I saw in the New Year with yet another 1930s William Wellman movie which isn’t available on DVD! After seeing this one twice, I can hardly believe that it hasn’t had an official release. It is a highly entertaining romantic comedy-drama and has close links with Wellman’s Oscar-winning A Star Is Born, released the following year. Both movies star Janet Gaynor in similar roles as a young girl desperate to escape from a stifling small-town existence – and there are certain similarities between Robert Taylor’s character in Small Town Girl and Fredric March’s famous role as Norman Maine, not least the fact that both characters are heavy drinkers. As if that wasn’t enough, this movie also features a scene-stealing support role from a very young James Stewart. Fortunately, Small Town Girl seems to be shown quite often on TCM in the US and at the moment it is also available for viewing on a very popular video streaming website.
The basic plot of this film sounds very cliched, about a couple of strangers who get married in haste on a drunken night out and then have time to repent at leisure – but end up falling in love instead. However, the movie itself is far quirkier, funnier and more bitter-sweet than this plot description might suggest. According to the TCM website, Wellman was only brought in on the project by MGM quite late on and wasn’t very happy about making the film, asking to be replaced as director at one point. Their article also says he didn’t get on very well with Gaynor at first, because she was uneasy about his liking for slapstick-style scenes. However, as they went on to work together again so soon on A Star Is Born, with its wildly slapstick plate-smashing scene, presumably the two of them got over this and achieved a good working relationship.
Anyway, I don’t know how much of the finished movie is down to the director, and how much due to the writers. It is based on a now out-of-print novel by Ben Ames Williams, who also wrote the original novel adapted in the classic movie Leave Her To Heaven. Several other writers are credited as having a hand in the movie, and TCM points out that the romantic repartee is characteristic of husband-and-wife team Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who also wrote It’s A Wonderful Life – which of course brilliantly portrays the frustrations of small-town life.
But I’d have to say the film also bears Wellman’s stamp, in many touches like the strange camera angles, and also in its focus on the gulf between the classes and sympathetic portrayal of a heroine who could all too easily be seen as a gold-digger. Indeed, one of the original posters for the film describes heroine Kay Brannan in just these terms, saying “Yes, that was her goal… LOVE… but love, studded with diamonds! She had a PLAN… and it WORKED!” Kay, as played by Gaynor, doesn’t seem at all like someone who cares about diamonds, and doesn’t have any kind of plan – she is a warm, lively young woman who just wants to get away from a grindingly repetitive existence and build a more fulfilling life for herself.
The opening scenes paint an amusing but nevertheless dismaying picture of Kay’s hometown, Carvel. It’s a place with shades of Groundhog Day, where life is lived on a loop. The same customers constantly call in at the shop where Kay works, placing the same orders – and, at home, members of her extended family, including Wellman regular Andy Devine as her brother George, keep having the same conversation endlessly. Wellman’s movies are full of blackly comic meal scenes (the grapefruit scene in The Public Enemy is the most famous) and supper at the Brannans’ is in this vein, as baby Junie endlessly refuses to eat her potatoes, while the rest of the family argue over who she looks like. The local lad who is courting Kay, Elmer (James Stewart) is caught in the same repetitive loop, endlessly telling everyone to “keep your chin up!”
It’s hardly surprising that Kay grabs her chance to escape from all this for a few minutes when crowds of young men drive through town on their way to a college football match. She impulsively accepts a lift with a handsome stranger, drunken young surgeon Bob Dakin (Robert Taylor), who takes her for a night on the town… which ends with them getting married in the early hours of the morning. This plot twist is admittedly hard to swallow, as some of the comments about this movie at the imdb point out. Why doesn’t the registrar in the strange town they visit ask a few more questions? And would he really agree to marry someone as blind drunk as Bob? However, Kay’s reasons for rashly agreeing to the match are made clear, as she hears her family’s conversation at the meal table running through her head. She isn’t dreaming of diamonds – but just wants to get away from Junie’s potatoes, and Elmer keeping his chin up.
After the wedding, Bob crashes the car into a stream in a nearby wood and falls asleep. When the couple wake up the next morning, they fully realise what they have done – and Bob admits that he was already engaged to snobbish society girl Priscilla (Binnie Barnes), but had a fight with her earlier that evening. The newly-weds briefly consider getting an annulment, but Bob’s father points out it would finish his son’s career if it was known that he had been drunk enough to get married to a stranger!
Instead, Bob and Kay decide to keep up the appearances of being married for at least six months – and go on a honeymoon cruise on the Dakin family’s yacht. I was amused to note how unglamorous Wellman manages to make this yacht cruise appear, with Kay making herself sick on rich food and Bob then going down with a bad cold – while the camera lurches around all the time to create the movement of the boat. The mood of these scenes is at times reminiscent of Wellman’s pre-Code comedy about a couple of strangers marrying, The Purchase Price. One jarring note here, though, is the stereotyped portrayal of the Chinese servants aboard the yacht. (Bob’s parents seem a lot more kindly disposed to their son’s penniless wife than they probably would be in real life, but the class gulf is made clear enough through the servants, the yacht and their mansion – their frosty breakfast surrounded by immaculate silver and glass is worlds away from the Brannans’ family supper.)
Once the couple get back on dry land, the pace slackens off a bit and the mood shifts from comedy to drama, as Bob is torn between his feelings for Kay and his loyalty to Priscilla – and the theme of his medical work is also developed. Kay doesn’t really have any career aspirations of her own, but does support Bob in his work and there are hints she may become a surgery nurse – whereas Priscilla is only interested in going to parties and pouring him another drink. Anyway, I won’t go all through the rest of the plot twists, but will just say that both Gaynor and Taylor give fine performances, and James Stewart’s scenes, although brief, give a strong taste of his later screen personality. He almost steals the last scene of the film, and there’s a poignant moment where, talking to Kay on her visit home to Carvel, he tells her: “I’d do anything for you, Kay… all my life.” You can tell from the way he says those words that Elmer will never get over her, and that all his life will be spent in that small town. Wellman’s earlier films Wings and Other Men’s Women feature brief but memorable scenes for a pre-stardom Gary Cooper and James Cagney respectively, and here he does the same thing with Stewart.
There is a scene early in the film where Kay takes off her father’s shoes, and towards the end of the film she tries to do the same thing for Bob, but he tells her not to, commenting: “There is some work I can still do for myself!” This is really the moment where they wordlessly admit their love for each other. Janet Gaynor also removes Fredric March’s shoes when he has come home drunk in A Star is Born, but the mood there is very different, as the scene shows her how far he has fallen.