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Wife vs. Secretary (1936)


Well dear, men are like that. So honorable and able and wise in some things, and just like naughty children in others. You wouldn’t blame a little boy for stealing a piece of candy if left alone in a room with a box full of it, would you?

I am ashamed to say that I haven’t watched many “new to me” classic films lately. I’ve been so incredibly exhausted that whenever I snag a spare moment I fall back on my tried and true favorites. Lots of Wyler, Wilder, and Hitchcock. Not a bad group to fall back on, but it’s not like me to go this long without discovering something new. Maybe I’m still bitter about losing everything on my DVR and that’s why I’ve been so unenthusiastic. Whatever the reason, my dry spell is over! I don’t know if I picked the best for my movie watching homecoming, but it feels good to be back regardless.

As you will come to realize, I have many favorite actors and actresses. Four of them are in this movie (well, one has a relatively small role. The horror!): Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, and a really young and adorable James Stewart. Wife vs. Secretary is a perfect example of the typical run of the mill studio production: top talent under contract forced to make 3 or 4 movies at a time and regurgitated story lines. Definitely not the most memorable film in terms of film quality or story, but memorable because of those involved.

I don’t think anyone would deny the incredible chemistry between Gable and Loy and especially between Gable and Harlow in all of the movies they made together. Wife vs. Secretary is no exception. Gable is Van Stanhope (V.S.), a successful publisher and devoted husband to Linda, played by Loy. Harlow is “Whitey”, Van’s secretary and go-to gal. V.S. and Whitey’s relationship is purely business. Linda acknowledges Whitey’s importance to V.S. and his business affairs and never shows any shred of jealousy. She even expresses gratitude at Whitey’s helpfulness…until V.S’s mother Mimi (May Robson) suggests her son and Whitey are having an affair. Linda scoffs at the idea until a series of suspicious circumstances leads her to question V.S.’s fidelity.

Although I enjoyed Wife vs. Secretary, I had no real investment in the story or the characters for that matter. Gable is charming, as he is in every role, but his performance falls flat. I don’t think it is his fault, but rather because of poor writing. Harlow, known for her more seductive roles, is actually playing against type for a change. According to comments made by Myrna Loy, Harlow desperately wanted to be taken more seriously and wanted to shake the loose lady image. As Whitey she accomplishes that, which is completely refreshing to see. It’s also sad because she had a long career ahead of her and it was tragically cut short. I’m torn about Myrna Loy’s character. I love the sex appeal she brings to the role. It’s not often we see a wife with sex appeal who is also faithful. However,  I do not love Loy as the weakling. I like my Loy to be sensible and independent. Doesn’t everyone? James Stewart has a minor role as Whitey’s dopey-eyed boyfriend Dave. He wants to marry her but does not support her choice to continue working once they are wed. Stewart’s performance is effective and there are glimpses of the grand actor we know and love today.

One thing I always love about Depression-era films is their portrayal of the wealthy and elite classes. At the beginning of the film, V.S. and Linda are celebrating their wedding anniversary. V.S. surprises Linda with a diamond bracelet inside her breakfast fish. 1) Who eats a whole damn trout for breakfast and 2)who puts ridiculously expensive jewels inside a fish to be discovered? Apparently Myrna Loy was not too fond of that scene and tried to have it removed from the film. I also love the solution to a dissolving marriage: Take an ocean voyage! Nothing like the slow boat to Europe to think about your life. I guess it’s to avoid the prying eyes of the gossip columns and the social set. I must remember that if my husband and I ever have marital problems, I should book a cruise immediately.

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Jill Blake

Jill Blake is the owner of the classic film website Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence. She is also a co-founder and editor of the film site The Black Maria and film editor at CC2K. In 2012, she was interviewed on-air by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. In 2013, she was a featured guest on the TCM podcast. In her spare time Jill is a stay-at-home mom, wife, fried okra connoisseur, and the neighborhood’s own L.B. Jeffries.

Comments

KC
Reply

My favorite part of this movie is the line Jean Harlow said to Myrna Loy near the end: “you are a fool, for which I am grateful”. I thought that was so much better than the rest of the flick. You’re right about the chemistry between the lead though. That always makes up for a lot.

kittenbiscuits
Reply

That line was great. And actually the whole scene between Loy and Harlow is fantastic. It’s almost as if they cut and pasted it from another movie. Many times I watch movies for who is in them, not the movie itself. A perfect example? Cary Grant. He made some excellent movies and some absolutely horrid ones, but I will watch them over and over. I even buy them. All because I adore him.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

Kim
Reply

Yeah one of those cases where you have an amazing cast but lousy script. I thought all the actors were great but the storyline was so silly and not my cup of tea.

At the time I saw this this was actually my first Jean Harlow pic. I am glad I have seen better pictures with her since.

Erin W
Reply

I love Wife vs. Secretary, primarily because the female characters are revolutionary–sexpot Jean Harlow as a bright, confident, capable secretary and Myrna Loy as a wife who, while jealous, is not a harpy. Isn’t this the movie where they started calling Myrna Loy “The Perfect Wife”?

kittenbiscuits
Reply

I’m pretty sure that is when she gained that moniker. You are right about the female roles being revolutionary. I wonder what audiences thought of the straight-laced Harlow when they were so accustomed to her ditsy party girl persona?

Thanks so much for commenting! And you have a very nice blog. I’ve added you to my reader.

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