Fred MacMurray Friday

As I mentioned earlier this week, I thought it would be fun to devote Fridays in February to one of the most prolific and popular leading men of the 1930s and 1940s – Fred MacMurray.  His fame perhaps hasn’t lasted through the ensuing decades the way it has for some of his contemporaries, like Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda, which is a shame.  He was very talented, not to mention easy on the eyes in his younger days!

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Like a lot of people my age, for years my only knowledge of Fred MacMurray came from reruns of My Three Sons and from the Disney movies he made in the 1960s, like The Absent-Minded Professor and Son of Flubber.   Only in the past few years have I begun to realize what an interesting career he had before that, acting in a variety of movies with some of the greatest leading ladies of the Golden Age, among them frequent co-stars Barbara Stanwyck, Carole Lombard and Claudette Colbert.  When I saw Remember the Night for the first time, I was floored.  Who was this handsome, romantic, funny guy?  Who knew that wise, pipe-smoking father Steve Douglas used to be like that?  He was pretty dreamy!

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It seems MacMurray’s popularity is on the rise however, at least among devoted classic movie fans.  Quite a few of his films have been released on DVD recently and I see his name popping up frequently on other blogs.  I’m glad about that, because his work deserves the attention.  I, for one, am enjoying getting to know his movies, from the charming, witty roles in his early romantic comedies to the edgier parts he played in later movies like Double Indemnity and The Apartment.

To learn more about Fred MacMurray, I recommend checking out this great 2008 interview with his biographer, Charles Tranberg, on TCM’s Movie Morlocks blog.  Not only was MacMurray a multi-faceted talent, he was also one of the genuinely nice, decent men in Hollywood.  Maybe that’s one reason his fame hasn’t lasted.  Stars with more scandalous, dramatic personal lives tend to be more memorable, sad to say!

On with the first of our Fred MacMurray Friday movies, the thoroughly delightful 1935 romantic comedy Hands Across the Table, co-starring Carole Lombard and Ralph Bellamy, directed by Mitchell Leisen.

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Carole Lombard plays Regi Allen, a hotel manicurist who is determined to marry a rich man.  She grew up seeing what poverty did to her parents’ marriage, and she refuses to live the same kind of life.

One day she is called upon to manicure a wealthy hotel resident, Allen Macklyn, played by Ralph Bellamy.  Allen used to be an aviator, but a plane crash left him paralyzed and bitter.  Regi charms him, however, and soon he’s calling her for manicures whether he needs them or not, just to have her company.  They become good friends and Allen falls in love with Regi, though he hides that from her.  Instead he listens to her talk about her romantic prospects in the role of best friend and confidant.

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When Regi meets Theodore “Ted” Drew (Fred MacMurray), the son of a well-known family, she’s sure he’s the rich husband she’s been looking for.  After a hilarious episode in which she nervously gives him the worst, most painful manicure of all time, they go out together and have a fine time.  Later that evening, drunk, Ted admits that his family lost all their money in the 1929 crash and that he’s engaged to a wealthy girl.  Like Regi, his priority is to marry money, so they’re obviously not right for each other.

Regi is disappointed and upset, but she allows the drunken Ted to crash on her couch that night.  When he misses his boat to Bermuda the next morning (his future father-in-law paid for the ticket and he can’t afford to buy a new one for himself), he sticks around.  Over the days they spend living together, Regi and Ted get into crazy situations and have a good time.  They get to know and care about each other, and of course they fall in love. 

hands across table

But it’s not all zany comedy.  There are some truly romantic moments as well, particularly on the last night Ted and Regi spend together before he is set to leave and get married.  Those scenes have a lovely, quiet intimacy, as they try to convince themselves that their being in love with each other doesn’t matter, and that marrying for money is what they both really want to do.

There’s also some heartbreak involved when Regi’s friend, Allen, wants to propose to her.  Before he can give her the ring, he realizes she only sees him as a friend and is  crazy about Ted.  He gives up with good grace, but it’s still a little sad to see. If there’s one thing I’d change about the movie, it’d be making Allen more of a real corner in the triangle, instead of just the nice guy Regi doesn’t think of at all romantically.  It would’ve been refreshing to see that a disabled person was a genuine rival for Regi’s affections.

Ralph Bellamy is very appealing and loveable in his role.  I think this is the first movie I’ve seen in which I actually liked the Bellamy “other man” and almost wished the heroine would marry him instead!

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There’s an interesting article about the making of the movie on the TCM website.  Fred MacMurray was still new to comedy, so Carole Lombard worked with him a lot, trying to loosen him up.  The two of them had a great relationship.  He later said she was his favorite actress — he felt he owed a lot of his success to her.  From the TCM article:

Lombard, Leisen recalls, “worked as hard as I did to get that performance out of him [MacMurray]. She had none of what you might call ‘the star temperament’. She felt that all the others had to be good or it wouldn’t matter how good she was. She got right in there and pitched.” At one point, Lombard even sat on MacMurray’s chest, pounding on him and yelling, “Now Uncle Fred, you be funny or I’ll pluck your eyebrows out!” (Given Lombard’s well-known fondness for profanity, the actual quote was probably a lot more colorful than that.)

Carole Lombard was adorable!  The more I read about her the more it seems she was one of the loveliest, smartest, most hilarious and endearing actresses of the era.  She was just terrific, and she shines in this movie.

How cute are they?!

carole and fred

Hands Across the Table is a great blending of the silly and the heartfelt, the sweet and the cynical.  I loved it.  The film is available in Carole Lombard: The Glamour Collection and airs on TCM sometimes, too.  It’s a real treat of a movie and a nice example of Fred MacMurray’s early romantic comedies.

Twentieth Century

Twentieth Century (1934)

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Howard Hawks directed Twentieth Century six years before he directed His Girl Friday, but the two movies have a lot in common. Both are based on plays by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and both feature an egomaniacal man willing to resort to less than ethical behavior to get the woman he loves to come back to work for him. Both are also fast-talking (though Twentieth Century comes nowhere near His Girl Friday in speed and overlapping dialogue), full of screwball silliness, and peopled by lunatics and shady characters. In Twentieth Century, however, the setting is the crazy world of the theater, not the crazy world of newspapers.

John Barrymore plays Oscar Jaffe, a Broadway impresario whose manner is far more flamboyant and dramatic than any of the roles he directs onstage. He is forever threatening suicide, proclaiming his great love for the theater and all those who work in it and ripping into those who displease him. Jaffe discovers a lingerie model named Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard), renames her Lily Garland, and through a combination of bullying and wooing turns her into a famous actress.

Not to mention his lover. The movie is not shy about letting us know that the pair are living in sin. It’s 1934 after all, just the beginnings of production code enforcement, and filmmakers are still slipping things in under the wire. The bed in Lily’s apartment (where she swans around half-naked in very skimpy lingerie) is a huge, art deco boat-shaped thing, and early in the movie she makes a comment to a visiting reporter about how Oscar was right beside her when she received a call. “Rowing?” the reporter replies. Ha!

Lily is almost as much of a drama queen as Oscar, and years of success make her temperamental and rather full of herself. She chafes at Oscar’s Svengali-like control of her career and her life and longs to escape and have a good time. She finally breaks free when he does one infuriating thing too many, heading to Hollywood to become a film star. Something theater snob Oscar finds completely distasteful, of course. Movies! What could be worse?

Those movies you were in! It’s sacrilege throwing you away on things like that. When I left that movie house, I felt some magnificent ruby had been thrown into a platter of lard.

Without Lily Oscar’s productions flop. He’s on the verge of bankruptcy and losing his theater when he boards a train (the Twentieth Century) from Chicago to New York. Who should happen to be on board, and in the cabin right next to his? Lily and her Hollywood boy toy.

From then on it’s one wacky thing after another as Oscar attempts to win her back and get her to sign a contract with him. He proposes projects for her (his pitch for a new play in which she would play Mary Magdalene is hysterical), threatens to kill himself, lies and bullies her and still somehow manages to be strangely charming. See what I mean about the His Girl Friday similarity? Oscar Jaffe is as egotistical and full of it as Walter Burns, he just expresses it differently, being a man of the theater instead of a hardboiled newspaperman.

Carole Lombard is wonderful as Lily. She’s as arrogant and full of overdramatic poses as Oscar, pouting, weeping, shouting, and all the while declaring how much she hates temperamental people. Even if she can’t always see how ridiculous she is, she can clearly see how full of malarkey Oscar is. She tells him he doesn’t know how to be a real person, and that if he slit his throat greasepaint would run out. Substitute “newspaper ink” for “greasepaint” and Hildy Johnson could have said the same thing to Walter Burns. Both couples were so obsessed by and in love with their work that they never figured out how to live like normal people.

That’s the trouble with you, Oscar. With both of us. We’re not people, we’re lithographs. We don’t know anything about love unless it’s written and rehearsed. We’re only real in between curtains.

Not to say that the two movies are carbon copies of each other; they’re definitely not. Twentieth Century has a lot to say about the ridiculousness of show business and the narcissistic people in it. But there are enough similarities that it’s interesting to compare the two – and to see that the already accomplished Hawks became even better at directing this kind of story in the years between Twentieth Century and His Girl Friday, the latter of which is even faster, wittier, and more sophisticated than the former. I don’t think anyone directed screwball comedies better than Howard Hawks.

John Barrymore was a notorious scenery-chewing ham, so this role was absolutely perfect for him. He got to play with and mock his reputation and it’s so much fun to watch. Carole Lombard became the zany screwball actress we all remember her as with this picture. It was her breakthrough role and she’s fantastic in it.

A very funny movie. I’m glad I finally saw it.