Hands Across the Table (1935)
Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard never actually go out together in a tuxedo and evening gown in the movie, though it makes for a nice poster. Now that I think of it, this is one of those rare 1930s comedies without any tuxedos! But it’s still a good movie.
This was a breakout role for Carole Lombard in the comedy genre with which she would become associated; she’s cynical, tired, funny, brittle, and sparkling with moments of warmth and hope that sneak out from under her (admitted) gold digger facade.
She wanted Cary Grant as her leading man, but got Fred MacMurray instead. And apparently she, with director Mitchell Leisen, had to yank and twist this performance out of comedy-novice Fred. You’d never know that Lombard and Leisen had to push MacMurray, though: he’s wonderful.
He and Lombard are so good together that they would be re-teamed for three more films: The Princess Comes Across (1936), Swing High, Swing Low (1937), and True Confession (1937). Fun fact: MacMurray’s film debut was in a 1929 movie called Girls Gone Wild. It was a melodrama, but it’s lost to history now…
We meet our heroine, Regi Allen, as she struggles off the subway train on her way to work. (The opening of this film reminds me a bit of the opening of The More the Merrier with its depiction of frantic, uncivilized city life. It’s also similar to Midnight; Hands Across the Table and Midnight (1939) were both directed by Mitchell Leisen.)
She’s lost her hat.Regi is a practical, fast-talkin’ dame who works as a manicurist in the Savoy-Carleton Hotel. She doesn’t want to work as a manicurist–she’d prefer to find a rich husband and give up frenzied subway journeys and 9-5 days altogether. On her way through the lobby, she pauses briefly at a shop’s display of an enormous emerald cut diamond ring. We know what’s on her mind…
She arrives at the hotel barber shop and is sent upstairs to room 1502 for a manicure. She’s hopeful because 1502 is “where the rich live,” and perhaps this is her chance! Also, she’s pretty sure the client isn’t married, because the married ones come down to the shop for their manicures so they can get away for a little while…
Important, fun fact: The majority of the manicure clients are men. So in 1935, it was totally normal for men to get their nails buffed and their cuticles tidied. For more on that, read my History Through Hollywood post.
Regi arrives in 1502 and meets her client Allen Macklyn (Ralph Bellamy). He’s rich, kind, and confined to a shiny, tricked out wheelchair. A few years back he crashed one of his planes.A picture of him in his aviator cap, goggles, and obligatory white scarf sits poignantly on his desk as Regi gives him a manicure. Note how both photo-Allen and real-Allen are looking left, staring at Regi, and presenting two matching profiles for the audience to compare.
They get along splendidly, and for the first time since Allen’s accident he seems interested in something. His butler is thrilled to see Allen excited and cheerful again. You can watch the opening scene here.
Note Regi’s manicurist uniform. It has a huge starched collar and cuffs with bows on the sleeves.
And note the globe in this scene, as though you could miss it. Perhaps it symbolizes that Allen can give Regi the (literally) gleaming “world” she wants? Or that he is “a world away” from what he used to be (if we read into the placement of the globe between the photograph and Allen)? Or that he and Regi are “a world apart?” Or that he likes globes? This movie does a lot with objects. Get excited.
After Regi leaves, Allen tells his butler he needs new, snappy dressing gowns: manicures with Regi will now be a daily thing. During tea on the terrace one morning, Allen and Regi have the typical screwball comedy conversation about money. It’s almost identical to the conversation in Midnight, Moon Over Miami, and to conversations in several other films.
Allen:”You think a lot about money, don’t you, Regi?”
Regi: “You’ve got it, you don’t have to think about it.”
Okay, but Allen has to ask about love.
To which Regi replies, “Oh, love. I don’t want anything to do with it…I know what love can get you into. I know what it got my mother into. She was young and pretty once. I saw her count pennies and wash and struggle until she was old and ugly. I heard her nagging my father until he hated to come home. You couldn’t blame him. You couldn’t blame anything but poverty.”
Yikes. So she’s set on marrying rich, and Allen is rich. He also likes her. Hmm. She steps outside of 1502 and runs into a handsome young man playing hopscotch on the white and black checkerboard floor of the hallway. He almost knocks her over, then invites her to play.
She declines. She has no time for handsome, playful young men! The contrast between Allen, (restrained, proper, still), and this young man, (silly, unconventional, jumping), could not be more complete. You can watch the scene here.
When Regi returns to the shop downstairs, the receptionist tells her that it is her lucky day. Theodore Drew, III, just called down for an appointment, and the receptionist gave him to Regi. (Despite the fact that Regi is now giving daily manicures to Allen, a very rich, single man. I guess Regi sees Allen more as a father-figure or friend than potential husband, but it’s odd that a gold digger like her would overlook such an opportunity!)
Regi grabs a polo magazine to cram for her conversation with this rich client. All rich men like polo, right?
But the hopscotch man tries to sit down at Regi’s station. She rebuffs him, but eventually realizes her mistake when the receptionist frantically gestures to her that the young lunatic is Theodore Drew! The manicure of a lifetime begins…(You might recognize MacMurray from Disney films like The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), The Happiest Millionaire (1967), The Shaggy Dog (1959), or the TV series “My Three Sons” (1960-1972). But in his younger years he was quite a romantic lead! And in 1943 he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood!)
But she’s so nervous she keeps hurting him, and eventually every finger is bandaged. Regi apologizes and Ted sighs: “Stabbed in the cuticle. What a way to die.”
Drew finally shows up, though, and she’s determined to be refined:
But then she gets the hiccups, and then he gets the hiccups, and they have a swell time. Gary Cooper and Ray Milland almost played Ted, but I think MacMurray’s goofiness is just perfect. I’d vote for Milland over Cooper, though, if MacMurray wasn’t the lead. You can watch their night on the town here.
Well, all those stolen drinks add up and Ted falls asleep in the cab back to Regi’s apartment. She drags him upstairs and fixes him a cot in the living room. He’s still there when she leaves for work the next morning. When she returns…the real fun begins!
Turns out he’s broke . “Remember that thing called the Crash?” he asks Regi. “Yes,” she says. “Well, that was us,” Ted explains. Also, he’s engaged to the daughter of the “Pineapple King,” though he freely admits that he’s a “heel” and is marrying her for her money.
His future father-in-law paid for a vacation to Bermuda before the wedding, but Ted went out with Regi and got drunk instead of catching his boat. So now he’s stuck without any money, and he can’t go “home” to his father-in-law because he can’t admit he’s not in Bermuda! Twists and turns.
So he stays with Regi. Their situation is similar to Joe and Connie’s predicament in The More the Merrier, except Regi and Ted don’t waste time worrying about their predicament. I don’t think they see it as a “predicament” at all. Regi lets Ted camp out in her living room–and that’s that. No worries about Regi losing her job or ruining her reputation.
They bypass that particular wrinkle, which lets them have a lovely, platonic time together without the stress that preys on Connie and Joe. Though the platonic stuff gets more difficult as time goes by…Sometimes these 1930s films can surprise you.The filmmakers keep sticking objects in the foreground. It’s a technique to add depth to a shot by activating different planes, or to just add visual interest and spice…did you zone out yet?
The daffodil and telephone are in front of our stars when they’re calling from “Bermuda,” and the manicure lamp is foregrounded throughout that scene. This film was shot by Paramount cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff who often was assigned to Lombard’s films.
Ted’s fiancee, Miss Snowden (Astrid Allwyn), is the opposite of Regi, (light/dark, rich/poor, fun/not fun, etc.) though look at how both women have a spray of dried/fake flowers at their throats. Dissertation topic! (Travis Banton designed the costumes for this film, as he did for most of Carole Lombard’s movies, including The Princess Comes Across, Love Before Breakfast, We’re Not Dressing, and My Man Godfrey.)
The Bermuda telephone call is very funny with Lombard continually interrupting Ted and Miss Snowden’s conversation with a nasal imitation of an operator. (For more on this scene, visit my post on telephones in classic movies.)
Apparently after Lombard and MacMurray finished filming this scene they both collapsed on the floor because they were laughing so hard. Leisen kept the camera rolling and included their mirthful meltdown in the film. You can watch it here (it starts at about 4:50.)
MacMurray was a singer and saxophone player, and in this film he sings snatches of a song called “The Morning After” during his last night living with Regi. I’m going to let that title rest there quietly and move on to something else.
Knowing that MacMurray would go on to star in one of the greatest film noirs ever, Double Indemnity (1944), a few shots in this film caught my eye.
You could splice those scenes into Double Indemnity or another film noir, or just invent an entirely new plot to match these images! Maybe Ted used to be a criminal and his old gang is after him so he’s hiding out with tough gal Regi! And then he got shot! Or maybe Regi is a prototypical film noir femme fatale who plans to seduce and then murder Ted with the help of her real love, Allen!
But actually Regi and Ted are just trying to navigate their complicated relationship under the stars, and Ted scratches his arm falling off his cot. But it’s all very dark and mysterious and atmospheric. Look at this lighting on their gorgeous faces!
This film is light and funny, yes, but there are some deeper, darker moments, too. Daffodils and fake telephone calls mix with confused, middle-of-the-night conversations and main characters who admit quite freely that they’re “heels” and gold diggers.
They’re in love, sure, but Ted has never had a job and doesn’t know how and would probably be happier marrying a rich woman. Regi has always had a job but doesn’t want one anymore, and would probably be happier marrying a rich man. And dear Allen is waiting in 1502 for his manicure!
Can Regi and Ted change? Should they try? Is Regi right when she says, (just like Claudette Colbert in Midnight!) that sure, they’d have a grand time for a few months, but then they’d start resenting each other and their lack of money and wish for it would crush their love…? But they even have a nice time in the rain and in a taxi together!And there’s this scene when Miss Snowden inspects her trousseau and speaks this gem of a line about the pale gold evening gown: “That will be terrific on my camel trip to the pyramids!”