A Marriage Made in Screwball Heaven: ‘Third Finger, Left Hand’

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One of my favorite tropes from Golden Age romantic comedies is the “faux marriage” in which the leading man and leading lady either pretend to be married, or they actually wed for reasons other than true love. As they scheme, maneuver, or fight their way through the plot, they fall in love for real, though circumstances, stubbornness, or other characters prevent them from confessing their true feelings until the inevitable happy ending. The plot device is still commonly found in romantic comedies as a way to bring the main characters together while creating major obstacles for them to overcome.

MARGOT AS A HARD-WORKING EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

MARGOT AS A HARD-WORKING EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

However, during the Golden Age, when films had to follow the guidelines and restrictions of the Production Code, this trope had an additional connotation to it. Under the Code, marriage and family were considered sacrosanct, and the ultimate goal of any positive female character was to marry and have children. Marriage could not be depicted in a negative light; for example, it could not be the cause of a character’s misfortune or downfall. The Production Code Administration (PCA), the organization in charge of administering the Code, would have red-lined any suggestion of impropriety between the leading male and female characters. Though the idea of two characters in a faux marriage hints at the possibility or potential for hanky-panky between them, during the Golden Age, viewers knew that the censorship code forbade anything that hinted at sex. The tension or comedy was not related to whether the couple would have sex, because clearly they wouldn’t. Instead it was how intimately they were thrown together by the mechanics of the plot, followed by how cleverly they were maneuvered out of any improper situation. I wonder how many writers of screwball comedies were deliberately playing cat and mouse with the Production Code. Not only did they tease the public with their adroit plotting but they seemed to be winking at the PCA. Screenwriter Lionel Houser penned several films that seemed to play with or threaten a character’s marital status, including another movie using the faux husband angle, Christmas in Connecticut.

THE TAGLINE ON THIS AD FROM DOUGLAS'S CHARACTER IS A STITCH.

DOUGLAS’S LINE IN THIS AD IS A STITCH.

The very title Third Finger, Left Hand tells us that this romantic comedy, which airs on TCM this Friday (March 21) at 10:30am, will tease us with the marital status of the leading man and leading lady. Myrna Loy stars as career woman Margot Sherwood, the editor of a fashion magazine. The dedicated career girl actually uses the name “Margot Sherwood Merrick,” because she has invented a fictitious husband, Tony Merrick, to keep the wolves at bay at her male-dominated office. But, Margot forgets her faux husband when she finds herself attracted to Jeff Thompson, an artist from a small town in Ohio. Melvyn Douglas costars as Jeff, who figures out Margot’s ruse. He shows up at the Sherwood estate, pretending to be her perpetually travelling husband Tony. The situation becomes more complicated after the press prints a photo of the two of them together. Now, Margot must get Jeff (as Tony) out of the picture without prompting the press to investigate the situation too closely. She asks Philip Booth, the magazine’s attorney who is in love with her, for advice, and he suggests that Margot secretly wed Jeff, then very publicly divorce him.

The PCA’s attitude toward career women seems to be all over this storyline, and yet, Margot’s reason for inventing a husband is presented from a decidedly female perspective.  The Code’s agenda that women characters be marriage-minded and family-oriented tended to make career girls a target, especially for Joseph Breen, the man in charge of the day-to-day dealings of the PCA. Sometimes, career women were depicted as negative characters and cast in the same harsh light as girls with questionable morals.  Or, they were often reformed through falling in love with the right man. Or, they might be slightly older, mature characters who are past their child-bearing years. Of course, there are always exceptions to these generalities, but fans of Golden Age movies know what I am talking about. At first glance, Margot falls into the category of the career-minded woman who is reformed by true love, because after Jeff moves in as Tony, and the real story is under way, she barely acknowledges her job. In the days before her trip to Reno to secure the divorce, Margot is shown in her office, staring out the window and completely uninterested in her work. Instead she is consumed by a “higher purpose”—romance and love.

JEFF AND MARGOT GET HITCHED IN NIAGARA FALLS.

JEFF AND MARGOT GET HITCHED IN NIAGARA FALLS.

However, a closer look at Margot finds the character a twist on the typical depiction of a woman in a man’s world. For example, her reasons for inventing a husband offer a sympathetic view of women in the work place. Margo takes on a fictionalized husband because of sexual harassment.  Early in the film, she notes, “A woman in business is fair game,” meaning the men she works with will not leave a single woman alone. It seems her male colleagues think career women are there “to look for a husband or to put gleams in their eyes.” The latter phrase was Code-speak for women who were found to be attractive by male coworkers and likely chased around their office desk. Going to the boss was not an option for Margot because he was no better than the other males. Though much older, he looks Margot up and down with a “gleam in his eye”—right in front of his wife. Margot was the third woman in a year to be promoted to editor in chief of the magazine, because the other two women had been single. The boss’s wife had them canned because of that gleam in her husband’s eye. Not only is this set up a glimpse into the world of working women back in the day, but it is also a notable twist to the gender politics of the Code. In effect, Margot keeps her job because she is “married.”  I found it interesting that the headline of the newspaper article with Margot and Jeff’s pictures read, “Career Girl and Reunited Husband,” calling attention to her position in the work force and his role in the domestic sphere. Usually, it is the other way around.

LOY'S HATS ARE QUITE INTERESTING IN THIS FILM. NOTE THIS HAT IS A BASKETFUL OF CHERRIES.

THE COMEDY IS NOT THE ONLY THING THAT IS SCREWBALL IN THIS MOVIE.  LOY’S HAT IS A BASKETFUL OF CHERRIES!

Third Finger, Left Hand is not quite as engaging as other screwball comedies, but there is much to recommend. While, the pairing of Myrna Loy and William Powell gets all of the attention in the marketing of romantic comedies to new generations of classic-movie viewers, Loy and Douglas exhibited a fun chemistry (also see Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House). Douglas, who spent his senior years playing cranky elder statesmen, was terrific in romantic comedies back in the day. He was quite charming as quirky nonconformists who could get under the skin of uptight leading ladies, such as his role as the writer in Theodora Goes Wild who needles Irene Dunne into going “wild.” In Third Finger, Left Hand, he plays a down-to-earth, plain-speaking painter who irritates the stylish, sophisticated Loy. Unlike most artists, Jeff hates New York and longs to return to his small hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio.  Much is made of pronouncing the name “Wapakoneta,” which is a real town in western Ohio, just south of Lima. I can relate to this bit of humor, because I am from a small town in Ohio called Ashtabula, which is pronounced Ash-ta-bula, not Ash-tab-ula as non-Ohioans tend to do.

THIS STILL IS FROM THE SCENE IN WHICH JEFF AND MARGOT GO TO AN ARCADE. HOWEVER, IN THE MOVIE, SHE GETS BEHIND THE MAN'S BODY, AND HE THE WOMAN'S.

THIS STILL IS FROM A SCENE IN WHICH JEFF AND MARGOT GO TO AN ARCADE. HOWEVER, IN THE MOVIE, SHE GETS BEHIND THE MAN’S BODY, AND HE THE WOMAN’S.

Another character that seems to tweak the convention of the day is Sam, an African American porter on the train that is taking Jeff to Ohio and Margot to Reno. In a legal discussion regarding their upcoming divorce, Jeff has no lawyer to defend his position. He snags Sam the porter, because Sam had studied the law in night school and knows how to spin legal double-talk to buy Jeff some time. Though the role seems to be another version of the stereotypical train porter, Ernest Whitman is actually playing a black man representing and defending the legal position of a white man by using his gift of speech. This is definitely a departure from that exaggerated, low-brow dialect typical of black characters of the time.

There is not a lot of information in books and articles on this particular screwball comedy. In Emily Leider’s bio of Loy, Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood, the actress claimed that she did not care for Third Finger, Left Hand, because she disliked playing the protagonist in romantic comedies. She preferred instead to play the leading lady opposite a male protagonist, which she called “complementing the male lead.” She gave all of the credit for the film to Douglas, whom she was friends with in real life. She may have also been prejudiced by the fact that MGM had maneuvered her out of the drama Boom Town, a role she really coveted, and into Third Finger, Left Hand. The Boom Town role went to Claudette Colbert.

Finally, while writer Houser may have subtly thumbed his nose at the Production Code, Joseph Breen did not let him get away with much. According to the PCA files, Breen demanded that MGM delete all of the references and gags that suggested Margot might be pregnant. According to the hard-nosed Breen, illegitimacy was not funny. Interestingly, Preston Sturges would cross that line four years later with The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.

22 Responses A Marriage Made in Screwball Heaven: ‘Third Finger, Left Hand’
Posted By Jenni : March 17, 2014 3:10 pm

Hailing from NW Ohio, I know Wapakoneta, as their highschool teams played my highschool, in the WBL (Western Buckeye League. I grew up in Defiance, OH. Wapak, as we NW Ohioans call the town, is also the hometown of the late Neil Armstrong.

Enjoyed your look at this type of screwball/rom/com, Susan. It also made me think of another one that fit this genre, Hired Wife, starring Rosalind Russell and Brian Aherne.

Posted By michaelgsmith : March 17, 2014 6:39 pm

I’ve never heard of this but will definitely check it out. I’m getting tired of showing Bringing Up Baby/The Awful Truth/His Girl Friday/The Lady Eve to illustrate the screwball comedy year in and year out!

Posted By Joel : March 17, 2014 7:40 pm

This sounds like it is well worth seeking out. Thanks for calling my attention to it!

Posted By Doug : March 17, 2014 9:14 pm

Thank you, Susan, for highlighting this movie now so that people can set their DVRs. I just finished watching the DVD and it was fun. Whether Margot here or Margit in “Double Wedding” Myrna Loy shines. I’ve been on a ‘screw-ball’ movie kick for awhile, and I would point to “Too Many Husbands” for another Melvyn Douglas winner and “She Wouldn’t Say Yes” (a horrible title) and “Having Wonderful Time” for more Lee Bowman who plays third wheel in “Third Finger Left Hand”.
I know what you mean about Ernest Whitman moving beyond the stereotype-it was refreshing to see.
All in all, a fun movie.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 17, 2014 9:17 pm

Doug: I like Double Wedding a lot, too, and Too Many Husbands, which I actually think clips along at a better pace than Third Finger.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 17, 2014 9:19 pm

Michael: Too Many Husbands, mentioned by Doug, is an even better screwball than Third Finger. I recently showed Libeled Lady, with Loy and Jean Harlow, and Spencer Tracy and Wm. Powell. The class enjoyed it, though I have always had the best luck with It Happened One Night.

Posted By Doug : March 18, 2014 6:54 pm

For me, “Double Wedding” tops even “Libeled Lady” although I like both shows very much. Harlow and Tracy add to the merriment of Lady but Double Wedding is more focused on just Loy/Powell.
Their acting is as smooth as a Rogers/Astaire dance; it was never Rogers/Astaire/someone else, and for me, Loy/Powell work best as a duo.
I have the TCM collection of the Loy/Powell films, but the one I most often share with friends is “Double Wedding”.

Posted By robbushblog : March 19, 2014 8:43 pm

This is being scheduled to record as I am typing this.

Posted By yogiboo : March 20, 2014 12:48 am

What is it about actors like Loy, Douglas and Wm Powell that they are mostly always so damned likeable? I feel so at ease when I watch a film with any of these actors in any combo. Cary Grant and Clark Gable also make me feel this way.

I’m not sure if I’ve actually seen this film but I want to see it. It really is fascinating to see the influence of the PCA and how it shaped the way we feel about things. A tight rein on all aspects of sexuality, morality, etc yet when we look back on many of these films we secretly long for those good old days when things were simple and sweet and rather low key.
Life in these United States never really was as idyllic as we’ve been lead to believe. Life has always been a struggle.

It’s still fun to watch, though. Melvyn Douglas, BTW, rarely gets the props he deserves in regards to his 30′s/40′s work being as he seemed to be viewed as the poor man’s William Powell. He is enough rerason to watch any film that he appeared in. He and Loy really did make a fine pair. Love him in “Too Many Husbands”.

Posted By Christine Hoard-Barre : March 20, 2014 9:52 pm

I never even heard of this movie and I’m a fan of both Loy and Douglas so thanks for writing about it. By the way, I believe Douglas’ character was an artist in “Theodora” creating book jacket art, not a writer. Melvyn Douglas was under-rated and was very good in everything. Love him in “Ninotchka” and “Mr. Blandings”.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 20, 2014 11:28 pm

Christine: You are right about Douglas’s character in Theodora. I knew it was related to publishing but forgot that detail. That makes him very good at playing artist types.

Yogiboo: I like your comments about the old-school actors.

Posted By Judy Murphy : March 22, 2014 10:49 am

As the preview to a movie begins in the theatre, I can determine in the first 20 seconds if I have any desire to pay to see it. If I will, I look down from the screen for the rest of the lengthy preview and say ‘lalalalala’ in my head and/or block my ears.

If there is a review in the paper, I cut it out and save it to compare with my opinion after I see the movie. I do take note of the number rating or ‘stars’ awarded to it.

I will also call a movie-loving friend or relative to hear if they liked a certain movie; but, I do not want to hear who lives or dies or any of the other movie secrets. Why?

Spoiler Alert re: Gravity and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which are first two paragraphs here in case you haven’t seen them. (then my Remarks re: 3rd F.L.Hand)

I wouldn’t have liked Gravity as well had I known Sandra would survive. I had already inadvertently heard that Clooney was only in the first hour. — I knew going in that the movie The Boy in the Striped Pajamas takes place during the Holocaust. It would have had a much lesser impact on me at the end had someone chose to ‘share’ that he gets gassed at the end, especially if the ‘he’ was revealed to me.

Okay… so, why all the foreplay before I type my remarks about today’s flick? Because I happened unto this comedy early this afternoon. Upon reading the Info and seeing Loy and Douglas were in it, I was ecstatic to find a comedy with Myrna that I hadn’t heard of. I own all Loy/Powell movies for repeated viewing and sharing, as well as Ninotztka, in which Melvyn Douglas was a perfect foil to Greta Garbo. I watched it immediately.

Imagine me sitting and standing in front of my TV as I enjoyed the film’s every scene, even more than once because I immediately employed ‘rewind’ to watch the character/s’ expressions individually, which made me laugh doubly upon seeing ‘action’ and ‘reaction’ in the same scene… (normally in a scene the average viewer only catches the face of the speaker; thus, missing the reactions of person/s in the background or being spoken to). In addition, I had the extra chuckles from clearly hearing the funny verbal exchanges again, while seeing little physical nuances they both were adding to the scene besides their facial expressions.

Now add to that pleasure the fact that I don’t know initially every piece of information regarding the plot, subplot, characters and ending. Thus, I get to enjoy the movie as the plot unfolds, the script is heard and the actions/reactions are seen. Had I had the misfortune of happening unto Susan Doll’s Post earlier yesterday prior to seeing the movie, (had I not been me as mentioned earlier) I would have had to put a Spoiler Alert on about every line she ‘shared’ for the next person who happens onto it so he/she would not be deprived of the thrills one feels as a good movie is experienced ‘first-hand’.

I love the trivia-type information that ‘Posts’ give (even Susan’s) about production, directors, Codes in force, the Stars interaction, personal and movie histories, perhaps even the year in which the movie plot takes place, or even a mention of a relatively obscure detail to watch for in the movie that otherwise would likely be missed. Example: Lucille Ball with BLONDE hair was one of the recurring models of evening gowns in a film…where the Post said “watch for the 2nd model on the left, it’s uncredited Lucille Ball in her 20′s.” I love to read a person’s general opinions of the movie — much like the shorter ones above — as long as the posted information is like an hors’ deuvres to whet my appetite…not spoil my whole meal.

Third Finger, Left Hand is a wonderful comedy, mentally stimulating with its clever script, totally enjoyable watching Loy and Douglas interact, and, also, well supported by Lee Bowman, the ‘other’ man…’Gussie’ Winkle (well-known character actor Felix Bresserman)…and, in fact, all the bit players in scene after scene who entertained with their delivery of lines. Of course, the surprise we get when Myrna takes on that new persona (you notice I don’t tell when or what so everyone can be impressed by it first hand) is a pleasure worth rewinding through a few times.

Thanks to folks above for referral to comedies I will now make it a point to see: Hired Hand, Too Many Husbands, Mr. Blandings Builds a House. I have seen and enjoyed Ball of Fire (Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper) – The More The Merrier (Jean Arthur, Charles Coburn, Joel McCrea) – Cinderella Jones (Joan Leslie, Robert Alda) – and the more recent (yet old) Lover Come Back (Doris Day, Cary Grant) and Same Time, Next Year (Alan Alda, Ellen Burstyn).

Posted By Doug : March 22, 2014 4:53 pm

To Judy Murphy-a great place to start with “Too Many Husbands” and other great shows is “Icons of Screwball Comedy” volumes one and two-in total 8 films including two each with Rosalind Russell, Jean Arthur and Loretta Young. I found them on Amazon pretty cheap, and I will be re-watching them in years to come.
Screwball comedy is the gift that we can open again and again which never gets tired. For every classic like “Bringing Up Baby” we have a dozen lesser known treasures to enjoy-I’ve said it here often: this is a great time to be a classic movie fan!

Posted By Susan Doll : March 22, 2014 7:32 pm

Judy: I don’t write movie reviews; nor do the other bloggers for this blogsite. That makes me less spoiler conscious than reviewers who focus on little more than the plot, though I do not reveal endings or plot twists. I am a film historian, and I put films in a historical context, interpret their subtexts, or compare and contrast to other films in the genre. I try to explain why a film has something to offer fans, who generally have a good idea about how a film’s plot will play out just from the title, cast and/or genre. This requires describing and interpreting plots and specific lines of dialogue on my part. It is absolutely fair if you do not like this type of film writing, though this style of writing dominates this blog, but there are many other readers who do want an idea of the film’s strengths, or they want a perspective on it, even if they end up disagreeing with that perspective when they watch. My advice for you is to read the TCM blog after a film has aired, so you pick up what you may have missed, or so you can enjoy it from another angle.

Posted By Doug : March 23, 2014 2:39 am

Susan, I picked up a movie today at a second hand store which I had never heard of-”A New Kind of Love” starring Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman from 1963. It sounds like a screw-ball comedy, and Thelma Ritter is in the cast-have you seen this one?

Posted By Susan Doll : March 23, 2014 2:53 am

Doug: I saw this film when I was kid, because it appeared on Saturday Night at the Movies on tv. I don’t remember a lot about it, but I think Paul Newman mistakes working woman Joanne Woodward for a “working girl.” The more overt references to sex make it more like a 1960s sex comedy in the vein of the Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedies in which they talk a lot about sex but no one really has it.

Posted By vp19 : March 24, 2014 1:00 am

Surprised to read Myrna didn’t like this film. While it’s true she seemed to be more at home complementing the likes of Powell or Gable than in her own vehicles, Loy also was active in civil rights causes as early as the ’30s, often decrying that black actors were cast in stereotyped roles. That certainly wasn’t the cases here, as the black porter with a law-school background was pivotal to the storyline.

Posted By Doug : March 24, 2014 1:26 am

Concerning Myrna not liking “Third Finger, Left Hand”-this is just a guess, but her most uncomfortable scene in my opinion is the one where she pretends to be someone else to embarrass Douglas’s character. I felt like that was shoehorned in because Kate Hepburn had done the same type of gag in “Bringing Up Baby” when she was trying to talk her way out of jail.
I don’t doubt that, as noted in the post: “the actress claimed that she did not care for Third Finger, Left Hand, because she disliked playing the protagonist in romantic comedies. She preferred instead to play the leading lady opposite a male protagonist, which she called “complementing the male lead.”
nothing wrong with being more comfortable as a team player-Myrna was the opposite of the primadonna egotists who demanded to be the center of attention, the focus of every plot.
She was one of the Best. Actors and humans.

Posted By george : March 24, 2014 2:26 am

Susan Doll wrote: “Marriage could not be depicted in a negative light; for example, it could not be the cause of a character’s misfortune or downfall.”

Especially not at MGM when Louis B. Mayer was running the place! He regarded the family as sacred, at least in his public comments.

Posted By george : March 24, 2014 2:34 am

“Though the role seems to be another version of the stereotypical train porter, Ernest Whitman is actually playing a black man representing and defending the legal position of a white man by using his gift of speech.”

Every now and then, you come across a character or scene that breaks from the racial attitudes of the era. I remember the scene in HOLD YOUR MAN (1933), where Clark Gable begs a black minister to marry him and Jean Harlow.

Not only is the minister depicted as intelligent, the idea of a white man pleading with a black man for anything must have shocked a lot of people in ’33. The black man is the authority figure in this scene.

I’ve seen a still indicating that a white actor played the minister for prints shown in the South.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 24, 2014 6:19 am

George: Interesting about HOLD YOUR MAN. I will have to track that down.

Posted By Doug : April 8, 2014 8:49 pm

Susan, last night I watched the Woodward/Newman movie I mentioned here, “A New Kind Of Love” and your memory of it was right on; it plays like a reaction against/satire of “Pillow Talk” and “Lover, Come Back”.
Woodward plays the Rock Hudson role; Newman would be Doris, taken in my Woodward’s switched identity. Where Doris was sweet and nearly innocent, Newman is a skirt chaser of the highest order. Thelma Ritter is there to remind us of the Day/Hudson romps.
Doris/Rock didn’t smoke on screen-these two are constantly smoking.
The kicker is when Woodward goes glamorous in a blonde wig, that wig is a perfect mimicry of Doris’s hair.
Rock Hudson in his films played the bashful, innocent types… here in ‘the Hudson role’ Woodward pretends to be a prostitute.
I wonder what Doris thought of “A New Kind Of Love”-I think she probably loved it.

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