Monday, December 26, 2005

Loy vs. Harlow

A Movie Review

Director Clarence Browns 1936 film Wife vs. Secretary is a story that could have easily slipped into overt melodrama, but do to a combination of careful direction and surpassingly subtle characterizations by the actors, still holds up well after all these years. Based on a story by Faith Baldwin, the film is an honest if sanitized exploration on issues of expectations and jealousy, featuring an unusually well constructed love-triangle. Clark Gable is Van 'V. S.' Stanhope, who like his father before him is the head of a high-class magazine publishing syndicate. Linda, his beloved wife of just over three years is played by Myrna Loy, while Van's secretary Helen 'Whitey' Wilson is then super-star Jean Harlow.

The action begins when Vans mother Mimi (played by May Robson) advises daughter-in-law Linda to have her husband get ride of actractive secretary Helen. Linda rebuffs the suggestion stating that she implicitly trusts her husband who is very much in love with her, and that Van and 'Whitey' have an exceptionally good working relationship that she would not want to break up. He "depends on her" she says. Linda is right about her husband who, while recognizing that Helen is "quite a dish", truly has eyes for no women other then his wife. Helen on the otherhand has been nursing quite the crush on her employer for years, to the point that her devotion to her 'job' is threatening to break-up her relationship to a long time boyfriend played by Jimmy Stewart (in what was only his 4th film).

Events in the story are moved along by V. S.'s plot to purchase a magazine called the National Weekly from its retiring publisher (J.D. Underwood played by George Barber), before rival company 'Hanson House' can do so. As it is important for Van to keep his plans secrete to avoid there leaking out, our protagonist is unable to truthfully explain to his wife why he's been spending such an unusual amount of time away from home. Thoughts set in motion by her mother-in-laws earlier supposition, Linda comes to increasing suspect that Van and Helen are having an affair, this idea finds reinforcement as she continually discovers holes in her husbands explanations of what he's doing with his time. Things all come to a head when Linda calls her husband at a publishing convention in Havana at two in the morning, only to hear Helen answering the phone in his hotel room (she is their because they have just brokered a late night deal with Underwood).

This is a solid motion picture though a little uneven themeaticly, fluctuating from light comedy to at times almost heavy handed moralizing, but it does always manages to advance its story without feeling overly contrived. Gable is great in his oblivious 'happy-go-lucky' persona throughout most of the film, displaying just the right amount of melancholy towards the end. While Harlow of course is the legendary sex-symbol, Loys more well-rounded appeal is evident, if not quite at its best in this film (Jimmy Stewart once said that "there ought to be a law against men who don't want to marry Myrnia Loy"). I think the truly interesting thing about Harlow is that her growth as an actress is one of the most noticeable in the history of film. In her early performances Harlow is mostly on screen because of her body, her acting wooden and clowenish with her parts seemingly written around her limited ability. In this film however her acting is strong, she conveys much through he eyes and facial expressions, and affects a complete and sympathetic personality for her character. Wife vs. Secretary is a good film for when you are in the mood for that 30's polish but would prefer your characters more fully developed then those in the average period film.


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