Posted by Susan Doll on March 17, 2014
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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