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Hands Across the Table (February 26, 2008)

Hands Across the Table was written by Viña Del Mar. The story was optioned by Samuel Goldwyn, who intended to make it with Miriam Hopkins, but Goldwyn let his option lapse, and Del Mar sold the story to Paramount. Miss Hopkins was a comedienne of the early thirties. You can see her at her best as a con-woman in Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise of 1932 with Herbert Marshall and Kay Francis. One odd thing in the film histories of the time is that properties are always being noted as having been purchased with her in mind as the star. However, they often end up with some other lead actress. For instance, she owned the rights to Jezebel. She had played the lead on Broadway. She sold the rights to Warner Brothers in 1937, with the understanding that she would get first crack at the part when the script was completed. Hopkins didn’t get first crack. Warners cast Bette Davis, who won the best actress Oscar for what many people regard as her best performance.

The histories also mention that Gary Cooper was considered for the lead actor in Hands Across the Table. It is interesting to think about what a Hopkins-Cooper version of this film would be like, probably something like Lubitsch’s film version of the Noel Coward play Design for Living (1933) which starred Hopkins, Cooper and Frederic March.

Hands Across the Table was directed by Mitchell Leisen, who directed some of the pleasantest comedies of the time, such as Midnight (1939) with Claudette Colbert and John Barrymore, and Preston Sturges’ script Remember The Night (1940) with Barbara Stanwyck and MacMurray. Production started on this film in late August 1935 and the film was released in October of that year. A manicurist in a hotel barber shop, played by Lombard, plans to find a rich man to marry. When she meets an unemployed young man, played by Fred MacMurray, however, she has to reexamine her plans. Lombard plays a working girl, not an heiress, this time. She is at Paramount and uses her photographer of choice, Ted Tetzlaff, and her costume designer of choice, Travis Banton, both on staff at that studio. MacMurray and Lombard went on to star together in three subsequent films. MacMurray has a light touch with comedy that works out well in this picture. Those of us who grew up with MacMurray as the father on the TV series “My Three Sons” will note the scene where William Demerest (who we saw all through the Preston Sturges movies last fall) comes to court Lombard with a box of chocolate mints. To his surprise, he is received at the door by MacMurray. MacMurray and Demerest played together as the father and uncle in “My Three Sons.”

At the time this film was released, the critic Otis Ferguson in The New Republic wrote, “In this picture Lombard and MacMurray make an all-time copybook example of how to play a movie for what it is worth – with subtlety, much resource in the matter of visual expression, and the open, sustained kind of charm that can be projected through the shadows of a mile of celluloid.” That says it quite neatly. I hope you enjoy Hands Across the Table.