Mr. & Mrs. Smith
US (1941) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
No, not the film that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt wish they could erase from both their CVs and their memories but a screwball comedy directed by none other than the Master of Suspense himself!
The titular couple are David (Robert Montgomery) and Ann Smith (Carole Lombard), happily married prone to fights lasting many days. During their latest reconciliation, David admits if he had his time over again he wouldn’t marry Ann. The next day they are both approached individually by a county official from Idaho (Charles Halton) informing them their three year marriage licence is invalid due to a jurisdiction error.
Ann and her mother (Esther Dale) believe David would marry Ann that evening but David fails to mention their sham marriage when he returns home. David does in fact want to marry Ann and was waiting for the right time to propose but Ann takes his secrecy as a sign of his rejection so she dumps him. As David tries to win Ann back, his best friend and law partner Jeff Custer (Gene Raymond) woos Ann instead.
With a script by Norman Krasna, noted for being a prolific writer of screwball comedies both in film and on stage, the genre’s biggest star in Carole Lombard and one of the greatest directors of all time on board, all the ingredients are ripe for this film to be one for the ages. Yet, surprisingly, this is the very thing it isn’t – underperforming against all expectations.
To clarify, this isn’t a bad film nor is it an unmitigated clunker that should be wiped from memory and film history. Nothing is inherently wrong – the performances are fine, the story is typically amiable of the genre, and Hitchcock throws in some signature touches in his direction. Yet for some reason the stars don’t appear to be in alignment and this film just comes and goes like a digestive biscuit instead lingering like a Mars bar.
Despite this it was a box office hit, presumably due to the combined star power of the actors and the director, although not all critics were too kind to it. Sometimes history can be much kinder to something originally maligned and while Mr & Mrs. Smith wasn’t loathed, it hasn’t achieved the same legendary status of Hitchcock’s greater works, presumably down to its sheer normalcy.
The usually long awaited plot twist comes straight away and thus becomes the conceit of the story. International viewers might be confuddled by what appears to be a preposterous idea of an important document like a marriage licence being so easily jeopardised by state jurisdiction in the US, which surely one would assume could be transferred over to another if necessary.
Of course if it were that easy then we wouldn’t have a film. David ostensibly made his own bed by declaring he would not marry Ann if he had his life over again, even though he is happy with her and wouldn’t marry another woman. David’s ploy of planning a surprise proposal naturally backfires, putting him on the back foot in regaining Ann’s trust and affection, which we know hasn’t subdued at all.
What follows is a series of mildly amusing comic episodes detailing David’s pursuit of Ann, with him still clinging onto their phantom marriage as a reason why she should take him back. One interesting incident sees David cause Ann to lose her store clerk job since they only employ single women due to the employment crisis. Can you imagine that mandate existing today?
One rare moment of success for David arrives by making Ann jealous as he attends a double date with uncouth partners at the same club Ann and Jeff dine at. An inventive gag in which David pretends to talk to a classier lady seated next to him in order to rile Ann raises a rare laugh among the cavalcade of mere titters occasionally elicited by the film’s polite if often politically naive humour.
Made during a period where the Hayes Code was in full strangulating effect, Hitchcock and Krasna covertly slipped sexual allusion and suggestion into the proceedings, some subtle – such as Ann shaving David’s face – and some rather blatant (the ending) but while it sticks somewhat to the principles of the farce, it does so without resorting to cheap and tawdry material.
It may never have been in doubt that Ann and David would reconcile again but the two stars do their best to try to convince the audience otherwise. Robert Montgomery had a rather refined appearance but possessed enough charm to pull off a conceited cad like David, comfortable with snappy one-liners as much as the physical gags.
Montgomery’s chemistry with Carole Lombard is essential to the film’s success and they do work well together, but Lombard – killed in a plane crash a year after its release – is in the rare position of having to prove herself again as a comedienne after trying her luck as a straight actress. In fact Hitchcock wanted to make a drama with Lombard which was the impetus behind making this film.
A small trivia note – Lombard directed Hitchcock’s traditional cameo and made him do it many times over, when all he did was walk across a building front! Since Hitchcock was noted for working his actors hard this must have been sweet revenge for Lombard and her peers! As for Hitchcock, there is a sense of restriction upon him by the screwball comedy format, explaining why he later felt unhappy about this film.
Everyone is entitled to the occasional off day and for many fans and critics, that would be at the end of Hitchcock’s career. Looking at the surrounding films from the period Mr & Mrs. Smith was made it is a comparatively uninspiring effort but by no means bad enough to be written off.
View it as a bold but unfulfilling curiosity, not a failure.