Here’s a strange thing – a screwball comedy by Alfred Hitchcock. Mr and Mrs Smith is the only one he made, and it’s not very good. A “comedy of remarriage”, it’s not a thousand miles away in plot from The Philadelphia Story, about a husband and wife discovering that a legal technicality means their three-year marriage is void. If they want to be husband and wife for real, they’ll have to “remarry”. But, now they’ve got the chance, will they?
As a bit of a preamble to all this, some vital character furniture is put in place in an opening scene telling us in broad strokes that David (Robert Montgomery) and Ann (Carole Lombard) are in love with each other but also in love with themselves – they’re headstrong. This established, the largely nonsensical plot can now play out with a shimmer of dignity, though very few laughs. As he pushes, she pulls, and vice versa.
Montgomery is miscast. It should have been Cary Grant, according to legend, but Grant is supposed to have turned it down. Remember at all times that most movie factoids, particularly when it comes to who was or wasn’t meant to have had the role, are bullshit. But assuming there is something to this one, it was possibly because he’d just finished playing pretty much the same role in The Philadelphia Story a month earlier. Lombard is great though, this queen of screwball making Ann a mix of the tough and the tender, the head and the heart, a character that’s both real and a necessary movie cliché.
Mr and Mrs Smith keeps threatening to get into gear and become funny and there are moments when it starts to motor – particularly when he and she get into early stages of their stand-off, after she’s discovered that he knows the marriage is invalid and is deliberately not telling her. Surely he’s wasn’t planning on not telling her ever? She retaliates by immediately going out with other men and getting a job. Go, girl.
But there’s a streak of nastiness running through Norman Krasna’s screenplay that smothers the humour. And Montgomery’s playing of David as small-minded, priggish and deserving of nothing prompts images of Cary Grant playing the same scenes and squeezing some milk of human kindness out of David, somehow.
Hitchcock is distancing himself from the film even as he is making it. There are a few lovely zooms, fluid crane shots, a backwards tracking shot that’s clearly taken planning, and dotted throughout are other moments of elegant direction. But largely Hitchcock “just photographed the scenes as written”, as he put it. He didn’t fiddle with Krasna’s screenplay, as he was wont to do. There’s even potential for a “Hitchcock set piece” out at a fun fair but he doesn’t do very much with that either.
Afterwards, Hitchcock put out the story that it was Carole Lombard who had persuaded him to direct Mr and Mrs Smith. Ever the unreliable interviewee, he was lying about this – research in RKO’s archives reveal that he lobbied to be given the film, possibly as a way of getting back at David O Selznick, who’d signed him up to a seven year contract in 1939 and then had little work to offer him.
Hitchcock and Selznick were often clashing – about Hitchcock’s refusal to shoot more than was in the script (thus denying Selznick the opportunity to re-edit Hitchcock’s film if he didn’t like it), about his style of editing (“goddam jigsaw cutting” as Selznick called it) and over Hitchcock’s use of humour. They’d clashed over the comedic elements in Hitchcock’s first film for Selznick, Rebecca, a film worth watching for the opening credits alone, when there’s a visible onscreen tussle over whose picture it really is (“A Selznick International Picture”, “Selznick International Presents” and “Produced by David O Selznick” up front, followed by all the actor and craft credits, only eventually yielding at the very last second to “Directed by Alfred Hitchcock”.
So maybe Mr and Mrs Smith is Hitchcock’s way of thumbing his nose at Selznick. What a spectacular backfire. Screwball comedy isn’t his thing. But he’s at least got in a team of people who know their way around. Art direction is by Van Nest Polglase, a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers regular, music is by Edward Ward, who did lots of work on comedies and knew which end of a baton did what. It looks and sounds like the real deal, in other words.
It’s only in this sense, ultimately, that Mr and Mrs Smith is a total success and it really is fascinating watching the well-oiled Hollywood machine trying to work its magic on a story that just won’t respond.
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