When Mary Turner (Joan Crawford) is unjustly accused of stealing from her workplace, she’s sentenced to three years in jail. But she isn’t about to go down without a fight and vows to make her boss Edward Gilder (Purnell Pratt) pay for what he’s done to her. Mary spends her time in jail brushing up on the law and realizes that there is a way for her to get money out of men legally. All she has to do is get a man to agree to marry her, but when they back out, sue them for breach of contract.
When she gets out of jail, she joins up with more seasoned criminals Agnes (Marie Prevost), Red, and Joe Garson (Robert Armstrong) to put this plan into full force. This scam proves to be quite lucrative with Mary calling the shots and dismissing anyone questioning the legality of their racket. But Mary hasn’t forgotten her promise to make Edward Gilder pay for sending her to jail. To get back at him, she sets her sights on his son Bob Gilder (Douglass Montgomery). She starts seeing him, but he genuinely falls in love with her and they soon get married. When Bob brings Mary to meet his father, Edward is furious and wants the thing annulled, but Bob and Mary won’t let that happen. Even though Mary insists that she’s only in it for revenge, she really has fallen in love with Bob, too.
Edward isn’t willing to give up so easily on putting an end to Bob’s marriage. With the recent theft of the Mona Lisa, he gets Eddie Griggs to give Joe a false tip that the real Mona Lisa is hanging in Edward Gilder’s house. He knows that Mary is tied up with them and thinks that when Joe comes to steal the painting, Mary will be right there with him and that will be the end of that. But when Mary finds out about this plan, she wants nothing to do with it. She thinks they should stay within the law, but Joe and his gang insists on going through with it. In the middle of the heist, Mary shows up to put an end to it, and Joe and Eddie get into a fight that ends with Eddie being shot and killed. Mary tries to tell the police that it was self defense, but the police aren’t going to buy the word of someone who has done time in jail before. But Mary sees to it that justice is served.
Not only is Paid a very strong movie with a good supporting cast, but it was a very important movie in Joan Crawford’s career. Before this, she hadn’t done any serious dramatic roles and the part of Mary Turner was originally intended for Norma Shearer. But then Norma got pregnant and went on leave, which left the door open for Joan to step in. As much as I love Norma, I think Joan was perfect for this movie. She brought a lot of that steel will and determination that would go on to become her trademark. It’s a must see for Joan Crawford fans, but even if you’re not watching it just for Joan, there’s a lot to like about it.
Like so many other women, Regi Allen (Carole Lombard) longs for a way out of her mundane life. She’s tired of having to count her pennies, fighting the crowds on the subway, and she’s tired of having to do nails for a living. Of course, the easiest way out of that life would be to marry a rich man and she’s determined to do just that. One day, she’s called up to give Allen Macklwyn (Ralph Bellamy) a manicure and he instantly adores her. Allen is quite wealthy, he had formerly been a pilot but was left disabled after a flying accident. He falls in love with her, makes appointments with her constantly, and they become very good friends, but he never lets her know that he loves her.
As Regi is leaving her first appointment with Allen, she bumps into Theodore Drew, III (Fred MacMurray) as he’s playing hopscotch in the hallway. She doesn’t know who he is, but she thinks he’s a bit screwy and goes on about her day. Later, Ted makes an appointment to get a manicure from Regi. The salon receptionist tells Regi that Ted is from a wealthy family, so when Ted comes to her table and she sees the odd guy from earlier, she tries to turn him away. But when she realizes her mistake, she’s so flustered that she can barely do his nails. Despite the lousy manicure, Ted asks Regi out to dinner and of course, she accepts. The two of them have a swell time on their date, especially Ted who has a little too much to drink. But after a few drinks, he admits that he’s engaged to be married soon.
When Ted passes out in the cab after dinner, Regi lets him sleep on her couch. She only expects him to stay for the night, but he ends up staying longer when he misses his ship to Bermuda and is stuck in New York with no money and no place to stay. His family lost all their money in the big stock market crash and his trip to Bermuda was paid for by his future father-in-law. Of course, the two of them fall in love in spite of one thing: the fact that they both want to marry for money. Regi tries to not get too involved because she’s convinced that Ted could never be happy with her. But when Ted’s fiancée Vivian begins to suspect that Ted isn’t really in Bermuda, she does some detective work and finds out that he’s in New York and that he’s been seen with a manicurist. Vivian books a manicure with Regi and confronts her about what’s been going on. Vivian doesn’t want to give Ted up, but Ted is willing to let Vivian go and he begs her to end their engagement. He wants to marry Regi and he’ll do anything to make it happen, including the one thing he never thought he would do: get a job.
Hands Across the Table is one of my favorite under-appreciated gems and my personal favorite Carole Lombard movie. It may be just a lighthearted romantic comedy, it’s not great cinema, but it is immensely charming. I loved Carole and Fred together. When I saw this movie for the first time, I thought Regi and Ted seemed like a couple I’d want to hang out with and now I know why. Carole and Fred were good friends off-screen and that really came through on-screen, they must have been a blast to be around. Of course, Carole Lombard was a natural with comedy, but the same couldn’t be said for Fred MacMurray. Hands Across the Table is one of Fred’s earliest movies and he wasn’t exactly well versed in comedy yet. Carole and director Mitchell Leisen had to work hard to get his silly performance just right. But all their hard work paid off because he was great as that kind of hapless but lovable character. Why Hands Across the Table doesn’t get more love is a mystery to me.