From: Lesley Brill, The Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcock's Films (Princeton University Press, 1988)

Mixed Romances; Mr and Mrs Smith

[Editor's note.  Again two excerpts.  In "Mixed Romances", Professor Brill draws on Northrop Frye and discusses the nature and scope of Hitchcock's generic filmmaking.  The second, and longer, excerpt, analysing Hitchcock's 1941 screwball comedy Mr and Mrs Smith (starring Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard), comes from Brill's chapter on Irony.  His stylish essay remains probably the best piece anywhere on this under-rated film.  Brill teaches Film and Literature at Wayne State University, Detroit.]

Mixed Romances

Although none of the films discussed in the previous chapter ["Comic Romances"] entirely excludes anxiety, pain, or death, such troubling material occurs relatively rarely and is, in various ways, deemphasized.  This chapter considers five films that, taken sequentially, grow progressively darker and more painful.  Strangers on a Train (1950), The Lodger (1926), I Confess (1952), The Wrong Man (1957), and Frenzy (1973) illustrate generic gradations, moving from the modes of comedy and romance toward those of tragedy and irony.  With the exception of The Lodger, they move chronologically also, but that fact is of no significance; Hitchcock's view of life did not grow gloomier as he aged.  Family Plot (1976), the last movie he directed, is a mellow, optimistic film.  So are The Trouble with Harry (1956) and Mr and Mrs Smith (1941).  A number of early films - Easy Virtue (1927) and The Skin Game (1931), for example - approach bitterness.  The five films discussed here illustrate modal variations within Hitchcock's career and not a chronological development.  The main point of this book is to explore the changes that Hitchcock rings upon the bells of his storytelling; the consistency and variety that result from modulations of reiterated situations, character types, images, and plots.  In the films discussed in this chapter, he uses narrative conventions more skeptically than he does in the movies discussed thus far; but his materials and preoccupations remain remarkably similar.

We need more working definitions, this time for irony and tragedy. What follows is sketchy in the extreme, but enough - l hope - for present purposes. I have already roughed in general concepts of romance and comedy; irony and tragedy are their generic opposites.  We may visualize what Frye calls the four proto-genres as defining the axes of Cartesian coordinates.

Comedy   +   Tragedy

Tragedy opposes comedy as irony opposes romance.  Comedies move their heroes toward social integration and the renewal promised by marriage; tragedies, on the contrary, progressively isolate their heroes, break up existing relationships between people, and end in death.  Tragedy is driven by fate and necessity; comedy thrives on surprising coincidence.  Tragic plots typically move by recognitions of one kind or another; comic stories frequently remain in motion thanks to the preposterous logical obtuseness of otherwise competent characters.  The incidental, harmless, reassuring humor of comedy becomes scarcer and/or more threatening as works move toward tragedy.  Most obviously, comedies end happily, tragedies in catastrophe.

As regards characterization, tragic heroes tend to be greater and more august than ordinary humans; they emanate a sense of high seriousness. Comic protagonists are characteristically "like us."  They have ordinary capacities and express the wry truth that they are neither strong nor clever enough to control a complicated, powerful world. The more formidable heroes of tragedy present a sober version of the same theme: at its greatest, humankind can oppose but not overcome, glimpse but not understand, the overwhelming logos of the universe.

l need to recapitulate briefly the oppositions that define the tensions between irony and romance.  Romance establishes a universe in which time cycles and rejuvenates: night comes around to day, winter to spring, age (often through progeny) to youth.  Ironic time appears linear and unprogressive, entropic, neither returning to origins nor getting
anywhere new.  The adventures of Persephone and Demeter delineate a kernel myth for romance.  The endlessly repeated bafflement and frustration of Sisyphus or Ixion may serve as pattern for ironic fictions.

Innocence is finally empowered in romance; irony succumbs to a cynicism in which corruption and the conqueror worm consume all that is good and fertile.  The blacks and whites of romance turn to subtler grays in ironic characterization; opposed moral and intellectual issues, also, tend to run together.  Structurally, ironic narratives do not so much conclude as simply stop or break off.  Romance closes on roaring tonic chords, while ironic fictions dwindle away on subdominants.  Knowledge leads to truth and clarity in romance; in ironic fictions, increasing information breeds increasing bewilderment.  Romantic miracles are gracious; ironic coincidences mean.

As a little application of these general characteristics will make evident, most narratives contain elements of all four of the proto-genres.  Two, one from each pair, usually dominate.  They are experienced as complementary: comic romance, tragic irony, ironic comedy, and so on.  The other elements will usually create tension within the work.  In
a comic romance, for example, tragic and ironic aspects will be felt as countermovements.  Works may be poised near the balance point of either the vertical or the horizontal generic axis, or - more rarely - near the center of both.  In any work that is relatively "undecided'' between either tragedy and comedy or irony and romance, we may expect to encounter perfusive formal tension.  About such works, predictably, we will often find deep and broad critical disagreement.

Rear Window, for example, unequivocally comic in its plot structure and only a little less so in characterization, hovers at the same time between irony and romance.  Life's troubles, both for the main characters and for the echoic couples scattered about the other apartments, seem to be resolved by marriage.  Yet marriage, in some cases, leads to new troubles.  A woman and a man become one . . . but not entirely. As Jeffries dozes off, Lisa reads Beyond the High Himalayas.  Then, perceiving herself unwatched, she puts it down for Harper's Bazaar. Jeffries snoozes peacefully, his insomnia cured, the temperature of the world returned to normal.  But now he has two broken legs instead of one. The childless couple has a new dog, Miss Lonelyhearts and the composer have started a friendship, Miss Torso's Stanley has returned from the army.  But the newlyweds have begun to quarrel, and Stanley seems more interested in Miss Torso's refrigerator than in her.  The prospect of marriage between Lisa and Jeffries is shadowed by the memory of the man and woman who became Mr and Mrs Lars Thorwold.

An image early in the movie anticipates the tension between the clarity of romance and the ambiguity of irony.  After surveying the awakening block of apartments, the camera returns to Jeffries and pans over his broken leg, smashed camera, and the picture that resulted from his dangerous trackside photography.  It then stops for a moment on a negative close-up, framed in a light-box, of a female model.  From there it moves to the positive image of the same photograph on the cover of a fashion magazine.  (Jeffries obviously can do the stay-at-home studio work that throughout the movie Lisa will try to persuade him to do.)  These images, the picture and its negative, are at once identical and opposite to each other.  Irreconcilably different, they reflect the same reality and are also, in a way, mutually defining.  The experience of truth and falsehood, or of sympathy and repugnance, in Rear Window will be as clearly opposed and as closely related as the negative and its positive print.  For Hitchcock's ironic films in general, this pair of images serves as a pattern for the way in which opposites refuse to stay in unequivocal opposition but implicate each other and complicate audience responses.


Mr and Mrs Smith repeats, in its wacky way, the story of a marriage almost lost, then recovered. Like Rich and Strange, its ironies are fundamentally comic; but unlike its predecessor, they are practically unalloyed with real pathos. The pain and conflict it contains, indeed, are portrayed as a form of pleasure for the central couple and as a necessary psychic nutrient in their relationship.

The oddity of such a theme and the status of Mr and Mrs Smith as Hitchcock's single screwball comedy have led critics to treat it as an aberration in its director's career. Hitchcock himself seemed to take a similar view, dismissing the movie in Hitchcock/Truffaut as no more than "a friendly gesture to Carole Lombard,'' and agreeing with his interviewer that making it had been "a waste of time.''  Rohmer and Chabrol, on the other hand, regard Mr and Mrs Smith as a project that Hitchcock took "very seriously.'' They identify the films with which it has the clearest affinities as Cbampagne and Rich and Strange. Though they misremember some of the details of the film, they have, I think, an accurate understanding of its place in Hitchcock's career.
Among Hitchcock's later movies, The Trouble with Harry comes closest to reproducing the antic comedy of Mr and Mrs Smith and occasionally reverts as well to the rapid, zany dialogue style of the earlier work. The Trouble with Harry, however, is as radically romantic as Mr and Mrs Smith is ironic; in every detail, the later film reiterates its central theme of renewal. Mr and Mrs Smith, like Rich and Strange, returns to the point of its beginning with only a slight sense of regeneration.

Of the Hollywood comedies of remarriage that Stanley Cavell discusses in Pursuits of Happiness, the darkest one, His Girl Friday, has most in common with Mr and Mrs Smith. Both end not with the rediscovery of a marriage but with the confirmation of old habits. Those habits - the instincts for journalistic predation that join Walter and
Hildy and the libidinal biting and clawing that bond Mr and Mrs Smith - land both films worlds away from the restorative self-creation-in-love of romance. Among other Hitchcock movies, Suspicion and The Paradine Case could be called comedies of remarriage without laughter. Like most of the movies Cavell examines, their marriages have failed in consummation or have somehow become unconsummated. Their couples must discover or rediscover each other and consecrate their vows anew. The conclusion of Mr and Mrs Smith, however, only confirms its protagonists in their abrasive, peculiarly comfortable marriage of antagonism controlled by rules.

Mr and Mrs Smith deviates from Hitchcock's other ironic works chiefly in the undiluted quality of its humor. lts main themes, and the ironies it constructs around them, are entirely consistent with Hitchcock's career-long preoccupations. Mr and Mrs Smith, in brief, may be odd Hitchcock, but it is not tangential. It is a particularly exuberant scherzo in the diversely united cycle of romantic stories and their ironic counterparts that make up Hitchcock's career.

The opposition between true and false love, or love and lust, which is central to Hitchcock's romantic work, disappears in Mr and Mrs Smith. Egotistical desire no longer opposes emotional generosity but replaces it. The possessive sexuality that remains to represent love in Mr and Mrs Smith can be contrasted only with simple absence of passion. The relatively selfless love of Commander Gordon in Rich and Strange has disappeared in Mr and Mrs Smith. The libidinal egotism of Fred and The Princess remains, and its foil becomes the deprivation of love exemplified in the earlier movie by the Old Maid, and in Mr and Mrs Smith by the capon-like gentility of Mr. Smith's (Robert Montgomery) southern law partner, Jefferson Custer (Gene Raymond).

"You're in one of your romantic moods again. That's been the trouble since the beginning," declares David Smith to his wife when she complains that "all you ever think about is yourself.'' Given the ironic psychological dynamics that shape the relationship between him and Ann (Carole Lombard), David has reality on his side when he scornfully
dismisses his wife's idealization of Jeff as "kind, and simple, and gentle.'  Possession is nine-tenths of the law of love as well as of property. "You're mine and you belong to me," he will later assert. "You couldn't have anything to do with that pile of southern fried chicken."  His wife will declare him right.  As she begins to be won back to her
husband by his alternately imperious and prostrate courtship, Ann explains to Jeff, "You know the real reason he keeps chasing me?  He's still so much in love with me.  He's such an egotist, he can't bear the idea of letting someone else kiss me."  Love is not separated, as in the romances, from ownership or control.

Ann takes offense not at her husband's treatment of her as a possession but at his failure to renew the form (their invalid marriage license) that legitimizes his dominion.  David, for his part, responds to the news that he is technically unmarried with the excitement of Fred in the Paris hotel room when his drunkenness and the sight of Emily in a sexy nightie make him feel as if he is not married.  Preparing to bed what he thinks is his unsuspecting "new mistress," he preens himself and whistles with an erotic satisfaction that appears to be based entirely upon his perception that he is about to reap a sexual harvest to which, in some superficial way, he is no longer entitled.  He is getting something for nothing; and as a result his lawful wedded routine takes on the allure of illicit possession.  The incongruous fact that the prospective victim of his seduction is his wife in no way cools his predatory ardor.

Love in Hitchcock's romances combines personal esteem and a protective impulse with desire; but in Mr and Mrs Smith attraction thrives on conflict.  Like a pair of minks, Ann and David require the foreplay of violent battle rather than gentle wooing.  An opening pan over a chaos of dirty dishes reveals a beardy Mr Smith playing solitaire in his bathrobe and looking apprehensively toward a bed in which Mrs Smith tosses petulantly. Their three-day war, however, soon leads to an affectionate reconciliation.  The last sequence of the movie parallels the first, when their sexual reconnection is preceded by even more protracted battling.  A pair of crossed ski-tips, the final image of the film, symbolizes at once their union and the conflict necessary to it.  Upon such concupiscent brawling depends the continued stability - such as it is - of  their marriage.

Set against the alley-cat amorousness of Mr and Mrs Smith is the sexless gentility of David's partner.  A former Alabama fullback who does not drink liquor, never breaks training, and eats "four vegetables a day," Jeff's manliness is cool and stilted.  Ann praises him for his restraint, but his disinclination to conquer and hold a mate does not
really recommend him as a suitor, especially for a woman like Ann.  In the world of Mr and Mrs Smith "consideration'' betokens abnormally low libido rather than selflessness.  However excessive Ann's denunciation of Jeff as "a lump of jelly'' may be, there is a lack of ardor in his decorous chivalry. In the absence of any alternative model of love
in this movie, Jeff 's stiff courtesy appears more sterile than gentle.  He is also childlike, still very much the earnest son of proud, overprotective parents.  Adult love between men and women (so far as anyone in Mr and Mrs Smith qualifies as an adult) is compounded equally of sex and venial violence.

Mutual healing and need in love, an idea central to Hitchcock's romantic films, diminishes to a comic parody. The central characters injure themselves; they are not hacked at by injustice or bad luck. The image of Mr Smith hitting himself in the nose in order to escape his embarrassment at the Florida Club sums up the self-inflicted origins of his woes.  His faked collapse and Ann's caring for him at Lake Placid further parody the motif of the healer and the healed.

His "delirium'' induces Ann back to a position of intimacy, as she shaves and cares for him. We may be reminded at this point of a familiar Hitchcockian premise, of which Ann's unnecessary nursing of David is a comic variant.  Men and women, put in proximity and some need of each other, will come together, fall in love.  No such coming together results from David's quickly uncovered charade; but his attempt to regain physical intimacy with his wife by faking illness reminds us of situations in other Hitchcock films where the sickness is real, the stakes much greater, and the outcome more elevating, or dire.

Other familiar romantic motifs reappear in Mr and Mrs Smith in the ludicrous or eviscerated versions characteristic of ironic comedy. Infernal depths are realized in the smoky kitchen of the decayed restaurant where David takes Ann and in the sweaty steam room of the Beefeater's Club, a comic hell to which Mrs Smith exiles her husband.
There he encounters a feeble version of a damned soul and tempter in Benson (Jack Carson). Moments of discovery (equivocal, as one might predict) take place in toilets with clanking plumbing and on trips during which the fresh country air is sharpened by the fresher excretions of the horse pulling the sleigh.  David's quest for love leads him to the Florida Club, his vulgar blind date, and a self-inflicted bloody nose. Ann's leads her to the same club and then, in a mock romantic ascent, to the top of a parachute ride that maroons her with Jeff in a rainstorm.

The soaking that Ann and Jeff suffer at the carnival represents the final diminution of the tremendous storm that Murnau made the climax of Sunrise and that Hitchcock first adapted to comic and ironic uses in Rich and Strange. The absurd plight of Ann and Jeff reflects both an inversion and a comic shrinking of the romantic convention it parodies. A more dangerous inversion, as I observed earlier, occurs in Strangers on a Train, during the carnival sequence that culminates in Miriam's murder.

Complex interplay between artifice and reality and a tendency for make-believe to prefigure or express deep truths characterize acting and pretense in Hitchcock's romantic comedies.  Pretense in ironic films, on the other hand, has no underlying layer of truth; it remains self-interested fakery. In Rich and Strange, The Princess simply molts her borrowed feathers and turns back into the cleaner's daughter that she was all along.  None of the elaborate charades in which David engages in Mr and Mrs Smith leads to much besides embarrassment. His ruse of shutting the door and pretending to be gone in the first sequence does produce the desired reconciliation; but similar deceptions later in the film are ineffectual. The companion of the beautiful woman he pretends to be with at the Florida Club threatens to beat him up, and his performance at Lake Placid has only temporary success. In an ironic world, the surface of things is their significance.  Reality has no more meaningful underbody.  Pretense, therefore, can only be false; it cannot shadow a deeper truth beneath superficial appearances.

The comedy of Mr and Mrs Smith is based upon familiar principles, the pervasive rigidity and the infantility of characters who fail to achieve emotional maturity appropriate to their station in a grown-up world.  As may be appropriate to a lawyer's wife, Ann has a passion for rules.  The three-day marital siege that ends during the first sequence has resulted, we learn, from one of the rules that the couple has adopted: "you are not allowed to leave the bedroom after a quarrel unless you've made up."  The affectionate resolution of their spat suggests that this rule may make sense, and the audience is not prepared to disagree with Ann's self-congratulatory proclamation that "we must never change that rule. You know if every couple had it there'd never be a divorce."  A few minutes later, however, a second rule, evidently that Ann should ask and David should answer an intimate question every month, raises the first specter of the protracted separation that occupies most of the film.  Ann asks her husband whether, if he had it to do over again, he would marry her.  His "no" tensions the emotional spring that will release its energy when she learns of their invalid marriage license.

That legal technicality has the same kind of mindless rigidity that their domestic rules threaten to impose.  No one ever suggests that their marriage is truly dissolved by the invalidity of the license, unless Ann wants it to be. The functionary who brings David the news, in fact, is quite explicit: "Oh, you really are married, and everything, but there's a little technicality. ...''  Despite its essential inconvenience, the "little technicality'' unravels the fabric of their marriage. That it should do so - or that Mr and Mrs Smith should allow it - reflects the mechanical slavery in which they are held by rules.  Similarly legalistic, Ann's mother, apprised of the news, earnestly cautions her daughter "not to," as if Ann were a naive virgin rather than a woman married for three years.

As eccentric, abrasive, and rigid as Mr and Mrs Smith are both individually and within their marriage, they fit each other well, and their bizarre rules seem to suit them as well as they suit each other. The fact that David is a lawyer implies that he, too, has a penchant for technicalities.  "It's possible,'' says Jeff to Ann near the end of the film, "it's more than possible, that as peculiar as David is, you couldn't be happy without him."  Mr and Mrs Smith portrays marriage as a state of adaptation, of being accustomed to someone.  It accommodates the inflexibility of its partners.  Such a conception is not very inspiring, but within the ironic assumptions of the film, it is reasonably comfortable. And it is probably the best anyone can expect to do. Retreating from his injurious answer to Ann's question about whether he would marry her again, David replies with as much truth as comic sinking, "I love you, I worship you, I am used to you."

The childishness of Mr and Mrs Smith (and of Jeff) amounts to another sort of rigidity, a refusal to respond to the passage of time. Such arrested development can be seen as a comic variant of the injurious past that haunts more sober movies.  The problem of time in Mr and Mrs Smith results not from a trauma that enslaves the protagonist to the past, but from the willful refusal of the central figures to grow up.  David and Ann are more closely related to the lost boys of Peter Pan than to the characters of "Sleeping Beauty."

The dialogue is soaked with the childishness that is evident in the characters' tantrums and stubbornness. David calls Ann a "great kid'' and "my little girl," the latter an epithet that her mother applies to her as well.  "Annie, you haven't changed a bit from the little girl that used to go runnin' in and out of the house.  I'd a recognized you in a minute," declares Mr. Deever.  Ann's first date after she throws David out of the apartment is with a man old enough, as the saying has it, to be her father.

Her husband appears scarcely less juvenile.  "Now can I go to work?" David asks his wife after their argument, like a chastened boy asking if he can go out and play.  He and Jeff talk about Jeff's days as a football player as if such youthful concerns were still at the center of their lives.  His dependency upon his wife for shaving and laundry and his childish ploy of playing sick to gain Ann's sympathy add to our impression that he, along with his wife and most other adults in the movie, are essentially big, affluent children.

Time passes; but Mr and Mrs Smith resist any change.  Ann cannot understand why the "little blue dress'' has shrunk, even though it has not been out of the closet for three years.  Momma Lucy's restaurant has altered, as has Ann's expanding figure; and "Momma Lucy'' herself has turned into a scruffy, cigar-chomping man.  The "place has changed a little," as Ann and David admit with considerable understatement. Nonetheless they try to act as if it - and as if they - have remained the same. Their amusing, humanly understandable refusal to respond to the mutability of life is another form of the rigidity that governs them.

Such obdurate inflexibility, the movie implies, may be found not only in its title characters but in humankind generally.  The title of the movie suggests "Mr and Mrs Everybody," and the question that sums up the real subject of the film - "if you had it all to do over again, would you have married me?'' - is one that any married person must at one time or another contemplate.  Contrary to what Ann asserts, she and David do have a marriage that is basically "just like other people's.'' The visible part of the illuminated sign upon the parachute ride where Ann and Jeff are soaked makes the allegory explicit.  It reads, simply, "Life.''

Genres in Mr and Mrs Smith combine in a way that is extremely unusual for Hitchcock.  Although its radical irony rules out the profound optimism of the romances, its unadulterated comedy so thoroughly excludes serious danger and pain that the movie nonetheless retains its good cheer about life.  Mr and Mrs Smith returns its silly but harmless creatures to a state of comfort.  If their lives lack transcendent meaning, the universe in which they dwell remains essentially benign, its linear time full of entertaining scuffles that come out alright. We do not have the sense of grace and renewal in love that we have at the end of Hitchcock's more romantic films, but nothing in the film makes us regret the lack of a deeper meaning.  Life passes like a spring day in Mr and Mrs Smith, and the movie ends long before any hint of evening raises so much as a shadow of night and darkness.