Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


Charles Laughton as Tony Patucci
THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED (1940). Director: Garson Kanin.

This is the third film version of Sidney Howard's 1924 Pulitzer prize-winning play, and the only one to use his title. The story line -- later used by Frank Loesser in his brilliant musical theater piece The Most Happy Fella -- concerns a middle-aged vintner named Tony (Charles Laughton) who becomes infatuated with a pretty waitress named Amy (Carol Lombard), and asks for her hand in marriage -- but sends a photo of his younger, better-looking hired hand, Joe (William Gargan), instead of his own. When Amy arrives she's horrified to discover that the man she's been dreaming about is years older, uneducated, and rather homely, but her attraction to Joe is still there -- and vice versa ... Although you wouldn't first think of Laughton for the role of the Italian-American Tony Patucci, he's as superb as ever. Similarly, Lombard might not be considered the best casting but she is also excellent, as is Gargan [Strange Impersonation.] The biggest problem with the movie is that the production code was in effect, and there's an awful lot of moralizing and hand-wringing, and the ending is changed from happy to bittersweet [which kind of works anyway]. There's also an annoying priest, Father McKee (played by Frank Fay, who was Barbara Stanwyck's first husband), hovering over the whole movie like the literal embodiment of a censor. Tony is also a bit of an idiot, drunkenly falling off of a roof as he shows off for Amy [in the original version he is in an accident instead]. Despite its many flaws They Knew What They Wanted works because of the superior performances, good direction from Kanin, and a fine score by Alfred Newman. Karl Malden has a small role as Red. Playwright Howard did the screenplay for Dodsworth. Kanin also directed Next Time I Marry with Lucille Ball.

Verdict: Not all it could have been, but noteworthy for the acting. ***.

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