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The Smart Set
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The Smart Set

The comic actor William Haines was a one-man subgenre in the late 1920s and early 1930s. People spoke of the "Haines formula," and a Time critic described him in 1931 as "one of those actors who have committed themselves to a specialty and are obliged to stick to it." He was named Hollywood's biggest male attraction in 1930, which was especially impressive since he was the only gay star of the period who didn't hide his sexuality in the closet. This didn't endear him to conservative studio bosses, and he was fired by MGM after disobeying Louis B. Mayer's command to leave his male lover and get married. Far less flighty than the irresponsible characters he often played, Haines had a fifty-year relationship with his lover, Jimmie Shields, and when his movie-star career declined in the 1930s he started a successful new career as an interior designer. Some moviegoers see a gay subtext in his performances, but producers made sure it was disguised if it was there at all.

The Smart Set, a silent comedy released by MGM in 1928, finds Haines in his usual form. No stranger to sports movies, he came to this picture's polo field straight from the baseball diamond of Slide, Kelly, Slide (1927), the golf course of Spring Fever (1927), and the football gridiron of West Point (1928), all featuring the cocky, self-centered character type that was his trademark. Here he plays Tommy Van Buren, a Long Island playboy with a knack for polo, an eye for the ladies, and a weakness for riotous living. When he meets the lovely Polly and falls for her, she immediately spots him for the scalawag he is, and he doesn't score any points by hiding her shoe when she wants to dance with another man. It also doesn't help that the captain of his polo team is wooing Polly with a lot more success. On top of this, her father has just been tossed off the team because he's getting old, lowering her spirits all the more.

Tommy gets himself thrown off the team as well – among other character flaws, he isn't exactly sportsmanlike – and he loses his beloved polo pony, Pronto, when his fed-up father auctions it off to Polly's dad. But just when it seems that Tommy's goofy egotism will always keep him from becoming a respectable adult, fortune gives him one more chance. He's reinstated to the team when his rival is injured during a championship game against the British, and he makes the winning goal astride Pronto, who's been whisked to the field in the nick of time by a loyal groom. This pretty much wins Polly over, and the deal is clinched when she learns that he risked his life to save Pronto from a stable fire, then kept his heroism secret so people wouldn't think he was showing off. Tommy has gotten his act together at last, and all's well that ends well.

The makers of The Smart Set cared more about generating easy laughs than thinking up original plot twists, so the picture relies heavily on well-worn situations – the awkward courtship, the disapproving father, the big game that the hero wins at the last possible second – and depends on Haines's inventive acting to make them seem fresh. The director was Jack Conway, who started as a movie actor in 1908, when the art of film was scarcely born, and made his directorial debut just four years later, going on to direct more than 100 pictures before retiring in 1948. The Smart Set isn't the best of them – that honor probably goes to the 1935 version of A Tale of Two Cities with Ronald Colman – but it surely isn't the worst, thanks mainly to Haines, who provides a volley of grimaces, gesticulations, and sight gags that manage to be unabashedly broad without quite toppling into slapstick foolishness. Tommy Van Buren is said to be based on the real-life polo star Tommy Hitchcock, Jr., who hailed from Long Island and was the model for characters in The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, the great F. Scott Fitzgerald novels. The playboy's pedigree matters less than the way Haines plays him, though, and his shenanigans make for a lively show. The good supporting cast includes Alice Day as the woman Tommy pursues, Hobart Bosworth as her dad, and Jack Holt as the other man in her life.

Mordaunt Hall gave Haines grudging praise in his New York Times review of The Smart Set, writing that he "acts this rôle with far more imagination that he put in his other rôles." As this indicates, Haines's comic shtick was predictable enough to bore critics who saw it in film after film, but audiences enjoyed it enough to sustain his career from the silent period to the early years of talkies, when dialogue writers ran out of ways to make his characters sound as amusing as they looked. The Smart Set gives solid evidence of his talent for physical humor, and if you've never had a good look at the aristocratic sport of polo – fleshed out here with documentary footage from an international match of the late 1920s – now's your chance.

Director: Jack Conway
Writers: Byron Morgan, Ann Price, Robert E. Hopkins
Cinematographer: Oliver T. Marsh
Film Editing: Sam S. Zimbalist
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Merrill Pye
With: William Haines (Tommy), Jack Holt (Nelson), Alice Day (Polly), Hobart Bosworth (Durant), Coy Watson, Jr. (Sammy), Constance Howard (Cynthia), Paul Nicholson (Mr. Van Buren), Julia Swayne Gordon (Mrs. Van Buren)
BW-80m.

by David Sterritt

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