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A curio from the waning days of Hollywood's screwball comedy cycle, the RKO production Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) is pleasant enough on its own merits, but piques the interest of contemporary film fans for two primary reasons. For one, the film features the penultimate performance of legendary leading lady Carole Lombard, the gifted comic actress most associated with the screwball genre. Further, the project provided cinema's Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, with his one and only career opportunity to direct a light romantic comedy.
When interviewed in his latter years by Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock was by and large dismissive of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, declaring that he only came to the assignment at Lombard's behest. In crafting the film, Hitch stated, "I more or less followed Norman Krasna's screenplay. Since I didn't really understand the type of people who were portrayed in the film, all I did was photograph the scenes as written." Donald Spoto's biography The Dark Side of Genius, however, offered up a contrary portrait of the director's outlook during production, where Hitchcock declared, "I want to direct a typical American comedy about Typical Americans."
Lombard and Hitchcock were introduced socially by David O. Selznick after he brought the filmmaker to Hollywood in 1940; she had long been a fan of Hitchcock's British works, and noted his propensity for leavening the suspense with moments of humor. After agreeing to collaborate, both wanted Cary Grant for the male lead; with Grant booked solid, they were successful in landing an alternate male lead with a light comedic touch, Robert Montgomery. "Hitchcock thought it remarkable that Lombard and Montgomery could both have been in Hollywood so long without having worked together," Larry Swindell wrote in his biography, Screwball: The Life of Carole Lombard. "He suspected that they might have been one of the all-time great teams, at the Tracy-Hepburn level."
The script, a pleasant confection from ace comedy scribe Krasna (The Devil and Miss Jones, 1941; Bachelor Mother, 1939; Princess O'Rourke, 1943), opens in the Manhattan apartment of prosperous lawyer David Smith (Montgomery) and his wife of three years Ann (Lombard). The three-day impasse in their latest quarrel has just lovingly broken; when she asks over breakfast if he would marry her all over again given the opportunity, he teasingly expresses his doubts. Arriving at his office, David is greeted by a Mr. Deever (Charles Halton), a functionary from Ann's hometown, who's the uncomfortable bearer of some embarrassing news. It seems that the town's redistricting to another state voided certain marriages that took place therein, including the Smiths'.
Although David gets a bemused kick out of the situation's possibilities, he is unaware of Deever's subsequent social call on Ann, who's now been apprised of what has happened. Neither lets on during a disastrous evening out, and once bedtime approaches without a marriage proposal forthcoming, a furious Ann throws David out of the apartment. The balance of the film follows David's efforts to win her back, with a primary obstacle being his law partner Jeff (Gene Raymond), who's looking to make the most of his flirtation with the now-emancipated Ann.
At the time of its release, Mr. and Mrs. Smith enjoyed great popular success, and gave Lombard's career a much needed boost. Reviews were middling, with some critics accusing Hitchcock of slumming. The film is certainly the most atypical in his body of work, but it's an enjoyable entertainment nonetheless. It also proved that Lombard's instincts about Hitchcock had been right all along; his wry, often quirky sense of humor emerges throughout the narrative. Bits of business such as where Jeff attempts to explain the convoluted goings-on to his stuffy parents while huddled in the firm's lavatory reflect the director's stamp.
Tales from the set of Mr. and Mrs. Smith revealed an earthy and unpretentious playfulness under Lombard's elegant facade, one of the qualities that endeared her to co-workers and audiences alike. She made a daily ritual of heading to the studio parking lot and festooning the fender of her archly Republican leading man's car with Roosevelt bumper stickers. Hitchcock, already famous for his regard of actors as "cattle," arrived on set one day to find a makeshift corral erected, in which were penned a trio of heifers bearing nameplates for Lombard, Montgomery and Raymond.
Moreover, the sequence containing Hitchcock's obligatory cameo--as a man trying to bum the price of a drink off of Montgomery--was actually directed by Lombard. To the delight of the crew, she gleefully hectored Hitch and demanded multiple retakes until it was shot to her satisfaction. Lombard would only complete one more film, To Be or Not to Be (1942), before meeting her untimely and tragic end at age 33. The queen of screwball was fervently patriotic, and she was in the course of a January 1942 War Bond drive when her plane went down in the California mountains.
Producer: Harry E. Edington
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Norman Krasna
Cinematography: Harry Stradling
Film Editing: William Hamilton
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase, Albert S. D'Agostino
Music: Edward Ward
Cast: Carole Lombard (Ann Krausheimer Smith), Robert Montgomery (David Smith), Gene Raymond (Jeff Custer), Jack Carson (Chuck Benson), Philip Merivale (Mr. Custer), Lucile Watson (Mrs. Custer).
BW-95m. Closed captioning.
by Jay S. Steinberg