They Knew What They Wanted (1940) starring Carole Lombard, Charles Laughton, William Gargan, Harry Carey, Frank Fay directed by Garson Kanin Movie Review

They Knew What They Wanted (1940)   3/53/53/53/53/5

William Gargan and Carole Lombard in They Knew What They Wanted (1940)

You've Got Correspondance

"They Knew What They Wanted" is a curiously entertaining movie which is fascinating on so many levels despite for all sense and purposes being just a love triangle drama. There is the strange tone to the story because the first half has a heavy comedic tone thanks to one character, yet there is a huge shift in tone when a secret is revealed and it suddenly becomes dark. There is also the fact that being an old movie it is dated, not just in morals but also in characterization yet there is an ambiguity to this as quite often the word racist is used when describing "They Knew What They Wanted". And this and so much more makes it a fascinating, curious yet still entertaining movie with the wonderful Carole Lombard delivering another charming performance.

Despite being naive and unable to read or write Italian immigrant Tony Patucci (Charles Laughton Spartacus) has made good and owns his own land where he grows grapes with the help of Joe who (William Gargan - Rain) likes shifting from town to town. When on a visit to San Francisco Tony sees Amy (Carole Lombard - To Be or Not to Be), a beautiful waitress, he becomes smitten and on returning to his farm has Joe write a letter to Amy for him expressing his love. After some correspondence Amy comes to visit when Tony via a letter asks her to marry him, but on arriving mistakes Joe for Tony because Tony sent Joe's picture thinking his own photo would repel her. Despite angered at being tricked Amy stays and agrees to marry Tony, looking for his financial security rather than going back to a life slaving away as a waitress, but she has to deal with her feelings for Joe and his for her especially when Tony accidentally breaks both his legs and ends up bed ridden for a couple of months.

William Gargan and Charles Laughton in They Knew What They Wanted (1940)

Now the thing about "They Knew What They Wanted" is for the most it is a routine romantic love triangle with some subtle depth. Amy arrives at Tony's ranch having only ever communicated by letter because she sees it as a way out of a life as a waitress; it is why when she discovers that Tony is not the handsome young man who picked her up but the middle aged Italian with a belly she agrees to stay, sacrificing romance for financial security. But this leads to complications because whilst Amy does her best to submit to a life with Tony for the sake of security she can't help but feel sexually attracted to Joe and Joe to her causing him to want to leave but at the same time feeling a responsibility to stay whilst Tony recovers from breaking both legs. This of course leads to Amy and Joe succumbing to their feelings for each other and leads to what is the movies big twist, one which for when "They Knew What They Wanted" was released must have caused a bit of an outrage.

The thing is that this routine romantic love triangle has some nice subtlety to it as Amy slowly realises what a good man Tony is and how fond she has grown to him but it is also a movie which has a strange tonal shift to it. The first half of the movie plays like a romantic comedy with a touch of the screwball about it as we have Tony being comically naive and illiterate. We also have the fun of Joe writing the letters for Tony whilst Amy has her friend type up her letters to Tony which sound like business correspondences. And of course we have the humour of the confusion as Amy initially falls for Joe thinking he is Tony. But then something happens and the tone shifts to dark and moody and it begins to feel almost like a different movie.

Part of the reason why "They Knew What They Wanted" has such a comedic first half is because of Charles Laughton's comedic characterization of Tony an illiterate Italian immigrant. Now sadly when people talk about this movie the term racist often comes up because they see Laughton's performance as basically taking the piss out of Italians, making them look stupid. But they missed the point, Tony is just a man who is naive and simple, who has a good heart and a joy for living. In fact as the movie goes on Tony is the greatest man going as he has a huge heart and a good spirit and to be honest if the movie was racist then the rest of the Italian characters would have also been made to look naive and stupid. Having said that I will admit that Laughton's performance does end up grating because it is too full on.

Aside from Laughton well Carole Lombard is her lovely self and whilst the character of Amy was not her most challenging of roles it is hard not to fall in love with her. And then there is William Gargan as Joe who does deliver what seems a restrained and typical performance as a man who loves Amy but also feels loyal to Tony. Having said that, any performance would have seemed restrained next to Laughton's over the top theatrics.

What this all boils down to is that "They Knew What They Wanted" is both entertaining and curious. It has a strange shift in tone, subtle depths and yet over the top performances which makes it strange but also entertaining.