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!


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!


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.

hands across the table

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.

bellamy lombard hands across table

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!


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.


The Wedding Night

Director King Vidor’s 1935 movie, The Wedding Night, is perhaps best known today (if it is known at all) for the fact that it was mogul Samuel Goldwyn’s final failed attempt to turn his discovery and protégée, Russian actress Anna Sten, into the next Greta Garbo.

The_Wedding_Night_poster Having put her under contract in 1931, Goldwyn invested much time and money in his attempts to groom Sten into an exotic, glamorous star.  However, none of the projects he put together for her seemed to work, she continued to struggle with English, and audiences just weren’t buying what Goldwyn was trying to sell them.

The Wedding Night was Goldwyn’s final stab at making his hopes for Anna’s stardom come true – the movie was mockingly referred to in Hollywood as “Goldwyn’s Last Sten.”  While the film and Sten received decent reviews, the audience didn’t come and the movie, like the Goldwyn/Sten alliance, was a flop.

That’s too bad on both counts, because Anna Sten turns in a beautiful performance in a movie that’s sensitive, heartbreaking, and surprisingly realistic about its characters’ fates for a Hollywood movie of the time period.

The movie starts out with the trappings of a “city slickers in the country” comedy.  Gary Cooper plays Tony Barrett, a Fitzgerald-esque writer whose life of partying and drinking with his shallow but not unlikeable society wife, Dora (Helen Vinson), has undermined his talent.  His latest book is rejected by his publisher and he is flat broke.  The only thing to do is pack up and head to his country home in Connecticut, where he can try to get some writing done.

Tony’s marriage isn’t particularly troubled as the movie starts.  He and Dora bicker, she’s not as supportive of his work as he would like, and the wild life they’ve been living in New York is obviously taking its toll on them, but there seems to be an underlying affection there as well.

Tony sells part of his land for some much-needed cash and Dora somewhat reluctantly decides to take the money and return to New York without him.  Tony doesn’t seem surprised or especially angry about this.  Dora likes the city and he needs to stay in the country to work on his novel, so they part ways for a while.  Little do either of them know how much this separation will affect their lives and their marriage.

Tony has sold his land to a local family of well-to-do Polish immigrants, the Novaks.  The patriarch of the Novak family is still steeped in Old World customs, treating his wife like a servant and dictating how his family will live.  He has arranged a loveless but financially prudent marriage for his daughter, Manya (Sten), to a loutish young man, portrayed by Ralph Bellamy in what surely has to be one of the most thankless second banana roles in a career full of second banana roles.  Annex%20-%20Sten,%20Anna%20(Wedding%20Night,%20The)_01

When Tony’s manservant decides he too has had enough of country living and abandons his job, Tony hires Manya to come to the house every day and do the cooking and cleaning.  They get to know each other over the course of the winter.  Tony gains inspiration for his novel and for his life from her sweetness and spark.  Manya begins to realize that the flippant young man she wasn’t impressed with at first glance is at heart a sensitive artist and a gentle soul.  They are snowed in at his house one night, and though they share no more than a kiss when Tony tucks Manya into the guest bed, it’s clear that they’ve fallen in love.

It’s very romantic and lovely to watch unfolding, except for the pall cast over their burgeoning relationship by Tony’s marriage and by Manya’s betrothal.  Tony knows Manya doesn’t love her fiancé and that he’s not at all good enough for her, but circumstances don’t allow him to do much to help her out of it.  After the blizzard, Manya’s father is enraged and demands that she marry her fiancé right away, before the shame of her spending the night alone with a married man ruins her chances forever.

Dora unexpectedly returns to the country and, after reading Tony’s new novel about a man falling in love with an immigrant girl, realizes that she is on the verge of losing her husband.  The scene in which Dora talks to Manya about the novel, asking her how the book should end, is very well done by both Vinson and Sten.  Dora is not unkind, but she makes it clear that Tony is not going to rescue Manya from her upcoming marriage.  The marriage does indeed take place, leading to a tragic final act when Manya’s wedding night takes a terrible, violent turn.

The beauty of this movie, for me, was in the realistic portrayal of the conflict between the Old World values immigrants brought with them to America and the temptations their children encountered here.  Manya is different from her parents.  She yearns for a life of more freedom, where she can marry for love.  Before meeting and falling in love with Tony she was willing to stoically marry as her father wished, in spite of her distaste for her future husband.  She believed it was her duty and didn’t know any other way of life.  But after her time with Tony performing that duty becomes incredibly difficult for her.  She has had a taste of freedom and romance, and after that it’s hard for her to go back to a life of being bullied by her father and pawed at by her brutish fiancé.

Annex%20-%20Sten,%20Anna%20(Wedding%20Night,%20The)_02 Anna Sten frustrated her director and fellow actors with her struggles to speak English in this movie, but those behind-the-scenes problems don’t take away from her portrayal of Manya.  If anything, they add to the character’s vulnerability as a young woman new to America and still learning its ways.  Sten’s Manya is intelligent, feisty, loving, and ultimately self-sacrificing.  It’s a very good performance.

Gary Cooper is also wonderful and so natural onscreen.  At a time soon after the end of silent movies, when many actors were still hamming it up in a very stagey way, Cooper is completely real and subtle, giving a nuanced and touching performance.  His gorgeous, long-lashed eyes were so expressive that he could say a lot without uttering a word.

In his autobiography, King Vidor talked about directing Cooper for the first time on the set of The Wedding Night.  Initially he was worried by Cooper’s mumbling and the fact that he didn’t seem to be doing anything at all.  “Imagine my amazement,” Vidor wrote, “when I watched our first day’s work on the screen and observed and heard a performance that overflowed with charm and personality.”  Cooper’s work in this movie does overflow with charm and personality.  He was so good, and there was much more to him than just the quiet cowboy he portrayed so often.

I don’t feel like my summary of this movie does it justice at all.  It can sound like a typical romantic melodrama in its particulars, but the way it is played out on screen is truly beautiful.  When I started watching it I had no idea what the movie was about, or even whether it was a comedy or a drama.  Going in with no expectations, I was very happily surprised by what a hidden gem The Wedding Night is.