Saturday, March 19, 2022

Stubs - Wife vs. Secretary

Wife vs. Secretary (1936) Starring: Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, James Stewart. Directed by Clarence Brown. Screenplay by Norman Krasna, John Lee Mahin, Alice Duer Miller Based on the short story "Wife Versus Secretary" by Faith Baldwin in Hearst's International-Cosmopolitan (May 1935). Produced by Hunt Stromberg Run time: 88 minutes. USA Black and White Comedy, Drama

Let me start off the review by saying I’m a very big Jean Harlow fan. I know the hair is peroxided but there is something very genuine and genuinely sexy about her. I have not had a chance to see all of the films in her sadly short Hollywood career but I do look forward to seeing them all. The more I see of her films, the more I see that she co-starred with Clark Gable in six films, this being the fifth. I’m sure it was a match made in Hollywood heaven.

But Clark Gable was not the first choice for the male lead. That was originally going to William Powell, with whom Harlow was an item at the time. But Powell was too busy with other productions to appear in the film.

The film went into production on November 25, 1935, with a budget of $519,000. Production completed on January 14, 1936, and it was released on February 28, 1936.

The film opens with the happy couple, Linda (Myrna Loy) and
husband Van (Clark Gable), sharing breakfast.

Wife vs. Secretary opens in the happy home of successful magazine publisher Van "V.S." Stanhope (Clark Gable) and his wife of three years, Linda (Myrna Loy). They're just back from a fishing trip together and are sharing trout for breakfast. During this scene, Linda calls him Jake several times, which is never explained. It is their anniversary, which Van pretends to have forgotten but he’s put a diamond bracelet in the fish.

At work, Van's secretary, Whitey (Jean Harlow) puts the
final touches on his office redecoration.

At work, Van’s secretary, Helen “Whitey” Wilson (Jean Harlow), has just completed redecorating his office. To celebrate his return to the office, Van, whom Whitey calls “V.S.”, schedules a board meeting.

To keep a business deal a secret, Van insists on using a
phone booth rather than the company's switchboard.

Van gets the idea to purchase a 5-cent weekly owned by J.D. Underwood (George Barbier) and, fearing a rival might also be interested, the only person he brings in on the deal is Whitey. He wants her to call Underwood but to keep the secret, they use a telephone booth rather than go through the company’s switchboard. A meeting gets set up. But just as they come out of the phone booth, Linda and Van’s mother, Mimi Stanhope (May Robson), drop by the office to check out the redecoration.

Linda and Van's mother Mimi show up at the office to look at the redecorations.

On the cab ride home, Mimi warns Linda about Whitey, telling her to make her husband fire her. Linda thinks that’s absurd, as she trusts Van.

Whitey, having dinner with her family and fiancée
Dave (James Stewart), gets called away by Van.

Later, Whitey is having dinner with her family and her fiancée, Dave (James Stewart). They have plans that night to go to the theater. Dave also apparently has a surprise to share with her. However, their plans go awry when Van, who is attending his own anniversary party, calls wanting to go over some numbers with her.

She cancels her plans to go back to the office and then to Van’s apartment. She plans to meet Dave at the theater when she can get there.

At the party, he takes her upstairs for a discussion and several party-goers take notice, but don’t say anything to Linda when she goes looking for Van.

When their meeting is over, it is too late for Whitey to go to the theater so she accepts Linda’s invitation to stay. Whitey and Van dance around the room. She is pretty enough to attract the lewd attention of several male party-goers as well as be the subject of gossip.

Dave tells Whitey he's gotten a $20 a week raise and encourages her to quit her job.

When she gets home, Dave has been waiting for her in his car. It’s 2 a.m. and Dave is asleep when Whitey crawls in next to him. He is not upset by her missing the theater and he tells her that he managed to get a $20 a week raise in pay, from $55 to $75. It’s enough, he thinks, for them to begin to talk marriage and for her to give her two weeks’ notice. But Whitey refuses, saying this isn’t a good time to do that.

Van has Whitey go with him for his meeting with Underwood.

Van goes to his meeting with Underwood, taking Whitey with him, though she apparently stays in the car while he and Underwood bond over a steam bath. By the end of the meeting, Van has let Underwood think that he should sell him the weekly.

After their steam bath, Van has J.D. Underwood (George Barbier) re-tie his bowtie.

However, in order to keep the deal a secret, Van lies to Linda when she tells him that she tried to call him at the office and she notices that the bowtie he wears and that she apparently ties every morning for him has been re-tied. He tells her that he was at the club and went swimming and one of the boys tied it for him.

That lie gets exposed that night when the man in the couple they have over to play Bridge innocently remarks that he had been swimming at the Club that very afternoon and hadn’t seen Van there for months. When their chauffer, Finney (Tom Dugan), is sent on an errand, he is asked if he’s had dinner. He tells Linda that he just got back from dropping Whitey home. Linda doesn’t react to that revelation.

Whitey and Van enjoy ice skating together.

Later, at a company-sponsored Ice Skating party, Whitey is there with Dave, though he declines to skate, and Van is there with Linda, who also turns down skating because she has a cold. Out on the ice, Whitey and Van end up skating together. Their comradery is misinterpreted by some as sexual. Even an employee, not realizing she’s speaking with Van’s wife, hints that there is something going on between them.

Linda is not amused by Van and Whitey's closeness.

Dave, likewise, isn’t keen on what he’s seeing out on the ice. The two get into an argument and Whitey gives him back his engagement ring.

Neither is Dave.

On the ride home that night, Linda suggests to Van that he move Whitey to a new position in the company, for appearance's sake, but he refuses. That leads to Linda going in alone and Van going to the Club to play cards. In the wee hours of the morning, Linda calls for him to come home. He tells her that he’ll move Whitey but now she tells him not to.

Van and Whitey work every day on the proposed acquisition.

Whitey and Van spend an hour a day going over the plan to buy Underwood’s magazine. He tells her to hire an outside auditor to make a finer pass on the numbers than they can.

When the company’s representative at an advertising convention in Havana is sidelined with appendicitis, it is decided Van should go in his place, since it would be another chance to speak to Underwood and keep the competition away.

Linda assumes that she’s going to Havana with him but he turns her down, telling her it’s strictly a business trip. She agrees as long as he promises to call her at 7 p.m. every night.

When Whitey interviews Mr. Jenkins (John Qualen) about the auditing job
she learns they are definitely not the only ones interested in Underwood's magazine.

While Van is in transit, Whitey interviews Mr. Jenkins (John Qualen) about the auditing job. He tells her that he had worked for the rival company and that it involved reviewing the value of Underwood’s magazine.

Knowing their rival is also interested, Whitey calls Van in Havana and he tells her to fly down so they can work to complete the deal.

During the day, Van saddles up to Underwood while at night, he and Whitey work on the particulars of the deal. They have even hired typists to work on the documents. But in the commotion to close the deal, Van forgets his promise to call Linda.

On their last day in Havana, Van and Underwood complete the deal.

On the final night of the convention, Van sits down with Underwood and they finalize the deal. Van finds Whitey drinking alone and the two go on a bender to celebrate.

Returning back to their hotel room after two in the morning, both are very drunk and while their inhibitions are lowered, they acknowledge their attraction but don’t act on it. However, when Whitey calls down Room Service for coffee and a sandwich for Van, the operator puts through a call from Linda, who has been trying for hours.

When Whitey answers the call, Linda hangs up. They dismiss the call as a wrong number until the operator calls back asking if they’ve been disconnected from the New York call. Realizing it’s Linda, they call back but she has taken the phone off the hook and cannot be reached.

When Van returns home, Linda won’t listen to him and moves in with his mother, and starts divorce proceedings. Van tries several times to speak with her but she refuses to listen to him. Finally, he gives up and Linda makes plans for her cruise to France.

Whitey gets invited by Van to go to Bermuda with him.

Back at the office, he tells Whitey to book him a trip to Bermuda and asks her to go along, as someone he can talk to. But Whitey is starting to feel attracted to Van.

Just before the ocean liner sets sail, Whitey warns Linda that she's about to lose Van forever.

Meanwhile, Linda is on board an ocean liner preparing to go to France. Realizing that Van’s happiness is really with Linda, Whitey goes on board at the last minute. Whitey warns her that if Linda doesn’t come back, she’ll take up with Van. While it’s platonic and business-like now, things will change. He’ll offer to buy her things and then it will develop from there.

Linda continues to unpack when Whitey leaves.

Back in the office, Van encourages her to buy some new clothes, but Whitey turns him down. She can hear footsteps coming and excuses herself to make a copy, perhaps knowing it is Linda coming. They pass in the doorway. As Van and Linda are reconciling, Whitey leaves.

Down on the street, Dave is waiting for her and the two reconcile, though you get the idea Dave might be her second choice.

The film made $2,067,000 at the box office, giving MGM a profit of $876,000. While those numbers don’t seem large, back in the day, this was considered a hit.

In his review of the film, Frank S. Nugent, writing in The New York Times, credits Faith Baldwin, the author of the book, for some of the success of the film. “Faith Baldwin looks slant-eyed at the world and finds it triangular. Out of its little triangles she has fashioned "Office Wife" and a host of other popular novels and glazed-paper magazine tales that sell easily, are widely read and may be converted into talkative, superficial and handsomely produced pictures. Of these, 'Wife vs. Secretary,' the new Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film at the Capitol, is one. It sets up another tidy triangle with Clark Gable at the apex, with Jean Harlow, at Angle B, as the secretary, and Myrna Loy, at Angle C, as the wife. You may rail, critically, at the glossy stereotype and you may accuse Miss Baldwin of growing' duller and duller in her treatment of her pet plot, but you will realize—with a sense of complete futility—that any Faith Baldwin 'Wife vs. Secretary' picture, with Gable, Harlow and Loy, is predestined for success.”

Jean Harlow wanted to be taken more seriously as an actress.

With this film, Jean Harlow was trying to change her image from a raucous sexpot and be taken more seriously as an actress. She had even had her hair darkened for this picture as part of that effort. It’s always sad to think of what she might have become were it not for her tragic death at 26.

Whitey is a woman with business aspirations and it isn’t until Van makes a play for her does it seem that she even really considers the idea of sleeping with him. This is a big change in how women in business had been portrayed in pre-code films such as Female (1933), Employees’Entrance (1933) and Baby Face (1933). There is still the suggestion of romance but this is Hollywood.

Clark Gable is charismatic as Van. By now in his career, Gable was on his way to becoming the King of Hollywood. The film showcases his ability to go from comedy to drama and I have to assume his sex appeal for the women in the audience, especially at the time. The film really revolves around his character and Gable is more than able to carry the film on his back.

Clark Gable and Myrna Loy would make seven films together.

Myrna Loy is always a treat and she apparently liked the role in this film. She is quoted as saying of her role as Linda, “That's the sexiest wife I've ever played. In one scene, Clark stands outside my bedroom door and we banter, nothing more, but there's just no question about what they've done the night before.” It is interesting to watch her go from trusting Van to believing the worst about him. Not that there isn’t evidence to make her question his intent but it is all circumstantial.

James Stewart was fairly new to films when he made Wife Vs. Secretary This is only his fifth film, so there’s no wonder he’s not billed with the other three, who back then were better well-known. Stewart’s career wouldn’t really take off until after World War II. He was still learning the craft and has credited Gable and Harlow for showing him the ropes and passing on advice to him during the making of the film.

Stewart also fondly reminisced about the film and his kiss with Harlow in particular, "Clarence Brown, the director, wasn't too pleased by the way I did the smooching. He made us repeat the scene about half a dozen times...I botched it up on purpose. That Jean Harlow sure was a good kisser. I realized that until then I had never been really kissed."

In many ways, Stewart would go on to have bigger careers than the three billed above him but at this point, he is a likable secondary character. Dave in this film is far from woke, believing that the husband works and the wife stays home to raise the kids. He doesn’t realize that, as Whitey suggests, they could live better on two incomes, again a modern stance on her part.

While it might be hard to imagine someone else playing Van, the potential of William Powell in that role would have been intriguing, seeing as it would have paired him with someone meaningful in his life, Harlow, and meaningful to his career, Loy. But that is looking back with the knowledge that no one had at that moment. And it isn’t worthwhile spending too much time on what might have been.

The film is a series of misunderstandings. The idea of men and women working together as colleagues and nothing more was years ahead of its time but it’s hard to know if the viewpoint wasn’t a result of the Production Code, which prevented extra-marital affairs.

Given that the film came out during the Great Depression, there is no mention of that financial situation at all. The rich are shown to be having a good time and that business is going ahead as usual. This fantasy point of view is also at odds with say the more realistic approach rival Warner Bros. had taken to the subject in their films. But people wanted to escape their situation and Wife vs. Secretary was apparently a popular diversion.

If the film were remade today, the title would definitely have to be updated, however, the film does provide a rather modern point of view regarding relationships in the workplace. If you’re a fan of any or all of the main actors, you should not be disappointed in their roles or in the film. And even though we’re not in a depression, the film is still a good diversion from what is going on now.

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