Week 20: Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Comedies, and Cattle

Disclaimer: This essay discusses spoilers for Mr. & Mrs. Smith. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

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How specific are a director’s talents? In the Golden Era of studio Hollywood, most directors were required to master all kinds of films; Michael Curtiz of Warner Bros might finish a pirate epic on Friday and start shooting a musical on Monday. Today the pendulum has swung far back in the other direction where directors generally chose the type of films they want to make; Wes Anderson isn’t directing a Fast & Furious movie and Michael Bay isn’t making indie dramas.

This modern approach also highlights the director’s power; Wes Anderson can find the funding to make any kind of movie he wants, and the few filmmakers who do float through genres, like Steven Spielberg or the Coen Brothers, have the money and clout to do whatever they want. In the Studio Era, films were assigned and you took them.

Not so with Hitchcock, who built a reputation in England as a strong-willed director of thrillers who chose his own projects. When he was wooed by David O. Selznick to come to Hollywood for Rebecca, Hitchcock retained much of that freedom; there are very few cases where Hitchcock was forced to make a film against his will. So while he would gripe in later years about never getting to make something other than thrillers, it seems like it a niche he created for himself. Thrillers, action, and suspense pictures by their very nature are technically demanding and require months of planning (Hitchcock’s favorite part of filmmaking). And for almost every film, Hitchcock would develop a script from the very beginning, working with writers to tailor it to his specifications. This was a rare privilege in Hollywood in the 1940s & 50s, and Hitchcock took full advantage of his clout to create great and memorable work.

But what happens when Hitchcock makes a film that doesn’t fit this mold? A script he is handed and asked to film with no changes or revisions? A project done at least partially as a favor to a friend? And a film with no suspense and no technical challenges: a screwball comedy?

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Hitchcock enjoying being directed by Carole Lombard (in the chair) for his cameo in the film.

The result is Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941, not the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie movie of the same title), a film that’s known mainly for the notoriety of watching the Master of Suspense try to direct a full-out comedy (and for being one of Carole Lombard’s last films). Hitchcock does elevate a few moments with inventive camerawork but overall the film itself is lifeless and manages to be both mean-spirited and dull.

I will offer a caveat here: it’s always hard to judge comedies. More than any other type of film your enjoyment of it can depend on your mood, where you’re at, and even where you see it. I remember seeing this film for the first time at one of Film Forum’s legendary screwball comedy double-features and enjoying it with an audience full of people primed to laugh.

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Not pictured: the loading dock to the right that always smelled like garbage.

These were magical times for me in my film-going evolution. For almost eight years I managed the BAMcinématek repertory film program and saw my share of movies there, but there’s something magical about Film Forum. It’s a tiny space in the West Village that survived against all odds when other theaters were closing. The space is barely big enough for one theater, let alone the three that it contains, and in the fourteen years I lived in New York and saw films there, it never changed.

I mean that in a good way; other theaters would be flashier, offering beer or special events or concerts. Yet Film Forum remained steadfast in its Woody Allen fantasy of New York as a town where people walked into a movie theater to see arthouse films and classic Hollywood fare.

The double features were the best though; two or in some cases three movies on one ticket, some no more than 70-75 minutes, almost all from the 1930s & 40s. Some were silent with live piano, some were long film noir weekends, but one big screwball festival stood out to me. I must have seen fourteen or fifteen films over the course of a week, looking at my watch in work meetings to hope they’d end on time so I could jump on the 1 train and hustle over there. For popular screenings and double features the line would stretch outside and it always seemed brutally cold in the winter or hot sticky garbage in the summer. Inside were incredibly uncomfortable seats, bright red pillars in the theaters that blocked views, and a strange mix of patrons. Film Forum had the older “I brought candy or food from home and I’m going to unwrap it here” customers as well as the strict “No talking! No phones! NO TALKING” people who felt it was their duty to enforce those rules at all times.

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I love that they used this picture where the employee looks bored out of their mind.

And best of all, the repertory theaters in New York had an agreement. Because I worked at BAM, if a show wasn’t going to sell out at Film Forum, I’d get two tickets for free. Boom. Film Forum employees got the same deal at BAM and other theaters around town.

I really loved the theaters at BAM and I saw some great movies there. I put on some great events there too. But my heart belonged to Film Forum. It was the first place I saw Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire, the first place I saw a silent film with live piano accompaniment, the first place I saw Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

Yet as much as I wanted to will myself back to that time and place, when I saw Mr. & Mrs. Smith in a tiny theater on a hard seat and enjoyed it, I couldn’t do it. This time all I saw were the flaws. Granted, I was watching at home and having a crappy week. But shouldn’t a good movie engage you and take you out of your mindset? I’ve already written about how To Catch a Thief and Rear Window have done that for me, so why expect less?

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Still photos of people laughing always look really weird, right? 

Most Hitchcock films contain quite a bit of humor; Thelma Ritter’s character in Rear Window is easily one of cinema’s best supporting comedy roles. Hitchcock loved working with character actors and building comedic bits to keep an audience interested. What went wrong with Mr. & Mrs. Smith?

Hitchcock and his wife were friends with Carole Lombard and her husband Clark Gable. Lombard wanted to work with him and when she got the script for Mr. & Mrs. Smith, she allegedly said she’d only do it if she could work with Hitchcock. Hitchcock was coming off a project that fell apart and took the job (there are some accounts that he actively pursued it, but that’s been disputed). In interviews, he always spoke of it as a favor to Lombard. Ironically, his fondness for Lombard may have contributed to what I would consider some tremendous overacting in the film; it’s unclear if he didn’t want to or didn’t know how to reign her in.

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Carole Lombard & Robert Montgomery

Sidenote: for years people have repeated Hitchcock’s quote that “all actors are cattle” (or some variation). This line has been used as proof of his misogyny, his misanthropy, his snobbishness, his inability to direct actors, and on and on. First, we should address that this is joke; in every context (whether said to a British reporter or teasing with George Raft), the remark is clearly dry humor and not meant to be taken seriously. Perhaps it’s a tasteless joke, but Hitchcock was well-known for his off-color or inappropriate humor. Second, if Hitchcock truly hated actors, he certainly got some remarkably performances from them, including career-best work from Cary Grant, Janet Leigh, Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, Robert Donat, Grace Kelly, Farley Granger, Eva Marie Saint, and countless others. Hitchcock knew the power of actors to enliven and enrich his film (as well as their box office draws) and in his prime he cast people with extraordinary skill as well as offering them a wide range of freedom on his sets.

And finally, there’s an incident from the making of Mr. & Mrs. Smith. The possibly  apocryphal cattle quote had made the rounds in 1941 and Carole Lombard had a gag ready for Hitchcock on set: a cattle pen with three calves inside, each named after one of the film’s three stars. The media loved it and so did Hitchcock. This was a joke among friends, not a remark by a contemptuous man.

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This is the best photo I could find, but you can see Montgomery & Lombard playing with the cattle named for Montgomery and co-star Gene Raymond.

Sadly, this is maybe the most entertaining thing about the film, at least for me. Hitchcock wisely expressed ambivalence about the script by Norman Krasna before starting and I can see why. It’s a mess, full of motivations that don’t make sense and characters acting out in ways that are at odds with their stated goal, all in the name of “comedy.” Granted, not every screwball comedy can be Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday or Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve, but Mr. & Mrs. Smith isn’t even in the same playing field.

The screwball comedy is its own unique genre within film comedy, one that’s the complete antithesis of the humor in Hitchcock’s films. Hitchcock humor was often dry, based on wordplay or innuendo, and constructed from characters commenting on the situation (think Thelma Ritter’s running commentary in Rear Window). Screwball comedy is fast and furious, with jokes coming quick and overlapping, with wild caricatures creating farcical situations. In a sense Hitchcock’s humor derives from classic dry British comedy while Screwball could is a relative of the door-slamming French farce. Howard Hawks, one of the best director of screwball comedies, kept films like His Girl Friday moving at a breathless pace, even creating new logistical issues for the sound department with his insistence on overlapping dialogue, anything to keep the film moving, running, and jumping to the next laugh.

In the Hitchcock/Truffaut film, Hitchcock remarks that he all he did for Mr. & Mrs. Smith is set up the camera and shoot the scenes; Sadly that seems to be the case. The movie has a good premise: a married couple (Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery) have a contentious yet ultimately loving relationship until Montgomery gets word that, due to a technical issue, they aren’t actually married. He plans a romantic dinner to surprise Lombard with the news and re-propose, but she gets the same information, unbeknownst to him. Then, when the dinner is a bust, he doesn’t propose, she flips out on him and then…it’s unclear. The movie asks us to accept that a woman who loves her husband and has been married to him for over three years would suddenly kick him out of the house and immediately start dating his best friend. The rest of the film is a pile of tired contrivances that ends…well, it just kind of ends. They’re fighting and mad after countless tricks played on each other, but then she sighs and says his name and literally they’re back together. It’s a mess.

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This photo seems indicative of Hitchcock’s attitude toward the film.

And for screwball fare, Lombard & Montgomery never become caricatures who are broad enough to laugh at. Montgomery ostensibly plays the straight man to Lombard’s shrill spurned lover, while Gene Raymond has a thankless role as the even straighter corner of a tedious love triangle. The biggest problem is that both lead characters behave like children; they’re spiteful, conniving, and unpleasant. Both Lombard & Montgomery are great actors, but neither is capable of making their character’s manipulative behavior palatable or their inexplicable actions believable. Hitchcock’s slow-moving direction doesn’t help either, although perhaps if he’d had his original leading man, Cary Grant, maybe he could have pulled it off.

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Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in Howard Hawks’ spectacular “His Girl Friday”

In His Girl Friday, Grant is equally conniving and manipulative, but his whole role (as well as his co-star Rosalind Russell) is broad parody; both start the film at a level 10 and end up somewhere way past 15. By exaggerating all of the attributes of the film, playing it at a ridiculous tempo and painting with such a broad brush, we can laugh at their churlish behavior because it’s all a gag; when the whole world is this stylized, it functions as a parody (plus Grant’s charisma makes it impossible to dislike anything he does).

In Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Hitchcock stumbles with the supporting cast; the crazies here are our two leads. Everyone else in the film behaves normally and often react with horror to the antics of these two self-absorbed loudmouths. By not moving into the parodic realms of Howard Hawks or Preston Sturges, Hitchcock grounds the story too much in real life, making it uncomfortable and mean.

Comedy direction and editing is entirely different from what Hitchcock is used to. Here’s an example of a poorly executed scene in the film: Lombard has been on a date with Gene Raymond where they get stuck on an amusement park ride in the rain. When they arrive at his apartment, Raymond is drenched. While Lombard dries herself by the fire he says “I’m going to change into something more comfortable.” Lombard makes a quizzical face, as this is an inversion of the standard female seduction trope. Then Hitchcock dissolves (we’ll come back to this) to Lombard sitting by the fire brushing her hair. Then we hear a door open and see her reaction. Then finally we see Raymond emerge in a full tuxedo. After several seconds, she says “Is that your idea of something more comfortable?” and he replies that it’s all he had to wear since they’re obviously going to go back out because the date was so bad.

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Lombard and Raymond in the tedious tuxedo scene.

The basis of this joke is a man saying “let me slip into something more comfortable” and then emerging in a tuxedo. It’s a pretty good idea. But first the script vastly overcomplicates it by adding a second & third punchline that don’t work and aren’t necessary. Second, Hitchcock directs this scene in a way that the joke doesn’t land. For the joke to work, the audience has to connect “more comfortable” with Raymond appearing in the tuxedo. Hitchcock shows him closing the door and then dissolves, which is a reminder to audiences that we’re starting a new scene or time has passed. Jokes don’t carry over dissolves; they  work best when they’re played out in the same scene, often in the same shot. And by inserting the reaction of Lombard first, the scene becomes about her, not about the gag of Raymond wearing a tuxedo. The way Hitchcock shoots the film makes sense from a technical point of view; time did pass while Raymond put on the tuxedo, so Hitch indicates that. But comedies, and especially screwball comedies, should be beholden to technicalities. A comedy’s only measure should be if something is in service of the joke; it doesn’t matter if it makes narrative sense or not.

Hitchcock’s narrative and technical excellence are required for films like Rebecca or Rear Window; the fact that even his most fantastic films maintain some sense of plausibility is that makes them great. When we watch The Wrong Man or The 39 Steps, there’s always that nagging question of “what if that happened to me” that contributes to the tension. But here, working with actors that he doesn’t reign in and a script that eludes him, he seems to just give up. He’s going through the motions instead of rising to the challenge. A Hitchcock failure is usually because he’s trying something new and doesn’t quite succeed. Even in his “worst,” least-liked film Waltzes From Vienna, Hitchcock comes alive during the musical sequences to deliver some thrilling moments. Mr. & Mrs. Smith is a Hitchcock film in name only, and sadly it deserves its place as only a footnote to his storied career.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith is not streaming on any services. It’s available to rent on iTunes or Amazon, or is available from your friendly local library.

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