They Knew What They Wanted (1940) Poster

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Great Performance by Carole Lombard
drednm5 November 2011
This is the third filmed version of Sidney Howard's play. Previously this was filmed a THE SECRET HOUR (1928) with Pola Negri and Jean Hersholt and as A LADY TO LOVE (1930) with Vilma Banky and Edward G. Robinson.

Here, Charles Laughton plays the Italian Tony, a successful grape grower in Napa Valley. He goes to San Francisco and is smitten with a waitress named Amy (Carole Lombard) and decides to marry her. Back home he gets his pal (William Gargan) to write a letter. She answers back. Eventually they send a picture and invite her to Napa.

Unfortunately they send a picture of Gargan. But Lombard has nothing to go back to but her dreary and demeaning job so she stays. Despite her best efforts she falls for Gargan right under Robinson's nose.

Basically a love triangle story, there's enough humor to defuse the slightly clichéd story. Lombard give a great performance as the feisty Amy. Laughton is hammy and loud but a pleasure to watch. Gargan won an Oscar nomination for the hapless Joe, torn between his devotion to Tony and his love for Amy.

Supporting cast includes Harry Carey as the doctor, Frank Fay as the priest, Victor Kilian as the photographer, Janet Fox as Mildred, and the film debuts of Karl Malden and Tom Ewell.

Good location shooting in Napa Valley opens up the film and adds a nice touch.
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Charles not in charge
RondoHatton29 November 2002
Charles Laughton goes sort of over the top in this little movie. The plot is reminiscent of "Postman Always Rings Twice", i.e. sweet lil' immigrant meets girl & loses girl to employee, but without James M Cain's violence. Laughton's Tony really is a most happy fella, & Lombard is as usual, steamy. Totally by chance, I happened to do a double bill of this and the 1935 Mutiny On The Bounty. I should have added Ruggles Of Red Gap, Hunchback, Hobson's Choice, and Witness For The Prosecution for a total Laughton immersion. This was filmed on location in an incredibly rural Napa Valley, and if you're familiar with Napa Valley, you may recognize what is now the Calistoga Inn/Napa Valley Brewing as Tony's local cantina/bar. I'd like to see a cleaned up version of this, as the print I saw was verrry dark. Good little movie.
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The Most Dated Fella
marcslope15 January 2001
Pretty darn grown-up for its day, this atmospheric adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play has waitress Lombard wooed by immigrant winegrower Laughton, becoming his mail-order bride, having an affair with ranch foreman Gargan, carrying his child, and being forgiven for it. (In this version, though, she has to go off and do some Breen Office penance first.) It's one of the very few dramas made under the Production Code where the unwed mother doesn't contract a fatal disease, die in a car crash, or plunge herself off a cliff. Lombard, an unparalleled comedienne, gets to show off her considerable and underrated acting chops, while Laughton does an unsubtle "paisano" caricature that might have been considered great acting in its day (this, after all, was the Paul Muni wig-and-accent era) but has dated badly. Lombard smolders in her scenes with the Oscar-nominated Gargan, their adultery cleverly conveyed by director Kanin through long soulful gazes, dark shadows, and moody music. Some other welcome faces turn up in tiny roles (Karl Malden, Tom Ewell, Nestor Paiva), and the only real irritant is Frank Fay's impossibly noble priest, lit from behind like a madonna and forever mouthing holier-than-thou "God is smiling on us" dialogue. You want to smack him one.

Stage musical fans who want to see how Frank Loesser's great "The Most Happy Fella" plays without music will be pleased to observe how faithful he was to the source material, and the characters' emotions really do sing here. It's a fast and unpretentious little film, and another reminder (as if we needed it) of how badly we were robbed by Lombard's early death.
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The serious flip-side to Garson Kanin's comic genius (possible spoilers)
the red duchess25 July 2001
Warning: Spoilers
'They knew what they wanted' fits in very well with Garson Kanin's most famous films, the romantic comedies 'Bachelor Mother' and 'My Favorite Wife': a cynical view of the pieties of marriage, family and friendship; a larger-than-life paterfamilias who must rethink his most complacent assumptions: a spineless male hero who would rather run away from trouble he's caused than face up to it; a plot involving crossed-wires, mistaken identities and performances intended to deceive.

It's good to remember the Kanin familiarities, because in many ways this is the above-mentioned films' polar opposite. It is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which not only means that the dialogue is stilted, the characterisation caricatured and the themes morose, but also means a combination of self-consciously 'heavy' issues (race, promiscuity, adultery, unwanted pregnancies, mail-order marriages - despite gaping plot euphemisms and ellipses) and lachrymose piety, in the noxious person of Padre McKee, an Irish priest whose status in the community is that of a luggage carrier, and yet who insists on sticking his oar in with a mixture of cruel jibes and other-worldly homilies.

Tony Patucci is the larger-than-life Italian immigrant who has worked so hard in his new country that he now owns a huge vineyard ranch in Nava County, run by his foreman and trusty friend Joe, a migrant worker who spends his nights hustling women by the quays and is afraid of becoming too attached to his boss.

On a vacation to San francisco, Tony catches sight of a life-hardened blonde waitress, Amy, and decides to marry her. He gets joe to write her a letter, and soon a correspondance ensues, resulting in Amy accepting Tony's proposal of marriage. Afraid that she will reject a fat Italian, Tony sends a photo of Joe, and so all the trouble starts. Even after the initial mix-up is cleared up, there is an obvious, though hate-filled, attraction, between Amy and Joe, and on the festive night before the wedding Tony drunkenly falls off his roof in an attempt to impress his new bride, leaving her and his friend wide open to temptation.

Tonally, 'They knew' is a strange film, moving as it does from gentle rural comedy to sub-Eugene O'Neill tragedy. It is made with Kanin's customary skill, and he manages to made the material watchable for most of its running time. He skillfully captures the sun-cracked Eden of Tony's ranch, and the intimations of temptation, and it's a rare Hollywood film of the period that shows any kind of ethnic community positively, even if these Italians predictably sing, drink and perform dangerously macho feats.

Some people think that 'They Knew' is racist, and that Charles Laughton's performance as Tony is not an intelligent attempt to reveal his character's inner-life, but a self-indulgent collection of stereotypical texts, perhaps on the level of ''Allo 'Allo'. It would be mean-spirited to accuse the film-makers of racism - they are clearly sympathetic to their hero, and presumably think his climactic act of violence does reveal character, rather than being the generic climax for all 'serious' American drama.

Tony is never allowed go beyond being a naive, infantilised, figure of fun - he has no sexuality, he doesn't even seem to truly understand what Amy and Joe have done. This is deliberate - when Tony is on the roof trying to prove his masculinity, he falls, just as the friend he calls his 'son' is making progress with his bride: his act of sacrifice is his way of being a husband and father, without having to become a sexual adult, retaining his Christ-like innocence. We would now call this racist, or at least not thought through hard enough - as an Oedipal drama it lacks true physical weight, although Joe's exit into a dawn wasteland is visually powerful.

But there is a strange scene where Tony is listening to 'Amos and Andy' on the radio: we, the audience, find ourselves watching a media representation of a racist stereotype listening to a media representation of racist steretotypes. Not for the first time in his career, Kanin's prickly intelligence forces us to rethink what we've been watching.
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Unusual casting for the leads
bkoganbing5 April 2014
For some reasons all three of the big screen versions of Sidney Howard's Pulitzer Prize winning play They Knew What They Wanted have been unavailable for years. Not seen on television and not out in any form, it certainly was lucky that someone put this out on YouTube. Also unusual in that the only Oscar recognition this film got was William Gargan's nomination for Best Supporting Actor as the Christian role in Sidney Howard's twist on the Cyrano DeBergerac story.

Charles Laughton is a lusty Italian immigrant who's got the biggest ranch in the Napa Valley in California and he's the richest guy around. Laughton with his Italian accent gives a Mediterranean flavor to his own Oscar winning role that of Henry VIII. That scene at the feast where he shows off his strength and vitality reminded so much of the wrestling scene in The Private Life Of Henry VIII.

But unlike a king who can just command a marriage to his royal person, Laughton for all his wealth and power is not the handsomest fellow around. So when he decides to marry waitress Carole Lombard, Laughton sends a picture of that handsome devil William Gargan who's known to be a devil with all the local women.

Lombard is cast against type, she's usually an urban girl of some means. She sees no future just slinging hash and snappy dialog in her hash house job and she accepts the Laughton/Gargan proposal. She even agrees to go through with it after meeting Laughton. But afterward the story takes a different turn as Laughton is injured and in a long convalescence of his 'tibia and fibula' Lombard starts looking at Gargan and Gargan starts looking back.

I won't go any further except to say that the ending here is not what Sidney Howard originally wrote. But the Code was in place and Howard having died the year before was in no position to complain. It ruins the film though, but the Code had to be served. Great performances by Laughton and Lombard are wasted. Gargan who usually played all kinds of police roles in and out of uniform was also good in a role that was against type for him as well.

Still a chance to see legends Lombard and Laughton together is worth it. They were together in a bad film years earlier when both were under contract to Paramount called White Woman. They Knew What They Wanted is so much better.
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pretty durn dated, morals wise & o/w
slaphappy50008 October 2010
even taking into account the context of its time, this is incredibly dated, morals-wise. also, it strains credibility that the female protagonist (amy) would stay initially, stay later, stay longer, proclaim her love for (the wrong guy), and then leave w/o getting together w/who she wanted all along. just seems really dopily contrived. "she DIDN'T know what she wanted" would be a more apt title. also, the whole plot revolving about her pregnancy just comes from out of nowhere and dominates the proceedings as if it was 1750 in puritan new england. i really wanted to like this film; i'd heard it was good - - but it's really pretty hard to take. as for tony; he's similarly unbelievable, a 1-dimensional character, until he explodes, and then he becomes 2-dimensional (still 1 short). OK i'm done
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dated, boring, too long..
a-n-g-e-l-114 January 2006
Charles Laughton, even more annoying than usual, full equipped with glued on beard and Italian accent, is a simple-minded farmer somewhere in napa.(wearing a pair of dungarees most of the time, which look like they might burst any second) having seen the waitress Carole Lombard only once, he's already very much in love with her and after writing some letters, proposes to her. being the coward that he is, he sends a photograph of his pal joe(equally unattractive William Gargan)to lure her to his farm in the desert. after a terrible accident(in which he falls off a roof while being completely wasted)Carol, his wife to be, finally gives in to her urges and has some fun with farmhand William Gargan.

will their relationship survive this tragedy?? believe me after 96 min, (wich felt like 2 hours) you wont give a rats ass about those little lost souls in the middle of nowhere.

and of course the upright local priest Frank Fay, who has such important lessons on life and love that you really wonder how one man alone can acquire such deep and meaningful knowledge is truly unforgettable.(pun intended)

on the other hand, if you're into 400 pound guys imitating Italian farmers(badly) and pretending to be 3 years old(with baby talk and all)than this is the movie for you.

i really wonder how Carole Lombard ever got into this nonsense. i got some (unintented) laughs out of this one, but overall its a real waste of time. if you wanna see gorgeous Carole Lombard in a good serious part watch Made for each Other.
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Laughton does his Chico Marx impression
malcolmgsw19 January 2013
I can only assume that before he started out in the role he asked the RKO excutives to run "Room Service" so that he could perfect his Chico Marx impression for this film.He wears a black curly wig not unsimilar to Marx,and apart from the fact that he does not play the piano he does everything else.So little wonder that this film had a very tortured production costing over $850000 and posting a loss of over $200000.It is difficult to understand why Laughton did these sort of films.He made some great films in the 1930s however he went to Hollywood more or less for good in 1939 and almost ruined his career in the 1940s withs some awful films.Lombard is fine but unbelievable as the waitress and Fay dreadful as the priest.
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