The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: Unfounded suspicions lead a married couple to begin divorce proceedings, whereupon they start undermining each other’s attempts to find new romance.
Jason: I don’t think Mr. & Mrs. Smith is going to spark much of a discussion, simply because it doesn’t feel much like a Hitchcock film. Even more than Jamaica Inn, this movie feels like a work for hire. And that’s exactly what it was. Apparently, Hitch made this one as a favor to Carole Lombard, who had helped ease Hitch’s transition to America by loaning his family her home after she married Clark Gable. The result is a film that has very little of the stuff we’ve come to expect from a Hitch flick. It’s a screwball comedy, completely in the vein of past Lombard comedies. (I think she even inspired the term “screwball comedy.”) There’s no corpse in this film, there’s no suspense, the humor is bright and cheery . . . it feels banal.
James: While this is certainly the most un-Hitchcock of all his films, I found myself liking it despite the fact that there are a number of things I didn’t enjoy.
Jason: Although I knew what to expect going in to the film, I tried to watch for any little glimpses of Hitchcock, and I guess they’re there if you look hard enough. First of all, the entire film could be called a joke about infidelity, so it carries that major theme. Second, it’s got some surprisingly naughty humor strung throughout, and a couple of the lines actually surprised me. I like that Hitch is always pushing the edge of what was probably allowed in American film. We had the specters of lesbianism and out-of-wedlock pregnancy in Rebecca, and here we have some pretty overt sex jokes.
James: I’m thinking of two elements of this film that could be Hitchcockian. First, the name Smith, to me, is a symbol of the everyman. It seems like all the Hitch heroes are this everyman type of person, so I thought that fit into his themes.
Jason: Good point.
James: But yeah, the only real Hitchcockian elements I saw in the film were the notions of infidelity and troubled marriage life. And the sex humor . . . I particularly loved the scene in the department store’s lingerie section and the scene that followed in front of the store on the sidewalk. Classic Hitchcock. But the quick wit was gone, which disappointed me. In its place was all-out humor (supposedly). A lot of that humor was lost on me. I could see that, yeah, at the time people might have laughed at certain situations, but for the most part, all I could muster was a smile.
Jason: Sounds like we had the same basic reaction to this one. I agree that the humor must have connected big with audiences of the time, but a lot of it musters only a smile today. Still, there are some very good comic moments that I laughed at. I like the way the movie opens, with David Smith (Robert Montgomery) and Ann Krausheimer Smith (Lombard) holed up in their room. They’re stealing glances at each other, and she’s flopping around on the bed, and we have no idea what’s going on between these two. Pretty soon, we get the idea that they’re trying to make up after a fight and have confined themselves with each other until that happens. So the plot (what there is of it) really gets going when their little game ends with a Q&A thing, in which one person asks the other a question and the other is bound to answer truthfully. “If you had to do it all over again, would you marry me?” Every guy in the known universe knows that the answer to that one is, “Holy shit, of course.”
James: I thought the whole point to this film—what would’ve been the MacGuffin in a suspense story—was actually pretty interesting (if a bit hard to swallow). The idea that the Smiths aren’t actually married at all. What a great way to start the ball rolling on the real story, just after she asks the question about whether he’d marry her again. Great stuff.
Jason: Hmmm, how intriguing, I didn’t even think in terms of a MacGuffin for this film, but you’re right, it’s almost a classic MacGuffin: something trivial or even coincidental that starts the plot in motion but really becomes meaningless. Good catch! And the rest of the story is just based on screwball misunderstandings typical to these kinds of silly comedies.
James: I did have a hard time with some of the details in this one. First off, I didn’t believe the complete role reversals at the beginning. Mrs. Smith suddenly doesn’t want anything to do with Mr. Smith? I don’t buy it. And Mr. Smith’s partner Jeff (Gene Raymond) asking Ann on a date so quickly? Heck, why would Smith leave without getting some of his stuff in the first place?
Jason: Yeah, I felt the same things regarding the lack of believability. I didn’t necessarily buy that Mrs. Smith would suddenly hate her husband and start dating. But I forgave all that in the spirit of the comedy. Willing suspension of disbelief also applies to comedies. It makes for a great moment when Mrs. Smith informs Mr. Smith that she has retained Jeff to be her lawyer, and then Jeff asks her, in front of Mr. Smith, “Now that that’s all out of the way, are you free for dinner tomorrow night?” I got a kick out of that line. “What time?” she asks back.
James: I know it’s a comedy and all this doesn’t matter, but I found myself questioning the motivations throughout this film, and that dampened my enjoyment. I mean, Mrs. Smith was a real bitch. That alone made the film tough to watch in the beginning.
Jason: Do you think this film echoes Rich and Strange? Similar to the way Fred Hill in the 1931 film wishes for adventure away from the rat race and gets it in the form of a convenient inheritance, Mr. Smith voices his careless wish for independence and gets it thanks to a convenient annulment of his marriage because of some weird state-boundary law. The film also resembles Rich and Strange in its comic elements and its scenarios of two jealous lovers trying to outdo each other.
Jason: Makes me glad we watched Rich and Strange, to be able to make that connection. The scene in the restaurant really reminded me of Rich and Strange. That’s a genuinely funny scene, when Mr. Smith is saddled with that obnoxious blind date, sees Mrs. Smith walk in, and pretends to be talking to the pretty blonde to his left. Then, after she and her date catch him at it, Smith decides to try to bloody his nose with a saltshaker. Man, I was howling.
James: The shot of Mr. Smith “talking” to that hot blonde was wildly entertaining. Perhaps the best moment in the film. Also, I loved the part where Jeff is getting drunk and Mrs. Smith keeps saying, “It’s just medicine.” That was hilarious. It seems like every time there’s alcohol in a Hitch flick, it’s to calm someone or cure something.
Jason: And of course, it’s usually brandy. But yeah, there are quite a few funny scenes in Mr. & Mrs. Smith. The first restaurant scene, in which Mr. and Mrs. Smith go to their favorite haunt in New York, is great. I love when he refuses to eat the soup because the cat won’t eat it. “That cat knows something,” he says. “I want a stomach pump.” And the sex jokes genuinely surprised me. When Mrs. Smith takes a call from her mother in the restaurant kitchen, her mother has just found out that her daughter isn’t legally married, and she says, “Thank heaven your father is dead. Under no circumstances are you to . . .” and Mrs. Smith says, “Of course not!” There’s also a naughty moment when Mrs. Smith’s new beau Jeff introduces Mrs. Smith to his parents, and Mr. Smith walks in. The parents say, “You’ve probably seen a great deal of her,” and Smith says, “Oh yes, a great deal.”
James: I agree with all the funny moments you pointed out. The two restaurant scenes are the best.
Jason: One moment I found interesting in the second restaurant scene occurs after Smith gives himself a bloody nose, and the obnoxious blind date puts a knife to his nose to stop the bleeding. A Hitch moment?
James: I hadn’t thought about the knife scene, but in retrospect, that’s certainly a bit of Hitchcock shining through.
Jason: Why else would a knife be introduced into the scene? “Just cut my throat with it,” Smith says miserably.
James: One thing I’m disappointed about is the fact that Lombard could have made the perfect Hitchcock leading lady. She was a beautiful blonde with a lot of spirit. Sure, she made her name in comedies, but she would fit the typical female roll perfectly. I wonder if they discussed it at all before her death.
Jason: I’ve been thinking a lot about Lombard. While I watched her in this film, there was the thought over everything that she would be dead within a couple years. She died in a plane crash over Las Vegas in 1942. She was only 33. Her husband at the time was Clark Gable, and apparently he was a total wreck for years afterward. And there was some weird stuff involved with the crash. Her mother warned her against getting on that plane. A lot of spooky numerology attached to it. So, anyway, there was a morbid fascination watching her. Did the knowledge of Lombard’s death have any effect on your enjoyment of the film? For me, it was always a little bit there, and it gave the film a sense of tragedy.
James: Naw. I mean, Hitch is dead and I don’t let that affect me.
Jason: Anyway, when I could get past all that, I too tried to imagine her as a future Hitch lady. But I couldn’t see it, in the end. Yeah, she’s got the glamor and the looks (although a bit of a high forehead) and the smarts, but she seemed to be carrying that aura of screwball, so I couldn’t see it. One thing I found interesting in that little documentary was that Lombard wasn’t afraid to make herself look foolish. That scene where she and Jeff are stuck in the carnival parachute ride, in the pouring rain, was funny for that reason. Oh, and one more thing about Lombard: Knowing Hitch’s supposed quote about actors being cattle, Lombard played a practical joke on Hitch by corralling three calfs onto the set and labeling them Lombard, Montgomery, and Raymond.
James: That practical joke was mentioned in the DVD’s featurette. Pretty funny. I like hearing about Hitch’s relationships with his actors.
Jason: Hitch was legendary for his practical jokes, so it’s nice to hear about a great one played on him.
James: Did you spot Hitch? I think I did, but he moved by rather fast and he actually looked fairly trim. I watched the scene twice but I’m only pretty sure it was him.
Jason: Yeah, Hitch walks in front of the Smiths’ building just after Jeff and Smith part and walk their separate ways. It’s a long pullback across the street, and it’s a really rough camera movement. Interestingly, I read that Lombard directed that scene.
James: Did your disc have an unfortunate decline in the sound quality during the scene at the law firm with his partner’s parents? I totally loved that scene, by the way. It was played beautifully by all participants, but the sound was very distracting.
Jason: I didn’t notice a sound problem in the scene with the parents, but what was with the rattling plumbing in the bathroom when they take Jeff in there to warn him against dating Mrs. Smith?
James: I have no idea what the plumbing noise meant. After the end of the scene, I thought that maybe the noise popped up every time one of them brought up a certain subject or a person’s name, but I didn’t go back to check that theory.
Jason: There were a couple interesting camera tricks in the film that reminded me who the director was. One was a camera movement out of a cab and onto the street to follow the Smiths. That was well done.
James: I actually didn’t notice any camera tricks. Pretty early on, I took this as a movie that would be shot pretty plain without any hints at the man behind the camera, so I stopped looking for things like that.
Jason: I didn’t like the ending of this film. It was way too quick. I mean, these two people are fighting through the whole film, almost violently, and suddenly they’re in love with each other again, and she’s moaning, and that’s it.
James: You are so right about that ending. It’s almost as if the writer looked at his page count and said, “Uh oh, time to wrap this up.”
Jason: I guess that’s all there is to say about Mr. & Mrs. Smith.
James: That’s it. Not much to say about this film, really.
Jason: I think we should at least acknowledge that Hitch adapted well to what was a quintessentially American genre of film.