Hands Across the Table (Mitchell Liesen, USA, 1935)

hands across the table

Carole Lombard is Regie Allen, a hard-boiled Hannah working as a manicurist in a posh hotel so she can nab herself a rich husband. She meets her match in Theodore ‘Ted’ Drew III (Fred McMurray), a loafer from a still distinguished but now poor family whose only concession to earning a living is to marry money. In true screwball fashion, they meet cute in a hotel lobby where she bumps into him playing hopscotch on the hallway tiles and spoils his game. He asks for a manicure in order to get to know her better and she’s so nervous she destroys each of his fingernails, a small price for what turns out to be a great date. They go out and fall for each other but neither wants to deviate from their goal of marrying money, until of course they do, but not until the end. Ralph Bellamy plays, well … the Ralph Bellamy role: the earnest, well-intentioned, but no fun guy who hangs around waiting to not get the girl. What distinguishes the character of Allen Macklyn from any of the countless others Bellamy was cast in is that Macklyn is a former pilot who had an accident and is now a paraplegic. His wheelchair is his character.

Hands Across the Table is sometimes flagged up as an undiscovered or under-rated screwball. I don’t agree. All the ‘madcap zanyness’ feels a bit forced and a bit mean to the other characters, like when Lombard and McMurray pretend to be married so she can stand up a previous date (William Demarest) and he can do him out of a box of chocolate mints. Ah-ha. Hilarious.

The film doesn’t work as a screwball because it’s constantly veering into melodrama and all the longing and desire and angst and abnegation takes all of the shine out of what is meant to be sparkly ‘zaniness’ and makes for a confusing inconsistency of tone. However, those moments of melodrama are some of the bits I liked best.

The clip below wonderfully illustrates the film’s weaknesses and strengths. Reggie and Ted have just come back from this wonderful expensive date. The camera dissolves from the nightclub into the back of the cab, from a kind of theatre of dreams, to a context for other kinds of possibilities. Lombard plays Reggie as slightly phony and still trying to impress when she says ‘I’ve really had a lovely time’; then the scene shifts onto McMurray. What’s called for is an actor with the skill to convey the debonair nonchalance of the stylised artificial situation – a rich guy with no money out to have a good time but who just might have gotten involved asking a girl who’s not to be his wife out for another date after his wedding — and also the ability to simultaneously convey a sense of loss and regret, all whilst playing drunk. McMurray is simply not skilled enough.

However, look at Lombard. The film does. He speaks but she communicates, and she doesn’t need lines to do it with. She’s got three close-ups after she’s just heard he’s getting married and he says, ‘they all want honeymoons,’ where she looks slightly down and manages to convey the sadness of all those girls who never get to go on honeymoons because rich guys like this Theodor the Third here think they can get them the day after their own wedding; then after the ‘slaves of fashion’ line, where she does a slight grimace indicating something like ‘I should be so lucky as to be a slave to fashion’; and then, after he tries to say ‘the whole business is a vicious scam’ but falters on ‘vicious’ and she moves her eyes smartly to the side as if to indicate ‘are you kidding me?’ and then sighs. Hard-boiled Hannah is back but the sadness cuts through the cynicism and she beautifully conveys the limited options, the drudge and unfairness of a million girls working too hard and not making enough. Lombard is true, beautiful and really great: so much meaning in such few gestures. The film is very much worth seeing if only for her.

But the direction and the editing help the film too, note how we now get another dissolve, this time onto the bleak and prosaic night-time street. This dissolve mirrors the one that introduced us to the scene of revelation in the cab, but if before we went from the dream date into intimate revelation, this one takes us back to the harsh reality of the street. It’s very well done.

But the film does offer more than Lombard or the skill and polish of the mise-en-scène. There’s McMurray too. He’s easy to ignore as, aside from his work for Billy Wilder in Double Indemnity and The Apartment, there’s not much people remember him for. However, it’s worth reminding ourselves that he was one of the most famous and likeable stars in American cinema and at the very forefront of celebrity culture in the US, first as a top film star from about 1935 and throughout the forties and fifties, then as a very successful star of Disney films such as The Shaggy Dog (1959) and The Absent Minded Professor (1961); then, even later, in one of the top-rated TV shows in the US in My Three Sons (1960-1972), first for ABC (1960-1965) and then for CBS (1965-1972). Aside from that, he’d recorded records, been on Broadway, starred on radio and even been the original model for Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel. He can’t simply be dismissed.

Moreover, the film does everything in its power to make McMurray glamorous, sexy and desirable. He’s much more on display than Lombard is (see image capture below):

McMurray's lips, lit for Lombard's appreciation...and the audience's.
McMurray’s lips, lit for Lombard’s appreciation…and the audience’s.
Chiaroscuro lighting and coiffure combine for a brooding matinee idol look, something McMurray and his handlers would soon forsake. What he embodies was a wise-cracking regular joe. But that's not how Liesen saw him or at least not only how he showed McMurray to us here.
Chiaroscuro lighting and coiffure combine for a brooding matinee idol look, something McMurray and his handlers would soon forsake. What he embodied was a wise-cracking ‘regular Joe’. But that’s not, or better put, not only how Liesen saw him or at least  how he displayed  McMurray to us here.
He's on physical display, more undressed and in more and different states of undress than Lombard, and something relatively unusual for male stars of  this period.
He’s on physical display, more undressed and in more and different states of undress than Lombard, and something relatively unusual for male stars of this period.
McMurray and Lombard are equally glamourised, though she clearly gives the filmmakers more raw material to work with
McMurray and Lombard are equally glamourised, though she clearly gives the filmmakers more raw material to work with

Finally, another reason I find the film rather fascinating is due to something that used to be called ‘gay sensibility’. It was thought that if an artist was gay, an understanding of the world shaped by the artist’s social and historical circumstances as a homosexual person would somehow seep into the work and be magically conveyed to those who had access to those codes and conventions. Liesen was a film director in the 1930s with a primary sexual interest in men and thus the interest in surfaces, images, the conflict between idealised romance and harsh social realities; prescribed ways of being versus individual desires, all of that conflict of melodrama, but prettily and lightly put together would be ascribed to this ‘gay sensibility,’ even when the subject material of the work had nothing to do with homosexuality.

hands across the table 2

One of the wonderful things about studying and thinking about film today is that we can look closely, as often as we want, stop and start the image, re-combine it. In Hands Across the Table, is the way that we’re shown McMurray to be delectable an articulation of Liesen’s desire or could it be something as banal as Paramount policy for one of their leading men? I don’t know. But what we can now see is that in this film he was lit, framed, made-up, clothed, unclothed and displayed to be glamorous, beautiful, fit, a romantic ideal with a raw sex appeal. Hands Across the Table is not just a fascinating film by a top director and yet another example of Lombard’s greatness as an actress, it might also be a key to understanding McMurray’s stardom at the height of the Studio Era.

José Arroyo

3 thoughts on “Hands Across the Table (Mitchell Liesen, USA, 1935)

  1. This is an excellent analysis of Hands Across the Table with great background information. I like your writing style.

    I agree that it isn’t a screwball comedy. It actually has serious themes: marrying for money vs. love, and idleness.

    I haven’t heard of the term “gay sensibility” before. It would appear that the shots of Theodore shirtless would confirm that concept. Personally, I do think that the core beliefs and values of a director do influence their work, consciously or unconsciously.

    I wrote a short essay (450 words) on Hands Across The Table called “Why a Woman Won’t Marry an Idle Man.” If you would like to read it, I am open to any feedback: https://christopherjohnlindsay.wordpress.com/2017/02/18/hands-across-the-table/

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