They Knew What They Wanted (1940)

They Knew What They Wanted (1940)

“There’s good people in the world, and there’s the other kind — the kind that go away.”

When a wealthy Italian grape farmer (Charles Laughton) in Napa Valley becomes smitten with a beautiful waitress (Carole Lombard) in San Francisco, he asks his handsome friend (William Gargan) to help him write letters to her and propose marriage. Soon she comes to visit, thinking Laughton looks like Gargan — and when she finds out the truth, she has a hard choice to make.


  • Carole Lombard Films
  • Charles Laughton Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Play Adaptation
  • Womanizers

Before achieving fame as a successful Hollywood screenwriter, Garson Kanin (husband of writer-actress Ruth Gordon) directed a few studio films, including Tom, Dick, and Harry (1941) and this adaptation of Sidney Howard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1924 play. Unfortunately, it’s a creaky production, dominated by Laughton’s overly enthusiastic portrayal of a hardy Italian who we want to like but can’t help feeling annoyed by.

He makes a few key mistakes early on out of social anxiety, and things spiral from there, thanks to Lombard’s vulnerability and the presence of womanizing Gargan. Lombard tries her best with her challenging role, and Gargan is fine as a casual cad:

… but Frank Fay’s portrayal as a noble local priest simply piles on the schmaltz.

While we’re happy to see these individuals showing true generosity of spirit by the end of the film, there isn’t much authentic satisfaction in the outcome. I’m sure this was an audience-pleaser in its day, but it’s not must-see viewing at this point.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Harry Stradling’s cinematography

Must See?
No; you can skip this one unless you’re curious.


One thought on “They Knew What They Wanted (1940)

  1. First viewing. Agreed; not must-see.

    All through the film, I kept thinking: ‘You mean, in all of Hollywood in 1940, there wasn’t *one* Italian actor who was high-profile enough to play Tony?’ Laughton does, indeed (in typical Laughton style), go at his role with gusto to spare… but I had to fight the feeling that he was miscast.

    The film probably did play better at the time of its release – and may very well have been controversial as well (something that would have suited Kanin just fine). But it hasn’t aged all that well.

    Gargan’s character makes one very stupid verbal mistake just before he exits from the film; ‘stupid’ because, given what we come to know about him, the mistake seems out-of-character (considering his character has grown and apparently deepened).

    However… the film *does* indirectly suggest that all may not be as final for Lombard as she thinks (and viewers need to be content with that possibility).

    The “true generosity of spirit” shown in the last few minutes is, by far, the best part of this somewhat-uneven film.

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