They Knew What They Wanted (1940)

They Knew What They Wantedthey knew what they wanted poster
Directed by Garson Kanin
Written by Robert Ardrey from the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Sidney Howard
RKO Radio Pictures

First viewing/YouTube


Tagline: You have seen great motion pictures! We believe you have not seen a greater motion picture than this!

It took me a while to get used to Charles Laughton in this highly uncharacteristic role. Once I did, I really enjoyed this film.

Tony Patucci (Laughton) is an illiterate but prosperous vineyard owner in the Napa Valley.  He doesn’t look like much but has a big heart.  On a rare vacation to San Francisco he spots waitress Amy Peters (Carole Lombard) at an Italian restaurant and is immediately smitten but too shy to introduce himself.  He begins a correspondence with her leaning on his foreman Joe (William Gargan) to draft his love letters.  Similarly, Amy, who has been struggling all her life, enlists a co-worker who has gone to secretarial school to reply.

Finally, Amy, who is looking for a way out of her dreary existence, agrees to marry Tony and asks for his picture.  Tony sends Joe’s picture instead,  The subterfuge is cleared up soon after Amy arrives in Napa but she remains determined to go through with the deal. After Tony breaks both legs at a pre-nuptial party and the wedding must be postponed, the farm proves too small to contain the emotions of the three friends.  With Harry Cary as a doctor and Frank Fay as a priest.

they knew what they wanted 1

I liked this a lot.  Laughton has to really stretch to capture a loveable Italian winemaker but eventually won me over.  This is probably the most complex and least glamorous performance I have ever seen from Lombard and she acquits herself well.  This might seem a bit melodramatic to some, but for those who can tolerate a bit of pathos it is well worth seeing.

William Gargan was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in They Knew What They Wanted.  The story was used again in the Broadway Musical Most Happy Fella.



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