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Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)

October 15th, 2007 · 3 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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A disheveled looking David Smith (Robert Montgomery) is sequestered in his bedroom, where his wife Ann (Carole Lombard) refuses to talk to him. One of the rules Ann has imposed on their marriage is that when her husband and her fight, neither is allowed leave the bedroom until they make up. After three days of impasse they do just that, but David upsets his wife yet again when he tells her that if he had it to do over again, he wouldn’t marry her.

A chamber of commerce man from Beecham, Idaho – where the Smiths were married – pays David a visit at his law firm office. He explains that the area was annexed by Nevada at the time, and that anyone married there with an Idaho marriage license is not legally married. David is thrilled by the news. He plans to take Ann out to the Italian restaurant where they first dated and recapture the freedom of that time, but doesn’t mention anything to his wife about the legal status of their relationship.

The commerce man drops by Ann’s home to share the news with her personally. She assumes David plans a romantic evening and will propose to her all over again. Neither the suit she digs out of the closet or the Italian restaurant turn out to be quite the same the second time around though. As soon as Ann realizes that her husband has no intention of “marrying” her, she kicks him out of the house.

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David’s partner Jeff Custer (Gene Raymond) – a well-meaning square – decides to represent Ann legally and get to know her personally. As badly as she wants to make her husband jealous, Ann fails to spark much chemistry with Custer. David tails Ann to her new job at a department store and gets her fired. He then follows Ann and her new beau on their skiing trip to Lake Placid, where David schemes to win back his tempestuous wife.

Production history 
With Rebecca a critical sensation, and his second Hollywood film – Foreign Correspondent – complete, American studios were vying for the services of director Alfred Hitchcock. Among them was RKO, which had a project that one of the world’s biggest stars – Carole Lombard – had agreed to topline. Her conditions were that it had to be shot in five weeks, and that the studio acquire Hitchcock to direct it.

Producer Harry Edington sent the script to the director in May 1940. A month passed and Hitchcock still hadn’t read it. Titled Mr. and Mrs. by Norman Krasna, it was a screwball comedy. Once Hitchcock did read it, he proposed that the studio scrap it and let his wife Alma Reville write a comedy for Lombard that was original. RKO wasn’t interested. The project became a dark horse for Hitchcock to make his next picture.

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Producer David O. Selznick had Hitchcock under contract and rejected most of the offers pouring in. RKO offered Hitchcock $100,000 per film for two pictures, plus a $15,000 bonus if he finished both films in a year. Selznick accepted and by August 1940, Hitchcock was shooting Mr. and Mrs. Smith as a “friendly gesture” to Lombard. Released January 1941, critics were impressed by its hilarity, as well as the versatility of its director. With Lombard on the marquee, it was also a hit at the box office.

Most of Hitchcock’s thrillers are laced with wit and sophistication, and the director’s screwball comedy is no exception; the only difference is that there’s no murder. Mr. and Mrs. Smith isn’t as fast paced as His Girl Friday or as funny as Bringing Up Baby, but it stays relatively amusing throughout. The phrase “screwball comedy” was coined for Carole Lombard, and she is lovely, whipsmart and fun to watch in this.

Robert Montgomery gets the best moments, while Lombard is relegated to a straight role. Gene Raymond acquits himself, but the script doesn’t assemble much of a supporting cast around them. Hitchcock scholars herald this film as proof he could’ve mastered other genres, and they’re correct. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is nicely made, but suffers in comparison to any comedy directed by Howard Hawks or Ernst Lubitsch in the same period.

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“Not quite screwy enough to be a screwball comedy, the paper-thin script offers a few battle-of-the-sexes laughs and some witty repartee, but not enough to sustain interest through an hour and a half,” writes Diane Wild at DVD Verdict.

Jeffrey Anderson at Combustible Celluloid writes, “The strangest thing about Mr. and Mrs. Smith is that it’s a good movie, a very good movie, a top-notch screwball comedy, in fact. It’s so crisp and snappy that one might think Howard Hawks or Ernst Lubitsch had made it.”

“This effort lacks everything that makes a Hitchcock film entertaining – style, surprise and a wicked sense of humor. If you’re looking for a laugh from the master, give The Trouble With Harry a turn, a true Hitchcock comedy,” writes Lisa Skrzyniarz at Crazy For Cinema.

“You’ll see one of the funniest comedy situations that ever hit the screen.” View the 1941 trailer.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Golden Age of Hollywood

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Damian // Oct 17, 2007 at 9:18 pm

    Plus,it’s better than the recent Brad Pitt/Angeleina Jolie film that bears the same name but which has no other connections whatsoever (other than they both involved a married couple having problems).

  • 2 Megan // Oct 18, 2007 at 4:01 pm

    Joe, you are doing a fantastic job with this project. I especially appreciate that you are doing it without giving away the entire plot of the films. I haven’t seen this one, and now I’m going to, because I want to know more!

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Oct 18, 2007 at 6:00 pm

    Damian: Even though I like Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie more than Robert Montgomery & Carole Lombard, the “new” Mr. and Mrs. Smith was one of the worst movies I’ve seen in a theater. It illustrates that while acting has gotten so much better in movies, the writing seems to have less and less finesse to it every year.

    Megan: Thanks for your approbation! On one hand, I figure that these movies have been out for 50 or 60 years and that SPOILER warnings are silly. But I also refuse to give away an ending intentionally. I feel if you’re interested enough to want to know an ending to something, go watch the movie! And you could do a lot worse than Mr. and Mrs. Smith for a screwball comedy.

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