Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Wife Versus Secretary

"Wife vs. Secretary" (Clarence Brown, 1936) One of those forays off "The Rock" allowed me an evening of cable TV, and when I have a choice I head straight for Turner Classic Movies-easily the best channel for watching movies on the television dial. TCM treats the movies they show with respect--without commercial interruption, and in the proper theatrical aspect (widescreen if its a widescreen movie). They also show rare films, silent films, foreign films, things that any other channel with "movie" in its name wouldn't dare show in their efforts to cram as many commercials into each film as possible (Hello, AMC, you whore!)

So, that night I had the chance to catch a movie I'd never heard of, called "Wife vs. Secretary," which starred Clark Gable, Myrna Loy (as the "Wife") and Jean Harlow (as the "Secretary"). It was an M-G-M programmer, designed to exploit three of its biggest stars, and particularly Gable--the man is given so many loving close-ups, you actually begin to think he was being shot through gauze. Anyway, his V.S. Stanhope is a publishing tycoon, seeking to expand his properties--he's aggressive, a "man's man," and keeps terrible office-hours, seeing his loving, trusting wife only for an early breakfast and a late formal dinner party. His "Girl Friday" is Helen "Whitey" Wilson, a career-girl who keeps pace with Stanhope for the sheer exhilaration of seeing how fast the company can grow. That leaves her boy-friend a bit mopey, and considering he's played by a proto-Jimmy Stewart, that's saying quite a bit. An extended business trip to Cuba that leaves the Stanhope and Wilson drunk and in the same hotel rom almost sparks a romance, but both of them are just sober enough to think it's a dumb idea. But that doesn't keep the wife and boyfriend from suspecting the worse. It's interesting to see a pretty standard melodrama done with such snap--the timing of the stars crackles.

Now, I said this was a programmer, Gable had been in three previous films with Loy and four with Harlow, so they were all old veterans, and the movie sails by with quick dialog, impossibly rich surroundings (it's M-G-M), quite a few sophisticated laughs, and a very old school lesson in morality and suspicions gone awry. But it all turns out right in the end, as long as the career-girl gives up her job and "settles down," that is. Retro-chauvenism aside, though, it's a fascinating look at a typical night at the movies from 1936, cranked out like an automobile, but with obvious care, a nice sheen, and only the best parts.

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