Release Date(s)1975 (May 25, 2021)
Studio(s)United Artists/MGM (Fun City Editions)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B
Director Michael Ritchie’s 1975 feature Smile is a hilariously acerbic examination of Americana as seen through the lens of a teen beauty pageant. It sank quickly at the box office thanks to the fact that United Artists gave it a halfhearted release with lackluster promotion, but fortunately it has developed a devoted following over the years and is now usually recognized as one of the great satires of its era.
Jerry Belson’s script follows a group of young women in Santa Rosa, California as they compete in the local version of the Young American Miss Pageant. His story presaged films like Blue Velvet in how it peeled back the veneer of small-town American life to expose the dark underbelly beneath. In this case, he showed how the inherently superficial values presented by the world of beauty pageants barely cover the way that those pageants commodify and exploit female sexuality. Belson makes that point before the opening credits even roll when two judges discuss the talent routine that they’re watching:
"That's not the kind of thing that they like at the finals. They're not looking for sex."
"Everybody's looking for sex."
That’s a lesson that some of the young ladies in Smile will learn only too well before the film is over. Some will even try to exploit it to their own advantage, though with mixed success.
Many of Michael Ritchie’s films in the 70s told fictional stories in real-world settings which gave them a form of documentary realism. For Smile, he mixed professional actors like Joan Prather, Annette O’Toole, Melanie Griffith, and Colleen Camp with non-actors and real beauty pageant contestants. Residents of Santa Rosa served as extras for crowd scenes. Ritchie also kept the eventual winner of the contest a secret from the cast and crew so that he could get real reactions that the camerapeople had to scramble to capture. All of that worked together to give verisimilitude to a story which otherwise could have appeared farcical.
The rest of the cast is rounded out memorably by Bruce Dern, Barbara Feldon, Geoffrey Lewis, and many others. Legendary choreographer Michael Kidd stands out in particular as the less than legendary choreographer for the pageant. But it’s Dern’s character “Big Bob” Freelander who really embodies the world of Smile more than anyone else. Bob is one of the few people in the film who really seems to believe in the cosmetic values which the pageant presents, yet he makes a living by putting on a show of his own to sell used vehicles. In Smile, exploitation is the real American way of life.
Smile was photographed by the great Conrad Hall in 35 mm using Panavision cameras and lenses and projected at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Fun City Editions’ new Blu-ray release features a transfer taken from a 2K scan of an interpositive. The level of fine detail is good and the grain is well managed by the encode. The colors look natural and the contrast is solid, though there can be some black crush in the darkest areas of the screen. For example, when Dern visits another character in jail, the detail from his suit washes out in blackness. There’s also visible damage such as scratches and speckling as well as occasional minor instability, but none of that is very obtrusive and it may not even be noticeable on smaller flat panels at typical viewing distances.
The audio reproduces the theatrical mix in English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio with available English subtitles. Everything sounds clean with intelligble dialogue and music which is quite robust. Unlike many discs these days, the audio track appears to have been mastered at a high level and I actually ended up turning the volume down rather than up.
The Blu-ray includes the following extras in HD (though the trailer is upscaled from SD):
- Audio Commentary with Pat Healy and Jim Healy
- Dernsie's Credo (27:51)
- Theatrical Trailer (3:14)
- Image Gallery (6:00)
The commentary track with actor and filmmaker Pat Healy and film curator Jim Healy is enthusiastic and informative. Both men get sidetracked occasionally and there are gaps, but they do provide many helpful details about the actors and filmmakers, as well as the production and its release. So the track is still recommended. Dernsie’s Credo is an enjoyable new interview with actor Bruce Dern where he relates his experiences making the film, and also explains how Jack Nicholson coined the term “Dernsies” to describe his improvisations. At 84 years of age, Dern has lost none of his feistiness and keeps the interview moving briskly. The image gallery is a collection of posters, lobby cards, production photographs, and other promotional materials. Also included inside the package is a 10-page booklet with an essay by the late Mike McPadden. The artwork insert is aalso reversible, with new artwork on one side and the original theatrical artwork on the reverse. The whole package is good, but this is the kind of film which inevitably leaves you wishing for more. Sadly, Michael Ritchie, Jerry Belson, Conrad Hall, and producer David V. Picker are all no longer with us, but interviews with other surviving members of the cast would have been nice.
Smile may not be as well known as other Michael Ritchie films from the 70s like The Bad News Bears, but it’s an important part of his filmography which deserves a wider audience. Hopefully this new Blu-ray release from Fun City Editions will help to provide one.
- Stephen Bjork
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