Smile (1975): Michael Ritchie’s Satire of Beauty Pageants

Santa Rosa was used by Hitchcock as the locale of Shadow of a Doubt and by George Lucas in American Graffiti. A typically-looking small town, it was chosen by Michael Ritchie for Smile, a satirical view of beauty pageants, dissecting its competitiveness and callousness.

The narrative begins with a traveling shot of Highway 101.  Entering town, a big sign states: “Santa Rosa, California. Biggest Little City in the U.S.A.” It has become the world’s capital of mobile homes, recreational vehicle manufacturers and trailer parks, both in units sold and units lived in. The town comes to life during contests; its organizational life revolves around beauty pageant. Nat King Cole’s rendition of Charlie Chaplin’s melody, “Smile,” is the title song that describes the essence of the pageant. “Just remember two things,” the girls are instructed, “be yourself…and keep smiling.” The film’s targets are the plastic look (elaborate hair-do, well-tailored suits) and its attendant mechanic (fake) behavior.

The pageant is held at the Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium, a square and ugly building, in the midst of a vast parking lot; the noise of the freeway hums. The narrative covers four days of a nationally televised Junior Miss Pageant, sponsored by John H. Breck Company, Holiday Inns, Kraft Foods, and Eastman Kodak. It describes the various rituals and contests the girls are subjected to, testing their beauty, energy, and talent. Various associations participate in the event. A distinction between the Jaycees, members of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, who support the pageant, and the Jaycettes, a separate service club for Jaycee wives.

The “Mother Hens,” consist of local housewives, volunteers who watch over the girls. The “Has beens” is the official nickname for all winners and runner-ups of former contests. There are also many collective rituals, such as “the Exhausted Rooster” ceremony, a top-secret ceremony, given by the Jaycees for members who have reached 35 and must graduate to other service clubs. The annual event has increased its popularity: This year there are 32 applicants, six more than last year.

The two sponsors of the contest are: Big Bob Friedlander (Bruce Dern), a used car salesman, and Brenda Di Carlo (Barbara Feldon), a former winner who never mentions what year she won. Logan, a frumpy woman in her 30s, is happy to take part, “just being out of the house is kind of new to me.”

Lacking focus, the film consists of vignettes. A condemnation, rather than celebration, of provincial American life, the film is condescending to its characters. The narcissistic obsession with appearing–and watching oneself–on Television, the preoccupation with winning instant celebrity status is among the film’s easy and obvious targets. Choreographer Tommy promises Bambu, a blond show type girl, to make her “the top of the Human Christmas tree,” but she is scared “to have sparklers on my tits.” Describing her dancing experience, another girl says the highlight of her career was the role of Diamond Lil (Mae West’s best known vehicle), which she played for two years at Knott’s Berry Farm.

Doria says that she used to think the shopping mall of Annaheim was great until she saw the Santa Rosa’s, “it’s a credit to the vision of the business community.” Freddy says it’s not her fault that her mother “took the Polaroid to her art photography class.” A local resident, Orren, compares his achievements to Phil’s: “His auto-repair shop isn’t doing as well as my mortuary, mine sells more caskets than he does gaskets.” And so on, and so on.