Carole Lombard was a good time girl. She threw lavish parties and played an excellent game of tennis, and had been kicking around Hollywood since she made her film debut at age 13.
She swore more than most men.
And she’d decided to get serious about being funny.
After scores of mediocre films, director Howard Hawks unleashed her superpower when he let her scream and kick John Barrymore in Twentieth Century (1934).
Hollywood realized she wasn’t just another pretty young blonde—she was a once-in-a-generation comedienne.
And she wasn’t going to waste her chance.
Parties were out. Hard work was in.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Lombard said. “I went through the motions of making pictures for too long, spending most of my energy having a good time. Most people gripe about the elusiveness of stardom but do little to deserve it, and even less to hold on to it. When I saw that I was really getting a fair chance, I decided to work for it.”1
A year later she’d gained enough clout to pick own director and leading man for the Paramount comedy Hands Across the Table. No dummy, she chose Mitchell Leisen and Cary Grant.
She got Leisen, but lost Cary Grant to Katharine Hepburn and Sylvia Scarlett (1935.)
(It’s a shame Lombard never got a chance to make a screwball with Grant, though they did make the lovely overlooked melodrama In Name Only in 1939.)
In the end she and Leisen decided on newcomer Fred MacMurray, a saxophone-player-turned-actor who’d recently made a small splash playing opposite Hepburn in Alice Adams (1935.)
Both Lombard and MacMurray were 27 years old.
It was her 39th film, and his 6th.
Lombard plays Regi Allen, a manicurist who watched poverty grind down her mother and is determined to avoid the same fate by marrying rich.
She’s got two prospects—wheelchair-bound millionaire Allen Macklyn (Ralph Bellamy) who loves her but she sees as only as her best friend, and playboy Theodore Drew III (Fred MacMurray) who is handsome, rich, and captures her heart after a magical first date.
Except there are two pertinent facts Ted left out on that magical date, each of equal importance:
- He’s not actually rich as his family lost all their money in the crash
- He too plans to marry for money, and is engaged to a rich woman he doesn’t love
This is a conundrum of the highest order.
The comedic bits delight—Regi is so nervous trying to snag the rich Ted while giving him a manicure that she cuts his cuticles to bits. On their first date, she gets the hiccups in a fancy restaurant. And Ted must tan under a sunlamp in Regi’s apartment (he’s hiding from his fiancé who thinks he’s in Bermuda.)
But there’s also a sexiness simmering just beneath the surface that you don’t always see with MacMurray.
Perhaps it’s because MacMurray was so comfortable with Lombard. MacMurray had many leading ladies—Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Barbara Stanwyck among them—but according to his wife June Haver MacMurray, he thought Lombard was the most fun to work with.
When Haver asked him why, he said, “Well, you just never knew what she was going to do or say.”2
In one scene, Ted has to call his fiancé, and Regi pretends to be the operator. She continually interrupts Ted’s call, holding her nose and saying in nasally voice, “Bermuda calling.”
At the end of the scene, Ted and Regi collapse to the floor in laughter. According to director Mitchell Leisen, the laughing and falling were not in the script, but a genuine reaction from his co-stars, who were getting along beautifully when the cameras were on and off.
Leisen, no fool, left the scene in the film. It’s a delightful one—and you can tell the difference between their genuine belly laughs and acted humor.
There’s an unintentionally poignant moment in the film, this one between Carole Lombard and Ralph Bellamy’s character. While explaining how he ended up in a wheelchair, Bellamy’s character nods to a picture of him in a flying suit.
Referring to airplanes, he says, “They weren’t as safe then as they are now.”
Not safe enough, as Lombard would find out only 7 years later when she was killed in a plane crash, her life and career cut short at the age of 33.
Hands Across the Table is a classic—it helped launch Fred MacMurray’s career, and was the first iteration of what became the quintessential Carole Lombard heroine—zany, unpredictable, with at least one volcanic eruption of emotion.
Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard made 4 films together, and I’m having so much fun remembering them that we’re going to revisit them all.
Stay tuned for next week when Fred and Carole set sail in a tale of a Swedish princess who isn’t all she seems, murder, mayhem, and one handsome concertina player.
- Swindell, Larry. Screwball: The Life of Carole Lombard. 1975.
- “Fred MacMurray: The Guy Next Door.” The Hollywood Collection. Documentary.