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Hitchapalooza Returns with Episode 10, “Mr. & Mrs Smith” (1941), or “Comedy is hard” July 5, 2009

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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In my quest to see all the Hitchcock films that I’ve never seen or haven’t seen in years, I’m at the point now where I’m thinking more and more clunkers I’ve avoided are going to start showing up. That’s certainly the case with Mr. & Mrs. Smith, a bad misfire of a screwball romantic comedy that Hitchcock directed mostly as a favor to star Carol Lombard.

In the excellent interviews with Truffaut, Hitchcock barely mentions this film, and when asked about it, only offers up a couple of anecdotes about Lombard, the house rented from her & the time she brought cattle to the set as a gag played on the famous “actors should be treated like cattle” remark. He has absolutely nothing to say about the film itself, which is quite telling.

Hitchcock merely followed the script by Norman Krasna – there aren’t any tell-tale Htichcockian touches, except perhaps for one pull-back tracking shot outside an apartment house (culminating in his director’s cameo), and a rather hokey crossed-skis-as-romance shot at the end. You’d never know this was a Hitchcock film if you missed his credit at the beginning, you’d only think you were watching a weak screwball comedy Lombard made towards the unfortunate end of her career.

There are many problems with the story and screenplay to this one – the premise is promising enough, that of a bickering married couple discovering their marriage is not legal after all, and this gives them the actual chance to live out the hypothetical “would you marry me all over again?” that turns up early in the dialogue – but unfortunately since neither Robert Montgomery or Carol Lombard’s characters are developed beyond barely two-dimensional bickerers who follow a script, they don’t do anything very interesting after this. Even the romantic rival, Montgomery’s law partner played by Gene Raymond, remains a dull dweeb who provides no threat, no conflict at all – it’s a mystery why Lombard would fall for him simply to spite Montgomery, though a bigger mystery is why Montgomery and Lombard love each other in the first place. When Lombard decides to throw Montgomery out when he won’t take the we-were-never-married seriously enough to re-wed, we are never given any sort of reason why Montgomery should want her back other than that fact that she’s Carol Lombard. Her character is a fickle annoying bitch. His character is a rather dull mediocrity who has NO elaborate clever schemes, NO potential to make her jealous in a comic fashion, and no real attractive quality that we are told could be her achilles’ heel if they were to separate. Lombard’s character lacks the same possibilities. So, we get endless unfunny gags of him pursuing her & her ignoring him – he never makes any attempt to turn this situation around because his character is too one-dimensional to have anything up his sleeve, and comedy does not build since the two of them are just plain boring.

There’s just nothing here but people going through the motions. What we wind up with are painfully forced set-pieces based on not so funny gags, trite dialogue, and scenes merely ending just at the moment when the possibility of comedy starts to build – the best example being in the scene where Lombard is meeting Raymond’s parents, who view her as a virginal fianceé and have no clue that she’s actually married – Montgomery enters the room and begins to discuss some safe-for-1941-movies intimacies that only a husband would know, driving Raymond’s parents to think she’s trash. The parents go into an office bathroom to discuss the matter with Raymond and then….. NOTHING. No cutting back to a bickering married couple upping the ante. Noisy pipes are supposed to be funny as they decide to give her another chance. We do NOT get what we can assume would be the resulting argument between actual husband and wife, possibly revealing more, potentially embarrassingly comic intimate secrets, in front of rival and shocked innocent parents – the scene just ends and we move on. Good God, what poor, lazy writing, and I don’t care if Krasna won an Oscar. It was for something else, obviously!

Wouldn’t it be more interesting if the man and the woman sniped at each other as intelligent people who knew each other intimately and used that information against each other, only to discover that the same knowledge is why they are in love in the first place? OR IS THAT TOO GOD DAMN OBVIOUS??? Jeesh, it made me want to watch His Girl Friday again, a movie I’ve never found uproariously funny, but at least in the banter between Cary Grant & Rosalind Russell it gets that nature of a relationship between smart man and smart woman right.

And why not develop Raymond’s character more? Why not make the rival a true threat by making him more appealing in specific ways than the husband? This would allow the wife’s character to be more developed as well. Instead, well… we just get pointless behavior by boring people.

So what are we left with? Well, the first rule of comedy is to be funny, and that rule is broken here. In romantic comedy, the first rule ought to follow enough realistic psychology so that audience members can relate both to the male & female behavior – a rule that is also broken here.

Not funny.

And it’s too bad, since Hitchcock understood comedy, especially dark comedy, using it in many of his suspense films or in the far more successful The Trouble With Harry. Perhaps if he had cared enough to totally overhaul this story keeping the same premise, developing the characters further and adding some dark touches to the humor, there might have been something here, but alas… it was not so.

I’d suggest watching My Man Godfrey or To Be Or Not To Be if you want to see how comically talented Lombard was. Perhaps Hitchcock was testing the waters of directing her and would have put her into other roles had she lived. We’ll never know.

So put this in the same category with Marnie: Hitchcock films that I don’t like. It’s a category with few items, I’ll admit, and I’m hoping it doesn’t grow as Hitchapalooza continues.

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