Meet the Smiths

MR AND MRS SMITH — dispel all thoughts of Brangelina, that two-headed monster, for this is Hitchcock’s first American comedy, made at RKO on loan-out from Selznick, as a favour to Carole Lombard, with whom he’d wanted to work for some time. She’s one of the Hollywood star Hitch wrote about while still in England, and when he move to LA she became, essentially, his landlady for a while.

Where did I read this?

Hitchcock bumps into Carole Lombard outside the screening room, where he’s just viewed the rushes. She’s come to see them, but she’s late. Hitch assures her that the rushes are fine and she’s good in them.

“Fuck that, how do my new tits look?”

And who, commenting here, pointed out the fascinating deliberate continuity error where Robert Montgomery’s socks change their pattern according to his and Lombard’s emotions?

mrs1

mrs2

I always thought that the little guy who brings the bad news, was played by Warner Brothers voice artist Mel Blanc. Maybe when I saw it as a kid, my Dad looked at the guy and said “Elmer Fudd!” It’s not, though, it’s a fellow called Charles Halton. Why did nobody put Blanc in a major movie role?

mrs3

It’s subtle, but it’s there.

First time I saw the film I liked it fine. Second time I disliked it quite a bit. This time it seemed pretty good to me. I will say that, thanks to our auteurist appreciation of Hitchcock, and his fame, the movie gets a little more attention than it deserves. HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE is a ten-times-better screwball comedy, I’d say, also written by Norman Krasna and starring Lombard, but directed by the less-celebrated Mitchell Leisen, and very few people have seen that compared to SMITHS.

The Smiths, lawyer husband and sexpot wife, who have a tempestuous but successful three-year marriage, learn that the partnership is not strictly legal, due to some convoluted zoning problem, and break up. He (Robert Montgomery) tries to win her back, mainly by acting like a dick. His buddy Jack Carson is useful for audience sympathy purposes, because Carson’s character is an even bigger lout than Montgomery.

Then Montgomery’s other pal, Gene Raymond, starts wooing Carole, which at least gives Montgomery something to be aggrieved about. But instead of making Raymond the heavy, screenwriter Norman Krasna types him as a classic romcom schnook. I always like schnooks. I often like them better than the hero.

Raymond gets the funniest scene, when he’s drunk. Very fine physical work, lurching and sort of bobbing in the air, and a refrain of “Thank you,” which gets more absurd with each repetition. This comes after a disastrous date where the couple get caught in a broken fun-fair ride. This reminds me of the story of Hitch sending his daughter up on a Ferris wheel and tipping the operator to kill the engine and strand her aloft. I wonder what Hitch would have done with a really black comedy, where he could let his sadistic side have free reign?

There are quite a few moments in this film when I had trouble understanding the character motivation. Is Lombard really through with Montgomery, or is she just testing him? At the end, she rejects Gene Raymond because he won’t beat up her “husband,” then allows herself to be trapped in her skis by the guy she wanted beaten, and the movie ends in a rather peculiar bit of play-rape. I could never figure that out.

mrs7

The movie is extremely elegantly shot, though, with a gliding camera and flying furniture which escapes the path of the dolly with invisible sideways movements. I’d like to say more about this film, but the Edinburgh Film Festival is eating up too much of my time — so over to you!

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20 Responses to “Meet the Smiths”

  1. Mel Blanc had a small part as dentist Dr. Sheldrake in Wilder’s KISS ME STUPID, very funny, unfortunately I can’t recall him appearing in much else. Charles Halton showed up in many films back in the late Thirties/early Forties, I remember him best as the busybody who gets his throat slit by a demented Peter Lorre in STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR. TCM showed SHOP AROUND THE CORNER last night, he’s in that as well (but doesn’t get his throat cut).

  2. Technically you caveats are well-taken but in all the years I’ve known and enjoyed this film they never occurred to me. You’re quite right that Hands Across the Table is the better film, but that’s because it dealswith issues of class, self worth and the American ideology of “success” at a time when the country was experiencing severe failure. Leisen’s Swing High Swing Low with Lombard and MacMurray is even more prfound. But then it’s a drama with only a few very fleeting comic moments.

    Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a very silly comedy about upper-middle class New Yorkers with no problems whatsoever — therefore the absurd marriage license problem (the premise of Leisen’s very silly episodic jape We’re Not Married many years later) has to be invented for them in order for the film to proceed. Mongomery’s jerkiness never occurred to me because he barely exists as a character to begin with and I was distracted by Carole Lombard.

    Like all true great stars one can watch her do absolutely anythign with utterly rapt attention. The way she glides acrss the screen is uttely mezmerizing.
    Asnfor truly black comedy I was thinking abotu that just the other day as I was contacted by someone working on a bio of Tony Richardson. One only wonders what Hitch might have done with The Loved One. Was it ever offered to him? Richardson of course did a superb job, but still. . .

    Then again in light of The Trouble with Harry Hitch’s sense of the comic macabre might have been too gentle for the 60’s.

  3. Whoops — We’re Not Married is Goulding, not Leisen. Wrong gay director.

  4. Patrick Murtha Says:

    Thanks for posting the side-by-side visuals of the socks! I’m a little buzzed over the fact that between us, we have brought to light a Hitchcockian detail (and a really fun one at that) that no one else seems to have noticed or commented on before now. Since Hitchcock’s films are almost the most “looked at” and painstakingly analyzed ever, it is pleasing to realize that discoveries can still be made. Also that my menswear fetish has paid a dividend.

    As for the plot, I feel that Mrs. Smith is more of a jerk than Mr. Smith; as I wrote in my own blog, “The wife manipulates him to the point where he is professionally non-functional and entirely focused on her whims, and the ending puts them back at square one; nothing has changed.” Montgomery is over-matched by Lombard here (as a character, not as an actor); he’s hapless and pretty much of a doormat.

  5. The sock thing’s a bit of a stretch. ;-)

  6. Q: I wonder what Hitch would have done with a really black comedy, where he could let his sadistic side have free reign?

    A: Psycho.

  7. Or Frenzy? But these comedies, if we consider them such, are not open about it.

    Great comments, everybody! I agree with all of them, even the ones that disagree with me.

    Sheldrake was Wilder’s “lucky name,” immortalised by Fred MacMurray in The Apartment, but present in a great many of his later films too.

    Patrick, thanks for coming forward again! Sorry I couldn’t recall who had come up with that fascinating detail. A valuable addition to the critical corpus!

    Yeah, Lombard’s revenge on her husband is protracted and vindictive beyond reason, but at least it has motivation, at first anyway. The movie is kind of a divorce drama without the divorce, and in a really nasty divorce I think everybody loses sympathy. That’s kind of what happens here.

    I agree that Trouble with Harry plays more as a gentle comedy than as a black one. A Hitchcock version of The Loved One is a fantastic idea — a chance for him to work with Gielgud again!

  8. Patrick Murtha Says:

    Mr. and Mrs. Smith does remind me a little of The War of the Roses — now there’s a black comedy. Going as far as it did, it pretty much destroyed the subject of divorce for future black comedy.

    I love The Loved One in its very uneven-ness, and even though it “does a number” on Evelyn Waugh. A personal rule of thumb is that a film should offer at least one great scene per half hour, and The Loved One is *way” over that particular threshold.

  9. Yeah, I don’t understand why the haters don’t give at least some credit for that. The phrase “Where else can you see…?” is very pertinent with this film.

    I have a vague idea that Danny DeVito may be an underrated visual stylist, with War of the Roses probably his best film. I definitely see the connection. Perhaps Hitch’s ending seems arbitrary to me because he can’t take things to the extreme as the DeVito film does.

  10. Patrick Murtha Says:

    For mdrew, here is my original comment on the socks:

    “Look for a bit of expressionistic technique in the first reel that I’m not sure anyone has noted. During the breakfast table scene between Lombard and Montgomery, she is playing footsie with him under the table, and he is wearing grey ribbed business socks (very becoming with his grey pinstripe suit and black wingtips; Montgomery is always sharp). After Lombard asks whether he would marry her if he had it to do all over again and he answers no, cut back under the table as she withdraws her feet from his — and his socks are quite visibly now in a light/dark zigzag pattern, no longer solid at all! There is no way I can see this as a continuity glitch; Hitch was too careful visually and the change is too expressive of what just happened. It’s a brilliant touch but obviously very subtle — I’m not sure I ever would have noticed it if I wasn’t a total menswear geek who pauses DVDs on wardrobe details.”

    The timing of the cut is crucial to the interpretation of the visuals. *Before* Lombard asks and Montgomery answers the question about whether he’d marry again, the socks are solid — the marriage is OK for the moment. *Immediately* after he gives his unsatisfactory answerr, cut back to the socks as she is withdrawing her feet from his, and the pattern is a “zig-zag” — the solidity is gone. The marriage has “spazzed out.”

    So I don’t think interpreting the socks as an expressionistic embodiment of “what just happened” is far-fetched — it’s fast, it’s subtle, it’s easy not to notice, but once you do notice, It’s like, Wow! It’s *very* Hitchcockian.

  11. “Sheldrake” was the name of the studio executive played by Fred Clark in Sunset Boulevard who turns down “Bases Loaded” saying “Do you see it as a Betty Hutton? We could always use a Betty Hutton ‘It Happened in the Bullpen: The Story of a Woman’. “

  12. I quite like Betty Hutton, and Sturges used her really well. But I despise her “mentor”, Buddy DeSylva. He may have written a few good songs, but he was a disastrous screenwriter and exec.

    I think mdrew was punning on the word “stretch,” rather than sincerely dismissing the significance of our menswear moment!

  13. Patrick Murtha Says:

    Ah, most likely. He did “wink”!

  14. Christopher Says:

    betty was a good kind of “burly” ;o)

  15. - and a ball of energy! I love her nutzoid rendition of Old Man Mose is Dead — check YouTube for an eye-opening pick-me-up.

  16. Christopher Says:

    I remember being utterly facinated by her in an unbriddled live performance clip of Muder he says, for a USO tour from the 40s..a color clip I’ll have to look for it..

  17. No doubt about it–Hands Across the Table is a far better film–but this one does have that amazing stuff with the white cat on the table in the alley outside of “Mama Lucy’s”–I’ll never get tired of that scene!

    Dave

  18. The Mama Lucy scene is very good in general, kind of sad too.

  19. Where did I read this? –

    Hitchcock bumps into Carole Lombard outside the screening room, where he’s just viewed the rushes. She’s come to see them, but she’s late. Hitch assures her that the rushes are fine and she’s good in them.

    “Fuck that, how do my new tits look?”

    I’ve been researching Lombard for years, and had never heard of that anecdote. The “new tits”? Well, Carole tended to be suspicious of all the young starlets cast opposite Clark Gable (e.g., Lana Turner), and perhaps she was building herself up to better take on the competition.

    Ironically, in the late 1920s working for Mack Sennett, Lombard was substantially curvier, gaining a few pounds at Sennett’s behest (bananas reportedly did the trick). When she was hired full-time by Pathe, studio boss Joseph P. Kennedy told her to lose those pounds (she supposedly retorted, “You could stand to lose a few yourself”). Noted “masseuse to the stars” Sylvia helped her take off the weight, developing the sleek figure we best know her for, and in 1933 made it the subject of a piece in Photoplay (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/110803.html).

  20. Thanks!

    It’s just possible the Lombard quote came from Garson Kanin, who directed CL in They Knew What They Wanted. And he’s notoriously inclined to fictionalize in the name of a good story.

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