MGM's Small Town Girl is a light romantic comedy that hinges on your accepting the premise of Robert Taylor's drunken wedding vows to Janet Gaynor's small town girl of the title. Taylor's Dr. Bob Dakin is so loaded that it takes him a good two minutes to recognize his new wife, Kay Brannon (Janet Gaynor), when they wake up in the ditch he drove into to cap their wedding night. Dr. Bob's a bit of a playboy and carouser though, so his Pop, played by Lewis Stone, lays it on him straight: an annulment is out of the question. The Boston newspapers already have a hold of the story and the potential controversy of Doc Dakin's laughing it off and just sending the poor girl home would surely wipe out the career of the talented but wild young surgeon.
Honestly, I didn't buy it, not even for the mid-1930's, but you basically have to bite your lip and accept it if you're going to get anything out of the rest of the story.
Taylor turns cranky when Gaynor confesses that she actually wasn't all that drunk when they stood up before the Justice of the Peace. Other than the hazards the mistaken union poses for the Doctor's career, Dakin's personal life takes a major hit as his marriage kills his engagement to socialite Priscilla Hyde (Binnie Barnes), whom he was scheduled to marry just two weeks later. Pris enters the picture just as her fiance is springing the news on a round of press hounds that their engagement has been off for months and he'd been courting Kay, his new wife, in the time in between. Fact of the matter is Dakin had just met Kay Brannan the night before.
Small town life in native Carvel was bringing Kay down and her feelings begin boiling over as the picture opens and the town is jammed with traffic headed from the big Harvard-Yale game. All youngsters about her own age, Kay is a bit overawed and distracted from her work at brother-in-law George's grocery as she watches the passing parade and chats with some of the young men paused in front of the shop. George is played by Andy Devine and it was interesting to note him in a scene with Janet Gaynor in a film directed by William Wellman as the three would reunite for Selznick International a year later in Wellman's A Star Is Born (1937).
Actually Wellman's direction was the main sell for me in choosing to watch Small Town Girl over several other movies aired by TCM in last week's tribute to Star of the Month Robert Taylor. Small Town Girl didn't read like a typical Wellman film, and though I knew he had handled a wide variety of movies, in the end it didn't feel like a Wellman film either. He was also off the picture for two weeks with the flu, during which time Robert Z. Leonard took over, but I'd imagine Wellman's heart was never really in Small Town Girl, as it was made during a short stay under contract at MGM. He fared much better immediately after leaving that studio when he directed not only A Star Is Born, but also the classic screwball comedy Nothing Sacred, starring Carole Lombard and Fredric March, for Selznick during a banner 1937.
An interesting force driving Kay Brannan out of Carvel and into Robert Taylor's arms was the presence of a young Jimmy Stewart, a townie courting Kay given to constantly asking the annoying question, "You keeping your chin up?" to everyone he bumps into, every time he bumps into them, including Kay. Stewart is miscast as Elmer, an ignorant and annoying character, but interesting to watch in a film released the same year as his small parts in Wife vs. Secretary, The Gorgeous Hussy, and supporting Powell and Loy in After the Thin Man, as MGM tries to discover just exactly who he is only a few years before his leap to prominence.
Janet Gaynor, winner of the first Academy Award for Best Actress for her work in classics 7th Heaven (1927), Street Angel (1928), and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), is also a key to enjoying Small Town Girl. Personally her voice grates on me, I find it high-pitched and too nasal, and frankly I prefer her in silents, but she does always manage to come across as sugary-sweet to me in talkies so I can understand her appeal. I actually like her best in The Young in Heart (1938) because she's a little twisted, despite being the moral compass for a family of con artists, she is also one herself so it was a hoot to see her very much against type in spots during that one. In Small Town Girl her most wicked action is simply biting her lip and going through with the marriage to Bob. As they honeymooned on a cruise, just the two of them putting up a front for crew members, she does snap at Bob a few times, but only after he's been such a heel that no other response would be acceptable. All in all, Kay was sweet enough to leave a bit of a bad taste in my own mouth.
In my mind the usually underrated Taylor gives a superior performance to Gaynor in this one. While Gaynor stumbles over a few of her lines, especially in those uncharacteristically frustrated moments, Taylor is smooth throughout. He's cocky and charming in the open as he comes upon Kay on his way from the game; he's effectively nasty in his snippish moments with her after the realization of what he's gotten himself into; he plays the frustrated lover well opposite Binnie Barnes, while Barnes for her sake is fine as what's basically the villain of the piece. While this is just Taylor cruising to some degree he's also impressive on their drive to the alter where he becomes progressively more inebriated until finally, marriage license tucked in pocket, he drives into a river (they call it a river, looked more like a ditch to me) and passes out. Upon waking he may have the funniest line in the entire movie, totally in a haze he notices Kay next to him, raises his hand to point to her face and says, "You got mud on your face."
The beginning and the end of Small Town Girl are set in Kay's hometown Carvel, where besides Andy Devine and James Stewart we have Devine's screen wife, Em, played by Isabel Jewell, and her parents played by Elizabeth Patterson and Frank Craven. Em and George also have a toddler daughter (Joan Russell), who doesn't have more than a couple of lines but manages to be one of the most enjoyably bratty screen kids I've ever seen! Back in Boston, where Taylor's young Doctor comes from, his understanding parents are played by Nella Walker and Lewis Stone, who gets to give Janet Gaynor a Judge Hardy-like talk towards the end of the picture. Robert Greig is on the scene as the elder Dakin's butler; Charley Grapewin has a part as the impressed yet very disappointed Dr. Fabre, who Taylor answers too, and Boston is also home to Barnes' Priscilla. On board the honeymoon ship Edgar Kennedy plays Captain while Willie Fung and Chester Gan are Chinese servants.
While this fine supporting cast doesn't add much to Small Town Girl they definitely do help keep it afloat.
Basically it boils down to Taylor, Gaynor and Barnes playing the only characters worth notice with Taylor's immature Doctor Bob set on sticking by his intended, socialite Priscilla, but warming up along the way to the good luck that has already netted him the perfect wife in Gaynor's Kay. We're tuned in to see whether or not Bob can grow up, and while one ending is teased Bob's final choice is certainly no surprise even if the final scene that reveals his decision is so rushed that you're feeling jarred seconds later when The End pops up on the screen.
Overall I'd say the best audience for Small Town Girl are fans of Janet Gaynor. Wellman completists will likely be disappointed and while Taylor fans can definitely hold up their chins for a fine performance, there's nothing special to be seen here.