Small Town Girl

Screwball comedies officially began in 1934 with the advent of the Hayes Code- a self-censoring list of things movies could not show, as a response to the rapid increase of both sex and violence in Hollywood (and the big public outcry that came as a result.) Not being able to talk about sex maturely, filmmakers went the opposite route- talking about it in crazy, ridiculous ways, and thus the Screwball Comedy genre was born- a place where men and women express their love by being as cruel as possible to each other (until they finally give in to the inevitable.)

Small Town Girl, released in 1936, isn’t exactly a screwball comedy, though it has some of the markings. It’s not even really a comedy, or a drama, either, but a big mix of all these things wrapped into a tale of a small town girl who yearns for a more exciting life… and gets more than she bargains for. What makes it such a great little forgotten gem is it its unpredictability- unlike so many Hollywood movies, whatever formula you think is going on here never quite takes, and you’re left unsure of where this is all leading to. It’s kind of a morality tale, kind of a romance; sometimes it’s funny, sometimes quirky, sometimes sappy, and sometimes straight up pure drama.

A lot of this is due to its writers- the one who wrote the original story, and another four who added their own spin, including the famous marital writing team of Frances Goodrich and her partner Albert Hackett, who would go on to write many classics like Father of the Bride and It’s a Wonderful Life. The same colorful characters you see in those movies are found here, which is part of what makes Small Town Girl such a treat. William A. Wellman, who did make some famous screwball comedies like Nothing Sacred, manages to keep the genre-jumping script cohesive- no small task given how much it bounces around. It could have easily been a confusing mess, but Wellman keeps it real.

And that’s the challenge, because you never quite know how to feel about these characters. Janet Gaynor does a wonderful job as Kay, the small town girl who has to be both innocent and naive but with enough chutzpah to compete against the sophisticated urbanites she finds herself with. On the other hand, the film shows its age a bit with its leading man, Robert Taylor, who in the 21st century comes off more as a self-centered douche than the charming playboy we’re supposed to see him as in his role as Bob- the rich, high society surgeon. Still, even today, his character undergoes enough growth that we can look past the trappings of a time when White Guys could truly get away with almost anything, while a woman with ambition could basically aspire to be a housewife- if she was lucky. Given the choice between Bob and the dull and dopey Elmer (nicely played by a young Jimmy Stewart), most women today might opt for suicide- but in 1936, gals, the pickins were slim. This makes the happy ending feel a bit of a misstep in our modern era, but even so, Small Town Girl‘s charm is sincere and undeniable- a rare treat, even today.


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