They Knew What They Wanted stars Charles Laughton as farmer Tony Patucci who meets waitress Amy (Carole Lombard) in San Francisco and falls instantly in love. However, he isn't very good with words so he asks his employee Joe (William Gargan) to write to her under his name. Amy agrees to leave San Francisco after seeing a picture of Joe and thinking it's Tony. This causes problems when she arrives but what causes more problems is the spark between Joe and Amy, which the latter is more inclined to ignore than face.
This is an odd one. I think I chose a bad film for my first Charles Laughton experience because it's a terrible role - what's meant to be lovable and bumbling comes across as irritating at best. On top of the drawling Italian accent there is the problem of the character referring to himself constantly in the third person. It stopped being amusing after the first few minutes and any childlike qualities the farmer had were certainly not part of his charm. It comes to something when you're rooting for the bad guy to get the girl but that's what I found myself doing at times. The infantile qualities of the character meant that it was hard to believe in Tony's relationship with Amy. Her relationship with Joe, however, was far more believable.
Lombard is certainly the highlight of the film. It's difficult to take your eyes off her when she's on the screen, especially in some of the later scenes where she's trying to hold it together whilst all the time feeling terrible about what she's done. Previously, I've only seen her in comedy so this was a delightful film in that it allowed me to see what a fantastic dramatic actress she could be. William Gargan is also fairly good as Joe, having two dialogue scenes with Father McKee (Frank Fay) first and then, later, the doctor (Harry Carey) which were quite impressive. However, I was disappointed that there was no 'end' scene with Joe and Father McKee which would've been interesting to see following their earlier encounter. To hear about that meeting without actually seeing it felt like a bit of a let-down.
Really, this film should've been so much more than it was. After all, there are some mature themes bandied about here - pregnancy out of wedlock, seduction, forgiveness - but they all fade under the heavy hand of Laughton in this particular role. Lombard may sparkle but, really, that says little about the quality of the film. There are some humorous lines but, I'll admit, I didn't find my heart strings wrung by the oafish Tony Patucci one bit.