Sunday, August 6, 2017

Now Playing: "Wife Versus Secretary" (1936)

Wife Versus Secretary is one of those films in which there is a very basic, overused storyline and honestly, not a whole lot really happens and yet it's inexplicably and totally awesome.  Maybe not inexplicably because it does star Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Myrna Loy, a trifecta of 1930s who's who amazingness.

Let's break it down.

Gable is Van ("V.S.") Stanhope, a magazine publisher who is hardworking, focused and, as it turns out, quite creative and adept at what the public wants.  He's married to the lovely Linda, played by Loy, whom he is mad about.  The two have a healthy relationship based on mutual trust.  He has just returned from some time away from the office to find that his secretary, Whitey (Harlow) has redecorated his office. Van and Whitey have a perfect boss-assistant relationship; he treats her with a great deal of respect and trusts her to handle things for him - - she's basically his work wife - - while she assists him perfectly.  Of course since Whitey looks like Jean Harlow, and people are people, there is gossip and talk about the true nature of their relationship. The gossip filters back to Linda, who begins to worry that the sexy Whitey may be performing more than typing duties for her husband.  While away on a business trip to Havana, Van has a bit too much to drink and Whitey answers his phone for him.  It's Linda (oh nos!) and she jumps to the same conclusion that any woman would when it's 2 a.m. and another woman answers the phone in your husband's hotel room.  Van returns home to find himself locked out of Linda's bed and bath and she soon packs herself up and leaves, planning to file for divorce.  Van is heartbroken and Whitey, having just broken up with her longtime boyfriend David (played by Jimmy Stewart in an early role for MGM), realizes that her not quite so secret unrequited feelings for Van might be reciprocated.  Will Linda and Van divorce?  Will he end up with Whitey?  Is Clark Gable ever not the hottest thing on screen?  So many questions.

As fair warning, spoilers lay ahead! 

I love this movie.  It's the kind of film that MGM really excelled at during the Thirties, when everything came together. The studio had its share of stinkers and ones that were "ehhhhhh" and fortunately Wife Versus Secretary rises above that and really just works. Why?  Mainly because the stars attached to it.  Gable and Harlow had four previous film outings together (and would have one more after this one) and Gable and Loy had been paired up in three.  While this was the first film that Harlow and Loy co-starred in, they worked well together (as evidenced by their rematching in Libeled Lady.)

Ladies first.

Yes, girl
Myrna Loy has what can be a very thankless role.  She's the wife, or should I say The Wife.  You know what I mean - - a wife of these 1930s pictures that apparently has no job outside of getting their hair done, overseeing dinners and waiting for their husbands to come home.  Where do I sign up?  Between the gorgeous apartment, gorgeous attire and having a cook, driver and maid, I was really born during the wrong era (and wrong economic class.)  But I digress.  Linda could have been a simp; she could have been a spoiled socialite type that we have problems rooting for but since she's being portrayed by Myrna Loy, and because Linda isn't akin to Laura, the character Loy played in Men in White, in which she actually was a spoiled socialite,  it's easy to like or even love Linda and want her to end up with Van.  While Loy isn't able to demonstrate the witty barbs or play the somewhat straight (wo)man as she does opposite William Powell, she does still have that Myrna Loy iron butterfly thing going on and it works.  And frankly, this is really a testament to Loy and how incredible she is because Linda essentially doesn't do a whole heck of a lot.

Strictly business? 
Jean Harlow at first may seem an odd choice to play the sweet and loyal secretary; I love when she plays characters like Lil in Red Headed Woman, China Doll in China Seas or Valentine in Red Dust.  She's so damn good at playing the bad or fallen girl.  However, with the Code coming into effect (damn it) by 1935, Lil and her disciplines had to be phased out, requiring updating and changing Harlow.  While Whitey is out of character for her, she really nails the part - - so much so that as a viewer, you may not know who Gable is going to end up with and/or be torn on whether he should be with Loy or Harlow.  (Whether Van should be with Linda or Whitey is another matter entirely.)  I appreciate that while we realize that Whitey does indeed have feelings for Van, she doesn't do anything to put the moves on him or break up his marriage, not directly anyhow. In fact, other than by Linda, the gossip mongers at the office and Van's mother (more on her below), Whitey's looks are not necessarily her defining assets; she's more about her professional ability, which is refreshing. As another change of pace, Harlow is not seen in her underwear even one time.

As a die-hard Jimmy Stewart fan, I was thrilled to see him in the film, even though his part is small and very much supporting. He does what little he can with it and he does deliver the closing line of the film (see below.)

So cute
Clark Gable is really amazing in the part of Van, because I completely bought him as the happily married magazine publisher.  As he did in It Happened One Night and in Possessed, where he was playing a newspaper reporter and attorney, respectively, he sells it without question. Maybe it was due to his comfort and chemistry with both of his leading ladies or maybe it was due to his happiness with his soon to be real life leading lady, Carole Lombard, who had had recently begun seeing when the picture was being filmed but he is glowing here. I particularly loved a scene he had with Loy where she was trying to talk to him and he was kissing her cheeks, her mouth, her chin and the tip of her nose.  It was affectionate and warm and so intimate -- proving that actual nudity and sexual scenes are not necessary to rev up your audience.  I can watch his portrayal and wonder if this is the private Gable as well - - the at-home side that he shared with Lombard.  On the same side of that coin, when he's portraying Van after Linda has left him, you see the anguish and pain, as well as the distraction at work.  Gable manages to tug at my
Seriously, the cutest
heart strings, every single time (and I've seen Wife Versus Secretary multiple times.)

I love that the Loy-Gable marriage is portrayed as one of not only equals but two people who are very clearly into each other. They are tactile, they hug and kiss and you just know, neither are a slouch in the bedroom.

Are there any faults with the film?  One issue I have is relatively minor and that's the very little use that Stewart gets. Of course he was new to the studio then and he was paying his dues, while they assessed whether he had what it took to make it (he did.)  The other two issues are a bit larger.

Whitey doesn't look forty, Mimi
The first is that Mimi, Van's mother, is one of the people who put that seed of doubt in Linda's head.  She tells Linda that Van's father ran around and it's likely that Van will too.  It's his mother.  Gah!  Never mind that Van isn't running around and shows absolutely zero interest in Whitey - - she's his mother!  I'm sorry, I just can't get over that.  I don't care how close you are to your daughter-in-law, it is tacky bordering on flat out bitchy to suggest that Linda needs to be watching Whitey carefully and should suggest to Van that he needs to can his secretary.  I'm sure that will end well.  I mean, it's great that Mimi will apparently take Linda's side in just about everything but Van is her son.  Sigh.  Just as bad is Mimi's suggestion that Linda make sure that any secretary of Van's is forty years old.  Really?  Is that how you play it, Mimi?  I get it's the Thirties and forty might as well equal eighty in the delivery.  These folks do realize that a forty-year old woman might be attractive and/or sexual, just as much as someone in their twenties, right?  Anyhow . . .

You're a fool
The other thing I thought was interesting was that the film itself didn't end on a clinch between Van and Linda but on a scene with Whitey and Dave.  While I appreciate that Whitey went to see Linda before her boat set sail and delivered a really fantastic speech in which she laid it all on the table -- telling Linda that if she left, she would never get Van back because while he would never love anyone as much as he loved Linda, he wouldn't be alone for long and would look for companionship where it was easily found, i.e., Whitey and she wouldn't turn him away and upon hearing that Linda was still going to leave, told her she was a fool - - I think both Whitey and Dave were shortchanged by the ending.  Whitey leaves the office once Linda turns up, realizing that yes, indeed, she was being a fool in almost losing her husband, and finds Dave waiting for her outside (he clearly has amazing timing.) Despite acknowledging to Linda and herself less than an hour earlier that she wanted and would take Van, she goes back to Dave.

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Dave.  (He is played by Jimmy Stewart after all.) He seems like a nice, kind guy although we are told very little about him.  Whitey had been wearing a ring before they broke up and he seemed fairly tolerant about her being at Van's beck and call, at least until she left him to go to the theater solo while she cut out of dinner to head to the office to retrieve something for Van to then hand deliver to his home.  Totally Team Dave on that one.

I think the film dropped the ball on having Dave say not just that he missed Whitey, when she leaves the office sans Van at the end, but suggest why they belong together.  Maybe remind her that he misses his dance partner, his Coney Island partner, his Scrabble buddy, whatever.  Maybe suggest that he's taken ice skating lessons so he can join her on the ice (an earlier point in the movie that puts Harlow and Gable on the ice together while Loy and Stewart sit it out, allowing Loy to hear gossip.)  Anything to underscore that Whitey belongs with Dave and she will be happy with him; because Whitey doesn't seem exactly relieved or happy to be back with David, maybe Harlow was playing it close to the vest but she seemed extremely understated.

In any event,  Dave gives the closing line of the film and it's a doozy.  "Don't look for trouble where there isn't any because if you don't find it, you'll make it."

Overall, I adore this film.  It's fun, it's sweet, it's affectionate and who knew that trout for breakfast was apparently a thing?

Wife Versus Secretary could have been chock full of the tropiest of tropes but, happily, it managed to avoid those pitfalls.

If you haven't seen Wife Versus Secretary, what are you waiting for?  It's available on DVD and turns up on TCM's rotation on occasion.  It may not be one of Gable's better known films but he shines in it and it's very much worth the time.  Go, go, go!

Disclosure: I watched this movie via a DVD from my own personal collection.  This DVD was purchased by me. I was neither paid nor compensated for this review. I am not too proud to take a donation though. (Just a little touch of humor.)

If Myrna isn't into it, call me, Clark. 

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