Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) - A Carole Lombard Triumph

 Unfortunately, this film is severely dated.  Not too many people today will be that interested in whether the marriage between the characters played by Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery survives the particular stresses to which it is subjected, or doesn't.  That doesn't mean it is a bad film, but rather that you have to be open to the film's conceit in order to enjoy it.  Typically, that would mean you are a film buff or a fan of these particular screen legends.

A sleigh ride at the film's climax

Alfred Hitchcock directed this as a favor to Lombard.  He does a competent job, but it really isn't his milieu.  Any hack could have done the job.  He does manage to make Lombard sparkle and draw out Montgomery's comedic talent, but it's nothing that Frank Capra or Lubitsch couldn't have done just as well.  Lombard was still a young woman, but at times she looks almost middle-aged here, which is a bit disconcerting but does fit in with the plot.

Robert Montgomery giving his trademark look of uncertainty

I can't understand folks who are disappointed in this film, because I think it's terrific. Go in with false expectations, and you will be disappointed, but that is always the case. The prime false expectation is that this is an "Alfred Hitchcock film" that you should see for that reason. Well, wrong. This is not a "Hitchcock classic" - he just happened to direct a Carole Lombard screwball comedy (one of the last of the genre, in fact). If you are in the mood for such a film, you will be delighted, because this really is a delightful treat that showcases Lombard in a mature, sophisticated comic way.

Carole Lombard huddled in bed, a blond beauty

By 1941, Lombard was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and was very picky about her roles. She recognized Alfred Hitchcock as one of the greatest of all directors who, unlike, say, an Orson Welles, wouldn't overshadow her, and hand-picked him to direct this film. How anyone could say this was a bad choice is beyond me - no, this is not "North By Northwest" or "Psycho," but the directing still is top-notch. The romantic comedy works, without Hitchcock intruding into the proceedings with any signature flourishes. My point is that you should not watch this film just because Hitchcock is the director, or you will be disappointed. Instead, watch it because it is a delight!

Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery

Anyway, the film has some terrific performances. Robert Montgomery plays the schlumpy Everyman of the world who has to deal with a suddenly altered marital reality that is not of his own making. Down and depressed, he falls in with a "swinging bachelor" type who tries to cheer him up. This foreshadows scenes in "The Odd Couple" after he turns out to be lovable despite - or maybe because of - some rather unsubtle instances of human frailty. Unlike "The Odd Couple," though, we get to see both sides of the male-female equation, something Hitchcock was very good at doing - oh no, there's that name again.

Carole Lombard preening

Jack Carson is fabulous in the wise-guy supporting role, something he excelled at in films like this and especially "Mildred Pierce." One can see the dawn of Oscar Madison in the way he drags Montgomery to nightclubs and gives him the "lowdown" on single life.

The happy couple over dinner

But it is Lombard who sets things in motion and keeps the balls juggling in the air until the end. As usual, she gets to show the full gamut of emotions, from flirty to bored to angry to sexy to romantic. There are some scenes that maybe only I will ever find special. One is when she and Montgomery are in a taxi cab and Lombard can't show enough annoyance at her man, practically burrowing through the side of the taxi to get some distance. She must have been a handful in real life! Another (endlessly, endlessly copied throughout subsequent film history) is where she decides to make Montgomery jealous by pretending - by herself - to be getting, um, physical with someone else while he is listening in another room. I just love that scene, and her facial expressions after Montgomery shows up. The scene on the 1939 World's Fair Ferris Wheel is pure, unadulterated Hitcock, the rain showing the Master's genius.

Sorting out their differences

So, if you MUST watch this film simply because it has the name Hitchcock on it, there are some classic Hitchcock touches. Nobody else ever seems to notice because there is no horror or weird camera angles from the top of buildings or dramatic background music or an ending on Mount Rushmore or anything like that. They are subtle touches for the truly observant. For example, the opening scene, with Lombard tossing and turning in the bed, is pure classic Hitchcock. You can just feel the appreciation the man had for this beautiful blonde, the first in a long line that he showcased.

Believe me, the whole film isn't this light and bouncy

I'm with Hitchcock on this.  Lombard is the treat, the reason to see the film. And you should. Just try and forget who directed it, because it doesn't matter.  If you give it a chance, it's a terrific film.

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