Alfred Hitchcock is well known as the Master of Suspense. And while he was known for injecting comedic elements into his suspense thrillers, he was not particularly well known for comedy. Those new to the oeuvre of Hitchcock are then often surprised to learn that not only did he direct several comedies in his career, but he even directed an American screwball comedy. That screwball comedy was Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941), and it marked the only time Hitchcock worked with legendary star Carole Lombard.
With the international success of such films as The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1939), it would only be a matter of time before Hollywood would come calling on Alfred Hitchcock. It was then probably no surprise when he signed a seven year contract with Hollywood producer David O. Selznick in March 1939. Prior to leaving his native England, Alfred Hitchcock expressed the desire to direct Carole Lombard, although he wanted to cast her in a serious role. Following the director's arrival in the United States, it was Myron Selznick who introduced Hitchcock to Miss Lombard, the two of them having Mr. Selznick in common as their agent.
As to Mr. & Mrs. Smith, it originated with screenwriter Norman Krasna. Mr. Krasna came up with the idea of a married couple who learn that, because of an error, they are not legally married. He sold the original story and its screenplay to RKO in November 1939. Carole Lombard eventually became attached to the project. Both she and Hitchcock implored RKO to assign him as director on the film. While Hitchcock would later claim that he did the film as a favour to Miss Lombard, at the time he appeared to show a good deal of enthusiasm for Mr. & Mrs. Smith. During the first week of shooting, Mr. Hitchcock said, "I want to direct a typical American comedy about typical Americans."
Both Carole Lombard and Alfred Hitchcock initially wanted Cary Grant for the male lead role of David Smith. Unfortunately, Mr. Grant was much too busy at the time to take on another role. The two of them considered a number of different leading men, including Fredric March and George Brent. Eventually Robert Montgomery was signed to the role.
While Alfred Hitchcock was well known for practical jokes on his sets, on the set of Mr. & Mrs. Smith it was Carole Lombard who responsible for the best practical jokes. Nineteen forty was a Presidential election year, with Republican candidate Wendell Willkie running against incumbent Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt. While Carol Lombard was a staunch Democrat, Robert Montgomery was a staunch Republican. Every morning after Mr. Montgomery parked his car, Miss Lombard would cover it in bumper stickers for President Roosevelt. Robert Montgomery took this all in good stride, simply removing the stickers every evening. Of course, the next morning Miss Lombard would again cover his car in bumper stickers for FDR.
Alfred Hitchcock was not spared from Carole Lombard's practical jokes either. Mindful of the remark Hitchcock was alleged to have made that "actors are cattle", she set up a pen on the first day of shooting and in the pen placed three heifers with the nameplates Lombard, Montgomery, and Raymond (for Gene Raymond, the second male lead). Hitchcock allowed Carole Lombard the rare honour of directing him in his cameo for Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Miss Lombard demanded retake after retake, telling Hitchcock that he had not quite gotten it right. Hitchcock had not intended to use Miss Lombard's take of his cameo, but it proved to be so good that it was the one that made it into the film.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith was released on January 31 1941. It received positive, if somewhat unenthusiastic reviews. The film did do somewhat well at the box office, making a profit of $750,000. Later in his life Alfred Hitchcock was somewhat dismissive of the film. Alfred Hitchcock claimed that he did the film primarily as a favour to Carole Lombard. In an interview with François Truffaut, he said, "I more or less followed Norman Krasna's screenplay." and "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."
Sadly, Mr. & Mrs. Smith would be the next to the last film Carole Lombard ever made. Afterwards she would only make To Be Or Not To Be (1942). Mr. & Mrs. Smith would also be the last of her films to be released while she was still alive (To Be Or Not To Be was released on February 19 1942, a few weeks after her untimely death in a plane crash).
While Hitchcock himself would later dismiss Mr. & Mrs. Smith still holds up fairly well today. Certainly its premise is a bit thin, but it is elevated by the performances of its principals, a lively script, and Hitchcock's always inventive direction. The film even shares some of the hallmarks found in Hitchcock's suspense thrillers, including a couple being stuck on a parachute ride at the New York City World's Fair (heights being a recurring theme in Hitchcock films from Saboteur to North by Northwest), mistaken identity, and even a McGuffin that drives the plot forward (the Smiths' marriage). Hitchcock may have dismissed Mr. & Mrs. Smith, but there is no reason for classic film buffs to do so. It is very much an underrated screwball comedy that is still recognisably a Hitchcock film.