15 October 2008

Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)

d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 95 mins.

Reports are mixed as to why Alfred Hitchcock chose the screwball comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith as his next project after the gigantic successes of Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent. It was not his first choice, to be sure – he still preferred the idea of revisiting Richard Hannay from The 39 Steps and adapting James Buchan's second Hannay novel, Greenmantle. He was also interested in a book called Before the Fact, which he would transform into Suspicion. The wish-list continued from there (even proposing again the idea of remaking The Lodger), but with everyone around him was pushing the rather unfunny Mr. & Mrs. Smith, it came first.

The conventional story is that he directed it as a favor to his friend Carole Lombard (he and his wife Alma had befriended Lombard and Clark Gable). Other reasons seem to be that the studio, RKO, already owned the script and wasn't interested in buying any of Hitchcock's proposed adaptations. Another story is that Hitchcock actively pursued the film on the down-low, but it was most likely that he was interested in the second possible film in his two-film loan-out from producer David O. Selznick to RKO. So he put on his comedy hat again and ventured into waters that hadn't provided him much success in the past.

Sadly, they also wouldn't prove him much success in 1941 either. Mr. & Mrs. Smith is rather mediocre, but still passable as screwball entertainment. Part of the problem is that the screwball, as a genre, is incredibly difficult. Think of its successes: Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey, Preston Sturges – men who worked at it and perfected it just as Hitchcock worked at and perfected the suspense story and the thriller. Merely dipping into the genre was probably destined to be a problem for Hitchcock, but with his cast (and forcibly smiling for the producers), he made the best of the situation.

Lombard and Robert Montgomery star as the titular Smiths, who are moderately charming in a way that makes them feel like a B-team for Nick and Nora from The Thin Man. Their marriage is at the center of their cutesy bickering and quarreling, and both experience a shock when they learn that due to a technical goof, they aren't really married. Ann (Lombard), confident that their marriage means as much to David (Montgomery) as it does to her, waits for him to make the move to reconcile and have them legally tie the knot, but his procrastination leads to her dating his best friend Jeff, and the zany battle for Ann begins.

I've always admired Hitchcock's willingness to leave the genre in which he proved himself the master and experiment with other varieties of films, even when the films aren't good. Could he have directed a first-rate screwball comedy, the kind produced most successfully by Lubitsch, Hawks, Sturges, & Co.? Of course, anything is possible. The failure of Mr. & Mrs. Smith is that it isn't very funny. I wouldn't call it a film devoid of any entertainment, but the only reason a person might for seeing it today is that it's Alfred Hitchcock in the screwball genre. The overarching purpose of nonstop laughter simply is not sufficiently met.

Note: Although this 1941 Hitchcock film shares its name with a 2005 film called Mr. & Mrs. Smith, it is in no way related to it except by title.


the editor., 15 October, 2008  

Hi! T.S.,
I guess no more words are needed!...because you basically,
summed up my thoughts about "The Master of Suspense" "sticking" his "pinky
finger" in the "comedy" genre.

Note: Although this 1941 Hitchcock film shares its name with a 2005 film called Mr. & Mrs. Smith, it is in no way related to it except by title.
Yes, I have watched this film and I agree with you 100%...both films are related in "name" only!

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