MR. & MRS. SMITH —–a screwball comedy, directed by….Alfred Hitchcock!? Not only that but thanks to his droll sense of humor and innate gift at how to time and pace material, it’s more enjoyable than many of the better-known entries in that particular farce class, one that helped make the troubled 1930s and 40s a little easier to bear. This 1941 foray into husband-wife chess holds up quite well, thanks to Hitch having the acumen and good fortune to cast Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard as the skirmishing, stubborn, separated but sentimental Smiths.
Living in New York City, well-off Smith’s Ann & David are three years into their marriage, which often pits their passion and affection against tiffs & battles that last for days. A surprise visit by an official from the county in Idaho they were hitched in reveals that a snafu has their license invalid: they have to fix it. They are each told this news separately, which forms the crux of their ensuing misreadings of the other’s knowledge and intents. David’s law partner, a Virginian-charm-mannered chap named ‘Jefferson Custer’ (Gene Raymond) not only represents Ann in her play/ploy against David, but falls for her; Montgomery’s buddy (Jack Carson) urges him to live a little. The pot is stirred….
“What kind of white trash have you taken up now?”
Aside from the two charming leads, and the supporting work from Raymond and the always welcome Carson, what’s extra-rewarding about this romp is that its laughs are played at a less frantic pitch than many screwball entries. There’s a tendency to shrill in some in that group that can wear you down with bustle and clamor before they’re over, but Hitchcock’s less-pushy handling keeps things on more of a low boil here: it’s calmer than the run of the ilk.
Norman Krasna wrote the chuckle-filled script, and both Lombard and Hitchcock were eager to work with one another. From the get-go, the set-up establishes the couple as more combative than cuddly, and maybe scrimps a bit providing more bonding material for them to make their breakup/makeup a bit more plausible (within their basic absurd pretend situation), but that’s a niggling critique in view of how much fun it is just to watch the classy actors do their thing. Her pout, fret and glow (she looks great) are most disarming; Montgomery is quick without being slick, solid without being square. We like the sequence at the ‘romantic’ restaurant with The Cat & the Soup and the foursome fiasco at the nightclub, when good-time buddy Carson sets Montgomery up with an obnoxious dame and her floozy friend, while Lombard observes from across the room with her own mis-match. Raymond’s genteel drunk scene is good for some titters.
Doesn’t overstay at 95 minutes. With Philip Merivale, Lucille Watson, Betty Comson, Patricia Farr, William Tracy and Charles Halton.
* The tragic footnote to the production was Lombard’s air-crash-death. Returning from a hugely successful War Bond tour (it raised $2,000,000–today that would be over $33,000,000), on Jan. 15th, 1942 her plane hit a mountain outside Las Vegas, killing her, her mother, 15 soldiers, 22 in all, everyone aboard. She was 33. In essence, Lombard was another early casualty of WW2. Grief-stricken husband Clark Gable shortly enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Her last completed picture, the classic To Be Or Not To Be came out one month after her death. Robert Montgomery finished three more pictures (including the very popular Here Comes Mr. Jordan) then entered the Navy, seeing extensive action in both the Pacific and Atlantic. Like Gable, Gene Raymond (who had his own set of problems, which we leave to readers to dig up) joined the Air Corps, becoming a B-17 pilot. Jack Carson tried to enlist but was rejected due to his height (the big guy couldn’t fit in a cockpit). Lombard’s last words to the public at the departure airport: “Before I say goodbye to you all, come on – join me in a big cheer – “V for Victory!”