Monday, April 6, 2015

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Director Alfred Hitchcock would come to be known as the king of motion picture suspense, but few know that he had once produced a screwball comedy. It’s true. Hitchcock went for straight comedy (if that is a real term) in his 1941 motion picture Mr. and Mrs. Smith. It is a charming movie said to be made out of the director’s admiration and wanting to work with the film’s star, Carole Lombard, creating a picture vastly different from what would be considered normal for the filmmaker who would be best known for Psycho, North by Northwest, and Rear Window. In the end Hitchcock would come to dislike his work here, but as a humble viewer it can be seen as a very entertaining movie.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a screwball comedy about a husband and wife that discover their marriage was never legal and their marital (or non-marital, rather) troubles that ensue when the husband does not resolve the predicament immediately. Ann (Carole Lombard) and David Smith (Robert Montgomery) are a married couple who are prone to having marital quarrels that last days at a time. When Ann presents a hypothetical question to David of if, knowing what he knows now, he would marry her all over again? Despite his being very happy and comfortable with their marriage he presents a “no,” noting the enjoyment of certain aspects of bachelorhood, but still wanting to share his relationship with Ann outside of the realm of matrimony, hypothetically speaking.

Well irony pokes out its dirty nose as a jurisdiction error with their marriage license proves their marriage was never validated. Ann becomes greatly angered when David fails to bring the issue up and immediately fix the situation, kicking him out of their house. David attempts to prove his love for Ann through logic while Ann finds her romantic needs unmet, attempting to cut ties with him. The comedy plays out as David stalks Ann, discovering she is romantically seeing his law firm partner Jefferson Custer (Gene Raymond), much to David’s chagrin. In an effort to play on her emotions, David appears on a getaway of Ann and Jeff’s to fake an illness, leading Ann to instinctively take care of him. Despite Ann discovering David’s ruse and becoming angry, Jeff recognizes Ann and David’s love for each other leaving them alone. Ann at first is upset, but eventually gives in to the whims of David as the camera fades to the suggestion of the two making up.

If one was watch Mr. and Mrs. Smith without the knowledge of it being directed by Hitchcock he/she would be hard-pressed pinpoint the feature was a product of master of suspense. Although there are many fine moments of ingenious camerawork that adds to the telling of the story as well of moments of amusing revelation  that mimic the creative mind of the director’s work from his more famous works.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is playful and amusing with plot that can only happen in screwball movies. At times the story hits bumps and snags that make the pacing slow down to a crawl. The laughs never appear in groups or produce much more than a hardy chuckle, which would make one think it is not very funny comedy, however it has a great deal of charm and upon concluding the film gives one a sense over overall satisfaction and enjoyment of the picture.

What made Alfred Hitchcock want to produce a film like Mr. and Mrs. Smith? Well, Hitchcock was very fond of Carole Lombard, who at this time was married to one of Hollywood’s all-time leading men, Clark Gable. Lombard was famously popular for her work in screwball comedies and when Hitchcock was looking for a chance to work with the blond (an aspect Hitchcock loved in his women) actress this film became his opportunity.

Lombard was the one that found the story and brought it to RKO, but unlike most of Hitchcock’s film career, he had very little input on the script. Watching this feature it appears Hitchcock simply films the script as it was printed, making little to no changes to match his personal style. Hitchcock was notorious to sticking to the script, but usually he had great influence over his screenwriters and made drastic script changes, but that was not the case here. The plot was lighthearted and that is how Alfred Hitchcock played the story while filming.

Lombard’s co-star Robert Montgomery performs wonderfully opposite of the lovely actress. Montgomery, the former President of the Screen Actors Guild, was in a state of the returning to prominence with audiences with a series of role in comedies in 1941 while attempting to search for dramatic work. His lighthearted performance as the husband was of a man that was all too honest to his wife, but truly and deeply loves her. His performance comes across well as both sympathetic and funny, a perfect contrast from Lombard’s all too serious wife character in Ann.

Playing essentially the “other man” role is Gene Raymond who fundamentally was known for playing many of these characters repeatedly over his screen career. His performance as Jeff, David’s partner and romantic rival for Ann, is straight-laced, playing the contrast to Montgomery. His performance is not memorable, but he provides to the perfect springboard for the comedic situations upon which David and Ann to bounce off of during their quarrels.

In what Mr. and Mrs. Smith lacked of Hitchcock-ian style is made up by the creativity of the director. His sense of suspenseful timing transfers to the timing of his comedy. Hitchcock was known for using comedy in his many films, but never devoting an entire motion picture to the subject of comedy. His meticulous planning of every shot pays off with wonderful timing, such as the quiet scene where Ann eventually bursts into being upset at David, revealing her knowledge of the marriage license problem and David playfully avoiding it. There are also many cases where Hitchcock’s camera roams around the sets during various scenes that remind you of the filmmaker’s style. A keen viewer can note these moments that evoke the work of the master filmmaker behind the camera.

The film would be a financial success for RKO, but proved to be a film Hitchcock would later personally dislike in his career. Hitchcock would return to the usual suspenseful films that would further even more greatly his career in America, as at this time in 1941he was still a fresh face to Hollywood after a long career in England. For Carole Lombard this was sadly the last film of hers she saw released as she passed away in a tragic plane crash while traveling on a war bond rally in 1942. Her final picture, To Be or Not to Be, would premier two months after her death.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is not the type of screwball comedy with wall to wall jokes or had various moments that called for uproarious laughter, but rather shared a charming wit, an overall strong production value, and superb acting. This if one of the forgotten Hitchcock American films, yet it is perhaps the most American style picture in his résumé.. Mr. and Mrs. Smith remains a very charming picture that is very enjoyable to watch even with its dull moments, because it still shows signs of being made by a man who would prove to be one of the best filmmakers of his era in Alfred Hitchcock.

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