Friday, August 26, 2016

Film Review: Hands Across The Table

"Hands Across The Table"  *** (out of ****)

It's the age old question, for love or money, which should a girl marry for? It is asked and answered in the Carole Lombard / Fred MacMurray romantic-comedy "Hands Across The Table" (1935) directed by Mitchell Leisen.

Ms. Lombard stars as a struggling working class woman, Regi Allen, a manicurist at a swanky New York hotel. Regi has made up her mind. She has no time for love. What will love get you? Can it pay the rent? Buy groceries? Make life easy? Absolutely not. But money can! And that's what Regi is out for, lots of money. She wants to find a rich man and marry him so she'll be able to live a life of comfort. Regi hopes through her job she will find a wealthy, single man staying at the hotel. She'll give the man a manicure, he'll find her attractive, ask her out and bang, a marriage proposal.

The Gods start to smile at Regi when not one but two wealthy men enter her life; Allen Macklyn (Ralph Bellamy), a former pilot, who after an accident is wheel-chair bound and Theodore Drew III (Fred MacMurray), the somewhat eccentric heir to the Drew family fortune. Regi believes Drew is just the man she has been waiting for. Finally a young, wealthy bachelor has fallen into her lap. Things are not what they seem and sadly Regi discovers Drew's family went bankrupt in the stock market crash of 1929. In fact, not only is Drew poor but, like Regi, he too plans to marry for money and is engaged to a very wealthy woman, Vivian Snowden (Astrid Allwyn). The Gods weren't smiling, they were laughing at Regi.

Through a contrived plot twist, Drew ends up missing a train meant to take him on a vacation, as a wedding present from his soon-to-be father-in-law. Drew, who was out the night before with Regi, can't reveal to Vivian why he missed his train and so naturally must stay with Regi and pretend he is on vacation and return to Vivian a week later.

Can Regi and Drew spend a week together and not fall in love? Will Regi marry Allen for his money or will Regi discover there is more to life than money?

"Hands Across The Table" is really a by-the number, formulaic romantic-comedy. Within the first 10 minutes of the movie most people should be able to tell where the movie will go. So, if the movie is so predictable why recommend it? What could the movie possibly have going for it? Well, when you have a movie that is predictable only one thing can make it worthwhile, star power. If you have two likable characters played by two equally likable actors, that have chemistry between them, the audience will watch the movie. It just so happens Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray are two likable actors and are fun to watch on-screen together. That is why you should see "Hands Across The Table".

It is not difficult to understand why depression era audiences liked the movie either. A young working woman can marry a rich man and have her dreams come true. Prosperity is just around the corner. Audiences could relate because they wished for the same thing. People were hurting during the Great Depression and movies were an escape from reality. In movies people could become rich over-night. Your luck could change. And don't kid yourself, audiences still want to watch the same stories today and Hollywood keeps giving them to us.

And "Hands Across The Table" was a hit with audiences. The movie was the first time Ms. Lombard and Mr. MacMurray co-starred together and due to this movie's success they would co-star in three more movies; "The Princess Comes Across" (1936), "True Confession" (1937) and "Swing High, Swing Low" (1937), further cementing each other's status as leading stars. For Ms. Lombard her turning point came a year earlier in the Howard Hawks' comedy "Twentieth Century" (1934) and hit her stride in "My Man Godfrey" (1936) a movie that co-starred her ex-husband, William Powell, and won her an Academy Award nomination. Mr. MacMurray had only been acting for a year prior to this movie, though he did co-star with Katherine Hepburn in "Alice Adams" (1935).

Despite the fine actors, likable characters and at times funny dialogue, "Hands Across The Table" still manages to do a few things wrong which prevents the movie from being better. The movie lacks conflict. In another movie, the more conventional set-up would be to have both Drew and Allen fall in love with Regi, with Regi having feelings for both men forced to chose between them. That is not the case in this movie.

It may not be nice to say or politically correct (or whatever other term liberals prefer) the Allen character is never a serious contender for Regi's affection because he is handicapped. By having the character wheel-chair bound they have emasculated him. Regi, at no point in the movie, shows a romantic interest in Allen. She sees him as nothing more than a friend. Yes Allen is rich and he seems to like Regi and she laughs in his company, but, at no point in the movie does Regi consider marrying him for his money. Although an explanation is never given, we can only assume it is because Allen is handicap. Therefore, the only man realistically capable of winning Regi's affection is Drew. The absence of a romantic competitor, while admittedly cliche, removes an element of conflict from the plot which would help reinforce the movie's central theme.

The movie also engages in gender stereotypes suggesting men are incompetent and can't even iron their own clothes, cook and need to be tucked into bed. Women are shown to be nurturing, mother types, willing to tuck men into bed and tend to their wounds. And it suggest we are all suckers for love and hopeless romantics at heart.

A story about two people not interested in love, only in marrying for money, can be the stuff of great comedy. In the right hands you can have a movie like Ernst Lubitsch's "Trouble in Paradise" (1932), a pre-code gem. Unfortunately "Hands Across The Table" doesn't take that route. It lacks a bit of bite.

But we must come back to the two lead actors. Whatever may be wrong with the movie we simply enjoy watching Ms. Lombard and Mr. MacMurray. The audience wants them to get together because we believe they are perfect for each other.

Of course a better director could have helped things as well. Mitchell Leisen had his name attached to some entertaining movies; "The Lady Is Willing" (1942), also with Mr. MacMurray, "Midnight" (1939), written by Billy Wilder, and "Easy Living" (1937), one of Preston Sturges' earliest screenplays. Mr. Leisen however was not much more than a good studio director in my opinion. He really didn't have a distinctive style, unlike Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges. The movies Mr. Leisen directed were only as good as their screenplays.

"Hands Across The Table" may not do anything original but it is a good example of depression era Hollywood escapism. The movie succeeds on star power, with Ms. Lombard coming out a bit ahead. She always had great screen presence and here we can see the makings of a star.