When interviewed on the set during production of “To Be Or Not To Be” in late 1941, Carole Lombard said she was proud that with this film, a United Artists production, she had now worked at all eight of the industry’s major studios – something she believed no one else in Hollywood had done.
It was an achievement, to be sure, even if Carole had made but one film each at MGM (“The Gay Bride”) and Warner Brothers (“Fools For Scandal”), neither among her best work. Moreover, the Fox studio where she made a few movies as a teenager in the mid-1920s was a far cry from the 20th Century-Fox of Darryl F. Zanuck.
There are some actors that became identified with a particular studio – Errol Flynn and Bette Davis at Warners, Clark Gable and Myrna Loy at MGM, Betty Grable and Tyrone Power at Fox. Much of Lombard’s career was spent at Paramount, but what names come to mind when you bring up great stars from that studio? Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, certainly. Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, no doubt. And Mae West’s stardom at Paramount, though relatively brief, helped sail the company through its darkest financial waters. Bring up Lombard’s name in this context, and a movie historian might reply, “Oh yeah, she worked there too.”
Carole’s four best-known films were made elsewhere – “Twentieth Century” at Columbia, “My Man Godfrey” at Universal, “Nothing Sacred” at Selznick International and the aforementioned “To Be Or Not To Be.” It’s not that Lombard’s Paramount career was bereft of highlights, just that her output there lacked the one stone four-star classic that would resonate through decades to come. It didn’t help matters that for a variety of corporate and legal reasons, many of these films became invisible to audiences other than on the steadily decreasing revival house circuit.
In the spring of 2006, that changed somewhat thanks to Universal, which owns the video rights to much of the pre-1948 Paramount catalog; it issued DVD “Glamour Collections” of West, Marlene Dietrich and Lombard. Five of Carole’s six films in her set came from Paramount, and one of them in particular holds up with anything she ever made: “Hands Across The Table.”
Released in late 1935, “Hands” was the first film designed expressly as a Lombard vehicle. True, she had received star billing many times before at Paramount, but they were assignments that could have gone to Colbert, or Sylvia Sidney, or several other actresses on the lot. Even after “Twentieth Century” proved to be her comedic breakthrough (although, unlike “It Happened One Night,” another Columbia comedy issued in the first half of 1934, it was not a massive hit), Lombard’s Paramount films were “Now And Forever,” where she was the third wheel alongside Gary Cooper and Shirley Temple, or the desultory “Rumba,” a dance film with George Raft designed as a follow-up to the more successful “Bolero.”
What caused the change? First and foremost, it was the promotion of Ernst Lubitsch to head of production – the first (and, as it turned out, the last) time a noted director held such a position at a major studio. While Lubitsch had never directed a film with Lombard (although in 1931, a year into her seven-year Paramount comtract, she tried in vain to get a role in his “The Smiling Lieutenant” that went to Miriam Hopkins), they were on friendly terms and he recognized her skills.
“Hands Across The Table,” whose title derives from a popular song of the time recorded by Lee Wiley, among others, was written by Norman Krasna (who, six years later, would write the Lombard film “Mr. & Mrs Smith”), Vincent Laurence and Herbert Fields. Projected as a Colbert vehicle by some at Paramount, Lubitsch saw it more as a way to spark Lombard’s career – and when Claudette went to Columbia to film “She Married Her Boss” (for which Columbia had expressed interest in Carole), it became available. (Colbert eventually got to “Hands Across The Table” – but it was in a 1937 “Lux Radio Theater” adaptation with Joel McCrea.)
Mitchell Leisen, who had directed several successful dramas at Paramount but had yet to direct a hit comedy, was hired at Carole’s insistence; though he had never directed a Lombard film, they were on friendly terms.
Now it was time to find a leading man. Lombard wanted Cary Grant, whose star was up-and-coming but would not be firmly established for another two years thanks to “Topper” and “The Awful Truth,” but he was next door at RKO working with Katharine Hepburn on “Sylvia Scarlett.” (As fate would have it, Carole and Cary – arguably the actress and actor most identified with the “screwball” genre – never starred in a comedy together.) A few other actors were considered, but eventually the part went to Fred MacMurray, a relative newcomer to films whose breakthrough roles – with Colbert in “The Gikled Lily” and with Hepburn in “Alice Adams” – had come earlier in the year. MacMurray and Lombard had previously crossed paths, as he was a former saxophonist for bands that Carole had danced to some years back.
As it turned out, MacMurray would be Lombard’s leading man for her next – and final – three movies at Paramount.
In the film, Lombard plays Regi Allen, a struggling New York manicurist who wants to marry for money; for that reason, she’s attracted to wealthy, but crippled, Allen Macklyn (Ralph Bellamy), who is frankly more romantically interested in her than she is in him. However, that all changes when Theodore Drew III (MacMurray) comes into the shop for a manicure; Regi believes him to be rich, but actually he’s only formerly wealthy, and what money he has – he’s planning a trip to Bermuda -- comes from his fiancee’s fortune as she prepares their wedding.
Theodore and Regi go out together, and he becomes drunk and misses connections to Bermuda, so he spends the night at her apartment (it’s platonic). When Regi returns from work the next day, he tells her he’s actually penniless. Both are increasingly attracted to each other and lose their cynicism about love; eventually, through a ruse, aided when Regi pretends to be a long-distance phone operator (see photo above), Theodore breaks off his engagement while Allen bows out with Regi. Together, Theodore promises to marry Regi after he finds work. (Incidentally, in the operator scene Carole and Fred fall to the floor in impromptu laughter; that was not in the script, but Leisen liked it so much that it was kept in the film.)
“Hands Across The Table” was not an overwhelming hit, but it did consistent business, and it proved beyond a doubt that “Twentieth Century” was not an aberration, that Lombard was a genuinely deft comedic talent. That’s still obvious more than 70 years later, but what keeps it from four-star status? Perhaps it’s a bit too glib for its own good, although its charm more than compensates. Perhaps it’s seeing Bellamy, in one of his first “sap” roles, as a cripple; if the character hadn’t been disabled, perhaps we might feel better about his ultimate rejection. (But, in a kind of actors’ karma, decades later Bellamy won acclaim on both stage and screen for his portrayal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a president who was anything but a sap, in “Sunrise At Campobello.”)
Perhaps “Hands Across The Table” will never be considered one of Carole’s “big four,” but you could make a good argument that it deserves to at least be ranked 4a.