Smilin' Through (1932) is a great little gem of a movie, but that might be because the relationship between Fredric March and Norma Shearer outshines everything else; their chemistry is so very warm and at ease. I always loved them together in . Not only do they both excel as actors on their own but together - as a screen couple - they just click! Like William and Myrna! Or Spence and Kate!
In my opinion, it’s rare to find a movie from the 1930s that has such believable romantic interaction as this one has. All those cute little gestures (as illuminated by the above GIFs). In general, both actors balanced the comic and dramatic timing with equal ease and managed to stay away from many of the - in my opinion - exaggerated acting theatrics that were typical for the 1930s' Hollywood.
Besides, given that it’s a Pre-Code, they don’t have to skirt around certain 'racy' subjects nor make a big deal out of them either in the film. At one point Norma's character makes it more than clear that she wants him in every way (and unapologetically so), that is, physically not just spiritually through the union of marriage (the latter will become awefully idealized after the Pre-Code era) and Fred's character reacts appropriately (see seventh GIF in bottom-left corner) by looking skywards in frustration from being torn between his sense of moral honour and equal desire for her. (Take's too long to explain the context so go watch it instead.)
It’s a freedom that makes them seem more human, believable and relatable, and somehow relaxes them as well as the (modern) viewer.
Their relationship in the movie seems almost genuine - Fredric and Norma look like they truly enjoy each other’s company - so it’s hard to believe Norma didn’t like making this movie (something about her role). But honestly, how can she complain when she gets to smooch Freddie all the time..?!
I particularly enjoyed Fredric’s rather modern acting in this one. Actually, I always do because he never seizes to surprise me in the sublest of ways. Is there anything that man can’t do?? I always found him to have the dry-witted, boyish charm and at the same time masculine groundedness reminiscent of that of Spencer Tracy. March and Tracy were rather similar in many ways in fact; they were the always reliable, sympathetic and yet extremely versatile and multifacetted actor type. I think it's no coincidence that they were friends in real-life, both famously played the title character in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931 and 1941, respectively, which were much debated and compared) and played together in Inherit the Wind (1960). They could blend in and stand out at the same time. They had that down-to-earth and instinctive ease in their scenes and smooth, beguiling interaction with their co-players as well as the slightly rugged and characteristic handsomeness of the every-day man. Both so subtle, so good at acting that it didn't seem they were acting at all.
Too bad Fredric is so underrated nowadays. I easily regard him as one of the finest actors who has ever lived! And I think Norma would have continued to dominate the Oscars had she not cut her promising career off so early.
The film comes highly recommended (by me) simply because of the treat of watching the sweet interaction between Norma and Fredric. (And you get a couple of gracious scenes with Leslie Howard as well).