Saturday, July 7, 2012

Stubs - Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)

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MR. AND MRS. SMITH (1941) Starring: Carole Lombard, Robert Montgomery, Gene Raymond, Jack Carson, Philip Merivale and Lucie Watson. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Produced by Harry E. Edington.  Story and Screenplay by Norman Krasna.  Music by Edward Ward. Run Time: 95. Black and White. USA. Comedy, Screwball Comedy

Perhaps the most non-Hitchcockian film Alfred Hitchcock ever made, Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a serviceable, if not tremendously funny screwball comedy, starring Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery.

Ann (Carole Lombard) and David Smith (Robert Montgomery) are a seemingly happily married couple that live by a set of rules they have agreed to. When the film opens they are in the midst of living out one of those rules, neither can leave the bedroom after a fight until they’ve made up. This time, they have been at it for three days before they make amends. Meanwhile, David’s law partner, Jefferson Custer (Gene Raymond) dispatches Sammy (William Tracy) to get some paperwork signed.

When the couple finally makes a breakthrough, Ann demands one to partake in another of their rules, number seven, wherein once a month she gets to ask him any question she wants. This time she asks him if he had to do it all over again would he marry her again. Of course this is a trap question. If a man is asked this the only appropriate answer is “Yes, of course, I would marry you.” However, David answers her with the truth, No. His reasoning is that a married man gives up too much of his freedom.

While she is upset by the answer, she lets him get to the office. Once there, he finds three days’ worth of paperwork on his desk and a very gracious partner, who seems too good to be true. But before he can get down to work, there is a man who has come to see him. Harry Deever (Charles Halton) is a representative of the small town in Idaho where the Smiths were married. He comes to tell David that the chamber of commerce has sent him to anyone married in the town after 1936, since the town was actually in Nevada and no marriage is legal in Nevada with an Idaho marriage license. Harry recommends getting remarried and returns the $2 license fee to David.

But when Harry sees Mrs. Smith’s photo, he recognizes her as Ann Krausheimer, a friend of his sister’s from back home. He tells David to give her his best and leaves. David goes to the phone and asks his wife out for dinner at the restaurant, Momma Lucy’s, they used to go to when they were dating. Unbeknownst to David, Harry finds himself passing their resident in a cab and stops to go in to see Ann. Ann is visiting with her mother (Esther Dale) when Harry drops by. He tells the two of them the story about the license.

Ann thinks David is planning a romantic evening that will end in marriage and she even dresses in the same suit she wore to their wedding. But David does not let on. The two go to dinner, but things have really changed and the pizzeria has gone downhill. Momma's is now a man and the place smells like a livery stable has been opened next door. But they are determined to make the best of things and even get the proprietor (William Edmunds) to set up a table for them outside. That is until street children stare them down and back inside the restaurant.

After an abbreviated dinner, they go home. David breaks out some champagne and Ann nearly clobbers him with the bottle. She tells David about Harry’s visit and she is convinced that David had no plans to remarry her. She kicks him out and he goes to his club, The Beefeater, where he takes a room for the night. There he runs into Chuck Benson (Jack Carson) another married man who has been banished from his home. Chuck advises David to ignore the situation and then his wife will want him back.

But that ploy backfires on David. He watches as his wife comes home from a date with a much older man, Robert Emmett Keane. The next morning, David gets into Ann’s cab on her way to work, a department store that Keane’s character manages. However, the store does not employ married women (it was a different time) and Ann is fired.

Back at work, Jefferson offers to help David out. He’s been sweet on Ann and Ann has always been sweet on her. He invites David to interrupt their dinner date at 9 that night. But when David arrives, he finds that Ann has turned Jefferson against him. Jefferson is supposedly representing Ann, whom he agrees is not legally married to David. And in front of David, Jefferson asks her out to dinner the next night.

When David returns to the Beefeater, he lets Chuck set him up on a blind date. David makes sure they’re eating at the same club Jefferson is taking Ann. David is disappointed to find out that his date is a rather crass woman, Gertie (Betty Compson). When he tries to extract himself from the evening by giving himself a bloody nose, Gertie is suddenly an expert on their remedy. This causes the commotion David had tried to avoid. Ann and Jefferson leave, with Ann suggesting they go the fair, the World’s Fair. The two get stuck on a parachute ride and when the rain comes, Jefferson gets a cold.

Ann takes Jefferson back to his apartment and tries to ply him with alcohol. But the former Alabama football player isn’t much of a drinker. After two stiff belts he is afraid of what he might do and lets Ann get herself home.

The next morning, David, who has by now given up his day job, follows Ann to his office. But instead of seeing him, Ann is in with Jefferson. Jefferson’s parents Mr. and Mrs. Custer (Philip Merivale and Lucie Watson) are visiting him on their way to a winter holiday to Lake Placid. They ask their son and his new love to join them, which they do a week later.

When they arrive at the resort, Ann and Jefferson find that his parents are off on an excursion for the day. They take a sleigh ride to their adjoining cabins, but find that David has followed them. Pretending to be frozen, Ann and Jefferson drag David into his own, also adjoining cabin, to recover. But David is only faking it, which Ann quickly discovers.

David’s deceit prompts Ann to ask Jefferson to marry her. While Jeff is happy about the prospect, he tells Ann that he only wants her happiness and if she decides that she’d rather be with David that would be okay by him. Meanwhile, David is planning on returning to New York alone.

But after dinner, Ann gets the idea of trying to make David jealous by pretending Jeff is coming on to her in her cabin. It works and David comes over to defend his wife from Jefferson’s advances. However, Jeff, who is on the ploy, is in his own cabin, listening in through the apparently very thin walls. When David gets rough with Ann, she calls for Jeff to help her. When he does, the three of them get into a heated discussion, just as the Custers return from their day trip.

They refuse to let their son marry Ann and take him back to the lodge in the last sleigh ride of the day. But Ann won’t stay near David and plans to ski to the lodge to stay the night. However, she isn’t a good skier and doesn’t even know how to put the skis on. David roughly helps her, but with the skis on, Ann is as good as trapped. David starts to undress (he takes off his tie and unbuttons his shirt) and in the end, Ann and David fall back in love.

One of Hitchcock’s first films in America, after a very successful career in the UK, it is one that he wanted to do because of his affection for Carole Lombard, who was quite the comedic star at the time. This may be the first film of hers that I have seen, at least all the way through, and I am pleasantly surprised at how good of an actress she was. Very pretty, with a good sense of timing, Lombard is very capable with the part of Ann.

In a 20 year career that dated back to silent films, Lombard appeared in a variety of films including the 1925 version of Ben Hur and a stint as a Mack Sennett bathing beauty in 1928. Transitioning to sound, Lombard made a career as a comedic actress. Her big break came in 1934’s Twentieth Century, a screwball comedy directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Barrymore.

Lombard, who was married briefly to William Powell, was married to Clark Gable from 1939 until her death in 1942 while on a tour selling war bonds. Mr. and Mrs. Smith would be her next to last film, the last being the comedy To Be or Not To Be (1942) opposite Jack Benny. One can only imagine what heights she might have reached if it wasn’t for her untimely death.

Robert Montgomery, her co-star in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, was originally a stage actor, who got his big break in 1930’s The Big House, directed by George W. Hill and co-starring Wallace Beery and Chester Morris. That same year he would appear with Greta Garbo in Inspiration and Norma Shearer in The Divorcee. After Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Montgomery would star in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) with Claude Raines and Evelyn Keyes. Montgomery would receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his performance as Joe Pendleton. After World War II, Montgomery would appear in The Expendables (1945) before directing and starring in Lady in The Lake (1947). His last film was 1960’s The Gallant Hours which he narrated and directed.

With any films like this it is always interesting to look at the supporting cast, because you’re always bound to find a familiar face in the crowds. William Tracy who played a brief part as Sammy is perhaps better known on this blog for his role as Pepi in The Shop Around the Corner. Keeping with the Christmas theme, Charles Halton (Harry Deever) was the bank examiner in It’s A WonderfulLife and played the detective in The Shop Around the Corner. And who can forget William Edmunds, here as the proprietor of the down for the count Momma Lucy’s, as Mr. Martini in It’s A Wonderful Life.

Jack Carson is also a stand out as the lovable loser Chuck, would have a memorable role in Mildred Pierce (1945) and a very successful career in Hollywood as a character actor.

What can’t be said about Alfred Hitchcock? While comedy may not be a genre people think of Hitchcock working in, his films oftentimes do display a dark, black comedic touch. After directing films in his native UK, Hitchcock came to the US in 1940 to make Rebecca for David O. Selznick. From then until Frenzy (1972), Hitchcock worked in the U.S. directing such classics as Saboteur (1942), Notorious (1946), Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960) and  The Birds (1963).

As I wrote at the beginning of this review, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, is a good film, but not a great one. Some of the humor has not lasted the test of time and some of that may be based on the premise of the film. With marriage more and more an afterthought, what may have been scandalous in 1941 America is now no big deal. However, films can’t be solely viewed by modern standards. They were made for a 1941 audience and should be viewed, as best one can, by the viewer putting themselves in that frame of mind. But doing so is very hard. Any reviewer brings their own life experience to the film.

Looking at the film through modern eyes one of the things that jumps out at me is the depiction of southerners and Jefferson Custer in particular. Family names like Jefferson and Ashley (the father’s name) suggest that the Civil War is still fresh in everyone’s minds, even though it had been over for about 75 years by the time the film was made. (Jefferson was the first name of Confederate President Davis. I may be associating Ashley with the Civil War thanks to Gone With the Wind, but so would an audience in 1941.) The Custers are depicted as having a high moral background and Jeff even lets his parents decide his marital fate, as they feel Ann is not the right woman for their son.

And Jeff’s depiction as a southern gentleman seems magnified by the production code. His over the top chivalrous behavior towards Ann, and the fact he is well groomed and does his own interior decoration, would suggest that he is at least a metro-sexual, if not gay, which I’m sure was not the intent of the filmmakers. Such is the issue of looking at a film with modern eyes.

By the standards of 1941, any film with Lombard and Montgomery was sure to be a success. While the film may not stand up as well as other films Hitchcock made during his long career, it is worth watching at least once, if only to see the one time pairing of Lombard and Montgomery.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) is available in a collection at the WB Shop:

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