An obvious attempt to cash in on the enormous success of Smilin Thru (Sidney Franlin, USA, 1932) with Fredric March reprising a variant of the same role, the self-sacrificing ex-soldier, here called Alan Trent, who blinded in the service of his country, pretends to reject his true love, Kitty Vane (Merle Oberon), so that she need not sacrifice her life in his care, but to no avail. Thus proving that love is true, eternal, invariable, just like yours isn’t but would ideally like it to be. It’s hokey beyond belief but still works.
Herbert Marshall plays Gerald Shannon, the son of the family March is adopted into as a child, and is a bit stiff in the role of potential last-resort husband and not-quite-romantic rival: his idea of expressing anger is to clench his hands and stiffens his arms, like an amateur who feels but hasn’t yet learned how to convey so all that is communicated is the tension of the exercise. It doesn’t help that Gerald is idealized both as a brother and as the acme of impossible moral standards. I do, however, love the timbre of his voice.
Oberon is beautiful and can’t act but that didn’t seem to have mattered much as this film was a hit and is what made her a star in the US. Greg Toland’s cinematography is very beautiful and inventive: the scene where Alan and Kitty drive off after they fail to get married, and the superimposition of them in the back of the car with soldiers under fire as one scene transitions to another, is visually stunning, expressive and affecting. Narratively, it tugs at the heartstrings because it was important to them to be married before he set off to war; they then decide to have their ‘wedding night’ in spite of not being married, and war intercedes there too, though not before Alan is seen to be entertaining a woman. His protecting Kitty’s reputation whilst on the surface seeming to be betraying her is part of the way the film differentiates between what the audience know, what the characters understand, and how such misunderstandings are part of the injustices that make the protagonists suffer. Misunderstandings, unconsummated desires, mutual self-sacrifice for a nobler purpose, the punitiveness of socially proscribed modes of behaviour; all the forms and thematics of melodrama are on display, cynically deployed and very effective.
Fredric March is superb. It is totally his film, though he is always better when angry or troubled: his eyebrows furrow and he seems to conjure a cloud over his head, quite striking to see. Toland has to flash a small light at his lower lip to make him seem sexy and his ‘light’ scenes are not as effective. However, the quiet scene of self-abnegation at the end is superb and wouldn’t work without that which March brings to it: an ability to communicate different things to Kitty and to the audience and make those differences simultaneously understandable; it’s one of the ways the film creates pathos.
The Dark Angel does work. The question really is why? This is hokey, trite, a re-tread – and it was so even in 1935. The Dark Angel is all stiff upper lips and repressed emotion while Smiling Through is all angsty sobbing. The hokum is more effective in the earlier film and Norma Shearer is more interesting to look at and offers a lot more than Merle Oberon, despite the latter being more conventionally beautiful. Intriguingly the later film is very positive about disability; alarmingly, the scenes of young Merle warming her back and her front at the fireplace felt a bit kiddie porn though clearly meant to be cute.
It’s extraordinary to think that this very similar story, with the same director and leading man was made only three years after the original smash hit and proved almost as effective and almost as successful. Not quite a sequel, not quite a remake, not quite a reboot but somewhere there in the mix. Nothing is ever really new. However, the film was able to offer audiences the pleasures remembered from Smilin Through and cash registers throughout the nation rang with joy at the audience’s tears.