Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) Alfred Hitchcock

This review is part of the Carole Lombard Blogathon being hosted by Carole and Co.

The name Alfred Hitchcock on the movie screen evokes the notion of suspense or a thriller, even horror; some sort of on the edge of your seat nail biter for sure. Certainly, the name Alfred Hitchcock does not bring to mind the words ‘screwball comedy.’ Therefore, in 1941 when RKO released “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and the credits rolled on to the screen with the words “Directed by Alfred Hitchcock,” many theatergoers may have been surprised  by what they were about to see or even confused, then again, they may have been thrilled once they realized they were about to watch a delightful, charming, if not totally successful, battle of the sexes played by two of the finest and most attractive performers for this kind of film.

The plot is kind of farfetched to say the least, David and Ann Smith find out after three years of blissful marital battle they are not married due to a legal snafu. The Smith’s are a sophisticated couple who like to play conjugal mind games, one of which is locking themselves up in their bedroom for days. What goes on in the bedroom for three days? Well, their entire household staff is just as interested to know as we are, one gets the feeling the activities are sexual as well as combative, but it comes to a halt when a messenger from David’s Park Avenue law firm arrives at the apartment with some papers to be signed demanding to be taken to their room. Before David leaves, the couple embrace and reaffirm their promise to never leave the bedroom mad. Still there is tension in the air, especially when Ann asks the all important question, “If you had to do it over again, would you marry me?” David’s response is an honest but problem making, “no.”

Life only gets more complicated when the couple discover their marriage was never official due to some geographical mix up with the license at the time. Ann waits for David to propose, a proposal David is reluctant to put forward. Feisty Ann tosses David out of the house, quickly changing her name from Smith to Krausheimer and Ann begins dating David’s law partner, Jefferson Custer (Gene Raymond).

It is difficult to call this film totally successful because there are some periods of forced humor. The greatest pleasure is just watching two great comedic actors demonstrate their ability to entertain; they are masters of the art. Montgomery’s highlight has to be a scene that takes place in a nightclub one night when Chuck (Jack Carson), a friend of his hooks up the newly “single” David with a date, a floozy named Gertie (Betty Compton), for a night on the town.  Ann and Jefferson, inconveniently for David, are also at the club. David, embarrassed to be seen with the low class floozy, spots Ann at a nearby table and makes believe he is with another classier looking woman sitting opposite him. When that doesn’t work, he begins to punch himself in the face hoping to induce a nose bleed so he can plead an early escape. However, Gertie just happens to be an “expert” on stopping nose bleeds and her actions only draw more attention, including Ann’s.

This film represented Lombard’s return to comedy after a series of dramas and she is delightful as always and has some wonderful moments of her own, for example, when she bristles in anger over patronizing remarks made by David (You’re a good kid! he says at one point), and later toward the film’s ending Lake Placid scene when Ann attempts to arouse David’s jealousy, who just happens to be in a cabin next door, by making him think she is having an amorous, wild and crazy night with Jefferson.  

Alfred Hitchcock’s films always contained humor, though generally it was not as light and fluffy as it is here. Written by Norman Krasna whose works included “Wife vs. Secretary,” “The Devil and Miss Jones,” “Princess O’Rourke,” “Bachelor Mother” and Sunday in New York,” the film never seems to get a full head of steam going. Fortunately, the two leads are charming and infectious enough to keep us engaged throughout. Hitchcock’s only other detour into comedy was with the much darker, black comedy, “The Trouble with Harry,” released in 1955.

Carole Lombard would undoubtedly have made a great Hitchcockian heroine in a more traditional Hitchcock film. She certainly could carry off the cool detached look of a Hitchcock blonde as exhibited here, and it is enticing to think about her in a more typical Hitchcock work. In the Hitchcock/Truffaut interview book, Sir Alfred discusses how he got involved with this film only as a favor to Lombard who wanted to make a picture with him, and he more or less followed Norman Krasna’s script since he claims he did not understand these kinds of characters. However, in Donald Spoto’s biography of Hitchcock, he writes, “The RKO archives tell a different story.”  It’s true he wanted to work with Lombard but Hitchcock was crazy about the story and wanted to do a typical American comedy with typical American characters. (1) Hitchcock adds in the Truffaut interview a story about how early in his career he made the now famous statement about how “actors are cattle.” Lombard was well known for her sense of humor, and Hitchcock talks about how on the first day of filming, Lombard had a small corral built, and in the corral were three young calves. Around the neck of each was a sign with one of the stars names, Carole Lombard, Robert Montgomery and Gene Raymond written on it.   Sadly, this was Lombard’s next to last film before she tragically died in a plane crash. We can only imagine if she and Sir Alfred would have ever worked together again and what could have been.

 

Footnotes:

(1) Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius (Donald Spoto) – Spoto also mentions that they tried to secure Cary Grant as Lombard’s co-star. They also went after Fredric March and George Brent before signing Montgomery. Additionally, despite Hitchcock’s statement that he just shot Krasna’s screenplay there are various verbal touches of Hitch in the film including the line, he used for the first time and would use in future films, “This isn’t alcohol…it’s medicine…it kills germs.” Spoto points to the 1958 film “Vertigo” where James Stewart hands Kim Novak, as Judy, a glass of brandy and says. “Drink this straight down, it’s just like medicine.”

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23 comments on “Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) Alfred Hitchcock

  1. Dave Crosby says:

    Dear John,

    Thanks for your review. Hitchcock and Lombard apparently had similar senses of humor and enjoyed joking and teasing each other on the set. And Lombard, reacting to Hitch’s famous line, “Actors are cattle,” directed his traditional cameo scene, a shot of him walking past, if I remember correctly, a theatre. Despite its nature as a simple static shot, Lombard got a kick out of insisting Hitchcock do take after take.

    Always,

    Dave

    • John Greco says:

      Dave! – Thanks again very much. Good story. I would really have liked to have seen Lombard in a more traditional AH film. She would have made a wonderful cold Hitch blonde.

  2. vp19 says:

    Great post — thanks for contributing to the blogathon!

    Just one little mixup, however: Norman Krasna wrote the screenplay for “The Devil And Miss Jones.” The film you referred to might have benefited from a Krasna script, but it would have put an entirely new spin on the term “sex comedy.”

    • John Greco says:

      Ouch! (LOL). Can I claim I did that purposely to see if anyone caught it? Guess not. Seriously, thanks for picking that up, I fixed it.

  3. The Lady Eve says:

    I’ve always liked “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” though I’d have much preferred Cary Grant over Robert Montgomery as David. Montgomery is very good, but Grant would’ve been, well, you know. Grant might’ve been especially interesting in the nightclub scene – where David is embarrassed to be out with floozy Betty Compson while his estranged wife is there with Gene Raymond – kinda similar to a scene in Grant’s great screwball, “The Awful Truth” – where he’s out with dizzy Joyce Compton and embarrassed when he finds estranged wife Irene Dunne is also there (with Ralph Bellamy).

    It’s always puzzled me why Carole Lombard and Cary Grant made only one film together, the melodrama “In Name Only.” They were natural co-stars – both supremely talented all around, brilliant in comedy – especially screwball, and both were simply gorgeous.

    One of my favorite moments in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is the one where the two revisit an old favorite restaurant (now a dive) – and the cat sitting on their table turns away when David offers his soup. The following scene, in which Lombard throws Montgomery out, is classic.

    Great choice and great post, John.

    • John Greco says:

      Grant would have been wonderful in the role of David, totally on board with that. I always thought IN NAME ONLY was a strange coupling for these two, and actually was under the impression for a long time it was a comedy until I actually watched it. Maybe that’s why I was disappointed in it. Grant and Lombard in a screwball comedy would have been classic! Thanks very much, Eve!

  4. Kim says:

    Nice review. I love The Trouble with Harry, so I am not surprised that Hitch was good at comedy and that he made Mr. and Mrs. Smith work–if only to place a path in front of Lombard where she could play in one of his thrillers.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Kim,

      I am also a fan of THE TOUBLE WITH HARRY and like I mentioned below if only we could have seen Lombard in a AH thriller!

  5. DorianTB says:

    John, I very much enjoyed your review of MR. AND MRS. SMITH; now I’m dreaming of what could have been if Alfred Hitchcock could have directed Carole Lombard and Cary Grant in the film; heck, I’m wishing Hitchcock, Lombard, and Grant could have teamed up for a comedy-thriller; it could have been a sprightly REAR WINDOW of its day! Oh, and Lombard’s cattle gag has always been one of my favorite movie-making anecdotes! :-)

    • John Greco says:

      Dorian,

      Sorry for the late reply, Ihave no explanation except for advanced age and the art of forgetfulness! I do wish Hitch could have directed Lombard and Grant in just about anything. They would have been fantastic. Thanks again!

  6. Page says:

    John,
    I just recently watched this again. It’s one of those films I can’t pass up any time it re-airs.

    I always enjoy your very thoughtful reviews and this one was top notch. I especially love your bits of trivia. Carol seemed like the kind of star (and yes she was a STAR) who anyone would be thrilled to work with. I’ve never heard any bad stories about her onset behavior an the story about the cows sounds hilarious.

    I have also wondered if she would have been Hitch’s ‘go to’ blonde had she not met with tragedy. I think we were just getting to see what she was capable of performance wise.

    A wonderful contribution to the Carol-tennial.
    Page

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks very much Page for your kind words. Lombard’s death was a tragedy in many ways, including the loss of her talent and what could have been. I think all of us film lovers “wonder” what could have been if she had lived.

  7. R. D. Finch says:

    John, a thoughtful post on a film that for me is enjoyable but definitely a mixed bag. In this kind of comedy a great deal depends on the director’s lightness of touch and creating at least the illusion of spontaneity. I just don’t think Hitchcock, with his penchant for planning out every last detail well in advance and his need for absolute control of the filming process, was ideally suited to this kind of movie. Yes, as some have said, Cary Grant probably would have been better as the male lead. But Robert Montgomery was no slouch at this kind of role and it’s a surprise he isn’t better. He seems to be on auto-pilot. Maybe he sensed that the whole thing was coming off as too forced. But I certainly have no complaints about Lombard, who handles the comedy-drama aspects of the script with aplomb. And I don’t think she ever looked more beautiful than she does in this film. The only thing I can’t understand is why Montgomery would balk at remarrying her. To me that’s incomprehensible.

    • John Greco says:

      LOL! I agree R.D. remarrying Lombard was “incomprehensible..” I think you bring up a good point about Hitchcock’s penchant for having absolute control being a problem with his making this kind of film. A looser style may have added to the pleasure. As you say it’s a mixed bag.

  8. ClassicBecky says:

    I’m late, but I hope you feel better late than never! You won’t believe this of a fellow classic movie fan, but I’ve never seen this movie. I love Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard, and I’ve passed it up every time. Shame on me! Your description shows me I’ve really missed something. I’ll have to rectify that next time TCM shows it!

    I agree that it would have been something special to see Lombard and Hitchcock together. Hitch loved cool blondes, but he also liked them pliable. Carole was anything but that! Great post, John

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Becky and yes you do need to watch this. Let’s make this your assignment next time it shows up on TCM! Seriously, I hope you get the opportunity to see it. Not the greatest but it surely worth seeing.

  9. Sam Juliano says:

    Not one of my favorite Hitchcock films John, but you make all the rights calls here as far as I see it. Yes, it points to the tragedy of Lombard’s passing shortly thereafter, and there’s in no question this is far better than that awful remake of a few years back. It was clear that Hitch was shooting for humor far more than in any other film he made, and he wanted teh American home showcased, much he he did in the masterpiece SHADOW OF A DOUBT.

    You have really captured the film’s essence here John!

  10. fergalhughes says:

    Nice review .. you’re obviously quite the film buff. ‘Mr & Mrs Smith’ is a wonderful example of the American screwball and fair play to Hitchcock for what he did with it .. one of my personal favourite scenes: the Jeffersons arguing in the law firm’s offices with the pipes all clanging awkwardly

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks, appreicate it! I always liked the nightclub scene and the final sequence at Lake Placid. Lombard is always good in this type of film and while I consider this minor Hitchcock, it is still a worthy effort.

      • fergalhughes says:

        Yeah, the niteclub scene is a hoot (“Just cut my throat with it!”) .. hilarious the way David pretends to be ‘with’ the more attractive and sophisticated blonde to his left and the way he’s seen to do it is so smart and clever, the first time I saw it, I momentarily forgot he *wasn’t* with her.

  11. Dhiraj says:

    Hitchcock had a flair for exploiting the dramatic value of contrast. The characters are average people with ordinary intelligence and subdued by ordinary fears. This realism makes the haunting occurrences more shocking.

    http://modernartists.blogspot.com/2011/10/alfred-hitchcock-rear-window-and-beyond.html

  12. John Greco says:

    Dhiraj,

    Sorry for the late response. Good point. Most of his characters ar ordinary people put into extraordinary circumstances and it does add to the affect.. Thanks for the liink on REAR WINDOW, will be checking it out soon.

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