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Film Friday: «Small Town Girl» (1936)

Since today marks the 79th anniversary of the release of one of my favorite films (classic or otherwise), this week on «Film Friday» I am telling you all about it.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by William A. Wellman, Small Town Girl (1936) tells the story of Kay Brannan (Janet Gaynor), a young grocery store worker so bored with her humdrum life in the small town of Carvel that she can barely tolerate her family and her prospective suitor, Elmer Clampett (James Stewart). When hundreds of football fans drive through Carvel on their way to the big annual game between Yale and Harvard, Kay lets herself be picked up by Robert «Bob» Dakin (Robert Taylor), a handsome, socially prominent surgeon from Boston. After a night of drunken partying, Bob insists they have a justice of peace marry them. Eager to escape from the tedium, Kay promptly agrees.

When the story hits the newspapers the following morning, Mr. and Mrs. Dakin (Lewis Stone and Nella Walker) are shocked that Bob, who is engaged to socialite Priscilla Hyde (Binne Barnes), would be so reckless. To avoid scandal and keep his career intact, Bob suggests to Kay that they pretend to be happily married for six months and then have a quite divorce. Although hurt, Kay agrees and the two leave for their «honeymoon» aboard the Dakin family yacht. Gradually, each begins to fall in love with the other, but still keep each other at arm's length. When Priscilla returns from a European holiday, she and Bob start seeing each other secretly. One night, while he is with Priscilla, Bob is urgently summoned to his clinic to perform an emergency brain surgery on a young patient, Jimmy (George P. Breakston). Bob starts the operation, but is not sure that he is sober enough to save Jimmy, so he lets his college Dr. Underwood (George Meeker) complete the surgery. At home, Bob feels like a failure. Kay hesitantly starts to tell him about her feelings, but Priscilla calls and she decides to return home. Shortly afterwards, the Carvel newspaper mentions that Bob is rumored to be leaving for Reno to get a divorce. Kay takes a walk and meets Elmer, who proposes, but just then Bob appears. After telling Kay that he has lost his way to Reno and never wants to find it, they drive off together.

Robert «Bob» Dakin: Hey, down that, goodness. It's good for that old tired feeling, and that old tired feeling is good for nothing.

The son of the owner and editor of the Jackson Standard Journal, Ben Ames Williams grew up with a passion for writing and reading. His professional career as a writer began in 1914, when Smith's Magazine bought one of his short stories. By the mid-1920s, Williams had become a household name with readers of the Saturday Evening Post, the magazine in which he was most frequently published. By the 1930s, he was also an established novelist, with works that included Immortal Longings (1927), Pirate's Purchase (1931) and Small Town Girl (1935). In late 1935, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer purchased the rights to Small Town Girl and announced that Jean Harlow would be starring in the screen adaptation of the best-selling novel. When Harlow withdrew from the project, the studio considered casting Maureen O'Sullivan, better known for playing Jane Parker in a series of Tarzan films, before ultimately deciding on borrowing Janet Gaynor from 20th Century Fox.

Beginning her professional acting career in 1924, Gaynor was signed to a long-term contract by Fox Film Corporation after playing a supporting role in the silent costume drama The Johnstown Flood (1926), starring George O'Brien and Florence Gilbert. By 1927, she was already one of Hollywood's most popular leading ladies, starring in such iconic pictures as 7th Heaven (1927) and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), both of which earned her the first ever Academy Award for Best Actress. She was one of only a handful of established lead actresses who made a smooth transition to sound films, becoming one of the biggest box-office draws in the early 1930s. However, when Darryl F. Zanuck merged his studio, Twentieth Century Pictures, with Fox Film Corporation to form 20th Century Fox, Gaynor's status was eclipsed by that of rising young stars Loretta Young and Shirley Temple. With no immediate projects in line for her, Zanuck decided to loan Gaynor out to MGM for Small Town Girl for $11,500. Gaynor, who had never been on a loan-out in her eight years with Fox, initially resisted the idea, feeling that she would not be good in a role what was intended for Harlow, even with rewriting.

Janet Gaynor and Robert Taylor
Originally, MGM wanted to cast Robert Montgomery as Bob Dakin, but Gaynor refused to be billed second to him. Franchot Tone was briefly mentioned as Montgomery's possible replacement, but the role was eventually given to Robert Taylor, the studio's hottest new property. Making his film debut in the Will Rogers vehicle Handy Andy (1934), Taylor rose to prominence in Roy Del Ruth's hit musical Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935), starring Eleanor Powell. After Irene Dunne personally selected him to be her leading man in Magnificent Obsession (1935), in which he also played a wealthy brain surgeon, Taylor become a favorite among female moviegoers.

Also appearing in Small Town Girl was James Stewart, in his fifth screen role. A Princeton graduate, Stewart began his acting career in the University Players, an intercollegiate summer stock company founded by Joshua Logan in 1928. After two years on the Broadway stage, he was signed by MGM to a standard seven-year contract and made his debut opposite Spencer Tracy and Virginia Bruce in the crime melodrama The Murder Man (1935). Small Town Girl was the fourth of eighth films Stewart made in 1936; the others included Next Time We Love (1936), co-starring her close friend and fellow University Player Margaret Sullavan; Wife vs. Secretary (1936), with Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow; and Born To Dance (1936), with Eleanor Powell.

James Stewart and Janet Gaynor
Jack Conway was initially hired to direct Small Town Girl, but he ended up being replaced by veteran filmmaker William A. Wellman, whose war epic Wings (1927) had won the first ever Academy Award for Best Picture. Wellman joined MGM in 1935, although his early days at the studio were disappointing, as he found himself being reduced to uncredited work behind the cameras. By 1936, he was already fed up with Metro and hated the fact that studio chief Louis B. Mayer insisted on using him in problematic pictures, «taking advantage of his ability to add dimension and flavor to an unsatisfactory film.» When Wellman was assigned to Small Town Girl, it was already cast and ready to shoot, so he had no involvement in the pre-production phase. Luckily, he liked the film's stars and was even allowed to bring in two favorite performers: Binnie Barnes, who appeared as Bob's rejected fiancé, Priscilla Hyde; and character actor Andy Devine, who played Kay's dim-witted brother, George.

Filming on Small Town Girl began on December 20, 1935 and wrapped on February 28, 1936. The production was problematic due to a series of delays. For instance, the original script by John Lee Mahin and Edith Fitzgerald required numerous rewrites; producer Hunt Stromberg brought in Mildred Cram, Manny Seff, Horace Jackson and Lenore Coffee to polish the original screenplay and asked the married team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich to «concoct a new ending.» Only Mahin, Fitzgerald, Hackett and Goodrich received credit for the work on the film. In addition, a serious case of flu forced Wellman's departure from the set for about two weeks in early February. During this time, his directorial duties were taken over by Robert Z. Leonard, who was two months away from shooting The Great Ziegfeld (1936), the Best Picture winner at the 9th Academy Awards.

James Stewart and Robert Taylor on the set
It was common knowledge in Hollywood that Wellman had a disdain for actors in general and actresses in particular. Coming from two different schools of comedy, Wellman and Gaynor clashed constantly during the making of Small Town Girl. Apparently, Wellman was so unhappy that he asked MGM to be removed from the picture, but the studio denied his request. Later that year, Wellman was hired by independent producer David O. Selznick to helm a project that was dear to his heart, the musical A Star Is Born (1937). Selznick thought Gaynor would be perfect for the female lead role — a farm girl who dreams of becoming a Hollywood star — and, despite his earlier problems with the actress, Wellman agreed completely with the producer. Wellman and Gaynor were able to establish a good working relationship while shooting A Star Is Born and the film was a major success for the both of them, receiving seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress.

Small Town Girl opened at the Capitol Theatre in New York on April 10, 1936 to solid box-office results and generally positive reviews from critics. Variety described it as «romance with nice comedy sequences and with a well-balanced,» adding that the picture «has tempo and humanity. There is a skillful blending of the sentimentality and the giggles. On the acting end it's a smacko assignment for Gaynor and she displays considerable authority in her performance. Taylor looks like the dames like him to look, and he acts like the boys can okay him.» For his part, Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times said that the film «has an amiable glow and several moments of warm comedy,» but wished that more attention had been devoted to early scenes of Kay's home life. Still, Nugent concluded, «Mr. Taylor and Miss Gaynor are a pleasant co-starring combination and, if Metro heard the cooing from the feminine contingent in yesterday's audience, they probably will be teamed again in the future.»

Lobby card for Small Town Girl

Although James Stewart was the reason why I watched Small Town Girl in the first place (I was going through a James Stewart phase at the time), it was actually Robert Taylor who kept me glued to the screen through the entire duration of the film. I had only seen one, maybe two, of his films prior to watching Small Town Girl, but for some reason, he did not catch my eye then. However, for some other strange reason, he did catch my eye in Small Town Girl. The part that got me was the scene of the morning after Bob and Kay get married, when Taylor looks up at Janet Gaynor, with a face of someone who is actually hungover, and says, «You got mud on your chin.» For the life of me, I cannot figure out why that line (and that whole scene, really) made me fall in love with Robert Taylor, but it did, so there you go. I don't know how many of you have actually seen this film, but I totally recommend you do if you haven't already. It is such a cute little film, and Robert Taylor and Janet Gaynor are a surprisingly good match. I really wish MGM had teamed them up again in another picture.

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck, Volume 1: Steel True, 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson (Simon & Schuster, 2013)
Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817-1967 edited by James B. Lloyd (University Press of Mississippi, 1981)
Lucky Stars: Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell by Sarah Baker (BearManor Media, 2012)
Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel by William Wellman Jr. (Pantheon Books, 2015)
TCM's article on Small Town Girl by Margarita Landazuri 
TCM's notes on Small Town Girl 
The New York Times review by Frank S. Nugent (April 11, 1936) 
Variety review


  1. Your reviews make me want to drop everything and watch that movie right away! This movie is showing on TCM in May!!!

    1. Aww, thank you. ;)
      Oh, then make sure you don't miss it. I think you'll love it. :)

    2. Watched it this morning!!! It was so good!!! I loved the ending - so cute! This is my first Gaynor film. I think I've seen Taylor in a movie before, or at least parts. So glad your post brought this film to my attention and that TCM showed it so soon after! :)

    3. Yay! I'm so glad you liked it. :)
      I think this was also my first Janet Gaynor film. If you're interested in watching more films with Robert Taylor, I totally recommend "Waterloo Bridge" (1940) and "Camille" (1936). Oh, and "Private Number" (1936) is really good too.

    4. I keep wanting to watch Waterloo Bridge. I look into the other ones too! I had recorded a movie with him and Jean Harlow on my dvr but ended up deleting it to make room for another. I keep waiting for it to come back on TCM. It looked good.

    5. You should definitely watch "Waterloo Bridge". It's a fantastic film. Taylor is really good in it and Vivien Leigh is absolutely stunning.
      That film with him and Jean Harlow is pretty good too. "Personal Property", it's called.


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