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carole lombard 01

CMBA Hitchcock Blogathon: ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith’

Posted by vp19 on 2011.01.17 at 00:26
Current mood: accomplishedaccomplished

For many years, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” was a cinematic orphan of sorts. It was snubbed by the Alfred Hitchcock community (“It wasn’t true Hitch; after all, it was a comedy!”) and only grudgingly accepted by Carole Lombard fans, often for the opposite reason (“It’s an OK movie –- disregard who directed it”).

Hitchcock himself didn’t help much with his responses the few times he was asked about the film, saying little other than that he had done it as a favor to Lombard, who's shown above directing him in his customary cameo. (And that may be true; Hitch’s first American home was the St. Cloud Road residence that Carole rented to him following her marriage to Clark Gable.) And in 2005, memories of the movie were further muddled when Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie did an unrelated film of the same name -– though it was an adaptation of a novel by that title.

In recent years, the 1941 “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” has undergone a re-evaluation. To be sure, it’s still an anomaly in the Hitchcock canon, and will likely always be seen as such, but it’s moved up a bit in the Lombard hierarchy -– maybe not alongside her “big four” of “Twentieth Century,” “My Man Godfrey,” “Nothing Sacred” and “To Be Or Not To Be,” but as part of a highly-regarded second tier with “Hands Across The Table,” “Virtue” and “Vigil In The Night” (the last of these a heavy drama more respected than loved). And while romantic comedy may not have been Hitch’s forte, he did have a sense of humor about his work, and that adds to the “Smith” allure, which is probably why Lombard wanted him to direct.

Two other factors have worked against “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.” The first is its theme -- the marital squabbles of a Manhattan couple, leading to their separation and their comical attempts at one-upsmanship. Sounds a lot like “The Awful Truth,” doesn’t it? (“Truth” was frequently adapted for radio, including a 1940 version starring Lombard and Robert Young.) While “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” doesn’t quite hit the heights of the film “The Awful Truth,” and it actually takes the concept in a slightly different direction, Norman Krasna’s script is nonetheless appealing, if dated in many ways. (More on that later.)

Many believe the male lead is a second drawback to “Smith,” in that he’s not Cary Grant (whom Lombard, as de facto producer, sought but couldn’t get), who had starred in “Truth” with Irene Dunne. Fate would thus deny film buffs a chance to see the king and queen of the screwball comedy co-starring in that genre. We instead get Robert Montgomery, who might not have had Cary’s charisma but was an accomplished actor and fine farceur in his own right. (However, his personality is at times overpowered by Lombard’s, something that probably wouldn’t have happened with Grant in that role.)

It’s important to remember that when this film was made in late 1940 (then released in early 1941), Hitchcock wasn’t yet Hitchcock in the eyes of U.S. moviegoers. Yes, he had achieved American success with “Rebecca” and “Foreign Correspondent,” and his British films had gained him some earlier stateside renown, but he hadn’t yet become a “brand name.” No, the big angle for “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” was Carole’s return to comedy after several dramatic roles that, while generally well-received by critics, did tepidly at the box office.

And Hitchcock photographs Lombard lovingly. Her initial scene, where she peeks out from under a blanket, is sublime, and that elegant sex appeal lasts throughout the movie. Whether it was Hitchcock’s direction or simply returning to the genre she was most comfortable in, she seems liberated from her previous serious self.

Hitchcock also provides a bit of a chilling undercurrent, as if he were saying to the audience, “Were there no Production Code, just imagine where I’d take these characters.” For example, take the Ferris wheel scene, where Carole’s character Ann and her (ex-)husband David’s best friend -– among those trying to woo her now that her marriage to David technically never took place -– ride, only to be stopped at the top when the power goes out…and it starts raining. The way it’s handled, you can almost sense Hitch’s macabre glee.

Hitchcock also adds a tone of despair, rare for the romantic comedy, when Ann and David, hoping to rekindle the flame, return to the Italian restaurant where their courtship began. The place has fallen on hard times; no one dines there any more aside from a few cats, and a multi-ethnic crew of urchins stares at the couple as if to wonder, “What are you two doing here?”

Perhaps the most jarring scene in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” at least from a 2011 perspective, comes when Ann -– who now lives on her own after throwing David out of the apartment they had called home -– gets a job in a department store, only to have David come in and tell store officials she is his wife. Ann is then fired, as the manager explains that it is store policy “not to employ married women.” That, of course, would be illegal today (and likely lead to boycotts of that store), but with the economy not entirely up to full speed in 1940 and unemployment still a problem for many families, two-paycheck households were frowned upon. (Some 70 years later, many two-paycheck households can barely make ends meet!)

Carole Lombard’s premature death has led to many “what-ifs,” and one of them deals with Hitch. Might she have joined the ranks of the “Hitchcock blondes,” assuming she technically wasn’t one already? (Many place a Ford Frick-style asterisk beside her name because she was in a comedy.) It’s easy to look at Hitch’s later films, note the female lead and then substitute Carole (though it only goes so far, since by the 1950s she would have been too old to have played roles that went to Grace Kelly, Kim Novak or Eva Marie Saint), but it’s also simplistic.

Had Hitchcock wanted Lombard for a project, he likely would have found a property that best suited her -– and that might have been something he never actually filmed. (Some claim Carole wasn’t “icy” enough to have been a prototypical Hitchcock blonde. But as was the case with Lombard and Columbia mogul Harry Cohn, her give-and-take -- the ability to challenge a man on his own terms –- won Hitch’s admiration.)

It’s entirely possible Hitchcock and Lombard might have collaborated in a different manner. Several stars began producing films after World War II, and with her keen interest in the business side of the industry, there’s a very good chance Carole would have gone in that direction –- and not only for films she would have appeared in. Perhaps she would have sought Hitch to make a film or two for her production company.

Interesting things to ponder while watching -– and belatedly appreciating -– “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.”

Note: The other Hitchcock blogathon reviews are in; find them at http://clamba.blogspot.com/. Films reviewed are:

"The Birds" -– Classic Film & TV Café
"Dial M for Murder" -– True Classics: The ABCs of Film
"The Lady Vanishes" -– MacGuffin Movies
"Lifeboat" -– Classicfilmboy’s Movie Paradise
"The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956) -– Reel Revival
"Marnie" -– My Love of Old Hollywood
"North By Northwest" -– Bette’s Classic Movie Blog
"Notorious" -– Twenty Four Frames
"The Pleasure Garden" -– Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
"Rear Window" -– Java’s Journey
"Rebecca" -– ClassicBecky’s Film and Literary Review
"Rope" –- Kevin’s Movie Corner
"Shadow of a Doubt" -– Great Entertainers Media Archive
"The 39 Steps" -– Garbo Laughs
Three classic Hitchcock killers -– The Lady Eve’s Reel Life
"Torn Curtain" -- Via Margutta 51
"The Trouble with Harry" -– Bit Part Actors
"Vertigo" -– Noir and Chick Flicks
"The Wrong Man" -– The Movie Projector


Just ask
ACaryGrantFan at 2011-01-17 05:59 (UTC) (Link)
I really enjoyed your review of one of Hitchcock's films I haven't had the pleasure of seeing. Your love of Carole and knowledge of her career made it all the more interesting.
Thanks for picking a film I may never had found an interest in until now.
garbolaughs.wordpress.com at 2011-01-17 08:27 (UTC) (Link)
Really interesting review! This is another one I have yet to see; frankly I had no idea Hitchcock ever did a full-on comedy. It's funny, because when watching The 39 Steps during the scenes between Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll I kept thinking how wonderful it would be if Hitchcock had done a romantic comedy (which I touch upon in my review). It turns out he did, and with the marvelous Carole Lombard! Thanks for posting about this forgotten gem and piquing my interest -- I'm sure a lot of other readers will be eager to see this one too!
lefalcone at 2011-01-17 12:36 (UTC) (Link)
One of my favorite movies.
caroleirene at 2011-01-17 13:05 (UTC) (Link)
I LOVE Mr. and Mrs. Smith. It's absolutely hilarious! I've always felt that somehow, it should be considered on a higher tier of Hitch's work because it's so unique--his only comedy! Shouldn't his fans enjoy seeing him do something different? It's a better testament to his talent.
Allen Hefner
Allen Hefner at 2011-01-17 16:33 (UTC) (Link)

Why we are all here!

A post like this is why the Blogathon is such a great idea. Thanks for adding your interest in Lombard to the mix. I will look for Mr. and Mrs. Smith. It has to be better than the Pitt/Jolie movie!

Make sure you read my post on The Trouble with Harry for another comedy by Hitch.
(Anonymous) at 2011-01-17 18:58 (UTC) (Link)

Mr & Mrs Smith

I LIKE "Mr. & Mrs. Smith"! It's an underrated screwball - and I think it proves Hitchcock could have worked in any genre had he wanted to...I do think that though Robt. Montgomery was very good, Cary Grant would have elevated the film. A great take on a film that deserves more respect than it gets. Learned much from your blog.

The Lady Eve
Ivan G Shreve Jr
Ivan G Shreve Jr at 2011-01-17 18:58 (UTC) (Link)

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

I couldn't stifle my laughter from some of your observations because when you wrote "Many believe the male lead is a second drawback to 'Smith'” I responded with "What 'many'? He's talking about me!" The male leads are, to my way of thinking, the detriment in this movie and why it's not one of my favorites. Every time I force myself to watch it I find myself saying: "Do you honestly mean to tell me that these are the only two guys Lombard can make it with?" (I feel bad about ragging on Montgomery because I do like him in films like Here Comes Mr. Jordan and Ride the Pink Horse but most of the time he's onscreen in a movie I find myself staring at my shoe.)

I think Saboteur would have improved a great deal if Lombard played the female lead but I think that may the only Hitch "blonde" film I can envision her in because as you've said, she would probably have been too old by the time of Grace Kelly-Vera Miles-Kim Novak cycle. It is, however, fun to think about. Very nice write-up on a film that, again, I would watch Topaz before settling in for a look-see.
classicfilmboy.com at 2011-01-17 19:17 (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

This has been on my rewatch list for years. When I first saw it so many years ago when I went on a Hitchcock bender, I just didn't get this. Plus it was my first Carole Lombard film, and nothing clicked for me. Now I adore Carole, and it's time to revisit "Mr. and Mrs. Smith." I have a feeling I'll be pleasantly surprised. I like your musings on whether they would have worked together again. I think Hitchcock could have found the right material for her that combined humor and drama and Hitchcock's usual touches. As always, a well-written and thoughtful post.
(Anonymous) at 2011-01-17 19:44 (UTC) (Link)
Really enjoyed reading your review! To be honest, when I first saw Mr. and Mrs. Smith several years ago, I thought it was little more than a pale imitation of The Awful Truth, but having seen it a few times since, I've grown somewhat fond of it. Carole Lombard is so charming that she elevates the sometimes schlocky (for lack of a better word) material.
(Anonymous) at 2011-01-17 19:46 (UTC) (Link)
Forgot to sign my post! :)

True Classics
(Anonymous) at 2011-01-17 20:51 (UTC) (Link)
This was an engrossing, well-done review on what is surely Hitchcock's most atypical film! I always liked Hitchcock's story about Carole Lombard's joke after hearing his comment about "actors as cattle." When Hitch walked onto the set of MR. AND MRS. SMITH, Carole had a corral with three cows in it. Each cow wore a name card with Carole Lombard, Robert Montgomery, or Gene Raymond written on it. (Rick29 from the Classic Film & TV Cafe)
(Anonymous) at 2011-01-17 21:40 (UTC) (Link)
I watched this film only once back in the '70's or early '80s though I was fortunate to see it on the big screen. Grant would have been great in this, still I will not take anything away from Montgomery, however as you mention fate would not allow us the opportunity to see Lombard and Grant directed by AH. I really do need to watch this again!!!

John Greco (24frames)
(Anonymous) at 2011-01-17 22:46 (UTC) (Link)

An acquired taste

I have to admit that the first time I saw this film I found it kind of boring and slow. The second and third time I loved it! I'm glad that the only time Hitch made a comedy Carole Lombard was in it. As you said, she would probably have worked with Hitchcock again. My favorite scene is the one in the wheel, that kind of 'rapid' change of shots showing that the character was so wrong in her appreciation ("It's much better to stay where we are") because it started raining, was so great and now is so used in modern movies and series. Also loved the music! Great review, nice you got it :)
(Anonymous) at 2011-01-17 22:47 (UTC) (Link)

Re: An acquired taste

-- Clara :)
(Anonymous) at 2011-01-18 02:37 (UTC) (Link)

Robert Montgomery

I've never seen another film starring Robert Montgomery, but I love his pairing with Carole. In fact, having seen almost every film Carole made from 1932-42, I think he may be the best co-star she ever had.

While William Powell is probably the most talented light comedian to play opposite Carole, I never felt they truly would have lived happily ever after in MY MAN GODFREY -- as characters, they were not compatible. But I truly believe in the marriage between Mr. and Mrs. Smith. For better or for worse, they deserve one another.

Montgomery wasn't afraid to portray a flawed American male. Cary Grant was too continental and perfect to bring out the same neuroses. And it would have been difficult to imagine Carole turning down Cary's repeated proposals for reconciliation. I also find the Montgomery/Lombard pairing to be credibly physical -- there's a reason they spend a lot of time in the bedroom, and for that reason, this may be the sexiest film Carole made.
(Anonymous) at 2011-01-18 02:58 (UTC) (Link)

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Hi - I'm not really anonymous. This is ClassicBecky. I just didn't know how to log in with my Google account! I am covered with shame to admit that not only have I never watched this movie all the way through, but I had no idea it was a Hitchcock! And I call myself a movie buff and Hitchcock lover! For shame. Loved your review, and need to plug this gaping hole in my knowledge portfolio!
(Anonymous) at 2011-01-18 07:34 (UTC) (Link)
A very thorough examination of this film, one of the most unusual in the Hitchcock body of work. I don't think that screwball comedy was a good fit with his eccentric sense of humor--he lacks the requisite light touch--but you have to hand it to the man for experimenting with so many different types of films when he could have just stuck with what he was best at. It is a lot like "The Awful Truth," isn't it, but that being for me the pinnacle of screwball comedy, "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" is bound to suffer in comparison. I never understood why David would initially balk at remarrying someone as gorgeous and lovable as Carole Lombard. That just doesn't make sense to me, and if you can't accept that, it's pretty hard to accept the ramifications of that decision, which is pretty much the rest of the movie. One thing is undeniable, though, which is that as lovely as Lombard was, I don't think she ever looked more beautiful than in this film, and to gaze upon her lovingly photographed goddess-like features is reason enough to see the movie. For me the ideal Hitchcock role for Lombard would have been something like the Madeleine Carroll part in "The 39 Steps," where she could have been beautiful and sassy at the same time.

R. D. Finch, The Movie Projector
(Anonymous) at 2011-01-18 20:16 (UTC) (Link)

From N and Chick Flicks

As a long-time Hitchcock fan, I just watched one of the funniest screwball comedies I have seen in a long time. Carole Lombard, is wonderful and Hitchcock, excelled as much at comedy as suspense and this one proves it. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful review.
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