Monday, September 30, 2013

Alfred Hitchcock | Mr. & Mrs. Smith

across borders
by Douglas Messerli
Norman Krasna (screenplay), Alfred Hitchcock (director) Mr. & Mrs. Smith / 1941

Early in Alfred Hitchcock’s only “pure” comedy, we learn of a strange mix-up, a not totally explicable error, wherein a small town on the Nevada-Idaho border which has mistakenly married several individuals whose license was from the wrong state. The nearly always arguing couple, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, accordingly, were illegally married, and their current license—despite their three years of having lived together—is invalid.

      Of course, in 1941, when this film was made, living together without being married meant a great many other things than it does today, and it sets into motion a series comic crises in the Smith’s—or now Mr. Smith’s and Miss Krausheimer’s—particularly since Mr. Smith does not immediately announce the situation to his “wife,” and has just that morning answered her question honestly:

                            Ann: If you had it all to do over again, would you still have
                                     married me?
                            David: Honestly, no.

In part, in a scene where he have seen the relationship at work, his feelings surely arise from his wife’s imperious imposition on their marriage a series of rules and regulations, one demanding that neither of them can leave the bedroom after a fight until they make up, a dictate that has, more than once, meant that David (Robert Montgomery) has missed several days of work—in part because of his wife’s stubborn refusal to make up.

     The willful former Ann Krasheimer (the heavenly Carole Lombard), we are told, once “chased a dogcatcher half a mile with a baseball bat,” and being both stubborn and regulation-borne, we realize that her lawyer husband is surely in for it, particularly given the scandalized reaction of Ann’s mother (Esther Dale) if David does not immediately legally remarry. What he does not know is that the same man—and old family friend of Ann’s family—who has reported the license problem to David, has also stopped by to greet his old friends, spilling the same news to Ann and her mother.

      When David does not immediately tell her of the news, nor rushes to remarry his wife, accordingly, we know we are in for an hour or more of a bumpy marital comedy that, metaphorically speaking, crosses several “borders.” Despite the movie’s success at the box office, critics of the day did not know what to make of Hitchcock’s only comedy. But then Hitchcock, I would argue, has always been, even at his most suspenseful, a comedian at heart. If a man can make you laugh at death and horror, then surely he can direct a “normal” screwball comedy, particularly since he and Lombard were good friends.

      I think the great director achieved his goal splendidly, but this work has fewer of the superficial romantic tropes than do most of the works in this genre. Like a great comedy such as Bringing Up Baby, Krasna’s work crosses the boundaries of sexual preference several times, but the handsome, but more menacing psychic of Montgomery cannot match the openly dashing profile of Cary Grant; and in this film, moreover, Lombard seems far more “lucid” and head-strung than—as she was in My Man, Godfrey—dizzily confused. Throwing former husband David out of his house, Ann seems determined to allow him to return to his bachelor days and ways, which, just under the surface, is what he may have wanted all along. Despite his constant attempts to return and even forcefully re-impose himself upon the woman he claims to love, there is something, in Hitchcock’s direction, that is half-hearted about the attempt; and even if he seems slightly at odds on his own, he also keeps meeting up with an old friend, Chuck Benson (Jack Carson) in the Turkish bath of his local club.    

     When Ann takes up, professionally and socially, with David’s partner-in-law and former college friend, Jefferson Custer (Gene Raymond), we can only further wonder about David’s sexual preferences, particularly since, as Ann herself puts it, he is everything that David is not: instead of leaning toward, he leans away. A mama’s boy, prone to colds and fevers, he has smartly decorated his own apartment on his own. After a comic rainstorm (wherein the two suffer the weather in a broken-down parachute ride), when he excuses himself to change into something more comfortable, he returns not in pajamas or bathrobe, but in a tux! Jefferson does not even drink, perhaps the most obvious sign that, even if not sexually, this man is indeed queer.

      For all these years, however, David and Jefferson have survived in what seems as a lucrative partnership. It becomes harder and harder, accordingly, for us to truly perceive that David is actively pursuing his wife, even though, in the plot, he temporarily hires a taxi, pretending to be a detective. And the only being we do truly detect in David’s travels about the city, is Hitchcock himself briskly walking down the street.

     In short, Hitchcock doesn’t quite seem to have his heart into the chase, forcing Lombard to continue to up-the-ante. Only near the end of the film—as the story takes a strange twist by leaping into a ski vacation at Lake Placid—does David become determined to deceive Ann into admitting her love for him. Pretending to fall into a drunken-induced coma, he depends on her nursing instincts to, so to speak, to “bring back him back to life and into the picture.” But even here, the comic sexual gags appear to point into the wrong direction: as Ann shaves him, he feverishly mutters comments on Jefferson’s feminine apparel—“I will never forget you in that little blue dress.”—and holds his hand out for what Ann interprets is a desire for a manicure. Ann encourages Jefferson to hold his hand, which David not only accepts but holds in a deep grip.  

     We all know, of course, that sexual order must be restored! But even when it is, as the couple are trapped miles from the main lodge, with no transportation or communication available until morning, she is held in place by pair of upright skis, which would seem to make it nearly impossible for the couple of have “normal” sex. And Hitchcock closes his tale with no truly authoritative reconfirmation of sexual order. The couple will least remain unmarried for another night.

      I think it is precisely Hitchcock’s lack of definite borders, however, that makes this work so brilliant—and so different from most of the screwball comedies of the era. Once more, Hitchcock has ended his story less with the marital restrictions with which it began than with a strong dose of sexual suspense. What will happen to this obviously loving but persistently “border crossing” pair? Obviously, like the crossed skis in which Ann is trapped, their desires are at crossed purposes. And unlike those hundreds of the normalized endings of American comedies, Hitchcock and Krasna have let them merrily get away with it!

Los Angeles, September 30, 2013

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