Smilin' Through ★★★★

Surprisingly touching, intense pre-Code melodrama (based on a stage play by Janes Cowl and Murfin) really, as the kids say, "goes there." It's about a well-off widower who raises his niece, their relationship sunny and ideal until as an adult she falls in love with the son of his mortal enemy. The story may be a little goofy and over-the-top, lacking the crucial sleaziness of Josef von Sternberg's similarly wild tales, but the romance contained with it is potent thanks to the performances (in Dead Again-like dual roles!) of Norma Shearer and Fredric March, both brilliant and stunning. Shearer's acting, as usual, is so naturalistic it's almost eerie; she elevates this potentially workmanlike studio concoction to some kind of art. (March, it should be noted, is sexier as a violent, drunken boor who vaguely resembles Edgar Allan Poe than as a hunky and laid-back military guy.) The film has merit because it takes young love so seriously, in all of its characters; and even Leslie Howard, who's normally such a drag, does manage to register some degree of human warmth, especially in his scenes without the ponderous old-age getup. Sidney Franklin's direction, owing much to MGM's mammoth resources, calls ahead to three William Wyler pictures: The Heiress (the pseudo-parental conflict, which resolves very differently), Wuthering Heights (a direct antecedent to the famous window scene) and Jezebel (the sets and agile camera in general), but is even more striking as a human story than the last two, even though -- after keeping us onboard through bracingly kinky dialogue and a wedding that turns bloody -- it finally stretches credibility past the point of no return at its conclusion. Despite its bitterly ironic title, though, this is expertly communicative and grand entertainment.