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Thursday, 4 February 2010

Third Finger, Left Hand (1940)

Director: Robert Z Leonard
Stars: Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas
In the delightful form of Myrna Loy, Mrs Tony Merrick runs a women's fashion magazine, a rare instance where she's actually the star instead of the co-star. This came in between a string of movies with William Powell, three Thin Man sequels as well as I Love You Again and Love Crazy so perhaps she needed a change during that period. As great as they were as a screen couple, they were both great separately too. Her co-star here is Melvyn Douglas, who she'd never acted opposite before and wouldn't again, at least until a TV movie in 1971. They work very well together and I'm surprised they didn't do so again back in the day.

Mrs Tony Merrick is apparently good at her job and she's popular too, the staff even buying her and her husband an engraved letter opener for their first anniversary. The twist, as is made very clear during a conversation a few minutes in, is that there is no Mr Tony Merrick and she's really just Margot Sherwood. He's a fictional construct to counter the concept that men have egos. In Mrs Merrick's own words, 'they can't believe an unmarried woman has any business in an office except to meet men and raise gleams in their eyes.' A year earlier in Rio when she received the wire that confirmed her promotion to editor, it was signed with regrets, because the colleague that sent it knew how long single women tended to last in the position. So they invent Tony Merrick.

It works pretty well. Most of the wolves who hone in on the single women in business leave her lone, and certainly the publisher's wife doesn't incite the removal of competition from the job, as she'd done more than once before. A year later, she's still there, though the ruse is beginning to complicate things, given that the perennial absence of her husband is raising a few questions. Her lawyer Philip Booth still wants her to dump this absent husband and local drunkard Hughie Wheeler whose divorce has just come in wants her to get one too so she can marry him. However life really hasn't got complicated yet, because Third Finger, Left Hand is a romantic comedy and we can't help but wonder how that's all going to get going if nobody can romance Margot Sherwood.

There's only one way it can happen, a comedy of errors, and sure enough that's what we get. Margot goes to meet an old college friend from the boat, only to find the right cabin but the the wrong person's artwork and unceremoniously kicks out the art dealer who comes to look at it. Jeff Thompson, from Wapakoneta, OH has spent two years trying to get Mr Flandrin to even look and she takes two minutes to shoo him straight out, which is great for the plot but bad for Donald Meek who gets far too little screen time. I miss films with lots of Donald Meek in them, like the Nick Carter movies where he was Bartholomew, the quirky Bee Man.
Of course Margot and Jeff begin a rather strange romance and you can see the opportunities. You just know that if he's going to pursue her and he discovers that her husband doesn't exist that he's going to pretend to be that husband, right? They both have fun exploring these and almost the whole film revolves very closely about how they cause chaos for each other and hilarity for us. This is fun for Melvyn Douglas fans but it's even more fun for Myrna Loy fans because of a truly outrageous scene at Niagara Falls where she does an impression that's half Mae West and half Edward G Robinson. Even after fifty plus movies she still surprises me.

It's not so much fun for fans of the other names involved, as nobody else really gets too much of a lookin. It isn't just Donald Meek, though he only gets a mere few minutes. Margot's father is played by Raymond Walburn, who became a favourite of mine after I saw him steal the show from talented competition in Christmas in July, but he doesn't too much opportunity to do the same here. Her sister Vicky is Bonita Granville, fresh from the Nancy Drew series, in which she was the star, but while she's fine here she gets very little to do except highlight just how short she was, a mere 5' in height.

Felix Bressart, soon after a couple of memorable Ernst Lubitsch movies, Ninotchka in 1939 and The Shop Around the Corner, gets a little more to do, and he's great fun. The best supporting role really has to go to Ernest Whitman though, even though he doesn't show up for most of the movie. He's a black porter on the train back to Wapakoneta, OH who gets to substitute as a lawyer given that he's been taking law via correspondence course to keep his brain busy, a very rare example of Hollywood giving a black actor a character with dignity and substance. Usually these characters were very clearly second class citizens and tended to have names like Snowflake, Sleep 'n' Eat or Stepin Fetchit. Sorry, those are the actors' names. No, I'm not kidding. Whitman is excellent but he still hardly has a substantial role. Perhaps just having Myrna Loy with the most screen time in a movie just has to be enough.

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