Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Third Finger, Left Hand (1940)

If I say that “The Philadelphia Story”, “Double Indemnity”, “Tea and Sympathy” and “Old Acquaintance” have something in common with a slightly forgotten 1940 MGM comedy with Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas called “Third Finger, Left Hand” I doubt that anyone would guess – the reason is far too personal. At some stage or another each of them was the film I wanted to see the most. I now need to find a new one…

Margot Sherwood (Loy) is a magazine editor with a nice job and a mysterious husband she left soon after her impulse marriage while holidaying in Brazil. Everyone seems to win with this situation – her boss doesn’t see her as available, her boss’ wife doesn’t see her as threat and she doesn’t see herself as out of a job. Except for the fact that there is no husband and she was never married. And it all works well until she meets Jeff Thompson (Douglas) and he finds out about the charade. He then decides to pass as the long lost hubby, and complications ensue.

Although not perfect, the film is funny, entertaining and perhaps unjustly forgotten, especially considering the calibre of both leads. Douglas was at his best as a comedy leading man, having done “Ninotchka” the previous year, and Loy has here one of her best MGM vehicles without William Powell. In fact, it’s clearly her vehicle through and through and she knows it. But she never runs away with it. It’s a team effort, as usually was with her. But she does fill the screen – just look at her feline eyes after having just persuaded Felix Bressart to continue helping by writing fake love letters. For a few seconds she does look as the cat that got the cream. Or later, when she just called Douglas under a false pretext and he doesn’t get her true intentions. To me there was only one obvious false step: when turning the table on Douglas, Loy pretends to be a tough Brooklyn dame that just got herself a nice husband. Not sure who thought of that, but there is something in that scene that doesn’t quite work out, whether it is the accent, or how much un-Myrna she becomes. I laughed, but only partly with her.

Contrary to most films, I was slightly disappointed with the character actors – even with Felix Bressart, one of Lubitsch’s usual troupe and hilarious as one of the three comrades in the above mentioned “Ninotchka”. In particular, I now know for a fact that I absolutely can’t stand Bonita Granville and that she should have never been allowed to be in a film (she was also dreadful in a key role in “The Mortal Storm”). The rest is usual MGM post-Thalberg – bright lighting, beautiful sets, sofisticated costumes (thankfully not by Adrian), inconspicuous director (Robert Z. Leonard in this case).

Not that any of this diminished the pleasure I had in watching the film – it is a well built, funny comedy; and yes, it is a star vehicle, but one that works for both stars. In fact I was a bit sad that among all the films both of them did for MGM in their heyday, this was their only pairing (they would later work in other projects, including “Mr Blandings builds his dream house”).

The film also has an interesting historical footnote. It has a dignified, albeit small, part for a black actor and I am pretty sure Myrna and/or Douglas had something to do with it: a train porter who has taken a law degree by correspondence and turns out to be the vehicle for the inevitable happy ending.

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