“If you could do it all over again, would you have married me?”
Ann and David, the titular couple in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), have just learned that their marriage is not legal due to an arcane geographical technicality. With their newfound freedom in hand, they must figure out whether they will stay together or go their separate ways. Ann’s question is as much about the Smith’s unusual marital status as it is the socio-economic politics of the 1930s. The financial turmoil spurred on by the Great Depression led to a decline in divorce rates in the United States, which coincided with a cultural shift toward companionate marriage. For many Americans in the 1930s, finding a romantic partner with a similar ideology and shared interests was just as important as procreation. This radically modern conception of marriage permeated all aspects of popular culture and found its ideal home in screwball comedy, a genre borne out of the era’s economic malaise and the entrenched conservatism of the Production Code. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is one in a long line of screwball comedies from the 1930s and early-40s that explore the new state of marriage and gender relations by foregrounding the sexual compatibility of its lead characters. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is noteworthy for another reason, too: it was director Alfred Hitchcock’s only screwball comedy. The film is not “Hitchcockian” in the obvious sense, but it captures his cheeky spirit by side-stepping the Code’s sex mandate through innuendo, dialogue, and symbolism. Mr. and Mrs. Smith concludes with a sexual reconciliation that undercuts the Code’s pro-marriage ideology and the effectiveness of industry self-regulation.
Sex and the Code
In 1915 the Supreme Court ruled that motion pictures were not granted free speech protection under the U.S. Constitution on the basis that they had the “capacity for evil.” The Supreme Court viewed cinema as a mass medium unlike others that came before it: the immersive storytelling component had the potential to negatively influence impressionable audiences, and the Court made the case that filmmakers had a moral obligation to uphold traditional Protestant values. The Court ruling was a devastating blow for the U.S. film industry because it gave state and municipal censor boards across the country the legal authority to edit films as they saw fit. The consequences of this decision on Hollywood’s bottom line and creative autonomy were dire: theoretically, audiences in Atlanta could watch a slightly different version of a film than those in Minneapolis, depending on the ideological position of the censor board. After years of public pressure, Hollywood star scandals, and the looming threat of a federal censorship law, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) formally adopted the Production Code on March 31, 1930 in an effort to appease social and religious conservatives, many of whom believed Hollywood was still a hotbed of immorality. From then until July 1934, the Code was administered by the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) under the oversight of Jason Joy and James Wingate. Although some view Hollywood’s “pre-Code” era as relatively unencumbered by the censor’s gaze, in reality, script and release print submission was mandatory by late 1931 (Jane M. Greene 2011, pg. 239). In July 1934 the MPPDA created the Production Code Administration (PCA) as the organization tasked with Code enforcement with staunch Catholic, Joseph Breen, at the helm. From that point onward until the Code was replaced with the ratings system in November 1968, no film could be shown in U.S. theaters without a PCA seal – save for a handful of exceptions.
The Code – and the 1927 “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” list that preceded it – aimed to ease the pressure off of the Hollywood studios by make the local censorship process less contentious. By regulating film form and content during the production phase, the MPPDA believed they could preemptively minimize outside influence on Hollywood’s products by anticipating how state and municipal censors might object to a film once it was distributed. PCA oversight happened at every stage of a film’s life cycle, beginning in pre-production with story evaluations and script reviews, through to advertisements and marketing. Guided by the tenet that “no picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it,” the PCA assessed the representation of such topics as crime, violence, sex, and religion to ensure that the “correct standards of life” would be upheld and that “the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” The PCA’s regulatory process focused extensively on dialogue, and film files are ripe with correspondence fixated on linguistic minutiae. But PCA oversight extended far beyond the words in a script to imagery.
Sex was one of the cornerstones of the Production Code, and the provision explicitly prohibited “excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, and suggestive postures and gestures.” Sex could be intimated through such visual cues like ellipses or a character’s body language, but only if it was essential to the plot, and never in such a way as to condone wanton passion or adultery. Joseph Breen’s Catholicism also shaped the PCA’s approach to industry self-regulation, particularly as it related to sex. Breen believed that the sanctity of marriage and family life were the foundations of a healthy and thriving society. Hollywood’s depiction of marriage was a focal point in his mandate, and while he could not completely erase topics like sex and adultery from the screen, he ensured that they were placed under what Thomas Doherty describes as “strict surveillance and severe limitations” (2007, pg. 92). But Hollywood filmmakers quickly figured out ways to navigate the Code’s guidelines through innuendo and symbolism; out of artistic repression, an entirely new cinematic language was born. Ironically, too, a direct line of communication opened between filmmakers and their audiences once the latter learned Hollywood’s representational shorthand. Ultimately, this put the PCA on constant defense to adapt their policy, and rendered the industry’s self-regulatory efforts severely ineffective over time (Grégoire Halbout 2022, pg. 308).
Andrew Sarris famously described the screwball genre as “sex comedy without sex,” and it is a unique classical Hollywood genre because it is predicated almost entirely on the representation of one of Breen’s cautionary topics. Apart from a handful of comedies like It Happened One Night (Capra, 1934) and Twentieth Century (Hawks, 1934), the majority of screwball films were made after the July-1934 watershed. Screwball was therefore the first distinctly Code-era genre, and sexual innuendo is its most remarkable feature. To convey romantic and passion without sex, screwball comedies often rely on “play,” which can be literal – like characters playing a game, as is the case in My Man Godfrey (La Cava, 1936) and Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, 1938) – or figurative, through physical comedy, fights, and verbal sparring. Sex represented in abstraction ensured that Hollywood filmmakers followed the Code, technically speaking, just as they continued to find novel ways to push back on it in both tone and spirit.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith is an extreme and perhaps unusual example of screwball comedy’s sexual provocation. It is also a unique entry in Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre. In his book-length interview with Francqois Truffaut, Hitchcock claimed that he agreed to direct the film as a “friendly gesture” to lead actress, Carole Lombard, in her “comeback” film after several years in melodrama (1985, pg. 139). He first expressed interest in working with Lombard back in 1939, telling columnist J. Danvers Williams of Film Weekly:
I should like to cast Lombard not in the type of superficial comedy which she so often plays but in a much more meaty comedy-drama, giving her plenty of scope for characterization. I believe that, imaginatively treated, Lombard is capable of giving a performance equal to that of any of the best male actors, like [Paul] Muni and Leslie Howard (March 4, 1939 pg. 13).
According to screenwriter Norman Krasna, Mr. and Mrs. Smith came about when he pitched a story entitled “”Who Was That Lady I Seen You With?” to Lombard, who brought it to RKO head, George Schaefer. He allegedly bought the project from Krasna, and Hitchcock signed on later. Throughout his life Hitchcock maintained that he “didn’t understand the type of people” in the film, and deferred authorial intent to Krasna (Truffaut 1985, pg. 139). The idea that Hitchcock took a hands-off approach to Mr. and Mrs. Smith has also been supported through the years by the fact that he allowed Lombard to direct his cameo, the first and only time he relinquished such creative control (see footage below). However, RKO production records show that it was Hitchcock, not Lombard nor Schaefer, who initially pursued the project. Mr. and Mrs. Smith may be an anomaly in Hitchcock’s body of film work, but it is still “Hitchcockian.” It combines thinly-veiled sexual subtext with the director’s penchant for dark comedy, but without the heavy-handed moral message expected from Code era films. Sex is at the heart of the his comedic portrayal of nonlegal matrimony, and Ann and David enjoy it without irreparable consequence.
Hitchcock’s biographer, Patrick McGilligan explains that he challenged the Code “with exceptional tenacity in the American phase of his career, pushing the boundaries of sex and violence in his films. And usually he did so deviously, rather by direct confrontation, stalling, surrendering by degrees, swapping off one cherished transgression for another.” He achieved this by what John Billheimer calls “gleeful layering,” whereby he’d include as much deliberately provocative dialogue or plot points in his scripts as he could. The so-called “sacrificial lambs” would be used as leverage to convince the censors to concede on imagery, which he believed to be more important than plot or dialogue (Billheimer 2019 pg. 2). During the PCA’s first-draft script review, they found eighteen unacceptable dialogue entries such as the words “stinks” and “old bat” (Billheimer, pg. 81). Krasna revised his screenplay and submitted a second draft, leaving only three of the objectionable items. One was a scene in which David pencils Ann’s maiden name – Krausheimer – into his work calendar. He changes the word “Miss” to “Mistress” as a sly acknowledgment of the “pieties of chaste womanhood” (DiBattista 2008, 109). The PCA responded in turn: “The gag on the use of the word ‘mistress’ is unacceptable.” Hitchcock instructed Krasna to disregard the PCA’s objection, and instead conceded to cut three sounds of a toilet flushing, a shot “panning between Lombard’s legs” in the breakfast scene, and a reference to Mamma Lucy’s “big bazooms.” The PCA agreed. The “mistress” gag remains in the release print.
“If you could do it all over again, would you have married me?“
We are first introduced to the Smiths in their bedroom where they have been holed away during a three day domestic dispute. Piles of used dishes and bed linens are scattered on the floor, while their rumpled pajamas, mussed hair, and David’s stubble all signal the length of their standoff. Clever tongue-in-cheek nods to their sexual compatibility are peppered throughout the scene, such as Ann’s insistence that all marriage ceremonies should include the provision, “you are not allowed to leave the bedroom after a quarrel until you’ve made up.” The couple cuddle in bed in what can only be described as a post-coital embrace: Ann nuzzles her head into David’s chest and playfully taps his nose. Their affectionate body language and soft, dulcet tones show that they are still madly in love with each other. For the Smiths, marital spats are resolved in bed.
The couple’s affection continues in a scene over breakfast, which begins with a close-up shot of Ann playing “footsie” with David under the table. The shot of their feet is shorthand for their physical chemistry and, crucially, the evolving dynamics of their complicated relationship. The camera cuts to a shot reverse-shot setup beginning with Ann. She is intoxicated from their sexual reunion, and asks with a dreamy lilt in her voice, “If you could do it all over again, would you have married me?” David pauses, sighs, then replies, “Well honestly, no.” The film cuts to the aforementioned under-the-table shot, and we see Ann’s feet slowly slide down David’s shins. He continues to explain that he would’ve remained a bachelor had he known what it’s like to be married. As he does, the camera cuts away from their feet back to Ann. She furrows her brows; crestfallen, she wrings her hands nervously at the indignity of David’s confession. However, this reaction shot is superfluous given the amusing storytelling of the feet imagery. For Hitchcock, feet, not faces, are symbolic of marital discord.
Ann’s theoretical question becomes reality when the couple later discover that they are not legally married because of a convoluted geographical rule. That revelation, combined with David’s blasé attitude about marriage, are the final pushes Ann needs to enjoy the single life. Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s “remarriage” narrative structure is a typical feature in the screwball genre. Philosopher Stanley Cavell was the first to identify the narrative pattern in classical-era screwball comedy, defining it as stories about quarreling couples who break-up (or divorce) over the course of a film and reunite by the conclusion. Cavell explains that in screwball comedy “neither law nor sexuality is sufficient to ensure true marriage…what provides legitimacy is the mutual willingness for remarriage.” Hollywood’s fascination with the remarriage structure coincided with the rise of companionate marriages in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. The availability of contraception, combined with women’s growing presence in the workforce and their subsequent financial independent, meant that for the first time, there was a significant portion of the American populace that viewed marriage (and sex) as means of pleasure rather than procreation. Companionate marriage – which is predicated on compatibility and sexual fulfillment – put women’s physical and emotional happiness on equal footing with their male partners. On average, women were staying single longer than their Victorian grandmothers, and their sexual liberation was an extension of the unprecedented modernity of the Jazz Age. Screwball’s remarriage storylines mirrored the era’s social and cultural changes by focusing on the screwball couple’s sexual and emotional compatibility.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith follows remarriage convention by showing that neither David nor Ann are entirely happy without their partner. Ann gets a job in a department store and goes on dates with her boss, Mr. Flugle (Francis Compton) and David’s law partner, Jeff (Gene Raymond). But they are all calculated moves to make David seethe with jealousy. Similarly, David learns that the single life is no a bed of roses. He goes on a blind double date at an upscale Manhattan nightclub with an acquaintance named Chuck and his two friends, Gloria and Gertie. Through a disparaging class contrast, David realizes that they are no match for Ann’s refinement. Gloria and Gertie are the crass and dizzy variety who wear garishly patterned dresses, insist on chop suey for dinner, and use vulgar flirtatious slang like “cookie” and “big boy” in mixed company (see clip below). In an ironic twist of fate David spots Ann and Jeff from across the club. He is embarrassed to be seen with Gloria and Gertie, so he pretends to be dining with the sophisticated woman at the next table. To make matters worse, he even punches himself in the face to give himself a nosebleed. His plan backfires when Gloria and Gertie try to stop the nosebleed at the dinner table, which gets Ann’s attention. She flashes a delicious, pitiful smirk as she realizes that David still has feelings for her.
As much as Mr. and Mrs. Smith adheres to convention, it also breaks from it, too. The film offers no clear path towards a marital reunification, and makes repeated reference to the nonlegal status of the Smiths’ relationship – like aforementioned “mistress” gag – without any definite moral condemnation against their mutual sexual desires. In the Smiths’ world, sex outside of the legal parameters of marriage can be pleasurable and fun.
The film’s concluding scene bookends the opening by foregrounding sex through suggestive framing and innuendo. David learns that Ann and Jeff are spending the weekend at a ski resort in Lake Placid. He tails them there, and in a last ditch effort to win Ann’s affection, pretends to be frostbitten and delirious from cold. However, his plan backfires again when Ann spies him sitting in bed in his adjoining cabin, smoking a cigarette. In the couple’s final showdown, David puts Ann in a headlock. When Jeff doesn’t come to her rescue, Ann has an epiphany. She realizes that she can take care of herself and that she doesn’t want anything to do with either man. She tells them both off, and storms back to her cabin in a huff.
Ann is frustrated and fed up, and decides to ski back to the chalet. David follows her, and suggests that she spend the night with him. In close up, she shakes her head furiously, smirks, and says “Not on your life.” Ann fiddles with her skis in an attempt to lure David to help her; he takes the bait, and kneels down to fasten her bindings. Lombard conveys Ann’s feigned indifference by defiantly avoiding eye contact. Ann stands up, and her legs wobble as she tries to regain her balance. David playfully pokes Ann’s chest, causing her to lose her footing; she falls backward into her chair with her skis flung above her head. Now stuck in an uncomfortable position, Ann exaggerates her vulnerability with borderline cartoonish physical gestures to let us know that she’s deliberately trying to get his attention. From the outset, Mr. and Mrs. Smith repeatedly reminds us that Ann is independent: her eagerness to get a job at the department store and her indifference when David threatens to cut off his monetary support suggest that she is capable of providing for herself. But in this context, her excessive fumbling and uncoordinated body movements make her uncharacteristically helpless. Ann’s performance here, combined with her coy grins in close-up shots behind David’s back, are clues that she is being disingenuous.
David eventually catches on to Ann’s duplicity. He loosens his tie and drops it on his bed – another subtle hint at the sexual reconciliation that will follow (Kiriakou 2020 pg. 125). In a medium close-up framed by her mangled skis, Ann grimaces. Here’s how the rest of the scene unfolds:
Ann’s feigned protestations fall on deaf ears. Her skis move into the empty frame forming an X position. That image, combined with the musical crescendo and the slow fades to black, tell us that their reconciliation is, again, a sexual one. Hitchcock uses innuendo and symbolism like the skis throughout the film to show that Ann and David’s relationship is driven by physical intimacy. But those cues tell us very little about Ann and David’s future. After sex, what comes next? Ann never agrees to remarry David, nor does she admit that she needs him other than as a sexual partner. Within the context of the PCA’s pro-marriage mandate, Mr. and Mrs. Smith is surprisingly nonchalant about the legal and moral future of Ann and David’s relationship. Their ambiguous marital status in the concluding scene create a space for the film to celebrate sex for the sake of mutual pleasure, free from the expectations of progeny or domesticity. Screwball comedy’s like Mr. and Mrs. Smith relied on the remarriage narrative structure to accommodated the Code’s moral position, but it also gave filmmakers the wiggle room to play with subjects like sex, love, and desire. The genre may have been “sex comedies without sex,” but intimacy was the cornerstone of any happy screwball partnership.
Billheimer, John. Hitchcock and the Censors. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2019.
DiBattista, Maria. Fast-Talking Dames. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
Doherty, Thomas. Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
Greene, Jane M. “Manners Before Morals: Sophisticated Comedy and the Production Code, 1930 – 1934.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 28 (April 2011): 239 – 256.
Halbout, Grégoire. Hollywood Screwball Comedy, 1934-1945: Sex, Love, and Democratic Ideals. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022.
Kiriakou, Olympia. Becoming Carole Lombard: Stardom, Comedy, and Legacy. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.
Truffaut, François and Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.
Williams, J. Danvers. “What I’d Do to the Stars.” Film Weekly. March 4, 1939, pg. 12-13.