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Hands Across the Table

Hands Across the Table(1935)

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Most people who know Carole Lombard know only a few of her movies. Our memory of her output is oddly feast or famine. While most old movie fans have seen her famous comedies (Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey, Nothing Sacred and To Be or Not to Be), the rest of her movies are obscure and seen by few. The Hitchcock comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith is the only of her starring vehicles that lies somewhere in between.

I'm no exception. The two-disc Carole Lombard: The Glamour Collection includes six Lombard Paramount comedies from the 1930s I'd never seen before. Director Mitchell Leisen's Hands Across the Table, from 1935, shows that there's good Lombard to be found beyond the four famous pictures in her body of work. Hands Across the Table is not a classic. It's just a charming, three-star romantic comedy. Made a year after Lombard's breakthrough role in the proto-screwball comedy Twentieth Century, Hands Across the Table takes advantage of the actress' ability to be both glamorous and the girl next door.

Regi Allen, her Hands Across the Table character, fits that bill. Although she's attractive, this isn't her defining quality. Graceful Lombard is earthy enough that we have no trouble accepting Regi as a young woman who rides the subway every day, toils at a job she barely tolerates and hopes to marry a rich man who will take her away from this workaday world. As a manicurist at a posh hotel (hence the title), Regi often brushes up against wealth, but she hasn't found a way to grab some for herself yet.

She gets her chance in Hands Across the Table. Much of the movie's early action involves Regi meeting Allen Macklyn (Ralph Bellamy), a wheelchair-bound ex-flyer staying at her hotel whose life becomes brightened by the frequent, often unnecessary manicures he schedules with her. The two become fast friends with Regi freely sharing her strategy of marrying a rich man with him, as well as news of her dates with other men.

One of these men is Theodore Drew III (Fred MacMurray), a flake Regi initially dismisses until she finds out he's rich and available. She lets him take her out on the town and the two have a great time getting stewed together, until he tells her he has to go out of town at dawn and he's to be married in a week. But when he passes out in their taxi and she doesn't know where he's leaving for and how he's getting there, she has no choice but to drag him into her apartment with the help of the cab driver. The next day he confesses he's rich in name only, and since his family fortune is gone he's planning on marrying an heiress for her money. "We're exactly alike," Regi says, and reluctantly allows him to be her boarder for a week.

Although each realizes their mutual attraction, they promise to hold firm to the goal of marrying into money. A comic highlight here is the phone call the pair fake to Ted's fiancée (Astrid Allwyn), with Regi pretending to be the Bermuda operator (that's where he was supposed to have gone and his fiancée thinks he is). Their shared laughs bamboozling the fiancée bond Regi and Ted, but the comedy in Hands Across the Table never gets physical or hectic enough to be a screwball comedy in which outrageousness bonds the lovers. It's also a stretch to see MacMurray in a sometimes kooky, Cary Grant sort of role. That, of course, is due more to MacMurray's domesticated persona later in his career (thanks to TV's My Three Sons and his frequent Disney movies). Audiences in the 1930s would have had no problem accepting him in the role (Hands Across the Table is one of three movies in the Lombard DVD set in which he stars opposite her).

Speaking of My Three Sons, Hands Across the Table pairs MacMurray and future TV co-star William Demarest in a brief scene. Demarest was two years away from finding the writer (and later director) who made the best use of his crusty personality and flair for pratfalls, Preston Sturges (though he takes a good tumble here). Leisen directed that movie, 1937's Easy Living, while MacMurray starred in Leisen's other film from a Sturges script, Remember the Night (both are among Leisen's best). Also of note in the cast of Hands Across the Table is one-time silent-film star Marie Prevost, who, in one of her last roles, plays Regi's dowdier best friend and co-worker (a comic relief role Patsy Kelly might have played). Prevost's bizarre 1937 demise was later chronicled in Nick Lowe's memorable black-comic song, "Marie Provost" (sic).

Hands Across the Table works itself to a climax in which Regi and Ted must individually make a choice between love and money. Bellamy's Allen also has designs on Regi, though he's not as outspoken about them as Ted (and anyone who's seen a few 1930s-1940s Ralph Bellamy movies can handicap his odds here). As important as the romantic union the climax forges is the Depression-era, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps work ethic the movie ultimately embraces. Like a lot of 1930s movies, Hands Across the Table embraces a brand of populism that feels part-genuine, part-propagandizing. But it's put across by writers Norman Krasna (Bachelor Mother), Vincent Lawrence (Peter Ibbetson) and Herbert Fields (People Will Talk) with 1930s Paramount's typical light touch and wit.

For more information about Hands Across the Table, visit Universal Studios Home Entertainment. To order Hands Across the Table (available only as part of a set), go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman