Europe was sliding inexorably toward war when Alfred Hitchcock, his wife Alma, daughter Pat and assistant Joan Harrison sailed for America on the Queen Mary. The director had done everything he could accomplish in the British film industry by the end of the '30s, and when David O. Selznick offered him a contract he was eager to accept the opportunity, even though he knew he was leaving behind his homeland under the threat of German bombs.
Thanks to Selznick and his brother Myron, head of Hollywood's first talent agency, his arrival was made amidst a flurry of publicity. The director gave lectures at Yale and Columbia University, attended a press dinner in his honor at "21", then took a detour south to visit Miami and Havana. By the end of March they arrived in Los Angeles where Myron Selznick greeted them at the train station in Pasadena. From this moment Hitchcock had to go about the uncertain business of becoming the director of American movies for American audiences.
He would make the transition by degrees, starting with Rebecca, a movie adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's bestselling novel, set in England and starring the very British Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, born to British parents in Tokyo along with her sister, the then-much-more-famous Olivia de Havilland. His second picture, Foreign Correspondent, starred the very American Joel McCrea as a reporter caught up in intrigue and espionage in Europe in the lead up to the war.
His third Hollywood film would see him jump with both feet into screwball comedy, a genre almost exclusively American in setting and tone. It's not as if comedy was alien to Hitchcock: he would make two black comedies at different times in his career – The Trouble with Harry (1955) and Family Plot (1976) – and humorous sequences can be found in films from The 39 Steps (1935) to Strangers on a Train (1951) to North by Northwest (1959). The public image he painstakingly built over the years was notable for its morbid, irreverent, lugubrious humour.
But Mr. & Mrs. Smith was the kind of story that fit more neatly in the filmographies of directors like Gregory La Cava or Wesley Ruggles. There's no mystery to solve, no corpses turn up along the way, and nobody is in peril of anything worse than catching a cold. It gets glancing mentions at best in Hitchcock biographies, and is conspicuously absent from James Harvey's authoritative Romantic Comedy in Hollywood from Lubitsch to Sturges.
The credits roll on the New York city skyline, letting audiences know that we're about to be thrust into that world where people dress for dinner, dance in nightclubs, and live in homes with views of Central Park and rooms they never see. The first scene begins with an unaccustomed sight – Robert Montgomery, conspicuously unshaven; he and Mrs. Smith are in the middle of a siege-like impasse, the product of their vow to each other to never leave the bedroom after a fight without making up. The piles of dishes and Smith's abundant stubble suggest that they've been in there for a few days.
A messenger shows up from Smith's law office with papers to sign. He's obviously desperate to get back to work, so he affects a ruse that forces Mrs. Smith to lift her head from beneath the covers; making eye contact is enough to break the stalemate, and they reconcile, the husband affectionately holding his wife in a headlock like two college kids newly going steady. She gives him a shave, he dresses, and they share breakfast together, her bare feet pushed up his shins beneath his pinstripe trousers.
David Smith's wife Ann is played by none other than Carole Lombard, the queen of screwball comedy – an auspicious bit of casting for Hitchcock as a fish-out-of-water director. Lombard and her husband Clark Gable were among the first friends the Hitchcocks had made when they arrived in Hollywood, and the director's family took over the lease on Lombard's home when she moved in with Gable.
If Hitchcock was worried about making any missteps in the genre (actually quite unlikely for a director so intent on complete control at every step in production) they would likely be hard to notice in the brilliant light cast by Lombard, who helped define the screwball heroine in films like No Man of Her Own, We're Not Dressing, Twentieth Century, The Gay Bride, Hands Across the Table, My Man Godfrey, Nothing Sacred, True Confession and Made For Each Other.
As they make up, Ann Smith tells her husband that they have a unique relationship, based on trust and honesty. It's obviously her mantra and Montgomery's David knows to simply agree. There are also, apparently, a lot of rules in addition to the one about not leaving the bedroom after a fight, and Ann tells David that she's thought of a new one.
"Another one?" David asks, warily.
She then evokes the one where she gets to ask him a question about anything and he has to answer truthfully, no matter what – and she can't get angry. He balks, says that he always gets in trouble with that one, but he wants to get back to the office so he agrees. She asks him if, knowing what he knows now, he would have married her. David answers, truthfully, that he probably wouldn't, but only as that hypothetical, younger, single man. We know, in a moment, that he's made a big mistake, even if she's pretending mightily that she's not bothered.
Harvey writes in Romantic Comedy in Hollywood that it was Lombard's offscreen image that eventually made it obvious that she was the perfect screwball heroine. "She was, in fact, just the sort of 'heroine' those later comedies would be about: straightforward, high-spirited, intelligent and delightful – a no-nonsense girl." But we're meant to understand from David's mild exasperation with his wife's growing list of rules that Ann brings a lot of nonsense to their relationship, and that learning to live with it isn't without effort.
Writing about Lombard's portrayal of Irene in My Man Godfrey – a groundbreaking role for her and a major entry in the screwball genre – Harvey describes her as a "dingbat," with Lombard cast against type:
"The heroine of My Man Godfrey really reverses the joke that lies at the centre of most screwball comedies: the woman is smarter, stronger and more independent than the hero. Irene, however, is dumber than everyone, except possibly her mother (Alice Brady), who is a shriller variation of the same comic routine."
It's not that Ann Smith is dumb, but that she's gone through her life in a heedless, headstrong way, largely unchallenged, probably thanks to her beauty and intelligence. (Mr. & Mrs. Smith might be the least typical of Hitchcock's films, but it does share one thing with the rest of his movies – that smart people need to do dumb, reckless things to make the plot move forward.)
Many men might recognize the loaded trap of the hypothetical question: when I was a young man, my first girlfriend asked me if I would be with her if she was a leper. (Not a figurative social outcast, mind you, but an individual afflicted with actual leprosy.) There was no way to answer that question honestly without saying no, and I knew as soon as I did that I had failed some test for which I could never prepare and from which I'd never recover.
My dear friend Kathy Shaidle, the author of this column until her death last year, once admitted to me that she would wake up angry after a dream in which her husband had done something wrong – and would spend half her day still angry, trying hard not to make him suffer in real life for something he'd done in a dream, and often failing. Most men who live with women suspect that, even in a healthy relationship, they almost never know what's really going on with absolute certainty.
Montgomery's David might have momentarily escaped the blowback from his unfortunate moment of honesty if not for what happens next. Arriving at his office and a desk piled with work, he's visited by a curious little man named Harry Deever (veteran character actor Charles Halton), an official from his wife's hometown. He begins a comic spiel about the geographic quirks of the municipality – that it straddles two states along the Bass River, and that any marriage performed in Beecham, Nevada with a license obtained in Beecham, Idaho, just across the river, is invalid. In short, Ann and David aren't legally married.
Mr. Deever refunds David the two dollars he paid for the license and tells him that they should probably get married again as soon as possible. David agrees, but the idea that he's actually having an affair with his wife – at least in the eyes of the law, and he is a lawyer after all – is titillating. He calls Ann and makes a date for dinner that night, writing her into his appointment book under her maiden name, Krausheimer, and even going so far as to change "Miss" to "Mistress" for his own amusement.
It's not hard to imagine why David plays this little game with himself and his marriage. Robert Montgomery, with his well-cut suits, carefully parted and slicked hair and neat, egg-shaped head, with its perpetual smirk, bears a striking resemblance to the caricatures of those tuxedo-clad male companions to flappers drawn a decade earlier by the cartoonist John Held Jr. in magazines like Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. He may have become a legal professional and a pillar of society, but he was once a louche and impulsive youth – how else could he have attracted the attention of someone like Ann?
His big mistake, however, is going all the way through that night's date – an visit to a little Italian red sauce joint that he and his wife had frequented when they were courting, now gone to seed – without telling Ann about the invalidity of an Idaho marriage license in Beecham, Nevada. It's especially unfortunate since Mr. Deever had made an impulsive social call to the Smith's home after leaving his office – letting Ann and her mother know about their unfortunate marital status. It's the sort of farcical misunderstanding upon which nearly every screwball is built and it ends predictably, with David thrown out of their apartment and forced to live in his club while Ann becomes a single woman again.
Carole Lombard was at the height of her stardom when she made Mr. & Mrs. Smith. (She was also, sadly, near the end of her life.) The film was made for RKO, outside of Hitchcock's contract with Selznick, and as de facto producer she was able to ask for her friend Hitchcock as director. He resisted the offer at first, preferring another property RKO offered him – an adaptation of a novel, Before the Fact by Francis Iles, about a man planning to murder his wife for her inheritance. It was very much more in his ballpark than the screwball comedy with the Norman Krasna script that the studio didn't want tinkered with, especially by some English director known for grimy thrillers. And in any case Hitchcock was putting most of his effort into pitching Greenmantle, an adaptation of the John Buchan novel, packaged as a sequel to The 39 Steps, and a potential colour remake of The Lodger, his first big silent hit.
RKO wanted Lombard to be happy and Lombard wanted Hitchcock to direct her and the Selznicks wanted their director to work with a star of Lombard's stature and despite his inability to understand the genre and offers to create an original comedy script for Lombard with his wife Alma, the director was eventually forced to take on the picture, if only to make some much-needed extra money outside of his Selznick contract. Interestingly, Lombard also wanted to see Cary Grant cast as David Smith, but Hitchcock would have to wait a little longer before working with the actor who would become his quintessential leading man.
Kicked out of his home, David goes to war with Ann to get her back. He finds that she's taken a job at a luxury department store after going on a date with the elderly owner, and gets her fired when he makes a scene in the lingerie department, telling everyone that they're married. She takes up with his law partner, Jeff, a prim southerner played by Gene Raymond, filling the role that Ralph Bellamy performed opposite Cary Grant in pictures like His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth.
David tries to get revenge by showing up at their first nightclub date with his own – what turns out to be a vulgar floozy provided by Chucky, a comically outsized oaf and fellow member of his club, played by Jack Carson at his most expansive. David first tries to pretend that he's sitting with a gorgeous blonde at an adjacent table, and then attempts to make a quiet exit, setting about inducing a nosebleed by bashing himself in the face with a salt shaker wrapped in a table napkin. He manages the nosebleed, but fails spectacularly at the quiet exit.
While he wasn't the first choice for the role, Montgomery handily stands up to the challenge of co-starring opposite Lombard, making David just as formidable and unpredictable as his wife – and very nearly as daft. Even Raymond gets to shine, playing sloppy drunk after he and Lombard are caught in a downpour while stuck on a ride at the World's Fair in Flushing.
Filming for Mr. & Mrs. Smith was quick and pleasant, the latter mostly thanks to Lombard. Her director was by then known for his "all actors are cattle" comment, so one day she set up a corral on the set which contained three heifers labeled with the names of the film's stars. The prank generated the expected publicity, and associated the director with his offhanded remark for all time, even though he would repeatedly claim that he was misunderstood: "They're more like children." Hitchcock did his usual walk-on cameo, which Lombard directed, punishing him by making him do multiple re-takes.
Looking back over his career years later with French director François Truffaut, Hitchcock said that he took on the project as a "friendly gesture" to his friend and leading lady, but that it was done at a "weak moment" in his career. He explained that he "didn't really understand the type of people who were portrayed in the film," so he simply transcribed the scenes from the script to film – a description you could use to sum up any director's job, and as offhanded as his "cattle" quip.
Lombard would move on to her next project, filming Ernst Lubitsch's black comedy To Be Or Not To Be with co-star Jack Benny. It would be considered one of the best films Lombard, Benny or Lubitsch ever made, but it would be released one month after Lombard died in a plane crash while flying home from a war bond drive.
The adaptation of Before the Fact turned into Suspicion, which re-teamed Hitchcock with Joan Fontaine – a major star now thanks to Rebecca – and gave him his first chance to work with Cary Grant, who plays the charming man apparently plotting to kill his wife. Even after RKO and the censors gutted most of the darker elements from the story, it would still be the first truly Hitchcockian film he would make since moving to America.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith doesn't resemble anything else in the director's filmography, except perhaps for one brief moment in the final scene, where the couple are finally left alone in a cabin at a ski resort in Lake Placid, Jeff having decided that Ann and David really are best suited for each other. (Or perhaps realizing that Ann is more trouble than he could imagine.) She makes a big show of putting on skis to chase after him, but David points out that she doesn't know how to ski, and pushes her back into a chair, stranding her.
Ann explodes into a rage. "I'm warning you," she tells her erstwhile husband. "I'll kill you in cold blood. Some day when your back is turned I'll stab you..."
In 2005 Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie – then married and merged for publicity reasons into the "Brangelina" entity – made a film called Mr. & Mrs. Smith. It was about a bored couple who, behind their bland middle class facades, are actually assassins working for competing firms, given assignments to kill each other. It bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Hitchcock film, but you can't help but imagine that he might have been a lot happier directing this picture, back when the director was still trying to begin a new career in Hollywood.
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