1001 Classic Movies: Mr and Mrs. Smith

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) starring Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard is one of the 1001 classic movies you should see.

Each Monday, I'm going to recommend a classic movie you should see (for the reasons behind the 1001 series and reviews of earlier films covered go here). February's theme is Love and Marriage Hitchcock Style, so I'm starting off with one of British director Alfred Hitchcock's least typical American movies, the 1941 screwball comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which has nothing to do with the 2005 Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie movie, is about a happily married couple, David (Robert Montgomery) and Ann Smith (Carole Lombard). The Smiths have the typical ups and downs of married life, but things really go downhill when, due to a legal technicality, they find out they aren't legally wed. Ann becomes extremely upset when David doesn't immediately suggest they get re-married, so she begins stepping out with David's law partner (Gene Raymond).

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is the only pure comedy among Hitchcock's American films. He directed it as a favor to Lombard, who was a dear friend to Hitchcock and his wife, but even though the "master of suspense" didn't include any murder or intrigue in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the film has plenty of his signature touches. Hitchcock's movies are preoccupied with marriage, which was unusual in old Hollywood where many directors focused on courtship, and most romantic comedies ended with a wedding. Hitchcock's movies do feature plenty of romance, but in many instances he is more interested in what happens to couples after they say, "I do." He featured many marriages throughout his five decade career ranging from the high profile power couple in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) to the dysfunctional relationship at the center of Strangers on a Train (1951).

In fact, the sole focus of Mr. and Mrs. Smith is David and Ann's marriage. Hitchcock shows the audience both the delights of marriage and its pitfalls. David and Ann are deeply in love, but marriage forces them to compromise in ways they wouldn't have to if they were single. Ann must give up any chance of a  career (many businesses didn't hire married women in 1941), and David has to deal with Ann's constant self-improvement strategies to make their marriage better. In the end, David and Ann find the intimacy and friendship they have in each other more than makes up for whatever freedoms they gave up for their marriage.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith Viewer's Guide: This movie is one of the last great screwball comedies. Here's what to look for when you watch:
1. The Hitchcock Touch. The great director always claimed he only made Mr. and Mrs. Smith as a favor to Lombard, but the film is full of many of Hitch's signature touches. There is of course his cameo -- it actually comes rather late in the film at about the 40 minute mark -- but there are also set pieces that recall some of Hitchcock's later movies. David Smith is many ways a less menacing version of Cary Grant's husband in Suspicion (we'll get to that one in a few weeks), and a memorable scene in an amusement park is reminiscent of Strangers on a Train.
2. Lombard. Lombard was known as the queen of screwball comedy, and she is magnificent here in what is her second-to-last film before her untimely death in 1942. It is a shame that she and the director didn't make more films together because in many ways she was the ultimate Hitchcock blonde: stunning, sophisticated, and funny.
3. Montgomery. As good as Lombard is, Montgomery is even better. He turns what could actually be a very unlikable role into a performance of great charm and style that equals even Grant's best work. Watch for the scene in the nightclub where Montgomery tries to give himself a bloody nose. It's a classic screwball moment that nobody could have done better.
4. Pizza. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is full of interesting anachronisms about life in the 1940's -- married women couldn't work at department stores, disposable diapers were a new invention -- but the one thing that stands out is pizza. David and Ann visit an Italian restaurant that advertises pizza, and the esteemed critic Richard Schickel said in the documentary, Mr. Hitchcock Meets the Smiths, that he believes it is the first reference to the dish in American film.

Carole Lombard in one of her costumes by Irene for Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)
Other critics: Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a certified fresh at Rotten Tomatoes with a 63 percent rating, and Leonard Maltin calls it "one of Hitchcock's least typical films, but bouncy nonetheless" in a three-star review for his Classic Movie Guide. Critics in 1941 were mixed. Theodore Strauss of The New York Times, who probably wore out his thesaurus while writing this review, called it  "a chucklesome comedy that fails to mount into a coruscating wave of laughter." Variety was more positive stating that ""Alfred Hitchcock pilots the story in a straight farcical groove without resort to slapstick interludes or overplaying by the characters."

The bottom line: Mr. and Mrs. Smith isn't a typical Hitchcock film, but that's what makes it so refreshing. Hitchcock fans can fully appreciate his flair for comedy, and screwball fans can enjoy flashes of the signature Hitchcock style in a film that is a delight from start to finish.

Availability: Mr. and Mrs. Smith is available on DVD and video on demand.

Next Monday, I'll continue the February theme of Love and Marriage: Hitchcock Style with a look at Rebecca (1940).