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