The Hitchcock/Truffaut Tapes #11
Call me a skeptic, but Alfred Hitchcock's rationale, the one he would admit to, for directing a textbook Screwball Comedy by Norman Krasna entitled Mr. and Mrs. Smith has always struck me as extremely dubious. To hear him tell it in Part Eleven of The Hitchcock/Truffaut Tapes, it was all the doing of Carole Lombard. She simply asked him to direct a film for her and . . . in what Hitchcock calls "a weak moment" . . . he did it. Just like that.
While Hitchcock had far greater respect for actors than he ever let on (a self-constructed myth discussed in this excerpt), it's hard to imagine an artist of his single-mindedness directing anything at the request of an actor or a producer or . . . anyone; absent some form of contractual obligation. George Cukor? Sure. Hawks? Hmmm. Maybe. Hitchcock?? It doesn't wash.
Barring a barefoot run through RKO Production records, I'm left to surmise his true intent for taking on the project. To me his participation in Mr. and Mrs. Smith had more to do with re-establishing in Hollywood what had always been a crucial part of his filmmaking in Britain, now that it looked as though he was over here for good. During the 20s and 30s, Hitchcock was usually able to weave his creative identity out of the Suspense pieces he'd achieved great success with and take up different narrative forms almost at will. Sometimes the results were utterly disastrous (Waltzes from Vienna, for instance; which was a failure on every level), but more often (the sublime Rich and Strange, or vastly underestimated works such as Juno and the Paycock, The Manxman, The Skin Game, The Farmer's Wife and Easy Virtue) they were anything but. What's more, the commercial Thrillers that heralded the dawn of his world-wide recognition were generally suffused with elements (mostly comic, but not always) that had little to do with that form as audiences knew it, then or now. He was, in short, a much more adroit and varied filmmaker in England . . . . this is not, necessarily, to say that he was a better one (which I don't believe) . . . than he was ever permitted to be in the US.
Why the leash? It was mainly institutional. America's film industry was structured in such a way as to deter, as much as possible, any impulse toward creative risk. It was a counter-impulse rather than a mechanized function. If a certain director . . . even a relatively autonomous director like Cecil B. DeMille, let's say . . . had a firmly established commercial track record with a specific kind of motion picture, then those with an overdeveloped sense of duty to the stockholders saw no point in encouraging said director to try their hand at anything else. Which is not to say that every filmmaker worthy of our attention didn't attempt to wrest themselves from the niches they themselves had created (such struggles are nothing less than the history of American Cinema), its simply that the economics of the industry weren't geared toward versatility then. They aren't now, either.
In the case of Alfred Hitchcock, he tried several times in his Hollywood career to reclaim some measure of this long-ago versatility, but he could only succeed insofar as he buried it within his commercially-proven Suspense model. On those rare occasions when he boldly tried something different (though one might argue that the basic elements, as it were, of his ebullient black-comedy pastorale, 1955's The Trouble With Harry were in his work all along) he was met with the uncomprehending stares of a nation.
After this intriguing opening, marked as it is by a rather odd tirade about stage actors and 'New York' writers who work in the film industry solely for financial inducements, the excerpt moves into a discussion of Joan Fontaine and his 1941 film Suspicion that . . . save for an entertaining (if not altogether believeable) anecdote about that film's momentary fate at the hands of Sol Lesser when he ran RKO Pictures for a half-hour . . . is sheer Snoresville.