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Theatre / They Knew What They Wanted

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They Knew What They Wanted is a 1924 play written by Sidney Howard.

Tony is an Italian immigrant aged about 60 who has prospered as a Napa Valley vintner, and he's prospered even more since Prohibition has made his grapes even more profitable. Tony wants someone to share his prosperity with, so he has sent away for a wife. The young lady he wrote to, a San Francisco waitress named Amy, arrives at the vineyard, only to find that the picture Tony included with his letters was of his much younger and handsomer vineyard manager, Joe. Joe is rather embarrassed to be caught in the middle of this little deception — but sparks fly between him and Amy anyway.

The play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was adapted into film three times, most notably as a 1940 version directed by Garson Kanin and starring Carole Lombard and Charles Laughton. It was also loosely remade into a 1956 musical, The Most Happy Fella, which deleted some of the social commentary and added more romance.


  • Asian Speekee Engrish: Ah Gee the Chinese cook pronounces himself a "velly good cook."
  • The Casanova: Tony didn't look amongst the single women of the parish for a wife because Joe has dated them all.
  • Funetik Aksent: The script leans on this trope hard when rendering Tony's dialogue. His first line is: "Looka me, I'm da most stylish fella in da world."
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Joe suggests this after telling Amy she's pregnant (the doctor told him instead of her), but she says having an abortion would be even worse.
  • Hobos: Much like Vincent Vega said to Jules 70 years later, in this story Amy reacts to Joe's bragging about his Walking the Earth ways by calling him a bum.
  • Hollywood Atlas: No one from San Francisco calls it "Frisco."
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Amy and Joe have one ill-advised night of passion the night of her wedding to Tony. Naturally, she turns up pregnant.
  • Like a Son to Me: "I been lovin' Joe like he was my own son," says Tony.
  • Mail-Order Bride: Tony never even spoke to Amy, he just saw her once at an Italian restaurant in San Francisco. He then contacted her boss, and wrote her a letter proposing marriage.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Tony's solution to their problem is simple: Tell everyone that Amy's baby is his.
  • Never Learned to Read: Tony has to get Joe to compose his love letters and read the letters he receives from Amy.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Tony and Amy have become this at the end, so much so that he's quickly able to to forgive her.
  • Spaghetti and Gondolas: It's set in Napa Valley, but the play leans pretty heavily into many Italian stereotypes, with Tony's Funetik Aksent, an Italian wedding, lots of Gratuitous Italian dialogue, and the like.
  • Walking the Earth: Joe has done it his whole adult life, apparently. He tells Tony that the five months he's spent working at Tony's vineyard are the longest he's ever spent anywhere but jail.