Alfred Hitchcock Tries Screwball Comedy with “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”

8 08 2010

“That picture was done as a friendly gesture to Carole Lombard. In a weak moment, I accepted.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock may have claimed that he directed “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” as a mere favor to a friend, but I’ve read elsewhere that the studio’s records show that Hitch pursued the picture. As his only real comedy (elsewhere I’ve seen it described as his only American comedy, but I can’t find anything he directed in England that would qualify), it’s an anamoly, and, ultimately, neither funny enough nor satisfying enough.

Released by RKO Radio Pictures in 1941, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” is about David and Anne Smith, played by Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard. They’re a young married couple living in a glamorous life in a New York City apartment. He’s a successful lawyer, and she is his well-dressed wife. As in most screwball comedies, their relationship is quirky: They have a list of rules, one of which says that if they ever quarrel, they will not leave their bedroom until it’s resolved, even if it takes days. The other rule is that once a month, one  of them may ask a question that the other is bound to answer with total honesty.

Naturally, we start off with them in the middle of a 3-day argument that’s kept him out of the office. It ends over breakfast, at which point she asks her question of the month: “If you had to do it all over again, would you?” He hesitates, but then says yes, of course he would marry her again.

An old friend tells Mrs. Smith she's not really married; will he ever get home to his family in Elmyra?

At his office, though, trouble is waiting, in the form of a lawyer sent to explain that the Smiths’ marriage is not legal. Anne learns of the problem as well, and over dinner – in Momma Lucy’s, the restaurant they used to go when they were younger, now rundown – they argue over how long he took to bring it up. (Anne’s mother is mortified by the situation, even offering her daughter the chance to sleep at home until they can be legally married again.) Anne throws David out, and he spends the night at his club.

Before long, Anne has a job (as a clerk at a department store), is dating (first her new boss, then David’s business partner), and continually fending off David’s attempts to patch things up – and ignoring his attempts to ruin her chances with the partner, a Southern gentlemen called Jeff.

Meanwhile, David joins his friend Chuck on a double date at the Florida Club, where he knows Anne and Jeff will be that night. David is appalled at his date’s lack of manners: On the pheasant she’s ordered for dinner, she first says it’s like chicken, but too tough, then adds that it’s not bad once you work on it a while.

The plot comes to a head on a winter vacation at Lake Placid, where Jeff and Anne are visiting his parents. David had planned a vacation for the same time and place, so he is there as well, pretending to be deathly ill so Anne will feel bad for him. She discovers that he’s faking, but when Jeff gently refuses to come to her defense, she realizes that he’s too genteel for her fiery temperament. She decides to leave on cross-country skis, which she’s never tried before. David helps her on with them, but she can’t get out of her chair to leave the cottage they’re in. As she flails around in her easy chair, he leans over her, she looks up at him and melts from anger to love in a flash. It’s an abrupt ending to a movie that echoes “The Taming of the Shrew.”

The problem with “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” is that it’s just not funny enough. Hitchcock was adept at injecting humor into tense scenarios, but here, in a flat-out comedy, the humor is not strong enough. The story moves at a breakneck pace, and the actors are broad and fun, especially Lombard, but it just doesn’t add up. The whole premise of the Smith’s relationship is too silly to allow us to sympathize with their difficulties.

That’s not to say that “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” is not worth watching. The story is told with bold, confident camera work, and the cast includes a number of character actors, including a few who appeared in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Also, there is a terrific set piece in which Anne and Jeff go to the World’s Fair and enjoy a parachute ride – until it breaks down, stranding them in the rain.

The story is that “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” was written with Cary Grant in mind, and I have to wonder if it would have worked better with him instead of Robert Montgomery. Hitchcock’s next film, “Suspicion,” was his first collaboration with Grant.

Here is the very odd trailer for the movie – odd because it doesn’t include any clips from the film itself, just still photos.

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