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Hands Across the Table

Hands Across the Table(1935)

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teaser Hands Across the Table (1935)

Back in the studio era, you had to put in a lot of work before people were willing to view you as a legitimate movie star. Mitchell Leisen's light comedy, Hands Across the Table (1935), marked the first time that Carole Lombard, who was already an experienced actress, had an entire vehicle built around her comic persona. Although it's not as well-remembered as hits like Nothing Sacred (1937) and To Be or Not to Be (1942), Lombard's stardom was announced with this one, and she promptly delivered one of the better performances of her career. The big secret of Hands Across the Table, though, is that parts of it aren't "light" at all - there's a great deal of darkness mixed in with the jokes.

Lombard plays Regi Allen, a beautiful manicurist who doesn't believe in romance, and has decided that she'll simply marry the richest man she can land. Regi soon wins the admiration of a wealthy, wheelchair-bound customer named Allen Macklyn (Ralph Bellamy). But Regi also makes a move for Theodore Drew III (Fred MacMurray), a playboy who convinces Regi he's rich by spending money on her that was given to him by his fiance, Vivian (Astrid Allwyn). After a drunken night with Drew, Regi has to come to terms with the fact that her new marriage prospect isn't really loaded...and isn't even available for marriage. From there, it a slow re-warming process that's occasionally interrupted by heavy bouts of cynicism from both Regi and Drew.

Lombard played an active role in Hands Across the Table from the very beginning. She was even allowed to pick her own leading man, although her original choice, Cary Grant, had been temporarily loaned out to RKO and wasn't available. Later, when someone at the studio suggested MacMurray, Lombard already knew who he was because he used to play saxophone in various dance clubs around town! His chops as a comic actor, however, were far less developed. In David Chierichetti's book, Hollywood Director, Leisen speaks extensively about his approach to comedy, and Hands Across the Table in particular. "Light comedy is a state of mind," he says. "You can't really direct it, the actors just have to feel it." He says that MacMurray was too shy a performer at this point in his career to really play a scene instinctively.

Lombard, Leisen recalls, "worked as hard as I did to get that performance out of (MacMurray). She had none of what you might call 'the star temperament'. She felt that all the others had to be good or it wouldn't matter how good she was. She got right in there and pitched." At one point, Lombard even sat on MacMurray's chest, pounding on him and yelling, "Now Uncle Fred, you be funny or I'll pluck your eyebrows out!" (Given Lombard's well-known fondness for profanity, the actual quote was probably a lot more colorful than that.)

Lombard also had trouble throwing off big-screen sparks when MacMurray was involved. "The main problem with Fred in those says," Leisen said, "was that he didn't project much sex, aside from being very good looking. In the scene where he says 'Aren't you going to kiss me good-night?' Carol was supposed to walk in and kiss him, then walk out of the frame. Well, she came out past the camera, just looked at me and shrugged her shoulders, as if to say, 'So what?' Poor Fred!"

All appearances to the contrary, Lombard and MacMurray really did like each other, and credit has to be given to Leisen for managing to get that warmth into the film. He remembered shooting a scene in which Lombard pretended to be a telephone operator who constantly interrupts a call with the phrase, "Bermuda calling, Bermuda calling.": "When they finished the take, Carole and Fred collapsed on the floor in laughter; they laughed until they couldn't laugh any more. It wasn't in the script, but I made sure the cameras kept turning and I used it in the picture. It is so hard to make actors laugh naturally - I wasn't about to throw that bit out."

Happily, audiences as well as critics responded to Leisen's gift for revealing true emotion within an otherwise jokey context. In a remarkably perceptive review of Hands Across the Table which appeared in The New Republic (November 11, 1935), critic Otis Ferguson wrote that "the trouble and the danger with light comedy as a rule is that it is self-conscious over its lack of weight and either leaves reality altogether in an attempt to be capricious and unexpected about everything, or fastens on each excuse for feeling with a hollow and forced semblance of deep emotion. That Hands Across the Table keeps the delicate and hard balance between these two courses of procedure is partly the work of direction, cutting, dialogue writing; but considerably the work of Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray."

Given how much energy she put into MacMurray's performance, Lombard could have considered that a double compliment.

Producer: E. Lloyd Sheldon
Director: Mitchell Leisen
Screenplay: Norman Krasna, Vincent Lawrence, Herbert Fields (based on the story Bracelets by Vina Delmar)
Cinematography: Ted Tetzlaff
Editing: William Shea
Costume Design: Travis Banton
Cast: Carole Lombard (Regi Allen), Fred MacMurray (Theodore Drew III), Ralph Bellamy (Allen Macklyn), Astrid Allwyn (Vivian Snowden), Ruth Donnelly (Laura), Marie Prevost (Nona), Joseph R. Tozer (Peter), William Demarest (Matty), Edward Gargan (Pinky Kelly), Ferdinand Munier (Miles), Harold Minjir (Couturier).

by Paul Tatara

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