KAMAD Throwback Thursdays 1975 “Smile”

Throwback Thursday #TBT

Throwback Thursday on the KAMAD site will be a regular occurrence in the next year. As a motivational project, to make sure I am working on something, even in a week where I don’t see a new film in a theater, I am going to post on movies from 1975. Along with 1984, this is one of my favorite years for movies and it is full of bittersweet memories as well. 1975 was my Senior Year in High School and my Freshman Year in College. The greatest film of the last 60 years came out in 1975, as well as dozens of great and not so great cinematic endeavors. Most of the films in this weekly series will have been seen in a theater in 1975, but there are several that I only caught up with later. I hope you all enjoy. 

I did not intend to do this film as soon as this week, but it worked out that it was practical for us to watch it last night so I went ahead and took the plunge. “Smile” is not the horror film from last year, but the social comedy from Michael Ritchie  and Jerry Belson in 1975. Ritchie had just directed two Robert Redford films and would soon be responsible for the “Bad News Bears”, a beloved classic of the 70s, and “Fletch” a beloved classic of the 80s. Belson was a TV writer who had done “Love American Style” and “The Odd Couple”, two very successful comedies of the 1970s.  

This is a slice of life picture that hints at social commentary but is barely about anything in particular. The subject of local beauty pageants will be lampooned in a dozen other films over the following fifty years, but “Smile” got there first. The “Young American Miss” contest is a fictionalized version of other contests and it targets the sponsors, participants and communities in a mostly good hearted way. There are some biting moments in the film, but there isn’t an evil force operating, it is mostly a collection of clueless citizens, some who want to do good and others who are motivated by the inherent sexuality of a beauty pageant. 

Making perhaps his most sympathetic and comedic character, the center of the film, is actor Bruce Dern.  I have been a fan of his since the early 70s, despite the fact that he shot John Wayne in the back. He will be the subject of another of these Throwback Thursday posts, later this year. In this film, he plays “Big Bob” Freelander, an RV salesman who manages to be a success in the era of energy crisis depressed RV sales, because he is an authentic, optimistic personality. The car salesman has been negatively portrayed in the culture forever. “Big Bob” however, is not pressuring anyone, he is not acting in an underhanded way, he simply finds the things that might convince a buyer and he points them out with passion. As a community booster, he has the role of chief judge and he is honored to be in that position. He sincerely believes in the girls and the ideals of the contest, and wants it to succeed. His buoyant attitude will be challenged by his friend, his son and the other members of his Jaycee organization, who are not all so aligned. 

Some of the most amusing scenes require “Big Bob” to confront some uncomfortable truths about his son “Little Bob” and the relationship he has with his family. His perspective is altered a bit in a couple of moments of self awareness, that really are laugh out loud insights. His optimism seems undiminished though, when he still attempts to keep his best friend in town and cheered up, in spite of the problems his friend faces. He is confronted with many moments that cause him to become somewhat disillusioned with the pageant and the process. 

The girls in the pageant are variously mocked, admired and appreciated in different ways. There is a slight subtext of male domination and sense of proprietary power over women. The girls however seem to be in a lot more control than one might suspect. The two main contestants that we follow are Joan Prather’s Robin and Annette O’Toole’s Daria. Robin changes the most in the story, as she becomes more sophisticated and aware of the impact her choices can have on the judging of the contest. Daria is a knowing veteran of beauty pageants and becomes a confidant and advisor to Robin, often with amusing insights. Collen Camp and Melanie Griffith are also well known actresses who have parts as contestants in the film. Griffith in particular has this film, and another coming up on this project, where she has nude scenes at the age of eighteen. Early on, Griffith seemed destined for roles as sexy provocateurs in the stories she gets roles in. 

Choreographer Michael Kidd, who worked out the dances for “The Band Wagon” and the glorious “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”, gets an acting part in this film, playing a prickly version of himself, taking on the job of choreographing the girls show routines.   Geoffrey Lewis, a terrific character actor who will be in four of this year’s Throwback Thursday posts, plays the Jaycee’s pageant organizer, who is the closest we come to a villain in the piece because his budget needs and attitude are not particularly supportive of the girls. Titos Vandis, a ubiquitous presence in 1970s film and television projects, plays an alcoholic custodian with a better attitude toward the girls than many of the pageant sponsors, but who still resents the plumbing problems they create. Also in the cast is Barbara Feldon who was best known as agent “99” in the series “Get Smart”. She is great here as a former pageant champion, struggling to keep an identity as a woman with a purpose, but perhaps losing her relationship with her husband in the process. This is a fairly even handed look at how women’s empowerment might impact the traditional roles of family. Navigating the changing social rules is difficult for both sexes, regardless of whether one had dominance over the other. 

A memory note on this film. I saw it at the same theater I mentioned in last week’s post, the Avco in Westwood. Coming out of the previous screening, were my parent’s friends John and Anne Moon. He was an aerospace guy who was also a magician and they were friends with Jerry Belson. I was seventeen and seeing my folks friends out on the other side of town was a little unusual, but we spoke for a moment and they told us we would certainly enjoy the film which we did.