Going into Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith, one might expect a potboiler on the level of his 19th-century period-piece turdpile Under Capricorn. The Master of Suspense and screwball comedy? Can there be any greater incongruity between a filmmaker and his subject? Yet this film calls into question that truism we were all taught in elementary-school science class about oil and water not mixing. Sure, it’s hardly It Happened One Night or Bringing Up Baby, but I’m puzzled about some of the censure levied against this surprisingly intelligent, smartly penned, and convincingly acted screwball comedy—especially given the ongoing accolades bestowed on the pretentious, hammily acted, feminist schlockfests Adam’s Rib and His Girl Friday.
In any event, why should anyone expect Hitchcock, that auteur among auteurs, to conform to expectations? Part of the problem with Smith‘s reception may be that Hitch treads lightly on what are often deemed essential elements of the screwball comedy: the torrid volleys of dialogue and pacing, the ludicrous props (like the dog bone and leopard in Bringing Up Baby), the self-conscious critique of class stratification. Smith focuses more on visual suggestion, drily sarcastic humor, shrewd use of situational irony, and—of course—a healthy degree of conflict and suspense. Hitch adopts a more philosophical tone than a Hawks or a Capra, eschewing some of the gags and wisecracks in favor of more in-depth exploration of gender foibles.
Hitch’s use of the most popular English surname connotes his commentary on the typical tactics men and women employ on the battlefield of love. It’s a war that begins in the bedroom, which Mrs. Ann Smith (Carole Lombard) and Mr. David Smith (Robert Montgomery) have not quitted since their most recent quarrel. Their marital rule is that they have to make up before they rejoin reality, which, for David, constitutes his comically relaxed law practice. Sitting across the breakfast table from her hubby, Ann asks the fateful question: “If you had to do it all over again, would you marry me?” Without too much reflection, David replies with detachment: “Honestly? No.” A trademark visual gesture from Hitch sets the conflict in motion: her feet, which have been playfully peeking underneath her husband’s trousers, slide back down his legs dejectedly, as if his unexpected rejoinder had severed their marriage bond with the medical precision of a doctor snipping an umbilical cord. Then, David’s foot goes from his mouth to his throat. “I’m used to you,” he offers Ann as the last in a series of awkwardly conceived attempts at backpedaling on his insensitivity. Oh dear. Sounds like you’ll be riding the couch tonight, Davey. But first you have to plan to re-propose to her, fail to do so, and thereby put the screw in screwball. All this after plot-propelling news that’s so boldfacedly ironic, it really is unexpected: a weasel-voiced, moustached runt of a man informs the couple that they aren’t married after all because of a “technicality” regarding the county in which they were hitched.
Whereupon the sexes assume their natural postlapsarian roles: Davey as the obsessive stalker, Ann as the untameable shrew.
The bright-eyed Lombard, whom Hitchcock reputedly adored, is the center of our focus. The role fits her much better than the closet-aged black dress she squeezes into. While she may at first glance look like the archetype of the blonde bombshell that sexed up Hitchcock’s later films, thank god this vivacious, tasty-as-gelato dish isn’t a Hedren, Kelly, or Novak. Hitchcock rewards her with perhaps the strongest female role in his filmography. Her feminine idealization of romance deludes her into thinking that politeness and chivalry is what she really craves in a man. After a stint of dating her superannuated boss, Mr. Flugle (Francis Compton), from the store, she thinks she falls for Mr. Smith’s business partner and old school chum, Jefferson Custer (Gene Raymond), a man whose personality was smothered long ago beneath heaps of family money. It’s hard for Ann to conceal her grimaces around this wooden colossus of a man. He represents her unsuccessful rebellion against all the qualities she secretly adores in David—his penchant for drink, his sexual forwardness, and his high-spirited temper. She knows full well that this innocuous oaf will never be able to fill the black hole she has deliberately sucked herself into by spurning the other half of her wild side.
Lombard may be spotlighted by Hitchcock’s adulating camera, but Montgomery is the source of the Master’s droll verbal humor. The insults he dishes out may not be look-at-how-witty-I-am wordplay, but their bluntness is hilarious nonetheless. Jefferson, for one, is a “pile of Southern fried chicken,” while the corrugated Flugle is simply an “old goat.” Davey’s need to control the situation with words is an apt Hitchcockian subversion of the typical gender roles in a screwball comedy. Unlike Bringing Up Baby or It Happened One Night, which feature wealthy women from pedigreed backgrounds, Hitchcock casts the marriage in Smith as a traditional one in which the man is the breadwinner. However, he reverses the stereotypical personality traits of the sexes by making David the more verbally aggressive of the two. Ann, conversely, is given more to violence of the physical, masculine kind. She smashes champagne on the floor and throws him out of the apartment. At another point, David reminds her of who made an indentation beneath his eye with a lamp. Seriously, the guy could pass for a battered husband on Geraldo. But at least if he no longer has his self-respect, he still has his sense of irony.
And this pic shows that, regardless of genre, Hitch did too. Smith is neither high art or high comedy, just an unexpectedly perceptive romantic frolic from a fat man who rarely smiled and often smoked a stogy.
Joe’s Grade: B+