Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)
First, it must be said that Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005) with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt is not a remake of this movie. Besides sharing a title and focusing on a married couple, the two films have nothing in common. There are no spies, guns, or fight scenes in 1941’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith.
Instead, this is a screwball comedy of remarriage that is most famous today for being Alfred Hitchcock’s only romantic comedy. The “Master of Suspense” departed from his more usual fare as a favor to the star of the picture, Carole Lombard.
She was a fan of his British films and had befriended the director when he came to Hollywood. Lombard thought that Hitchcock would do a great job directing a comedy. After all, even his most serious, dramatic thrillers have moments of quirky comedy, wit, and flashes of the absurd.
Norman Krasna wrote the script, which went through a few different titles, including Who Was That Lady I Seen You With? and No for an Answer before landing on Mr. & Mrs. Smith. He brought it to Lombard, who helped pitch it to RKO and Hitchcock.
Hitchcock was interested, and David O. Selznick agreed to loan the director to RKO (Hitchcock was under contract to Selznick, who produced his first Hollywood movie, Best Picture winner Rebecca (1940)).
RKO’s first choice for “Mr. Smith” was Cary Grant. He had recently starred with Lombard in the drama In Name Only (1939), but his schedule wouldn’t allow him to make this movie.
It would have been interesting, though–especially because Mr. & Mrs. Smith would then have been Grant and Hitchcock’s first film together. Instead, that honor belongs to Suspicion (1941), which went into production shortly after Mr. & Mrs. Smith premiered.
Since Grant was busy, RKO looked at other options and decided to cast Robert Montgomery. He was under contract to MGM, but RKO had already worked out a deal with MGM to use the actor in a movie. Mr. & Mrs. Smith worked out nicely.
Filming lasted about two months from September through November 1940, and the film premiered at the end of January 1941.
To the movie! We open on a luxurious, but very messy bedroom. Dirty silver and crystal dishes dot the floor. A maid knocks at the door and delivers yet another sparkling tray. It’s breakfast time!
Unshaven, bathrobe-clad David Smith (Robert Montgomery, whose daughter Elizabeth would gain fame as Samantha in Bewitched), takes the tray while his wife Ann (Carole Lombard) tosses fitfully in the bed.
We follow the maid back to the clean, modern kitchen where she and the cook discuss the situation. We learn that David and Ann had an argument, and they can’t leave their room until they make up. It’s been three days, and the cook is running out of dishes!
We learn that this happens a lot. The Smiths’ are very in love but also very quarrelsome, and this rule of theirs has been in effect for a while. Their record is an astounding eight days in the bedroom!
But David is getting tired of this. Plus, he needs to get back to the office. He’s a lawyer, and the work is piling up. So he tricks Ann by slamming the bedroom door and then hiding behind the sofa. She thinks that he left, thus breaking their crucial rule. When she sees that he is still there, she is so relieved that her anger melts away. Everything is forgiven.
It’s quite cute and also unusual to see characters, even married ones, embracing in bed. (You can learn more about that in my post on the Production Code.)
After some cuddling, Ann shaves David while expounding on how wonderful and unique their relationship is. She brags about how their marriage is based on mutual respect and honesty, and says that she dreads the idea of their marriage becoming “like other peoples’.”
To keep that from happening, Ann has made up lots of rules. She’s very fond of them; for instance, she self-righteously says that if more couples had a “can’t-leave-the-bedroom” rule after an argument, there wouldn’t be so much divorce.
You can watch the scene here.
David agrees, but he seems a little worn out by all of Ann’s rules and demands. We side with him. She seems like one of those people who thinks she is easy-breezy and rational, but is actually incredibly high-maintenance and emotional.
Then Ann starts in with some of her rules and probing questions designed to keep their marriage wonderful. David doesn’t really have time because he needs to get to the office, but Ann begs him to stay. She has some questions for him!
He continues, “Not that I want to be married to anyone else, but I think that when a man marries he gives up a certain amount of freedom and independence, and if I had to do it all over again, I think I would stay single.”
Ann always says that honesty is crucial to their relationship, but perhaps not this much honesty. You can watch the scene here.
He comforts Ann after that bombshell and then finally goes to work. That morning, he gets a surprise visit from an official from the town in Idaho where he and Ann were married three years ago. The man has some shocking news: apparently, the town straddles the Idaho and Nevada state lines, and they just found out that Idaho marriage licenses aren’t valid if used in the Nevada section.
The town has now fixed the issue, but this man is going around to find people who were married there in the last few years to notify them that their marriage isn’t technically legal. He suggests that the Smiths get married again to avoid any potential issues with wills or children.
David calls Ann as soon as the man leaves. He doesn’t tell her about their invalid marriage, but instead arranges a date for that evening at Momma Lucy’s, a little Italian place they used to frequent when they were dating.
It seems that David is planning to propose again and actually make their three-year marriage legal. How romantic!
What he doesn’t know is that the county clerk visits Ann, too. He knew her when she lived in the town and so naturally stops by for a visit. He tells her about the marriage situation, and Ann’s mother (Esther Dale) is absolutely horrified that her daughter has been living in sin all this time!
But Ann assures her that “David will do right by your little girl.” She is certain that David plans to marry her tonight. Why else would he take her to Momma Lucy’s?
So Ann puts on the suit she wore at her wedding (as I discussed in History Through Hollywood: Love, quick town hall or justice of the peace weddings were quite common back then), but she is distressed to find out that the skirt barely fastens. She’s mystified. Her smart maid keeps her mouth shut.
David and Ann show up at Momma Lucy’s, but it’s not the romantic spot they remember. Instead, it’s seedy and nasty with a cat on the table and practically inedible food.
Maybe it’s the disappointing trip down memory lane that cools David romantic ardor, or maybe he never intended to ask Ann to marry him, but the evening passes without a proposal. David never even mentions their invalid marriage, and he has no idea that Ann already knows about it.
Ann gets more nervous and more upset as the clock ticks on, and her poor mother is distraught. She calls Ann at the restaurant and weeps when Ann says that David still hasn’t made arrangements to make their marriage legal. Her mother begs Ann not to go home with him if they don’t get married, and Ann promises her she’ll be good.
They get home and it seems that David is going to take advantage of poor, innocent Ann. He seems to be having a great time, relishing the fact that their boring marriage has suddenly become an illicit affair.
But David’s glee and Ann’s anxiety seem very silly. She and her mother are acting as though her virtue and reputation are at stake, but goodness gracious! David and Ann were married (at least, as far as they knew), and they have been living together for three years as husband and wife! One assumes that there is no virtue left to protect, and if they spend a night together now, does it really matter?
It does to Ann. When David emerges from his dressing room in his pajamas (complete with a pocket square!) she throws the champagne at him. She can’t believe that he would carry on as though they are married when they’re not! You can watch this funny scene here.
Ann throws him out of the apartment, and we are supposed to be glad that she saved herself in the nick of time!
But it’s silly. And that’s the main problem with this movie. The central conflict isn’t such a conflict anymore, and I can’t imagine that it was even a huge deal at the time.
After all, it’s not like The More the Merrier (1943) when Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur are unmarried but “living together” (quite innocently, of course.) Even modern audiences can sympathize a little with Arthur’s predicament, and understand that she probably would be “ruined” and lose her job if people found out and believed the worst.
Ann should be mad that David didn’t tell her about the clerk’s visit, but her urgent need to be married and her anger at David for trying to spend the night despite their technically invalid marriage just seems overblown and contrived. She’s not some helpless innocent being taken advantage of by an evil man–they’ve lived together for three years! Also, aren’t they probably common law by now?
But try to get past it, because otherwise the film doesn’t work.
After Ann throws him out, David goes to his club, where he meets Chuck Benson (Jack Carson), who has also had a fight with his wife. But Benson is a cad, and his wife probably threw him out for a good reason.
The next day, David tries to make things right with Ann. But she wants nothing to do with him. She has decided to take this convenient out and go back to being Miss Ann Krausheimer. It’s easier than a divorce!
David is quite upset. Despite his earlier assertion that he wouldn’t marry Ann if he had a chance to do it all over again, he actually does want her back. But she won’t even talk to him!
So he waits in the apartment building’s lobby and catches her coming home from a date. She wasted no time!
The next morning he tells her that since she won’t marry him, he’s going to cut her off. We were waiting for this because Mr. Smith can’t go on supporting Miss Krausheimer, can he? And she can’t keep living in his apartment! That’s terribly indecent.
But Ann tells David that she doesn’t care if he cuts her off. She’s got a job!
David follows her to her new post in the baby section of Hall’s Department Store. They get in yet another argument, and the manager hauls them up to see the president of the store. Guess what? He’s Ann’s date from the night before!
The old gent is surprised to hear that Ann is married, and not just for personal reasons. As he explains to Ann, “As an aid to the unemployment crisis, it is our policy not to employ married women.” She insists that she is single, but David keeps claiming to be her husband.
Fun fact: the store’s employment policy was not unusual at the time. The U.S. had not fully come out of the Great Depression, and many places only hired single women, assuming that a wife could live off of her husband’s wages. Two-income households were not the norm, and it didn’t seem fair to take a job away from a single person in favor of a married woman. Amazing, right?
Once the country mobilized for WWII, such policies ended in the interests of filling new jobs and replacing the men who were sent overseas. But once the war ended, many companies reverted to old practices, fired many female employees, and gave precedence to veterans.
Back to the movie. Ann loses her job, and David keeps begging her to marry him. She keeps refusing, claiming she never wants to see him again. (But the issue of money never resurfaces, despite the fact that Ann doesn’t have a job anymore.)
David is spending all of his time following Ann, so he is getting behind at work. His law partner Jefferson Custer (Gene Raymond) steps in. He tells David that he will go talk to Ann and try to straighten things out.
But when David arrives at the apartment, he finds that Jeff is under Ann’s spell. Instead of talking her into marrying David, Jeff has explained various legal loopholes to get her out of any common law situation that might exist. And he’s asked her on a date!
David is furious. He stalks out of the apartment building, brushing by a portly man walking down the street. It’s Alfred Hitchcock in his customary cameo:
Fun fact: Carole Lombard directed the cameo, and had a marvelous time telling Hitchcock what to do and ordering multiple takes. Here she is directing her director:
Lombard had a great sense of humor and loved goofing around. For example, on the first day of shooting, she had a corral built on the set and filled it with three heifers named Carole, Bob and Gene in reference to Hitchcock’s famous comment where he called actors “cattle.”
She also took great pleasure in daily trips to the parking lot where she covered Montgomery’s car bumper with Roosevelt stickers. He was a passionate Republican.
Back to the film! Jeff and Ann made the mistake of letting David know where they were going on their date. So he arranges to visit the same nightclub with his pal Chuck, who promises to bring him a high class dame as his date.
But then the blonde’s date takes offense. So David decides to knock himself in the nose until he gets a nose bleed, which will give him an excuse to leave.
This scene is reminiscent of the nightclub sequence in The Awful Truth (1937), another “comedy of remarriage.” In that film, Irene Dunne and Cary Grant are recently divorced. Like David and Ann, they end up at the same restaurant with their respective dates. First, Grant is embarrassed by his date Dixie Bell Lee’s cringeworthy routine with a fan:
Anyway, after Ann and Jeff leave the club, she tries to force a fun evening at the fair.
They go on the parachute ride, sort of a ferris wheel thing that looks terrifyingly unsafe. Of course they get stuck. Then it rains.
It’s a disaster. You can watch it here.
They return to Jeff’s apartment to get him into some dry clothes. Ann is impressed by Jeff’s tasteful bachelor pad, and he proudly explains that he decorated it himself. Then he changes into “something more comfortable,” which happens to be another tuxedo. He’s a real Southern gentleman who would never take liberties with a woman.
Ann offers him some brandy to keep a cold at bay, but Jeff informs her that he doesn’t drink. Then he brags about how he eats four different vegetables a day.
I think we’re supposed to take Jeff’s apartment decoration, excessive propriety, and fastidious health to mean that he is less than masculine.
At the very least, Jeff is set up as the opposite of frisky, fun David. Ann says that she likes how gentle and sweet he is, but we see Jeff for what he is: a stuffed shirt.
Ann can barely keep Jeff upright, but he maintains his respectable distance at all times. He gives Ann a little peck on the cheek when she offers it, but he never stoops to anything improper despite his inebriation. Ann appreciates this, and tells him how David ripped her dress on their first date. Yikes.
She leaves, thrilled to be with a nice man at last!
Costume appreciation break. Lombard’s black dress with the scoop back and double straps is stunning, though unfortunately we never get a good look at the two-tiered skirt. The shape of the dress is echoed by her crisp evening coat. Irene (Lentz) designed the costumes for this film. Irene worked at RKO and other studios in the 1930s before going under contract to MGM in 1941.
Let’s pause for that double-strand diamond necklace, too! Ann wears some gorgeous jewels in the film, mostly art deco brooches, but that necklace is especially beautiful.
Over the next few days, David poses as a private detective and camps out in a taxi to follow Ann around. Meanwhile, things are moving quickly between Ann and Jeff.
Jeff even brings his parents (Lucile Watson and Philip Merivale) to his office to meet her! It is going fine until David shows up and starts talking about needing to collect his laundry from Ann, and how sitting across from her at the breakfast table for three years has really shown him her character…
Jeff’s parents are horrified! They take Jeff aside for a conference in his tiny bathroom. They ask him if Ann was married to David, and instead of explaining, he just says, “No, not exactly.” So now they think Ann is a harlot who lived with David without getting married!
It’s frustrating. The whole misunderstanding could be cleared up easily, but then there wouldn’t be amusing hushed conversations in bathrooms.
Jeff somehow convinces his parents to give Ann another chance. They agree to meet up at Lake Placid the next weekend, but guess who’s there when Jeff and Ann arrive at their cabin (with separate, non-adjoining suites, of course!)? Why, it’s David. He passes out in the snow and seems quite ill.
David remains unconscious, so Ann decides to shave him to make him feel better. Delirious David makes Jeff hold his hand because he thinks he’s getting a manicure. Poor Jeff is constantly emasculated in this movie.
David groans and repeatedly moans “the first two weeks in December” while Ann fusses over him. David’s pitiful delirium affects Ann deeply. She explains to Jeff that she and David had planned to spend the first two weeks in December at Lake Placid. Suddenly she feels very guilty for leaving David.
But we learn quickly that David is faking the whole thing. We see him sitting up in bed smoking and giggling whenever Ann and Jeff leave the room. But he has fooled them completely. It’s a funny sequence.
Meanwhile, Jeff sees that Ann still cares about David, so he releases her from their engagement (that we never actually saw or knew about before that moment) to give her some time to think. She thanks him and then goes to check on David.
After yet another fierce argument, Ann returns to Jeff and they head to the lodge for dinner. But on their way back she gets an idea. She realizes that David must really love her to go to such lengths to win her back, and she’s afraid that she will feel guilty if she leaves him in such a sad state. So she decides to make him hate her so that he will get over the heartbreak faster. She’s terribly considerate.
Ann returns to her cabin, which shares a wall with David’s. Then she pretends as though Jeff is there, too, acting very amorous and inappropriate. I think her goal is to make David think she is cheap and also that she has forgotten him in favor of Jeff.
But what actually happens is that David rushes into her cabin to save her from Jeff’s advances. He discovers she was faking it and grabs her so that she yells out for Jeff. Then Jeff rushes in, but he refuses to punch David for “pawing” her. In fact, he forgives David!
Then his parents arrive, and their worst fears about Ann seem to be confirmed. But Ann doesn’t care, because she is furious that Jeff wouldn’t defend her. She calls him a “stuffed shirt” and a “lump of jelly,” and says that taking your hat off in an elevator doesn’t make a man out of you. After all, “You can teach a monkey to do that!” She finally sees Jeff for the spineless fool-hiding-behind-Southern-chivalry that he is, and realizes that she needs passion and fire, not gentle consideration.
Jeff goes back to the lodge with his parents, and Ann tries to leave, too. But there aren’t any more sleighs running, so she decides to ski to the lodge. But she doesn’t know how to ski…
David helps her get her skis on, but once she is clipped in he pushes her back into her chair so that she’s hopelessly tangled and stuck. Then he starts undressing! He intends to spend the night! Ann shouts and fusses and tries to get out of her skis…or does she?
When one boot does pop out, she quickly re-attaches it to the ski. She wants to be stuck with David! And he sees it. He comes back over and she pulls him down for a kiss.
The New York Times critic T.S. found the plot a little tiresome just because the comedy of remarriage story had been done so often before. He wrote:
Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s farandole about the marriage bed bears more than a passing resemblance to previous excursions into the realm of the strip-tease. We have again a vexatiously dim-witted young wife and the stumbling, well-meaning partner, who discover shortly after a three-day argument that a quixotic State boundary has rendered their marriage less than legal. Out of this molehill situation there develops a mountain of nonsense with Mr. Smith desperately trying to clamber up its slope to regain his outraged spouse.
He did think that Lombard and Montgomery gave it their best, though Raymond didn’t impress:
To spin this off-center comedy, one needs actors who can catch a jest on the wing. Mr. Hitchcock has them. Carole Lombard caromes through the role of Mrs. Smith as if she hadn’t a brain in her head, which is what she is supposed to do. Robert Montgomery as the confused husband has never been funnier than in that moment when he tries to escape an embarrassing situation by courageously punching his own nose. Gene Raymond, however, as the intruding male, is too colorless to serve as a really convincing foil.
I agree, though Raymond is supposed to be colorless. He’s not a real rival to David, he’s just someone for Ann to grab onto. Montgomery is very funny and charming in this film, though I wish that Lombard’s character wasn’t so irrational.
The review concludes:
But after a long cycle of similar ventures, the bloom is off the rose. Despite the performances, despite the endless camera magic with which Mr. Hitchcock tries to conceal the thinness of his material, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” have their moments of dullness. The result is a chucklesome comedy that fails to mount into a coruscating wave of laughter.
I must agree, though I find it a fun film nonetheless. It was popular with audiences, and helped revive Lombard’s career. The “queen of comedy” hadn’t made a funny film since Fools for Scandal (1938) nearly three years earlier. That film had been dismissed by critics and audiences, and caused Lombard to stick to dramas until Mr. & Mrs. Smith. She made four serious films after Fools for Scandal before asking Hitchcock to direct her in this one.
In his famous interviews with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock was not bursting with pride about this movie. He said, “I more or less followed Norman Krasna’s screenplay. Since I didn’t really understand the type of people who were portrayed in the film, all I did was photograph the scenes as written.”
This is quite an admission from a director like Hitchcock who was notorious for his vision and control over every aspect of his movies. But his foray into comedy seems not to have suited him as well as his thrillers and mysteries.
There are certainly some Hitchcockian touches in this film, such as the silly setting of the office bathroom for the discussion between Jeff and his parents, the witty absurdity of the nightclub scenes, or the odd addition of a cat who refuses to eat David’s soup at Momma Lucy’s. But I’d imagine that if you didn’t know this was a Hitchcock film, you wouldn’t necessarily guess he was at the helm.
(And I must agree with Hitchcock–I don’t really understand these people either. Their motivations are not entirely clear. For example, first David says he wouldn’t marry Ann again, but then he spends the whole movie trying to marry her again. And they seem to quarrel more than they get along.)
Besides being famous as Hitchcock’s only romantic comedy, this movie is also noteworthy as being Lombard’s penultimate film. She made one more movie, To Be or Not to Be, which was released in March 1942. But Lombard, who was just 33-years-old, had been killed that January when the plane carrying her home from a war bond drive crashed. She had raised $2 million in bonds in just one evening.
Both Montgomery and Raymond participated in the war effort, too. Montgomery drove ambulances in England until the United States entered the war. Then he joined the Navy, rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander, and participated in D-Day.
Raymond began training as a pilot before Pearl Harbor, and joined the Air Force as a lieutenant after the attack. He served overseas and stateside during the War, and remained in the Air Force Reserves until he retired as a colonel in 1968.
Final fun fact: this film was continually broadcast on the radio starring various actors. You can listen to Carole Lombard reprise her role opposite Bob Hope in a Lux Radio Theatre performance in June, 1941. You can listen to Lana Turner and Errol Flynn perform Mr. & Mrs. Smith for Screen Guild Theater in February 1942, Joan Bennett, Robert Young, and Ralph Bellamy in December 1942, and Preston Foster, Louise Albritton, and Stuart Erwin in January 1945.
Then Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Montgomery revisited the film for Screen Director’s Playhouse. You can listen to that version here. It was a popular story!