As a screwball comedy, Hands Across the Table pulls off a rather cunning deception. At first glance we see a run-of-the-mill comedy about a manicurist smitten with an affianced millionaire, and the viewer becomes complacent as she anticipates what will unfold during the following 90 minutes. After viewing a great number of B-pictures beginning with a variation on this plot, it is easy for the viewer to become so accustomed to the succession of events that she stops paying close attention.
Just as I was beginning to come to that point in Hands Across the Table, it came to my attention that what was happening onscreen was not what I had anticipated. The surprisingly sharp dialogue took me off guard, and I found the rapid-fire delivery reminiscent of the Preston Sturges comedies of which I am so fond. In the end it was a delightful movie, graced with a well-crafted and funny script in addition to the onscreen chemistry of Lombard and Fred MacMurray.
Manicurist Regi Allen (Carole Lombard) is summoned to the home of Allyn Macklyn (Ralph Bellamy), a wealthy veteran confined to a wheelchair who orders manicures to pass the time. She and Allyn are at ease together and Regi becomes his regular manicurist and ultimately his friend. Upon leaving one day Regi comes across a young man playing hopscotch in the hallway. She is puzzled at this odd behavior but shrugs it off as a quirk.
The next day at the nail salon Regi is informed that a man by the name of Theodore Dru III (Fred MacMurray) is coming in for a manicure. “Not only rich, but young and handsome too,” in the words of the salon manager. She sets the manicure up with Regi, who is surprised to see that this Theodore Dru III was the same man she saw playing hopscotch earlier. Her nerves are so strong that she accidentally cuts his fingers. He is nonetheless charmed by her and invites her out to dinner that evening.
Their dinner at a fancy restaurant sets the tone for the rest of their relationship. Theodore is irresistibly goofy, coaching Regi on the proper way to caress the words “onion soup,” and proposing a cure for the hiccups that requiring standing up and drinking from the wrong side of the glass. Much to the horror of the restaurant staff this behavior continues into the night, and soon Regi and Theodore develop a friendship based on their mutual silliness. Learning that Theodore is engaged to Vivian Snowden, the heiress to a pineapple fortune (who thinks he is in Bermuda), destroys any ambition Regi might have had to marry him for his money.
Amidst all of this Regi has taken Allen Macklyn as a confidant. She thoroughly enjoys their regular manicure appointments and he appreciates the friendly company. A strange sort of attraction begins to evolve with them, and it becomes clear that Allen is falling in love with her. Regi seems not to notice.
Clues begin to drop that Theodore is not quite as rich as Regi had originally assumed. She becomes suspicious when Theodore admits to not having been able to pay his bus fare and wanting to marry for money. He mentions that he lost all his money in the stock market crash, and Regi agrees to take him in as a boarder as he has nowhere to stay. Upon phoning Miss Snowden one night pretending to be in Bermuda, the heiress realizes that she has been duped. Theodore and Regis friendship turns to love, but Regi breaks it off, saying Theodore’s plan to marry into money would be thwarted if he were to marry her. At her regular appointment with Allyn Macklyn, she breaks down in tears, admitting to him what had happened with Theodore. Little did she know that Allen had planned to propose to her, but puts away his ring before she could see it.
Miss Snowden returns and Theodore decides to break their engagement in order to remain with Regi. He goes to Allen Macklyn’s apartment to find her, and when he does, he proposes marriage. They run off together and decide to flip a coin to decide what to do first–have lunch or get married. Ted says he will find a job if the coin lands on its side–and it does, falling away and landing in a manhole cover.
This quick-witted comedy features equal parts of absurdity and fun with just enough romance to cool it to perfection. It is a joy to watch. One piece of trivia to note is that Ralph Bellamy, the actor who plays Allen Macklyn, nearly always plays the role of the “other man.” If you see the name of Ralph Bellamy in a movie, it is nearly 100% certain that he will play the unlucky fellow who wants the girl but can’t have her.
Throughout the movie, a prominent scar on Carole Lombard’s left cheek is visible. In 1926, Lombard was involved in a near-fatal car crash that left the side of her face badly damaged. Extensive reconstructive surgery was conducted, but the scar remained for the rest of her life. This was the first instance of Carole Lombard’s curse with vehicles of transportation–her life ended in a massive plane crash in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
See you next time!