TO BE OR NOT TO BE

By Gerry Waggett

Mr. & Mrs. Smith – 1941 – dir. Alfred Hitchcock

The 1941 screwball comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith should not be mistaken as the original version of the 2005 Angelina Jolie/Brad Pitt action comedy.  The premise of the 2005 Mr. & Mrs. Smith – a husband and wife hiding from each other their secret careers as paid assassins – actually sounds closer to the sort of film audiences have come to expect from suspense master Alfred Hitchcock.  The big secret in the 1941 Mr. & Mrs. Smith?  The titular couple (played by Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard) discover that their marriage was never legal.  It’s a twist on the comedy of remarriage genre popular during the 30s and 40s, but not exactly what we think of when we hear the term “Hitchcockian twist.”

Although Hitchcock had directed romantic comedies back in England, colleagues were surprised by his decision to tackle such an American movie style.  Joan Harrison, who would become one of Hollywood’s only female producers in the 1940s, worked her way up from Hitchcock’s secretary to writer on such films as Jamaica Inn, Foreign Correspondent and Rebecca.  More than merely surprised by Hitchcock’s decision, she disapproved and declined to work on it.  Instead, she took off on a vacation to New York, where the film, coincidentally, is set.

Two conflicting stories exist about why Hitchcock agreed to replace Garson Kanin as director on Mr. & Mrs. Smith.  Hitchcock, who never cared much for this film, once told fellow director Francois Truffaut that he had only taken on the film as a favor to Carole Lombard.  Hitchcock had met Lombard through David O. Selznick, who had produced Hitchcock’s Oscar-winner Rebecca as well as such Lombard classics as Made for Each Other and Nothing Sacred.  Selznick, whose studio held Hitchcock’s contract, loaned the director out to RKO to make Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  Lombard appreciated the touches of humor Hitchcock injected into his British thrillers and suspected that he could more than handle an outright comedy.  Given his penchant for sophisticated, intelligent blondes (Grace Kelly, Janet Leigh, Tippi Hedren, Kim Novak), Hitchcock naturally wanted to work with Lombard.

According to Barbara Berch’s New York Times profile on Joan Harrison, Hitchcock did not merely agree to film the movie; he “insisted upon [doing] Mr. & Mrs. Smith, which she (Harrison) couldn’t see.”  Donald Spoto’s biography :The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock” quotes Hitchcock as once saying: “I want to make a typical American comedy about Typical Americans.”  In 1940, when Mr. and Mrs. Smith began filming, the American comedy didn’t get much more typical than the comedy of remarriage.

Hitchcock may also have been influenced by the second movie RKO was offering in the deal.  The studio was looking for a director to replace Boris Ingster on a thriller then-titled Before the Fact.  In 1941, the same year Mr. & Mrs. Smith hit movie houses, Before the Fact would be released under the title Suspicion and would soon become one of the highlights in Hitchcock’s career.  Like Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the film also dealt with marital discord.

Ironically, the thriller Suspicion – in which wealthy Lina Ayrsgarth (Joan Fontaine) suspects new husband Johnny (Cary Grant) of plotting her murder – features significantly fewer instances of violence and/or threats of murder than the romantic comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith.  At several points, David Smith shows off a scar on his forehead, the souvenir from a fight in which his “wife” Ann threw a lamp at him.  Later in the film, David tells Ann, “There’s only one way to handle you,” and puts her into a headlock.  When he subsequently pushes her into a chair, she threatens to kill him, “I’m warning you, I’ll kill you in cold blood.  Some time, some day when your back is turned, I’ll stab you.”  The tone of Lombard’s voice and the look on her face while she utters those lines painted her more femme fatale than romantic heroine.  We take her threats very seriously, if only because we remember the two scenes of Ann shaving David’s face, the straight edge razor mere inches from his throat.

This underlying layer of domestic violence between David and Ann may also explain what drew Hitchcock to Norman Krasna’s script, far from the first to mine violence between men and women for laughs.  [Check out the boxing match-styled poster for the comedy Nothing Sacred, pitting Lombard versus Frederic March, fists raised with the tagline “See the big fight!”]  Hitchcock’s choice of Mr. & Mrs. Smith as his vehicle to look at “Typical Americans” should leave the audience wondering what that term meant to the Britain-raised Hitchcock.  Their unusual marital predicament notwithstanding, Ann and David Smith are hardly typical Americans, but they were very typical American movie characters at that time.  They led the sort of sophisticated New York lifestyle Hollywood trained its audiences to admire.  They lived uptown in a Park Avenue apartment with servants plural, to clean up all the broken lamps.  David practiced law and donned a tuxedo for his night out on the town.  Ann could afford an $85 dress in the late 30s, a dress that David could ruin with his aggressive advances on their first date.  By building a movie around reconnecting a couple who so obviously bring out such violence in each other, Hitchcock really does play the ultimate joke on the comedy of remarriage genre.

When Carole Lombard met Hitchcock, she told him how much she enjoyed the touches of humor he worked into even his darkest thrillers.  Maybe she should have expected him to twist some truly dark turns into a light romantic comedy.

Notes
1Berch, Barbara.  “A Hitchcock Alumna: Introducing Joan Harrison, Hollywood’s Only
Full-Fledged Woman Producer.” New York Times, June 27, 1943. Page X3.
2Jay S. Steinberg, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” Turner Classic Movies Website.      http://www.tcm.com/thismonth/article.jsp?cid=62627&mainArticleId=208614
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