-time players, is that the film treats them with respect and dignity, even as it casts a sideways eye at their actions. What they do is not always appropriate, or proper, or kind, much less loving, yet screenwriter Belson and director Ritchie never mock them in mean nor nasty fashion.
Smile captures a lovely combination of naturalistic grace and foolish clumsiness, all presented sincerely and authentically. I first saw the film during its initial year of release; if I remember correctly, it was on a double-bill with The Sunshine Boys and the movie theater in the San Fernando Valley was packed with rollocking audience members of all ages. I attended with my older brother and another friend, as I recall, and it's a fond memory.
Subsequent viewings have not dulled the film's impact. Watching it a couple times over the past few months on Blu-ray, I've come to appreciate the fine photography by expert cinematographer Conrad Hall (In Cold Blood) and to savor the interplay between experienced performers and first-timers.
The splendid Blu-ray features a new 2K restoration from its 35mm interpositive, the aforementioned, insightful and enlightening audio commentary, the theatrical trailer, an image gallery, a printed booklet with a new essay by film historian Mike McPadden, and a newly-filmed interview with Bruce Dern, in which the actor tells a number of good stories about the film and the people who made it, notably d/p Conrad Hall and director Michael Ritchie. [Fun City Editions]