Thursday, May 17, 2012

Boy, Were Those Smiths Rich And Strange by Paul F. Etcheverry

"Hitchcock, already famous for his regard of actors as cattle, arrived on set one day to find a makeshift corral erected, in which were penned a trio of heifers bearing nameplates for Lombard, Montgomery and Raymond." Jay S. Steinberg, Turner Classic Movies website.

Today, proudly participating in the 2012 Film Preservation Blogathon, Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog takes a wayward glance at two of the most un-prototypical movies by Sir Alfred Hitchcock. Both cover topics one doesn't tend to associate with The Master Of Suspense: marriage, relationships and intimacy.

Please note: yes, Virginia (Mayo), this is a fundraiser - and that means, Friends, Romans, Countrymen and Film Buffs, by all means put your money where your mouth is and contribute to the National Film Preservation Foundation -  DONATE HERE.


One fact surprises the living daylights out of all but the most diehard classic film buffs; before Norman Bates discovered the joys of dowdy women's clothing and fine cutlery, Hitchcock directed movies in a variety of genres.  While not Howard Hawks in the "jack of all genres" department, Hitch spent much of his first 35 years of filmmaking, both in England and America, alternating whodunits and thrillers with lighter fare.

Most stunning, even to the "seen everything twice and want you to know it crowd", is the fact that Hitchcock made a romantic comedy. Repeat, stop the presses, a romantic comedy. Katie, bar the door, get the smelling salts - and make it a double.

Said light romantic comedy is Mr. and Mrs. Smith, NOT the 2005 espionage thriller with current movie star glamourpusses Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, but Sir Alfred's 1941 entry in the screwball comedy genre. It was Hitchcock's fourth American film, and, unfortunately, the second-to-last movie by one of the finest comediennes ever to make 'em laugh and swoon, the fabulous Carole Lombard - who asked him to helm this film. It is also unusual in that, the Hitchcock stamp is more in visual presentation than in the storyline. Hitchcock deferred entirely to writer-collaborator Norman Krasna on the screenplay.

For the male lead in this Park Avenue tale of false marriage certificates and childlike jealousy snits, the first choice of Hitchcock and Lombard, Mr. Cary Grant, was not available. So the patented "suaveness punctuated by periodic stumbling and bumbling" combo in the role of Mr. Smith went to smooth MGM leading man Robert Montgomery. He does a creditable job, works well with Lombard, and brings a certain wit, subdued rakishness and bemusement to the table.

Alas, for film buffs who are conversant with Sir Alfred's long career and having the benefit of hindsight as 1941 audiences could not, the temptation to imagine Grant or Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith is overwhelming. So, if you're a Hitchcock aficionado, PLEASE, repeat after me, "Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart are not in this movie. They will not be making cameo appearances like Bing Crosby in The Princess And The Pirate."  The thought "how would Jimmy Stewart handle this scene?" comes up, although, boy, would this be a different Mr. Smith than the character Jimmy played in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

Of course, all eyes are on Ms. Lombard throughout. While it's arguably unfair for any actor to share the screen with such a presence, she is never a selfish scene stealer - and nobody makes a false statement hoping to convince herself of its truth onscreen quite like Carole Lombard. In this and the subsequent Ernst Lubitsch masterpiece To Be Or Not To Be, she gets subtly and fully into the role, not necessarily in a "method acting" sense but unerringly remaining true to the character. It's a prime ingredient in her magic. We'll never know what Carole would have thought about how, 70 years after her death, she would still be regarded as the Queen Of Screwball Comedy, but one imagines the very thought would have given her a huge laugh, soon followed by a ribald story.

There is a fine supporting cast featuring wisecracking Jack Carson, Gene Raymond (whose titular lead in the 1933 RKO musical Flying Down To Rio was stolen by supporting players Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) as Smith's goody two shoes partner, to this movie what Ralph Bellamy is to His Girl Friday. Betty Compson, legendary silent movie star and lead in both Hitchcock's The White Shadow and Josef von Sternberg's classic Docks Of New York, has a great small role in one of the film's funniest sequences.

All the basic screwball ingredients are there in a "boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy enjoys alternating between fervent quarrels and makeup sex with girl, boy finds out he's not married to girl and uses this as a weapon, girl breaks up with boy and dates his earnest but dull-as-dishwater law practice partner" scenario. In other words, when the Smiths learn - individually - that, due to a zoning technicality in the town they were married in, their wedding was never legal and they're not legally married, Mrs. wants Mr. to ask her to marry him in a gallant and romantic way. When he's a jerk about it and doesn't do this, hurts her feelings but wants to continue making whoopee, the fur and story complications fly. Hitchcock serves it all up with dry wit, subtle visual flourishes, as well as a measured pace more along the lines of Cukor than the frenzy of Sturges or the fast-talking zaniness of LaCava.

What it's really all about is guys being insensitive jerks and not paying attention to their wives, and what this obliviousness can do to trust between the partners, reducing both to a game of neener-neener-neener.

The social mores of 1941 and post-1934 enforcement of the Production Code are in a tug-of-war with the sophisticated screwball sex farce Hitchcock and Krasna want very much to make here. Many of the essential plot points don't hold up all these decades later, although not quite as badly as in such incredibly dated 1940's comedies as The More The Merrier and Woman Of The Year. In one scene, Mrs. Smith, now single and using her maiden name, Annie Krausheimer, is fired from her department store clerk job, because Mr. Smith barges into the store, insisting he's her husband - and married women were NOT allowed to take retail jobs then. The virtuous law partner of Mr. Smith, played by Gene Raymond, semi-pursues the now footloose and fancy free Miss Krausheimer and thinks about sex rather than bounding into her bedroom and proclaiming "OH - BABY!" Well, it was 1941, after all and Gene's part was "gentleman and a squire" - and some of the best parts of the film are the exchanges between him and his "upper class twit of the year" parents.

For me, the essential deal with Hitchcock, his mojo, is not the genre per se (suspense, noir, drama, thriller) but OBSESSION - and that's something that is missing in action in this entertaining, quirky, witty and often quite funny film, the luminescence of Lombard notwithstanding. Just how one incorporates obsession and danger, even subtly, into a light romantic comedy is another matter, but Hitchcock is much to be admired for the moments in Mr. And Mrs. Smith, delivered via creative camera movements, editing and framing, as well as both subtle gestures and searing glares by Ms. Lombard, when he pulls that feat off.

Now the screwball comedy genre is meant to be light entertainment, so one isn't seeking delirious insanity, fever pitch intensity, violence and mayhem there, but you get a bit of that in Rich And Strange, Hitchcock's fourth talkie. It also starts with a couple in trouble, but in careening between wry drama, sex comedy and go-for-broke adventure, delves a tad more into the territory of dangerous passion, albeit in a very British way. It is witty, nuanced and visually in some ways reminiscent of a late silent, even utilizing titles.

The basic premise is: working class young couple in a rut gets a you-know-what load of money via inheritance and escapes the hoi polloi doing what rich folks - at least those not wiped out by the crash of '29 - did, going on a world cruise.  It opens with a visually stylish montage of British working class life, and the inevitable throngs of office workers hitting the train stations at quitting time and leaving their unending monolithic office structures reminiscent of King Vidor's The Crowd. Henry Kendall and Joan Barry star as the young couple.

As loss of trust and insensitivity is the core issue behind the comedy in Mr And Mrs. Smith, the center of Rich And Strange, driving the storyline, is not the working class couple landing unexpected riches, but their fundamental loss of intimacy. The couple are seen sleeping in separate beds and clearly appear to be living uninspired, sleepwalking zombie-like through their humdrum existences even as they embark upon the cruise. Only after they find the adventure and release they sought, break up with each other for awhile - and then get more excitement than they bargained for when they hop a crummy cargo boat to return home - does even a tentative intimacy and caring start to assert itself between the pair.

Rich And Strange definitely has aspects of a pre-Code, but keeps a certain amount of British stiff upper-lip in the proceedings. Although body parts other than the upper lip become stiff when a rich gent falls for the young wife and the hubby goes gaga over a slinky gold-digging dame who claims to be a princess, the principals are not exactly enjoying all this as "free souls" do in randy Norma Shearer or Joan Crawford movies of the same era. There's always at least a hint of remorse following them around, no matter how much naughty fun they are having in those shipboard affairs.

Rich and Strange then shifts gears dramatically from swinging-philandering wife-swapping pre-Code comedy to stark adventure. The couple end up humiliated, penniless and eventually shipwrecked, only saved when a Chinese junk finds them. One Hitchcock touch involves the rescuers serving up the ship's pet cat as dinner time's main dish. The abrupt but effective transition from comedy to drama makes one wonder if Preston Sturges saw this film before writing Sullivan's Travels.

This being a Hitchcock film, after all, the fade out of the young couple returning to their modest New York digs leaves one with a strong impression that the very toxic relationship patterns that sent these two into doldrums in the first place will return but quick. This wasn't a bit hit with 1931 movie audiences.

The artistic dilemma problem in these two films is one Hitchcock faced throughout his career, a bit differently every time out: how do you make a non-thriller while tossing just a bit of that obsession, madness and danger into the mix?


Tinky said...

I love your pairing of these two films, although I don't agree with absolutely everything you say; "The More the Merrier" works better for me than the Smiths do because it's so dated that it's a period piece, if you know what I mean. Still, this is great fun, and you do write with verve!

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Big time thanks, Tinky - and I'll take that anyday from a fellow intrepid scribe!

As you could tell from my review, I positively loathe both "Woman Of The Year" and "The More The Merrier", although I love the stars. And Joel McCrea would have hit the Robert Montgomery role as Mr. Smith outta the park.