Monday, July 21, 2008

Mr and Mrs Smith: Hitchcock goes Screwball

Mr and Mrs Smith (1941) is best remembered as Alfred Hitchcok's only foray into screwball comedy. Sandwiched between Foreign Correspondent and Suspicion in Hitchcock's oeuvre the movie is mostly glossed over by those who are trying to piece together a careful analysis of his devlopment as an auteur. That is somewhat beside the point of this piece of dream factory fluff. It's a quickly-made comedic star vehicle for glamorous Carole Lombard that covers the familiar ground of her earlier hit My Man Godfrey (1936). There is nothing-like authorship in the direction which lacks the Master's usual camera gimmicks and obsessive themes. Hitchock does his cameo, but his own lack of enthusiasm for the material shows a bit. He doesn't go out of his way to imprint his style on it.

This may be Hitch phoning it in, but it still stands up with the era's best in this genre. Screwball had peaked well before 1941 and Mr. and Mrs. Smith is one of the best late offerings. Though not as brilliant as the Grant and Dunne's follow up to The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife, which came out the year before, this follow up to My Man Godfrey is consistently funny throughout and is a more evenly paced film. Where My Favorite Wife runs out of gas by the third act, Mr and Mrs. Smith is still going strong as curtain falls.

As in My Man Godfrey, the principal characters let violent argument stand in for passion. Audiences today frequently comment that the characters in these films are shrill or unlikeable as they throw bits of art deco furnishings at one another. And unlike Godfrey, there is no moral object lesson behind the bluster. No one learns to be a better human being through the proceedings. In fact, just the opposite occurs. The characters unapologetically learn nothing and are reunited simply because they are both such miserable people they can't really live with anyone else. If all this sounds loathsome, it's not. It's actually quite funny and charming. In this sort of role Carol Lombard could do no wrong. She's at once attractive and repulsive in her extremes and Robert Montgomery handles his role deftly as well.

David Smith is a fairly dispicable guy on the surface of things, he drinks too much, ignores his work, and hides the fact that he and his wife are not married simply to indulge the lurid idea that his wife will be like a mistress for a night or two. "Mrs." Smith isn't much better. After throwing her husband out, she lies about her marital status, goes on a date with her new boss and begins courting her "husband's" law partner. When the later refuses to physically defend her honor, she walks out on both saying that they should get a pair of girl guides and go camping together.

Mr and Mrs. Smith is a classic "comedy of remarriage" and pays homage to that genre in slight but telling way at the beginning of the movie. The clerk sent to inform the Smiths that their nuptuals weren't on the up and up repeatedly announces that all marriages since 1936 are invalid. I wonder if it was coincidence that 1936 was the year My Man Godfrey was made and the year in which the word "screwball" came into the lexicon?


kda0121 said...

I always felt Mr. and Mrs. Smith was underrated, partly because of Hitchcock himself. He never cared for it and claimed only to have done it as a favor to good friend Lombard. But Hitch unfairly undermines himself. Not only does "Smith" have a surefire screwball premise, but it is performed by some real comedy pros. Robert Montgomery was an expert in that kind of role and Carole Lombard became a star because of them. And lest we forget, the little known Gene Raymond was a very good foil too. I think it's too bad Hitchcock didn't break away from his known genre more often. I thought handled himself admirably with Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

Jennythenipper said...

I couldn't agree more. Thanks!

AbbyNormal said...

I just finished this one up and had a few thoughts to add.

First of all, I was completely taken by Robert Motgomery's performance. I don't recall seeing him before and I instantly wanted to see more of his work. The nightclub scene alone, trying to bloody his own nose just to get out of the embarrassing situation, was so brillantly handled by Montgomery. I will have to see what Netflix has to offer of him when I am done here. :-)

Lombard was wonderful, as always. The only problem I have with Lombard is that watching her films always makes me a little sad and yearn for more of a catalogue of work. It is a shame she wasn't able to do more.

As a screwball comedy, I think this is a great example of the genre. A witty script, wonderful actors and a great spirit. I think people just get tripped up when trying to compare it as a Hitchcock film. It is a mistake to even try to compare this to his otehr films, so most film critics skip over this one, thus this has been somewhat buried and forotten. If this movie had the name of Hawks instead, it would be on the list of great screwball comedies, imho.

Again, as always, thanks for the suggestion. It was great fun to watch!

Jennythenipper said...

I agree Abby. Montgomery is great and I had the same experience of suddenly noticing him in this movie. Right after this they had Rosalind Russell month on TCM and I watched three with them together. All of them were pretty good. Montgomery is definitely on my list of favorite actors now.