Well, we’ve all got them, I guess. Those lists of favorite books, or blogs, or breakfast cereals, or some such itemized accounts of our current predilections. They are supposed to tell others something we deem important about ourselves at some point of our lives; but, looked upon in retrospect, they can become a revelation to us, confronting us with time capsules of our likes, longings, and limitations. Here, for instance, are the top three entries on a list of all-time favorite movies as I compiled it back in 1986:
Holiday (George Cukor; 1938)
Hands Across the Table (Mitchell Leisen; 1935)
Fade to Black (Vernon Zimmerman; 1980)
Now, I have not seen Fade to Black since the 1980s. It is a slasher movie for cinemaniacs, which is why I could identify with it back then. For reasons I did not yet fully comprehend, I was drawn, fairly early in my life, to the films and figure of Mitchell Leisen, a tremendously successful designer-director, but not a particularly well-remembered or highly regarded craftsman nowadays.
Hands Across the Table is a simple you-can-have-your-beefcake-and-eat-it romance starring Carole Lombard as a penniless manicurist, Ralph Bellamy as a rich invalid who’d like to get his hands on her, and Fred MacMurray as a carefree man-about-town with dubious work ethics who eventually sweeps her off her feet. That pretty much sums it up—unless, of course, I’d have to explain the feeling of being torn between having my nails polished by gorgeous Lombard and running my fingers through MacMurray’s hair.
On this day, 3 May, in 1937, Hands Across the Table went on the air in an adaptation produced by that most prestigious and popular of radio theatricals, the Cecil B. DeMille hosted Lux Radio Theatre. It was this series, along with my love for 1930s and early 1940s screwball comedies that got me interested in old-time radio.
Once you have exhausted the classics, you will find a worthwhile substitute in American radio programs like Lux, which give you not only an opportunity to catch a different reading of films so familiar to you that they play before your mind’s eye, but also allow you to re-imagine them with alternate casts. What, for instance, if Suspicion had starred Olivia de Havilland, rather than her sister, Joan Fontaine? How would Barbara Stanwyck or Ida Lupino fare in Merle Oberon’s role as Cathy in Wuthering Heights [thanks to André Soares for editing]? And what, if anything, could Loretta Young do when called upon to take over for Bette Davis in Jezebel? It all happened on the Lux program.
In Lux‘s audio version of Hands Across the Table, Carole Lombard’s role was performed by Claudette Colbert, who would later be Leisen’s leading lady in Midnight (1939). It was Colbert’s fourth appearance on the show, whose sponsors not only paid handsomely for such brief encounters with the microphone (up to $5000 for top-notchers), but also promoted the stars’ movie careers (by mentioning, in Colbert’s case, the upcoming releases I Met Him in Paris and Tovarich). Heard in the Fred MacMurray part is Colbert’s Palm Beach Story co-star Joel McCrea (pictured above, with Colbert, reading the “Hands Across” script). Introducing the two leads, showman DeMille credited himself with their discovery:
Greetings from Hollywood. Tonight’s event, with its glittering stage, its scientific wizardry that carries our voices to all corners of the earth and its audience of millions is a thing that I couldn’t have predicted when I first knew Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea. The Lux Radio Theater was then as remote from Hollywood as the moon. But I predicted the eventual triumph of these two young people and was privileged to contribute to it. I gave Joel McCrea his first motion picture contract. Claudette was not then the favorite of millions, allowed to choose her stories, directors, and writers. The studio insisted I give her a dialogue test before casting her. I did—and starred her in The Sign of the Cross and Cleopatra.
For the privilege of putting her hands on Lombard’s part—and the generous remuneration on the table—Colbert was obliged to declare that they had touched nothing but Lux toilet soap ever since her first appearance on the New York stage (in the 1920s). As I put it in my study of old-time radio, it was all a matter of one hand washing the other.