Color, 1975, 113 mins. 7 secs.
Directed by Michael Ritchie
Starring Bruce Dern, Barbara Feldon, Michael Kidd, Geoffrey Lewis, Eric Shea, Nicholas Pryor, Dennis Dugan, Melanie Griffith, Annette O'Toole, Colleen Camp, Maria O'Brien, Caroline Williams, Denise Nickerson, Joan Prather
Fun City Editions (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
A regular fixture on lists of neglected 1970s cinematic diamonds in the rough, Smile became a critics' darling in 1975 thanks to its comedic look at beauty pageant culture while skewering some of the more absurd aspects of the American lifestyle in the process. Entertaining and featuring a stellar cast of character actors, the film seemed to fit snugly with the Robert Altman-style aesthetic of the time but ended up being largely sidelined in a year that saw such heavy hitters as Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Dog Day Afternoon dominating the mainstream conversation, not to mention Altman's own Nashville. The film also ended up fitting perfectly as the centerpiece of an American satire trilogy from director Michael Ritchie between 1972's The Candidate and 1976's The Bad News Bears, turning its sights to the "American Miss" craze instead of politics or sports. Despite the major decline in pageant popularity in recent years, the film still remains a potent and enjoyable gem of its kind, delivering plenty of sharply-observed laughs while paving the way for future barbed looks at the subject like Drop Dead Gorgeous, Little Miss Sunshine, and Miss Congeniality.
In the town of Santa Rosa, California, the popular Young American Miss Pageant is the only topic of conversation with various locals involved in pulling off the big contest. Among the colorful characters involved in the statewide contest are judge Big Bob Friedlander (Dern), the executive director Brenda (Get Smart's Feldon), producer Wilson Shears (Lewis), and no-nonsense choreographer Tommy French (MGM musical legend Kidd) imported from Hollywood. The contests themselves are dealing with body image and self-worth issues as well as not-so-underlying sexism and racism, with the young women including such familiar faces as Body Double's Melanie Griffith, Cat People's Annette O'Toole, and a pre-Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2's Caroline Williams. As the big day approaches, town drama erupts involving a chicken-oriented hazing ritual, a production injury, an attempted suicide, and mounting costs and emotional tensions galore.
Highlighted by the pageant sequences themselves that still pack a very funny punch from goofy song performances to dramatic readings and baton twirling, Smile successfully walks a tightrope between light and dark comedy including a subplot involving underage voyeurs that pushes that PG rating as far as it could go at the time. (Needless to say, it wouldn't fly now at all.) The film also scores points for its subversive contest outcome, which likely gave Ritchie enough confidence to pull another audacious trick just after this to wrap up The Bad News Bears; his keen knack for working with younger actors is a big asset here as well, with the mixture of professional actors and real beauty pageant vets giving the film a borderline documentary feel at times. Also in common with that film is its portrayal of how disappointments in adult life get projected onto the next generation, with trappings like celebrity worship and regimented contests acting as a kind of narcotic to provide a sense of accomplishment.
Barely promoted by United Artists at the time but enjoying a steady cult following in later years (including extensive coverage from The Projection Booth), Smile has been available on home video on and off over the years including MGM's VHS release in 1998 and a modest DVD in 2004 (featuring only a trailer). Thankfully the powers that be made sure all the legal requirements were handled for the numerous songs on the soundtrack (including the title song by Nat "King" Cole, The Beach Boys, and lots of cover performances), so the film has managed to escape the pitfall that sabotaged many of its peers from around the same time. In 2021, Fun City Editions added this to its impressive roster of overlooked '70s essentials featuring a new 2K restoration from the 35mm interpositive; in keeping with their usual approach, it's been left intact in terms of film grain to keep that distinctive 1975 look intact, with very robust colors throughout. It's a big leap over the DVD for sure and the best this has looked on home video to date by a long shot. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 English track sounds excellent as well and features optional English SDH subtitles. A new audio commentary by actor and filmmaker Pat Healy and Wisconsin film curator Jim Healy features them chatting remotely about their enthusiasm for this film, the backgrounds of the major players, and observations about the on-screen action. (It also has quite a few silent gaps studded throughout, which may be due to the same reason that afflicts many MGM-connected releases.) In "Dernsie's Credo" (27m51s), Dern provides a lengthy and very funny interview about his character's philosophy, the political climate during shooting, the state of his career and United Artists at the time (including the recently removed David Picker who got this one off the ground), and lots of tidbits about the shooting of the film, not to mention a fun trivia segue. Also included are an SD open matte theatrical trailer, a very hefty image gallery (6m), and an insert booklet featuring a witty and perceptive essay by the late Mike McPadden.
Reviewed on May 12, 2021