Posted by David Kalat on January 22, 2011
Oscar nominations, Shmoscar nominations. I don’t get particularly worked up over movies everybody likes—they’re low-hanging fruit. You don’t need me to tell you that INCEPTION, THE FIGHTER, or THE SOCIAL NETWORK are good movies. It’s so much more interesting to go digging for lost treasure instead—for example:
Buried in the august accomplishments of Alfred Hitchcock is a film so bizarrely out of place that many scholars of Hitch simply jump over it, as if it didn’t even exist. If you see it, and try to place it into some kind of context with the likes of PSYCHO and VERTIGO, you’ll probably find that old Sesame Street song shuttling around the back of your mind: which of these things does not belong? Which of these things is not like the others? But the sad thing about all this is, while MR. AND MRS. SMITH may be a misfit in the life and work of Alfred Hitchcock, it is actually a very fine screwball comedy. But, in a damned-if-ya-do/damned-if-ya-don’t catch, MR. AND MRS. SMITH is also overlooked by the definitive survey of screwball comedies, James Harvey’s essential ROMANTIC COMEDIES IN HOLLYWOOD.
It’s not as if it’s easy to overlook this thing—it’s the penultimate film by Carole Lombard, just prior to TO BE OR NOT TO BE in 1942 (after which a stupid and pointless airplane crash robbed the world).
Carole was a great comedian, but a strange actress—and these are related. She was gorgeous, but she used her face and voice in peculiar, wonderful ways. I hate to use this silly Inside the Actor’s Studio terminology, but I can’t think of any better way to put it than that she had a unique instrument. Not unlike Jim Carrey, Lombard’s face appeared to have fashioned out of some combination of rubber and Jell-O instead of flesh and bone. Her eyes widen like saucers, her lips quiver, her head tilts to the side, her voice tremors—all in the span of an instant. Her face is in a constant state of quivering, stretching, trying out different expressions at the speed of thought. Mere frame grabs cannot do justice to her peculiar facial tics—just watch this excerpt from MR. AND MRS. SMITH, and watch how much character she manages to establish with so little dialog:
It’s as of she had ADHD of the emotional centers of her brain—any line would be delivered with every possible inflection all at once. The result undermines the possibility of any singular emotion being expressed. As a result, she was best when playing deceptive characters: NOTHING SACRED and TRUE CONFESSION, among her greatest hits, both cast her as someone whose life has become overrun by lies. And the audience forgives her because clearly she doesn’t mean it… she doesn’t mean anything.
It serves her well even when the rest of the film is weak. THE PRINCESS COMES ACROSS is pretty thin stuff, sloppy and formless. But there she is, once again trapped in a web of lies, her face spasming uncontrollably—and hapless Fred MacMurray inevitably falling in love. It’s the second of her pairings with Fred—sandwiched between TRUE CONFESSION and HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE. She has fantastic chemistry with him, but that’s no surprise. Her emotional wooziness leaves her naked and vulnerable, more than almost any other actress of her generation, and it made her the perfect pairing for any actor. No matter who she was cast against would appear to have perfect chemistry with her—even Jack Benny.
All those facial tics and vocal gymnastics meant that she was good in any movie, that she could makes even the dumbest script and the poorest direction seem interesting. But although she was always good, she was rarely great. To be great, she needed something external to herself. She needed the support of great screenwriters and great directors, who could find a way to use her weird talents in the service of something resonant and effective.
For example, Ernst Lubitsch. TO BE OR NOT TO BE is a crazy idea—a Nazi comedy! It shouldn’t work (and a lot of critics at the time were certain that it didn’t), but posterity has come to recognize the genius of this masterpiece—and it is one of the only times that Carole actually seems to be a coherent human being as opposed to just a fabulous movie star. Lubitsch worked in irony the way other artists worked in oils (sorry, CHRISTMAS STORY, it’s too good a joke not to steal)—and he realized that if Lombard canceled out everything she said by not seeming to really mean it, then just make certain that the only dialog she’s given is stuff she’s not supposed to mean. She’s a human Opposite Day, and in TO BE OR NOT TO BE she (and Lubitsch) create a complete character out of all the negative space in the shadow behind the screen. That, and she’s funny.
That’s what she needed—a visionary director who knew how to manipulate the language of cinema to make her great. A visionary director with access to the kind of tools that even the Mitchell Leisens, Wesley Ruggleses, and Gregory LaCavas of the world didn’t have.
And that’s why she asked Alfred Hitchcock to direct MR. AND MRS. SMITH. Hollywood didn’t have all that many bona fide geniuses wandering around—and Hitchcock was a genius among geniuses.
Sure, comedies weren’t his bag, baby, but it was rather unheard of for a director to completely limit himself to a single genre. Even Lubitsch had strayed out of his comfort zone to make the raw drama THE MAN I KILLED in 1931. And it’s not as if Hitchcock had never played with comedy:
Those viewers who want to commit to the idea of Hitchcock as The Master of Suspense can certainly enjoy RICH AND STRANGE as a thriller—it has a pervasive atmosphere of tension, and the final reels emphasize peril in a way not out of step with his other thrillers. But in the main, the film plays as a comedy.
Critics have marveled at the elegant storytelling of the opening sequence—a wordless tableau that establishes the male lead and his urgent need to break out of his routine.
But as a fan of silent comedy, I can’t lay all that praise at Hitch’s feet: the sequence could easily have appeared in a Harold Lloyd comedy—in fact, it strongly reminds me of a sequence in Lloyd’s HOT WATER. You can’t credit Hitchcock with pioneering cinematic techniques if the same scene could have been made a decade earlier by someone else.
In RICH AND STRANGE a married couple are suddenly freed from their domestic prison by an inheritance. Critic Paul Jensen has noted that the same plot device was used in Hitchcock’s silent films DOWNHILL and JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK—but it is also a venerable slapstick comedy cliché. The sudden money sets them loose on the world—and much of the film makes sport of their provincial naivete, while also finding time to lampoon their fellow passengers.
If RICH AND STRANGE is a comedy, then it is a romantic one—it deals with their marital disillusionment, mutual infidelity, and ultimate reconciliation. And as such, it could stand alongside Leo McCarey’s THE AWFUL TRUTH as a film about a couple that flirts with divorce as a way of finding out how much they belong together.
This is just the long way ‘round of saying that Carole Lombard wasn’t off her rocker when she begged Alfred Hitchcock to direct MR. AND MRS. SMITH.
(Hey, by the way, who is that depicted in the poster below? It doesn’t look like Carole Lombard at all, but the man does look recognizably like Robert Montgomery)
MR. AND MRS. SMITH was written by Norman Krasna—one of the more prominent screenwriters of the screwball genre. Krasna had to his credit several gems of romantic comedy: THE RICHEST GIRL IN THE WORLD, HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE, WIFE VERSUS SECRETARY, and (one of my personal faves) BACHELOR MOTHER. He knew his stuff, and Carole Lombard could be confident that she was handing Hitch a script by a writer who knew how to use her best. That is to say, it hinges on deception. Only this time, the deception is on the other foot.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith are introduced with the kind of screwy self-cosnciously zany behavior that gave the screwball its name. You saw some of it in the clip at the top of the post–she has a rule that they cannot leave the bedroom if they fight until they’ve made up. This rule causes them to spend days locked in their own room, wreaking havoc with their lives–and it is just one of her various romantic rules, which govern their relationship.
Another is her determination to always tell the truth. Which leads, inevitably, to him admitting that if he had to do it over again, he wouldn’t marry her.
Enter a funny little clerk from the town where they did get married to explain that, due to an unlikely bureaucratic complication that only occurs in movies, they aren’t legally married after all-so in a sense they do have it to do over again.
The clerk also tells Mrs. Smith (if, ahem, that is her real name now)–but Mr. Smith doesn’t know she knows, and she doesn’t know he doesn’t know she knows.
They head out to Mamma Lucy’s, the restaurant they made their haunt back when they were first in love. She expects the night to be a romantic recreation of their wedding night. She stuffs herself into the dress she wore back then (“I don’t understand how it could shrink so much just hanging in the closet!”) and eagerly anticipates an after-dinner visit to the Justice of the Peace.
The problem is, this is no recreation of a fondly remembered night. It is a parody.
She is furious that he doesn’t take her to get married, that he had no intention of doing so. But the thing is, their romantic recreation had veered off the rails long ago. This isn’t the Mamma Lucy’s they remember, she doesn’t fit in her dress: things are different, and they’ve already compromised—it happens quietly, without a word. You just saw it—the moment when they gave up and went back inside, tacitly giving up on their recreation. It isn’t fair for her to compare this to her hypothetical situation “if you had it to do over again,” because they haven’t gone back in time.
No matter. She’s angry. The film makes the necessary noises on behalf of the puritanical Production Code that the problem is a couple “living in sin” without the sanctity of marriage, but the real problem is just the emotional one—she asked him if he would do it all over again, and now she’s seen that he meant it when he said he wouldn’t.
She kicks him out, changes her name back, gets a job, and starts dating. Dating her husband/ex-husband/never-husband’s law partner and best friend, at that. If it was just to rub his nose in it, she’s had her revenge—he said he wouldn’t have married her if he had it to do over again, but in fact once given the chance he sets single-mindedly to winning her back.
By action, he proves his words were lies—there’s that ironic distance between what one says and what they mean. But she’s now reconsidering her options—maybe she doesn’t want him. Or does she? Seeing him date another women inflames her jealousy in unexpected ways, and there’s that conflicted emotion again, as Carole Lombard reveals that maybe even she doesn’t know what she means, or wants, or thinks.
The question at the root of all rom-com is, to what extent does any couple belong together? What makes a relationship? In Krasna’s scripts, he explores this question by stripping away the superficial attributes of a relationship and trying out an alternate. In HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE, Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray live together in the same apartment and fall in love, all while trying to marry other people for their money. In BACHELOR MOTHER, Ginger Rogers and David Niven find themselves “parents” of a foundling child, and then afterwards start dating and get engaged. And in MR. AND MRS. SMITH, Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery get to experiment with divorce and dating, and still return home to each other—but whereas Hitchcock treated that eventual return to the status quo very cynically in RICH AND STRANGE, no such cynicism colors MR. AND MRS. SMITH. The RICH AND STRANGE protagonists end up together as a sort of failure, but Krasna wants us to understand that Mr. and Mrs. Smith belong together.
And, as is the case with screwballs, that point is established by the presence of the Other Man. The romantic triangles in these kind of films aren’t equilateral—the Other Man is a wimpy, stuffy, unappealing sort of bloke. It’s obvious that the wised-up wise-asses belong together, that neither one would ever be happy with someone else.
Here’s the Other Man in all his glory—look at the disappointment in Carole’s eyes as she realizes that even after getting him drunk, he’s not laying a hand on her. Aw, shoot!
Hitchcock himself was as dismissive of the finished film as so many of his fans and critics have been. In his career-spanning conversation with Francois Truffaut, Hitch filled 2 pages dissecting RICH AND STRANGE and all he could summon for MR. AND MRS. SMITH was an anecdote about Carole Lombard bringing three cows to the set, with name tags for the three leading cast members, as a way of kidding him about the “actors are cattle” crack he’d made.
About that “actors are cattle” remark: Alfred Hitchcock may have been a genius of cinema, but his genius lay in the manipulation of objects, images, sounds. Not so much people. He exploited the existing personas of movie stars like Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly. In other words, he used their established characteristics to enhance his films. By contrast, Ernst Lubitsch—so derided as “a director of doors”—had a way of using his films to enhance his actors. Lubitsch practically created Maurice Chevalier’s American personality all by himself, he rehabilitated Greta Garbo, he made minor stars like Charles Boyer and Miriam Hopkins credible as A-list romantic leads. Lubitsch could give Carole the directorial support she was looking for—while Hitchcock admits he merely shot the script as written without ever getting a personal feel for it.
The musical score by Edward Ward is most unfortunate—silly micky-mousing behind the action that encourages the audience to dismiss what they are watching. Romantic comedies aren’t usually remembered for their music (except for the Fred ‘n’ Ginger ones, natch), and while Hitchcock’s movies are remembered for their music, I wouldn’t say that a rich and ominous Bernard Herrmann score would have helped here. As criticisms, go, that’s pretty mild—and it’s my only serious complaint against this charming trifle.
So, lesser Hitchcock it will always be. But if it represents something of a missed opportunity, that doesn’t mean it’s a failure—or that being lesser Hitchcock makes it a lesser screwball. This is one case where maybe forgetting that Alfred Hitchcock had anything to do with it might actually make it seem a lot better.
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