The film references tend to term it "overlooked," but there are many of us who never forgot the wonderful comedy Smile from its theatrical release in 1975. '75 was a great year for movies, and it could be that Smile, like the fresh-faced competitors that populate it, just faced some really rough competition that year; maybe, in the company of Nashville, The Story of Adèle H., One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, Grey Gardens, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and so on, this relatively modest beauty fades into the wallpaper. Maybe its comparatively adult wit would get lost among the frantic adolescence of screen comedy in any year. Whatever the reason, it's a pleasure to welcome back a really funny and distinctively American satire, now available on DVD.
Smile charts the progress of a round of finals for the fictitious Young American Miss pageant being held in Santa Rosa, California. The civic force behind this event is a community-minded car salesman named Big Bob Freelander (Bruce Dern), a yokel with good intentions, an abiding optimism, and an inexhaustible reserve of clichéd bromides about the importance of a positive attitude. Brenda DiCarlo (Barbara Feldon) acts as pageant coordinator and den mother to the young contestants; her husband Andy's suicidal tendencies are exacerbated, rather than quelled, by all the forced goodwill she radiates and by the pageant's general, bright, can-do American vibe. Big Bob, especially, finds this mystifying - what on Earth is there to be blue about in a land of such copious opportunity and beautiful young women such as ours? - and the best advice he can muster for his desperate friend is to "go out there and have some fun."
Smile's best sequences, though, are those involving the Young American Misses themselves. In these roles, a wealth of young talent appears: Annette O'Toole, Colleen Camp, Joan Prather, Maria O'Brien, and even a young Melanie Griffith. One contestant desperately instructs the audience on how to pack a suitcase for the talent portion of the competition. Another plays up her Mexican-American heritage with such patriotic gusto that you long to drive a stake through her heart. Director Michael Ritchie and screenwriter Jerry Belson play these young women for gags, but the humor has no cruelty to it; we laugh at the contestants' shapeless dancing, their wobbling comportment and doe-eyed pliability, but there's no question that they have our sympathy.
Smile was a product of a cynical era in American life, following as it did on the heels of Watergate and the Vietnam War, and its mockery of the sunny, unexamined optimism of its principals is thus that much more surprising in its good-naturedness. A peripheral joy of the film is the extent to which it functions as a document of the decade in which the happy face, avocado green and harvest gold, leisure suits, and the music of Bread rose to cultural prominence. Smile, from its groovy opening credits on, is like a season of I Love the '70s condensed into two hours, and in its intimation that this is a uniquely disposable culture it's decades ahead of VH-1.