Monday, September 12, 2016

Great Screen Matches: Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray

Fred MacMurray, Carole Lombard and John Barrymore in True Confession (1937).

Perhaps the most underappreciated of the great screen couples of the thirties, Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray made four movies together at Paramount between 1935 and 1937. (They might have made more, but Lombard died in a plane crash in 1942.) Though her most famous performance is as an heiress in My Man Godfrey opposite that class act William Powell, in her pictures with MacMurray Lombard always plays working-class women, but she has a flickering moonbeam quality, while he’s generally a Yankee everyman. It’s easy to fall in love with her; everything about her is endearing, including her nuttiness. He has the gift of getting an audience solidly on his side, of making us identify with him. (That’s why MacMurray is so effective later on as the dupe in Double Indemnity.) They have a winning casualness when they’re together on screen.

I’d suggest several reasons for the fact that their partnership has been overlooked. MacMurray’s career flattened out when he took the role of the blandly wise, pipe-chomping pop in the TV sitcom My Three Sons in 1960 and stayed with it for a dozen years; by the time the show finally went off the air, his career was pretty much over, and with a couple of exceptions – Double Indemnity and The Apartment, both under Billy Wilder’s direction – no one recalled the movies he’d done before. And the four pictures he did with Lombard have never been ranked among the classics of their era. Moreover, they’re just different enough from each other – and the characters MacMurray and Lombard play in them are just varied enough – that their collaboration isn’t archetypal or easy to categorize.

Their funniest movie is their last, True Confession (1937), directed by Wesley Ruggles, where he’s Ken Bartlett, a struggling lawyer and she’s his wife Helen, an aspiring novelist whose penchant for making up far-flung stories carries into her married life. She tries to round up clients for him, but he refuses to defend anyone he suspects is guilty, which lowers his prospects considerably. When she takes a job as a secretary to supplement their meager income and her lecherous employer turns up dead, the earnest cop on the case (Edgar Kennedy) pins her as the most likely candidate for the killer. The cop is also a fantasist; she gets arrested because she can’t resist getting wrapped up in his version of events – it’s as though they’re writing a detective story together. (This promising idea would work better if Kennedy’s performance were more effective; he’s the only member of the ensemble, which also includes John Barrymore, Una Merkel, Poretr Hall, Lynne Overman and Hattie McDaniel, who seems to be trying too hard.) When Ken appoints himself Helen’s lawyer, his determination to rescue her touches her, and she gets so carried away with the notion that the case will make him famous that she doesn’t have the heart to tell him the truth – that she didn’t do it. His portrait of her as a victim of the dead man’s lascivious attentions who fought back to save her honor is as false as one of her own narratives. True Confession has a distinctly 1930s brand of dizziness, and it’s a lot of fun to sit through, even though the Claude Binyon script doesn’t have a resolution. Lombard’s franticness is as important to the comedy as Helen’s ridiculous fictions, and Ken’s exasperation with the latter is a sharp running gag. It’s unusual to see MacMurray as a man who’s hamstrung by his own unassailable integrity (and his downy mustache is an unusual accessory for him too), but he carries it off.

In The Princess Comes Across (1936), which is set on a cruise ship crossing the Atlantic, he’s a bandleader named King Mantell and she’s an actress so desperate to secure a studio contract that she pretends to be a Swedish princess. MacMurray’s role gives him a chance to sing and play the concertina (his early career was as a saxophonist and vocalist in Gus Arnheim’s orchestra) and Lombard’s provides her with an excuse to execute a hilarious parody of Greta Garbo. And wear glamorous costumes: she makes her first entrance swathed in fur, with a kerchief tucked under her chin and a tiny period hat tipped precariously on the side of her head. The movie is an oddball hybrid: a romantic comedy crossed with a murder mystery, with a quartet of detectives from different nations (played by Sig Rumann, Mischa Auer, Douglass Dumbrille and Tetsu Komai). Though the dialogue (Walter DeLeon, Francis Martin, Don Hartman and Frank Butler all worked on the script) is often clever, the mix doesn’t work, because the director, William K. Howard, who’s a bit of a klutz, lurches from comic to serious and back again. It’s mostly enjoyable nonetheless. It has the trademark Paramount combo: visual elegance and a Loony Tunes scenario. Alison Skipworth shows up as an old trouper posing as the fake princess’ lady-in-waiting and William Frawley plays Mantell’s confidant. And there’s an offhand bit where the musicians in King’s band use their instruments to comment jocularly on an exchange between the two pals. MacMurray gets to play the antique scene where the hero pretends he doesn’t care about the heroine – that (in this case) he’s just using her for publicity, to benefit his own career – when in fact he’s fallen hard for her; it creaks, but he’s effortlessly good at this sort of underplaying.

Mitchell Leisen directed two of their films, Hands Across the Table (1935) and Swing High, Swing Low (1937). Hands Across the Table was their first collaboration, and it was Leisen’s first comedy. It’s a hybrid, too, though of different kinds of comedy, and it’s fascinating. Lombard plays Regi Allen, a manicurist in a hotel barbershop who believes in money rather than love. She grew up in poverty and saw her mother wrecked by it, so she’s determined to land herself a rich man. She sets her sights on MacMurray’s Ted Drew before discovering that though he grew up rich, his family lost their wealth and now he’s just as much of a fortune hunter as she is: he’s engaged to an heiress (Vivian Snowden) – definitely not a love match. The irony is that the genuinely wealthy client she thinks of as her best friend – Allen Macklyn (Ralph Bellamy), a one-time aviator confined to a wheelchair as a result of a crash – is in love with her and she could have him for the asking. The romantic-comedy tension comes from the two protagonists’ resolve to be “heels” and pursue their gilded dreams – that is, to behave like characters in a hard-boiled comedy – when it’s increasingly obvious that they’re attracted to each other. There’s also some high comedy, in the early sequence where Regi and Ted go out on a date and he gets plastered and winds up passed out on her couch. MacMurray is a strange choice to play a man who’s never had to work for a living and doesn’t plan to, but it’s Bellamy (in the only one of his third-wheel performances that has an emotional layer) who comes across as an aristocrat; Ted and Regi’s shared golddigging equalizes them.

Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard in Hands Across the Table (1935).

There’s a real core of feeling to this movie, and the two stars are wonderful. Lombard brings a working woman’s fatigue to her manicurist scenes, and both she and MacMurray play their increasing unease with affecting fervency. Ted stays on Regi’s couch for a couple of weeks for plot reasons, and the night before he has to move out he stands outside her closed bedroom door, begging her softly to come out and talk to him. She pretends she’s too tired, but neither of them gets a wink of sleep that night. In the early hours he sees her smoking on the fire escape and joins her; his resistance is breaking down and he tries to embrace her, but she pulls away. She thinks there’s a world between them because he was born into money and has no idea how to do without it. (That’s a high-comedy problem.) A lot of talented people worked on the script for Hands Across the Table, including Norman Krasna, Vincent Lawrence, Herbert Fields and, uncredited, Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell, and you can sense them experimenting with combining the conventions of romantic and hard-boiled and high comedy and seeing how they play off each other. “Hard-boiled Hannah was going to marry a bankroll!” Regi weeps to Allen, mocking her own failed effort to be one kind of comic heroine when her indisputable love for Ted has turned her irrevocably into another.

Something else transpires in Swing High, Swing Low, the most unusual of the four movies MacMurray and Lombard made together: it’s a hard-boiled musical comedy that segues into tragedy. He’s Skid Johnson, a hard-drinking trumpeter who’s just come out of the army. He’s been stationed in Panama, so when he turns civilian he gets a job in a nightclub there (run by Cecil Cunningham, as a tough dame with a heart of gold) and Lombard’s Maggie King sings with him. As their act acquires fans, their bantering friendship turns into romance. The shift is so gradual and so subtle that the rules never quite change, and showing how much they care about each other and fighting to hold onto each other are against those rules. So when a talent agent persuades Skid to go to New York to advance his career, and he falls into the clutches of a singer (Dorothy Lamour) who encourages his carousing, Maggie lets him go; and when she gets engaged to her old beau (Harvey Stephens), Skid doesn’t try to win her back. By the end of the picture he’s an alcoholic mess – beyond the possibility of being rescued, though the movie makes a pass at keeping the ending ambiguous. The script by Virginia Van Upp and Oscar Hammerstein II (based on a play by George Manker Watters and Arthur Hopkins) is full of familiar melodramatic tropes, but the two stars do some of their finest acting, and their utter lack of mannerism works against the melodrama.

It’s high time for the Lombard-MacMurray collaboration to be acknowledged for the pleasures it has always afforded. And the movies are easy to find these days. Swing High, Swing Low and Hands Across the Table show up on TCM, and the latter, along with The Princess Comes Across and True Confession, are included in a Lombard box set. Movie lovers take note.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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