Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Old Movie Madness: Wife vs. Secretary (1936)

Being laid up at home I have had plenty of time to watch some films, so it ain't all bad.  One of today's selection was the sweetly romantic "Wife Vs. Secretary" from 1936 starring Jean Harlow, Clark Gable and Myrna Loy as well as a young Jimmy Stewart.

This is a classic 30's romance of misunderstanding and is beautifully played by the majority of the cast.  Gable is advertising executive V.S (otherwise known as Van or Stanhope) who lives an affluent lifestyle with his adoring wife of three years, Linda (Loy).  The film opens on their wedding anniversary with V.S pretending to have forgotten while secretly having placed an extravagant diamond bracelet in their breakfast.  This opening scene is interesting as the dialogue hints heavily at the couple having spent the night together, casting Loy as a sex symbol rather than just "the wife".

Next we see V.S. at the office, striding through confidently greeting everyone, clearly a man who loves his job.  As he walks into his office we see a curvy young lady stood on a chair hanging a picture of him above the desk, she jumps down and greets him fondly.  This is Helen "Whitey" Wilson, his secretary (Harlow). Van's mother fears Whitey will be a temptation to her son and she wastes no time in warning Linda of her feelings.

Whitey is a beautiful and very intelligent young blonde, engaged to the earnest Dave (Stewart), we next see her at the dinner table with her family ready for a night out, wearing a classically Harlow white satin gown.  Unfortunately V.S. calls her and she goes to work leaving poor Dave to go to the theatre alone.

Whitey delivers the papers V.S requested to a party, and still dressed in her theatre outfit the blonde causes quite a stir among Linda's friends who all assume V.A. is having an affair and make their assumption obvious to Linda who still professes that she trusts her husband implicitly.

Dave asks Whitey to marry him and she refuses as she does not want to give up her career, or perhaps the opportunity to be close to V.S., and when he entrusts her with his latest business secret and takes her with him to an out of town meeting tongues again wag.  Things escalate when V.S has to attend a meeting in Havana and takes Whitey with him.  They have an innocent but drunken night out together to celebrate their successful business meeting and get in at 2am.  The phone rings and Whitey answers, Linda hears her voice on the line and hangs up - now convinced that her husband is having an affair.

Linda wants a divorce and V.S starts to turn to Whitey for comfort, however she does the decent thing and tells Linda that she would be a fool to leave him.  Linda finally returns and Whitey decides to settle with Dave.

The film has some sterling moments - my favourite being close to the end where Whitey is explaining to Linda that she cares for V.S and is in fact willing to be second best but that she thinks they would be happier if they got back together.  It is strongly and earnestly played by Harlow.  Also interesting is the underlying message about gossip, this being the damaging this in the couples marriage, V.S having never really noticed Whitey as a woman, as evidenced by the nickname.

The wardrobe isn't amazing, there are some distinctly odd garments worn by Loy, especially around the house, including once very long slightly oriental looking dressing gown with a wide leather belt.

Stewart's acting is very laboured and wooden, but then this isn't the relaxed sort of role he excelled at.  Gable is quite slimy and irritating, it definitely takes a while to warm to him, and his clothes have a brash nouveau quality which adds to this (checked tweed suit and polka dot tie - ouch!) and while I do adore Harlow I find it hard to see her as a sex symbol with her cutesy dimpled chin and Kewpie doll features (perhaps it is my modern eyes). Interestingly though she isn't really acting the vamp here, there is no swanning around in underwear or sleazy wisecracking and the only scene where she is dressed sexily (her theatre outfit) shows her looking awkward and uncomfortable as V.S helps her with her coat.  Quite a departure from her earlier roles.  In fact this was a deliberate move, Harlow even darkening her hair a few shades for the role.

Not a just a fluffy comedy but a good solid romantic film with a heart and a message.  Very worthwhile viewing.


  1. one of my favourites. What a cast, eh?

  2. Yeah! Another movie on my wish list for any given weekend, I'll go for it ...

  3. I'm thoroughly enjoying your movie reviews. This one in particular sounds delightful, although from the title and a one-line summary I might have given it a miss. Thanks so much and please keep it up!

  4. Sounds great. How little times have changed though, people still gossip about male/female work pairings, my husband's colleague got some funny glances when we all met up once, likewise a male colleague was exposed to lots of gossip at a previous job because we worked on shows together.

  5. I'm putting it on my "to watch" list! This one sounds great, and I've never seen Jean Harlow in action...only still photography.
    * = )

  6. You found Gable's character slimy?