Choosing the topic for my inaugural blog post was daunting! I’ve been researching and writing about Carole Lombard for about 12 years, and could talk about her for hours. By way of an introduction, I thought I’d share how I first became interested in Lombard and, briefly, what her stardom and films mean to me.
In 2008, I was a high school senior living in Toronto and working a part-time job at “Starstruck Entertainment.” Starstruck (now closed) had a huge selection of classical Hollywood home videos – one of the reasons I wanted to work there in the first place! I had long been a fan of older films, but working there gave me an opportunity to dive into the world of classical Hollywood cinema. Spending most of my paychecks at the store, I would bring home a stack of new DVDs every week and embark on my self-education. One day, I decided to buy the “Carole Lombard: The Glamour Collection” box set – featuring an assortment of Lombard’s early-to-mid-1930s films such as Man of the World (Richard Wallace, 1931), Hands Across the Table (Mitchell Leisen, 1935), and Love Before Breakfast (Walter Lang, 1936).
I previously only knew Lombard as the wife of Clark Gable, but had never seen any of her films nor knew anything about her as a star. I decided to watch the films in the box set out of chronological order (as one does!), and began with Hands Across the Table. To acknowledge Lombard’s beauty is obvious, but I remember immediately being captured by her radiant screen presence. I quickly worked through the box set and embarked on the beginning of my research journey, eventually leading to BA and PhD dissertations and, most recently, my book.
In Hands Across the Table, Lombard plays a hotel manicurist named Regi Allen who is caught in a love-triangle with a poor playboy, Theodore ‘Ted’ Drew III (Fred MacMurray), and a wealthy ex-aviator and hotel resident, Allen Macklyn (Ralph Bellamy). Regi’s goal is to marry for money, and although she becomes a close friend love interest of Allen, she does not see him as a romantic partner. Regi initially believes that Ted is rich and tries to impress him, but after a night on the town, she discovers that he is penniless and engaged to the “pineapple heiress,” Vivian Snowden (Astrid Allwyn). That night Ted gets drunk, and Regi agrees to let him sleep on her sofa, causing him to miss his cruise to Bermuda (a present from his wealthy father-in-law). The next morning, Ted reveals that he intends to marry Vivian for her money. Realizing that they’re both partners in the same game, Regi invites him to stay with her for the week until his boat returns from Bermuda. As you can imagine, Regi and Ted fall in love, but she refuses to give into her feelings, believing that money is still more important than love. All the while, Allen continues to profess his unreciprocated love for Regi, leading to a confrontation with Ted. Eventually, Regi comes to terms with her love for Ted, and the couple live happily ever after – much to Allen’s disappointment.
As with many of her film roles, Lombard’s performance exudes a natural charm that makes Regi both charismatic and relatable. At the same time, the film goes to great lengths to showing how her upbringing and economic circumstances have caused her to adopt a protective shell. For example, while having tea with Allen, Regi explains her motives for wanting to marry a rich man. Surrounded by the opulence of Allen’s penthouse apartment and with a hardness in her voice, she tells him, “I know what [poverty] got my mother into. She was young and pretty once. I saw her count pennies and wash and struggle, until she was old and ugly. I heard her nagging my father until he hated to come home. You couldn’t blame him. You couldn’t blame anything but poverty.”
One of the tropes of the screwball genre is class consciousness, particularly through a parody of the wealthy. Wes Gehring notes that screwball comedies often feature a “Depression-era fascination with the upper classes” (2008, pg. 5), and in many cases, the rich are portrayed as buffonishly out-of-touch and egotistical. This is illustrated in many screwball comedies, but perhaps none quite as pointedly as the opening scene of My Man Godfrey (La Cava, 1936), where Park Avenue socialites Irene and Cornelia Bullock search through a city dump for “forgotten men” as items for their scavenger hunt. In screwball comedy, the juxtaposition between rich and working class “offers a humorous critiques of upper class frivolity, while acknowledging the urgent sense of despair rooted in contemporaneous American society” (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 75). In that way, classical screwball comedy mediated on the anxieties and fears of contemporaneous U.S. society, and Cornelia and Irene’s blindness to the economic marginalization of the forgotten men reflects the bleak wealth disparity of the Depression.
Unlike My Man Godfrey, the socio-economic critique in Hands Across the Table is far more subtle. Allen and Vivian aren’t necessarily caricatures because of their wealth, and although Regi professes herself to be a “heel,” the film does not offer an explicit condemnation of her ideology. As her revelation about her childhood confirms, wealth is not simply desired for materialistic indulgence, but fundamentally, a matter of practical necessity; to live comfortably and without having to experience her mother’s unhappiness. Perhaps had this been a pre-Code comedy, Regi could’ve been a less sympathetic gold-digger: on paper, her character checks all of the boxes. She eventually accept the error of her ways (unsurprising given the Code’s conservative morality), but in a way that is neither prescriptive nor righteous.
For me, the most memorable thing about Hands Across the Table is the chemistry between Lombard and Fred MacMurray. It was the first of four films together and, in my opinion, the one that most aptly demonstrates their proficiency as screwball comedians. Lombard’s comedic style is often frantic and breathy, while MacMurray’s is earnest. While quite different in performative style and tone, Lombard and MacMurray’s both imbue in their characters a playful, exuberant quality that make us believe they’re having fun with each other. Off-screen, the actors got along very well, and Lombard even helped MacMurray perfect his comedic timing. Director Mitchell Leisen recalled that “Carole was a great help to Fred. She’d get down on the floor and say, ‘Now be funny, Uncle Fred, or I’ll pluck your eyebrows out.’ (Sikov 1989, pg. 72).
No scene displays their chemistry as vividly as when Regi and Ted made a phone call to Vivian. Pretending to be the long-distance telephone operator, Regi helps Ted keep up his Bermuda charade. Lombard holds her nose in order to make Regi’s telephone operator voice sound more nasally, and hams up her delivery. Regi repeatedly interrupts the call as Ted and Vivian exchange a series of unanswered “hellos” and “can you hear me?” Through intercutting, Leisen provides a neat contrast between Regi and Vivian. Sitting in her glass phone booth, Vivian wears a fancy evening gown and jewels; on the other hand, Regi is dressed far more modestly, wearing a white apron over her simple black dress. As Vivian gets increasingly frustrated by the phone call, we see Regi and Ted giggling as they try to maintain their composure. Regi and Ted’s camaraderie is clear, and this scene confirms to viewers that they are far more compatible than Ted and Vivian ever could be. By the end of the call, Regi and Ted fall to the floor in fits of laughter. Of the scene’s finale, Mitchell Leisen recalls that Lombard and MacMurray were having so much fun that he just let the camera roll. His artistic choice paid off, as viewers can see the natural exuberance that they brought to their roles.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the wonderful supporting cast including Ruth Donnelly, Edward Gargan, and Marie Prevost. It’s a particular delight to see Lombard and Prevost in the same film, since they both worked for Mack Sennett as “Bathing Beauties” – albiet, about a decade apart. Prevost plays Nona, Regi’s superstitious, scatterbrained best friend and co-worker, and provides a comedic foil to Lombard’s more cynical character.
Watching Hands Across the Table for the first time unlocked an entirely new realm of possibilities for me as a film fan. As I began to delve deeper into my Lombard research, I realized how much I enjoyed her films, and the type of feisty and independent screwball woman she portrayed on screen. That said, Lombard’s talents extended far beyond the screwball genre, and she has a diverse filmography to prove it. She was also a progressive feminist and business-minded star who used her position to improve the conditions of star labor in the Hollywood studio system. Her pre-mature death in 1942 cut short a life of promise and unfulfilled dreams, but in her 33 years she accomplished so much for herself, and for other women in the industry. Rather than seeing her story as one of tragedy, I believe she should be remembered for her rich career, and the ways that she used her stardom to better the lives of those around her.
Gehring, Wes D. Romantic vs. Screwball Comedy: Charting the Difference. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2008.
Kiriakou, Olympia. Becoming Carole Lombard: Stardom, Comedy, and Legacy. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.
Sikov, Ed. Screwball: Hollywood’s Madcap Romantic Comedies. New York: Crown Publishers, 1989.