Over at The Unsung Joe, that celebration of the bit-part or background man, the walk-on, extra or one-line Johnny, there’s an appreciation of the hand-stand-in that’s well worth reading, and contains a nod to yours truly at the end. Well worth reading — but then, it always is!
Archive for Hands Across the Table
MR AND MRS SMITH — dispel all thoughts of Brangelina, that two-headed monster, for this is Hitchcock’s first American comedy, made at RKO on loan-out from Selznick, as a favour to Carole Lombard, with whom he’d wanted to work for some time. She’s one of the Hollywood star Hitch wrote about while still in England, and when he move to LA she became, essentially, his landlady for a while.
Where did I read this? —
Hitchcock bumps into Carole Lombard outside the screening room, where he’s just viewed the rushes. She’s come to see them, but she’s late. Hitch assures her that the rushes are fine and she’s good in them.
“Fuck that, how do my new tits look?”
And who, commenting here, pointed out the fascinating deliberate continuity error where Robert Montgomery’s socks change their pattern according to his and Lombard’s emotions?
I always thought that the little guy who brings the bad news, was played by Warner Brothers voice artist Mel Blanc. Maybe when I saw it as a kid, my Dad looked at the guy and said “Elmer Fudd!” It’s not, though, it’s a fellow called Charles Halton. Why did nobody put Blanc in a major movie role?
It’s subtle, but it’s there.
First time I saw the film I liked it fine. Second time I disliked it quite a bit. This time it seemed pretty good to me. I will say that, thanks to our auteurist appreciation of Hitchcock, and his fame, the movie gets a little more attention than it deserves. HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE is a ten-times-better screwball comedy, I’d say, also written by Norman Krasna and starring Lombard, but directed by the less-celebrated Mitchell Leisen, and very few people have seen that compared to SMITHS.
The Smiths, lawyer husband and sexpot wife, who have a tempestuous but successful three-year marriage, learn that the partnership is not strictly legal, due to some convoluted zoning problem, and break up. He (Robert Montgomery) tries to win her back, mainly by acting like a dick. His buddy Jack Carson is useful for audience sympathy purposes, because Carson’s character is an even bigger lout than Montgomery.
Then Montgomery’s other pal, Gene Raymond, starts wooing Carole, which at least gives Montgomery something to be aggrieved about. But instead of making Raymond the heavy, screenwriter Norman Krasna types him as a classic romcom schnook. I always like schnooks. I often like them better than the hero.
Raymond gets the funniest scene, when he’s drunk. Very fine physical work, lurching and sort of bobbing in the air, and a refrain of “Thank you,” which gets more absurd with each repetition. This comes after a disastrous date where the couple get caught in a broken fun-fair ride. This reminds me of the story of Hitch sending his daughter up on a Ferris wheel and tipping the operator to kill the engine and strand her aloft. I wonder what Hitch would have done with a really black comedy, where he could let his sadistic side have free reign?
There are quite a few moments in this film when I had trouble understanding the character motivation. Is Lombard really through with Montgomery, or is she just testing him? At the end, she rejects Gene Raymond because he won’t beat up her “husband,” then allows herself to be trapped in her skis by the guy she wanted beaten, and the movie ends in a rather peculiar bit of play-rape. I could never figure that out.
The movie is extremely elegantly shot, though, with a gliding camera and flying furniture which escapes the path of the dolly with invisible sideways movements. I’d like to say more about this film, but the Edinburgh Film Festival is eating up too much of my time — so over to you!
Rather strangely, I watched two Male Secretary Films the same day, without any plan to do so. (And what kind of strange plan would that be anyway?)
“I’m your… secretary.”
This is actually a colour film, but my copy was faded — severely. I bumped up the colour settings on my old JVC and the results were just about acceptable.
In MAGNET OF DOOM, a Jean-Pierre Melville thriller based on a Georges Simenon novel, ex-pugilist (he’s got the face for it) Jean-Paul Belmondo takes a job as private secretary to a powerful banker Charles Vanel (face like a crumbling cheese, body like a sandwich) who’s planning to go “on the lam” to avoid prosecution for past wrongdoings. The pair head to America, a mythical land composed almost entirely of rear-projection plates and interior sets (although it’s got a bit more scope than Melville’s other Atlantic crossing, TWO MEN IN MANHATTAN, which stays put in Paris and barely tries for any sense of geographical illusion at all).
Vanel, who enjoyed a quasi-sexual infatuation with Yves Montand in THE WAGES OF FEAR for Clouzot (although, is “enjoyed” really the right word for anything anyonedoes in a Clouzot film?), has a suggestion of the same in his relations with Belmondo, his travelling partner whom he increasingly comes to rely upon. And this is unfortunate for him, as it’s obvious from twenty minutes in that Belmondo is not a reliable fellow: something to do with the way he has his girlfriend sell all her possessions, before he scarpers with the money, leaving her in a café unable even to pay her bill.
Melville’s America is, apart from its artificiality, a thing of cliché, stereotype, icon and movie reference, sometimes laid on so thick as to approach total opacity, but always very personal. The road-movie part of the film takes in a good bit of John Ford homage, with Georges Delerue’s score acquiring a languid, elegiac harmonica theme.
I did appreciate this CITIZEN KANE salute, and I bet Vanel enjoyed being part of it.
The ending is also very fine: Melville’s good with those. It’s sentimental and hard-edged at the same time, and pretty ambiguous with it… a kind of poetry is achieved. Sometimes the film seems devoid of direction, but any longeurs are thoroughly redeemed by Belmondo’s fantastic last line. Two quite nasty characters uncover some tender feelings.
In TAKE A LETTER, DARLING, struggling painter Fred MacMurray is hired as personal secretary to icy advertising exec Rosalind Russell, who needs him to pose as her fianceeto make clients’ wives less jealous. This being a Mitchell Leisen comedy, there’s a little racy byplay (Fred threatens to spank a snooty tailor), dreamy talk of Mexico, sexual role-reversal and disguise. It’s somewhere in the middle of his comedy work, quality-wise, not great like HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE (although MacMurray smokes pensively at Russell’s door, in a direct echo of the earlier film) but a lot stronger than I WANTED WINGS (which also featured Constance Moore) or PRACTICALLY YOURS.
In fact, the situations are very good, the dialogue sometimes sparkling, and only the ending lets it down. Robert Benchley plays RR’s boss. Oh, MacDonald Carey as a misogynist millionaire who falls for Russell, and Moore as his flighty sister who falls for MacMurray, are not written or played nearly interestingly enough to come close to Rudy Vallee and Mary Astor’s slightly similar roles in THE PALM BEACH STORY.
The ending falls flat too, mainly because Leisen is too smart to go for a smugly conservative a-woman’s-place message, but the narrative conventions virtually demand it, so there’s an impasse. Swiping the ending of Keaton’s ONE WEEK, but copping out of the ruthless destruction, creates some brief comedy suspense, but doesn’t actually answer any of the questions posed in the story.
But a very long take in the back of a cab, with MacMurray nervously playing with a collapsible top hat, and Russell getting annoyed by it, is enough to justify the whole film. Amazing what a good light comedian can convey just by having his hat pop up.