Week 25: ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’ – 1941

‘All I did was to photograph the scenes as written’ – Alfred Hitchcock to Francois Truffaut, 1966

This is a bit of an aberration, not totally bad just a bit of a waste of time – and not in a good way. As Hitchcock had skirted with fairly lightly comedic moments in ‘Foreign Correspondent’ or ‘Secret Agent’, here he leaps with both clomping feet into a fully fledged (attempted) comedy which, for me, proves both clunky and decidedly unfunny.

The essential plot sees the eponymous couple (played by Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery) who realise their marriage is actually null and void (for various legal reasons) and see it as an opportunity to get shot of each other. Various machinations ensue involving each of them behaving pretty shabbily to the other before the inevitable and predictable reconciliation as they realise their undying love for each other. Yawn. It’s not done well and, although the stars are trying (sometimes very) the whole thing falls on its face somewhat.

What’s to like? The early scenes of  their domestic love-in (they’ve locked themselves in for three days, but have reached a total of eight consecutive days previously) are nicely arranged and put together and establishes the love/hate relationship they enjoy/despise.

They are nicely eccentric – it feels like they’re in a hotel, their maid bringing sustenance at regular intervals to the dishevelled, unshaven, chain smoking Mr.. This is their way of working through a big marital bust-up and it’s quietly amusing. The tone of the film, however, seems a little off – especially when they both independently find out about their non-marriage and start plotting against the other party. They fluctuate between flirtiness (she playing footsie under the breakfast table until he says that if he had the chance again he wouldn’t marry her, her legs dropping swiftly to the floor – good move, Mr. Smith…), and crockery wielding chaos.

I like both of the stars. Montgomery is likeable with a nice naiveté, Lombard sexy and blonde and scheming (especially in her tousled bedroom bound scenes) – all attractive.

The plot is interesting and obviously is a lot more problematic in the 1940’s than it would be today (the idea that they have been living together as husband and wife all that time), she saying that he was going to throw her aside ‘like a squeezed lemon’ after having his (now unmarried) way with her. Their first date as newly unmarried people sees them returning to a restaurant they used to love, only to find it transformed into a male run bar with added on bad food – they gawped at out on their street-bound table by passing by kids, her skirt pinned up due to the passing of time and the inevitable filling out of the waistline due to married relaxation. Bold that Carole Lombard (Mrs. Clark Gable) would let herself be portrayed as a bit overweight (she’s clearly not) in these scenes.

The movie does feel a bit stagebound – you could see how this would work in the theatre and Hitchcock is struggling to break it out in any cinematic ways (as previously seen in such titles as ‘Juno and the Paycock’).  I don’t want to see Hitchcock directing what should be snappy dialogue scenes in a conventional way, struggling to get any kind of experimental camera work/moves in there (there are none), the scenes playing out in a very stolid and uninventive manner.

Even when he manages to move the camera around it feels surprisingly clunky. For example the big crane move at 41 minutes in is pretty wobbly given the access the director would have had to equipment and technicians. The camera gets to fly a bit when Mrs. Smith goes to a fairground with a new suitor who happens to be Mr. Smith’s business partner Jeff Custer (Gene Raymond) and they get stuck up a ferris wheel – Hitchcock using a loose, almost handheld, camera to express the distance from the ground. But the quality of the stock shots used here lets it down, it feels a little like an attempt to get some motion into the whole thing and fairly random that they should go to a fair/go on the big wheel/get stuck up there for ages until it starts to rain etc.

The performances are likeable enough – stars of this calibre are never bad but they’re weighed down by dialogue that hampers them from truly flying. Montgomery gives a pretty funny turn as the beleaguered hubbie trying to outsmart the twisty turny female, and he has a funny face filled with blank disbelieving expressions of frustration. I like his drinking buddy/confidante (Chuck – played by Jack Carson) who seems to live at the gentlemen’s club Mr. Smith seeks refuge in – the guy offering the sort of useless male advice that is guaranteed to land Mr. Smith deeper in the hole of unhappiness. Chuck’s advice seems to revolve around the consumption of gin and the taking of many saunas as cure alls when marital strife gets too much. The fact that he appears to be residing permanently in the club suggest he’s none too successful with the ladies, but at least he’s good company.

I didn’t buy the whole new relationship Mrs. Smith embarks on with Jeff. It’s clearly a mismatch and you never believe for a second that this is a viable alternative to her (non) husband. I do like Mr. Smith’s line in reference to Jeff:

‘I know you’re in love with me – you couldn’t have anything to do with that pile of southern fried chicken’.

Ultimately this kind of movie would work if you think that the original couple may actually not get back together and they drift so far apart you can’t think how it will possibly be resolved. But here it just feels like marking time until an inevitable reconciliation and therefore it just seems to be a succession of vaguely amusing scenes and incidents. Trying to open it up a but more, the new couple go off to a ski resort and Mr. Smith appears frozen and collapsing. There follows a pretty interminable scene where they try to get him indoors, which is too long and not nearly funny enough – I was losing patience with the whole venture by this point.

It goes on and it’s all ok, but it feels like that in another director’s hands it could have been snappier or pacier or funnier or…just better: or maybe it’s just simply not great material to start with. In the hands of a Howard Hawks (see ‘His Girl Friday’ or ‘Bringing Up Baby’), or the peerless Billy Wilder (‘Some Like it Hot’/ ‘The Apartment’) the movie may have sparkled and shone, where with the suspense obsessed cinematic innovator Hitchcock it’s just a bit dull. The final image of the crossed skis as they are reunited offscreen is sweet, evoking a letter sign off kiss, but it’s a small idea in a film that struggles to offer many more of these touches.

It’s an interesting and funny premise turned into a not fantastic script and then directed by rote and as such is nothing more than a mild curiosity in the Hitchcock canon (with some of the usual creaky old rear projection, especially in the ski resort scenes). Plus, it has nowhere near as many guns as the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie movie of the same name 64 years later (which is also a bit of a shambles). Lesson to be learnt? Stop making movies called ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’.

Miscellaneous notes

*Carole Lombard’s life ended tragically in a plane crash the following year – she was dead at 33.

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