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WEEK 25: Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)

1940-49

Hey there, and welcome back – for the twenty-fifth time – to Weekly Hitch. This is a blog where I watch all of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies in chronological order, no matter what they are, and then I try to work out why they’re good – if they’re good – and how they got that way.

This week, Hitchcock tackles one of his few outright comedies – with the amusing, American, and altogether unlikely screwball romance Mr. & Mrs. Smith.

The Film:
Meet the Smiths...

Meet the Smiths…

Mr. & Mrs. Smith opens with the unmistakable New York skyline – and the lilting staircase music that one would generally associate with the screwball comedies of the era. Everything about these few opening shots screams that this is an American picture, made for Americans – and, surprisingly for a Hitchcock movie, that’s all the screams we’re going to get.

Once inside the impressive apartment set of David and Ann Smith we find a bedroom in disarray, and the amazingly wonderful Carole Lombard peeking an eye out from the bedding. There are dishes everywhere, and David (Robert Montgomery) is playing solitaire, waiting for Ann to wake up.

It seems, according to the house staff, that this is a bit of a thing with the Smiths. Any time they have a fight, the rule is that they can’t leave the bedroom until they make up. In the past this little arrangement has gone on as long as 8 days, but after a phone call from his business partner, Jeff (Gene Raymond), we find out that this has only been 3 days.

Soon all is forgiven, as Ann and David make up and discuss their perfect marriage. Ann has a somewhat strange view on marriage – thinking that absolute truth is important above all else, Ann asks David if he would marry her again if he had the choice – to which David, like an idiot, says ‘no’.

Ann is offended while David tries to explain that he just meant that he misses the freedom of a younger man – but it’s too late. David heads for work, and that’s where a very odd thing happens… David finds out that he isn’t married!

You see, David gets a visit from a Mr. Deever – who explains that through a complicated legal situation, the marriage license that David and Ann got wasn’t legal – and so their marriage wasn’t legal either. Hitchcock (or more likely the screenwriter, Norman Krasna) does a clever trick here by having a racy premise, for the time, of a man and woman living together and having had ‘relations’ while not being married – but still keeps it on the right side of propriety for the censors.

Armed with the amusing news that their marriage isn’t real, David toys with the best way to tell his wife, and arranges a romantic dinner at a favourite old restaurant – unaware that, while he plans a fun night with an “unmarried woman” Mr. Deevers is stopping by David’s home to tell Ann the same news.

Ann and David's last supper.

Ann and David’s last supper.

Ann doesn’t let on to David that she knows about the marriage, preferring to let David tell her and propose on his own – but after a terrible dinner, (involving, weirdly enough ragamuffin vagrant children, a cat who won’t eat, Hitchcock obsessing over Lombard not fitting in her dress, a phone call from Ann’s mother, and Ann trying to get David to confess to the bad marriage license)  David seems to decide that the evening isn’t nice enough for getting married – Ann confronts him about the whole situation and decides that she can’t spend the night with a man who isn’t her husband, and sends David out of the house!

You see, an unmarried woman can’t sleep with a man – especially in 1940, so really she had no choice! And David – who really is begin a bit cavalier with their marriage – seems a bit too happy about getting to sleep with an unmarried lady. After getting kicked out, David goes to his club (men all had clubs back then) and is forced to suffer the indignity of renting a room.

David trying to make Ann jealous.

David trying to make Ann jealous.

At the club, David runs into an old friend – a slick ladies-man type who’s stepping out on his wife – and the two start to chum around. The slick guy advises David to just ignore Ann, live his normal life and in a few days, Ann will be begging for him to come back! But of course it doesn’t work out that way, as pretty soon Ann is going out with an older gentleman (who is actually her boss, since she took a job at a store) and David is banned from getting back in the house by the old maid.

Pretty soon men are crawling out of the wood work to marry Ann, including David’s business partner – Jeff! David pretend to be fine with it all of course because he’s trying not to care – but in typical screwball fashion, he’s overdoing the not caring by miles. David even decides to try going on a date of his, set up by the slick ladies man from the club – but his date ends up being a much older lady (weirdly reminiscent of Ivor Novello is Hitch’s 2nd film Downhill) and to make matters worse Ann is at the same supperclub with Jeff!

Hitting the slopes.

Hitting the slopes.

Now dating seriously (there’s a great fairground gag, and an amusing bit where Ann gets Jeff drunk ‘medicinally’, in spite of him never drinking), Ann and Jeff head to Lake Placid for a skiing vacation even though Jeff knows that she and David are meat to be together – but David ends up renting out the cabin next to theirs and soon David is falling sick and Ann is forced to take care of him – even though he’s faking.

Soon enough, David is found out and another fight ensues – Jeff is even drawn into it when Ann demands that Jeff beat up David for her honour (a couple times in the move Ann asks other men to beat up David for her, including a cop!) but Jeff leaves them to it. In the end, Ann tries to get away but David won’t let her go and after another fight they finally make up – David kissing her to stop her from pretending to rant at him one more time.

The Result:

The trouble with Mr. & Mrs. Smith is that we can look at the movie from a couple different ways, and each changes the final result a little bit. First off, there’s the film purely in terms of Hitchcock’s body of work – basically, how is it as a Hitchcock film? And then secondly, we can look at it in relation to the genre, which means finding out how it fits compared to other screwball comedies.

The original "screwball lady".

The original “screwball lady”.

So second thing first. How does Mr. & Mrs. Smith rank as a comedy? Honestly, pretty good. It’s no Bringing Up Baby or Some Like It Hot and it’s definitely a much more subdued and almost introspective film – but the script is clever, the cast is charming and bright, the direction is understated and assured, and the production from start to finish is technically wonderful.

The film raises some interesting points about the meaning of marriage and love, and it does some nifty dance steps around the censors of the day – considering it’s a comedy about an unmarried couple who’ve been sleeping together for 3 years. It’s not the best thing anyone involved with it has, or would ever do – but this movie has charm and a lot of fun.

Promo still from the movie.

Promo still from the movie.

As for a Hitchcock film, well – that’s something else entirely. So much of Mr. & Mrs. Smith reminds me of Hitch’s earlier years before The Man Who Knew Too Much defined his brand for him. This is a straight comedy, no bodies and no spies – and yet even so, Hitchcock does some wonderful and innovative work.

The film features some gorgeous sets and costumes – again carrying on Hitchcock’s new obsession with lavish production and Hollywood glamour. And whatever we may think about how Hitchcock and actors got along (usually quite well), the fact remains that he gets brilliant and very sincere performances out of Lombard and Montgomery – both here at almost the height of their fame. (Carole Lombard would very tragically die in 1942, with this being the last movie of hers she saw released.)

A chill in the air.

A chill in the air.

And like all of Hitchcock’s work, and especially his melodramas, this movie has something to say about marriage and modern values (it makes a curious counter-point to Rebecca in fact). Hitch was always keen on having a greater point to make, and Mr. & Mrs. Smith makes it clear that Hitch is a big fan of marriage, even if you have to fight to make it work. (The film is also, at times, a love-letter to Mrs. Hitchcock – but more on that later)

Reviews at the time called Mr. & Mrs. Smith an enjoyable and amusing film. By and large the movie was well received, by both critics and audience – and turned out to be a profitable and popular movie (voted among the best of the year by audience polls). Some critics, however, thought the movie was a waste of Hitchcock’s talents – already deciding to label Hitch as being ‘not a comedy director’ or ‘not typical’. They had built a pen for Hitchcock after only two Hollywood films.

In the end, Mr. & Mrs. Smith is a loveable, occasionally slow-paced, comedy with a lot of heart and dozens of small, subtle moments that can make you smile. It’s charming and clever and unlike a lot of movies of the age, this one gets better with repeat viewings. And while it’s the last time that Hitch would deal with an out and out comedy, it’s by no means as unusual a movie as people would try to make it out to be.

The Production:

Mr. & Mrs. Smith began life shortly before Hitchcock came to Hollywood – as a screenplay written by Norman Krasna under the title “No For An Answer” – the idea was typical fare for a screwball comedy, and Krasna pitched the story to Carole Lombard, who instantly fell for it – and convinced RKO Pictures to buy it.

Lombard and her friend Hitch.

Lombard and her friend Hitch.

Lombard, married to Clark Gable, had signed a contract with RKO in an effort to gain more control over the pictures she was making – hoping to do more serious work in a quest to win an Oscar, but after a few less successful dramas – Lombard was ready for a comedy again.

Around the same time, Lombard and her husband Gable became friends with the newly arrived Hitchcock family. Hitch and Alma adored Carole Lombard – for her frankness and humour, and especially for her plain-speaking cynicism toward the Hollywood lifestyle. Before too long, The Hitchcocks were renting Lombard’s house, and Hitch was being talked into directing her next picture.

Alfred Hitchcock at this time was straining against the financial and creative constraints placed on him by his contract with Selznick. Forced to seek approval for projects, and unable to make money without Selznick’s say-so – Hitch was struggling to find a project that would pay the bills and give him the freedom to continue his exploration of American cinema.

Carole Lombard directing Hitch's cameo (she made  him do several takes).

Carole Lombard directing Hitch’s cameo (she made him do several takes).

Hitchcock had toyed in these months with the idea of remaking The Lodger, and Selznick – eager to make money off lending Hitchcock out to other studios – considered loaning the director out to Universal… but it was RKO who came up with an offer that appealed to both Hitchcock and his keeper. RKO offered to borrow Hitchcock for a two-picture deal, and Hitchcock would get a bonus if both pictures were made in the same year. Hitchcock saw the deal as a chance to get away from Selznick, while having the potential to earn a decent wage.

Hitch with Montgomery.

Hitch with Montgomery.

And so it was that Carole Lombard, hearing that her friend (and tenant) Hitchcock was available for a project, set her sights upon having the Englishman at the helm of her first comedy in over 3 years. In later years, Hitchcock would claim that he only made Mr. & Mrs. Smith as a favour to Lombard – but Daniel Spoto, in his biography of Hitchcock, tells of internal files at RKO which show Hitchcock’s seeming enthusiasm for the project, and his excitement to get started.

Poster for Mr. & Mrs. Smith

Poster for Mr. & Mrs. Smith

With Lombard acting essentially as the film’s producer – finding the director, the script, casting the project and even overseeing the budget at times – Hitchcock set about bringing the script to life. He would also claim later on that he did practically nothing but film the scenes, but he did add elements – such as Lombard forcing brandy on Gene Raymond and calling it ‘medicine’ (a line which appear in almost every Hitchcock picture from here on out), and also in several references to Hitch and Alma’s own marriage – with Montgomery promising to take Lombard on a ski vacation (a promise Hitch had made to Alma) and references to to Hitchcock’s sea-voyage proposal to Alma almost 20 years before.

The picture came off, seemingly, without problems and Hitchcock – while working easily within the confines of the genre – still made his mark with clever jokes and framing and masterful pacing. Hitchcock gave two of the best performers of the day the room to shine, and while he didn’t enforce any of the camera tricks or directorial signatures he would impose on other movies – his steady hand proved that he could be trusted to get any job done.

The Legacy:

Such an odd duck, this movie – an, as such, and odd job of trying to put it in context with Hitchcock’s work. But I suppose we’ve come this far, so why not go for it?

Mr. & Mrs. Smith is a Hitchcock film. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It’s not his first comedy by any means, nor will it be his last (The Trouble With Harry, To Catch a Thief, and Family Plot would all have strong comedic elements), and while Hitch did not develop the script with as much influence as he would for future projects, he still made this movie his own.

Comedic tension in place of suspense!

Comedic tension in place of suspense!

What I find more fascinating about this picture is how very American it is. In fact, Mr. & Mrs. Smith is the first Hitchcock film set in America – and his first with an all-American cast. It’s a New York comedy, a war-time puff-pastry of a kind that would become ‘old fashioned’ by the middle of the 40’s and almost extinct by the end of the decade. This movie is really about Hitchcock finding his place in America – and about his willingness to court success wherever it might lie.

Lombard and Raymond at the fairground.

Lombard and Raymond at the fairground.

Let’s look at things from Hitch’s point of view. Newly arrived in America, and only 2-pictures into his new career, Hitchcock was a blank page as far as American producers and studios were concerned. He was known for thrillers and adventurous melodramas, but a Hollywood director was supposed to be a master of all genres – like Howard Hawks or John Huston or Michael Curtiz – it was in Hitch’s best interest to show that he could direct anything thrown at him, and Mr. & Mrs. Smith was the perfect chance to do just that.

Also, Hitchcock loved comedy – and always would. His pictures would always show a flare for comedic moments and dark humour, and the chance to work with Carole Lombard – possibly the biggest name in comedy at the time – was too good to pass up.

There are touches of classic Hitch throughout the movie, a cool and stylish blonde, there false identities and a great fairground sequence, a love triangle and notions of infidelity, a ski-lodge and brandy. Hitchcock is all over the movie – but the most Hitchcock thing about it all was the way Hitch would write the picture off in later years as being something he did against his will.

"It's just like medicine."

“It’s just like medicine.”

Hitchcock loved to write his own history, knowing full well that if you told your version of the truth enough times it just might become fact – and so, his most blatant foray into American comedy has been left largely forgotten, simply because Hitch didn’t want to muddy his own brand in the years to follow.

But don’t let that fool you. Mr. & Mrs. Smith is as Hitchcock as many of other films, and it shows a lightness and simplicity in his directing that might be refreshing after all those thrills and scares.

Next week Hitchcock return to suspense, perhaps for good, as he meets Cary Grant for a tall glass of Suspicion. Until then.

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