Just caught Rings on Her Fingers (1942) in a nice (for YouTube) copy. That's a mixed experience. It's one off the bucket list but now there's no more Rouben Mamoulian I haven't seen. His Tyrone Power Mark of Zorro (1940) was one of the first films I ever watched. I still look at that one every ten years and get the old charge. If it had been Captain Lightfoot (Douglas Sirk, 1955) I might have taken up rug weaving instead of movies.
The last of the director's films for Zanuck's Fox, Rings on her Fingers was never considered a jewel in the Mamoulian crown. It rarely made it into those once inescapable retrospectives. Seeing it now, it registers as the Hollywood factory movie at its peak, irritatingly formulaic and comfortingly recognisable at the same time, showing the absolute control of master craftsmen with a lot of money to spend. The staging is impeccable - sets built in dimensions to accommodate the performer’s moves, the edits in just the right place and music poured over it like warm treacle. The effort that has gone into making Gene Tierney gorgeous is formidable as she makes entrances in glamour outfits and her radiant features are only shadowed when Henry Fonda has to kiss her.
|Spring Byington, Laird Cregar, Gene Tierney, Rings on her fingers|
It’s literally shop girl fiction with girdle sales girl Tierney telling co-worker Iris Adrien, who we could have seen more of, “Why don’t they just throw a shovel of dirt in my face?” as she looks at the department supervisors who will be her in ten and twenty years. And then we get another Cinderella twist where she’s invited to nice customer Spring Byington’s society event wearing the store finery. Of course Byington and partner Laird Cregar are actually grifters (“Well, we're sort of an excess profits tax. To criticise us would be un-American.”) who recruit so decorative Gene as part of their scams. She starts experiencing the good life, stretching out on the beach lounge, legs prominent. So far so so.
|Gene Tierney, Henry Fonda, Rings on her fingers|
The killer element arrives in the form of Fonda, who has perfected his romantic boob character (much better than The Lady Eve’s dimwit) and waddles out of the surf in his ill fit bathers. He starts carrying on about the mathematics of boat buying and the team have fifteen grand out of him quick as a flash. Predictable surprise. He’s not a millionaire. The money is his life savings as a sixty-five dollars a week accountant with a dream of operating his own yacht (“This is my life and I’m not going to live it in a swivel chair”) and he apologizes to Gene for misrepresenting himself.
They run off together to his old New York boarding house (separate rooms) where her attempt at cooking is a disaster and he gets aggro when she tries to slip him back the fifteen grand as a joint account. He has however retained detective Frank Orth, who proves the most deft farceur they’ve got, on the case.
Gene’s plan is to have Henry win the money back at Henry Stevenson’s dance joint’s gaming table - nice moment when Fonda, who’s been sedately ballroom dancing, breaks out in a jitterbug. He believes that he’s got a maths based system when he keeps on winning the money from fixed games. “Are you Nick? No I’m Chick. Nick’s sick” in the know croupier George Lloyd explains as he fiddles the pokies.
The piece has its pay off at Stevenson’s Chukka Club, where the turbaned help all speak with Bronx accents. Agonizing Gene sees Henry win and lose his yacht money. They were all set to fly out - classic routine of the leads, Orth and millionaire mark Shepard Strudwick all showing up at the airport and her trying to keep them apart.
Talented character actors are at their peak. Byington never came closer to a rounded character and Cregar, who could have had a Rod Steiger career if he'd lasted, dominates with just the right amount of geniality mixed with menace. The piece is full of misleading clues about him - eyeing the lingerie model in the big store or the warning that he is ruthless, demonstrated by him breaking Stephenson (“The only decent one here”) while we watch, setting up his great pay off line “Did you ever see anything so corny?”
The film is kind of winning and must have been a nice night out for the 1942 (one sailor on the dance floor) audience. It's not all fluff either. It's take on the American Dream makes it sharper than its The Lady Eve prototype. Like the comparison between Lubitsch's McDonald-Chevalier films and Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight, you put this up against Lubitsch's Fox movie Cluny Brown and you see that Mamoulian is the one who actually has the sophistication that Lubitsch was lauded for.
|Gene Tierney in a publicity shot for Rings on her fingers|