The romantic/comedy will always be a main staple in Hollywood’s daily digest. Fundamentally, we’re all suckers for the ‘love conquers all’ screen scenario. It serves a need – especially since real life is rarely (if ever) as perfectly realized. Throughout the decades, the romance movie has gone through several permutations; from screwball to serious. But in the 1980’s the romantic comedy became inextricably linked – with increasing regularity – to the corporate world; America’s burgeoning prosperity expelled into this euphoric domain, usually exclusively reserved for lovers; sex and money, frequently integrated as the interchangeable and ultimate definition of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. The cycle begun with gusto with Collin Higgins 9 to 5 (1980) would see the decade through, penultimate nods in Mike Nichols’ Working Girl and Penny Marshall’s more fanciful, Big (1988). Sandwiched in between is Herbert Ross’ guilty pleasure, The Secret of My Success (1987); a winsome entrée with a killer soundtrack supplied by then reigning film score-meister, David Foster and starring Michael J. Fox at the veritable height of his popularity as the teen heartthrob on television’s Family Ties (1982-89).
The Secret of My Success plays to Fox’s already built-in and innate down-to-earth charisma, cast as Brantley Foster, a bumbling hick from the mid-west who aims to tackle the corporate power structure in a brutally materialistic midtown Manhattan, inevitably biting off more than he can chew, but rising like cream to the top of his professional daydreams; thanks to a bit of well-timed intervention from his aunt, Vera Prescott (the alluring and delicious, Margaret Whitton), with whom he just happens to be having an affair. The Jim Cash, Jack Epps Jr. and A.J. Carothers’ screenplay nimbly skirts around the issue of family incest thus; first, by having Vera as Brantley’s aunt through marriage – ergo, no direct blood ties are involved, and second, by both parties being absolute innocents; never having met before and therefore beginning their lustful byplay totally oblivious of the fact they already know one another much too well for such badinage. Vera is caught in a loveless marriage to Brantley’s uncle, Howard (Richard Jordan) who is also carrying on behind the scenes with Christy Wills (the statuesque, though thoroughly wooden, Helen Slater), whom Brantley desires for his own – again, unaware she and Howard are an item.
As with most ‘romantic comedies’ from the 1980’s, The Secret of My Success is mostly a sixties sex farce, moderately updated to encompass the precepts of a more slickly packaged and timely comedy of errors, with the added infusion of high-powered wheeling and dealing from the Reaganomics world of high finance. With the implosion of America’s economic stability, begun in 2008 (its fallout still very much with us), movies like The Secret of My Success truly seem to be from another planet: most decidedly, from another time. David Foster’s interpolation of an electronica/synthesizer underscore with pop/rock standards of their day (including the bass-pounding title track, performed by Night Ranger, Katrina & the Wave’s ebullient summer sizzler, ‘Walkin’ on Sunshine’, Yello’s erotic ode, ‘Oh Yeah!’ and Pat Benetar’s energy-charged, ‘Sometimes The Good Guys Finish First’) is rife for vintage eighties pastiche.
Foster provides us with three central orchestral themes to counterbalance and carry the picture: his rather clinical ‘corporate’ march, juxtaposed with the Brantley Foster theme, the latter imbued with naïve optimism. There’s also a piano-heavy ‘love theme’, providing a musical respite from the visual hijinks; also, a motif for the Brantley/Christy romance, apart from the noisy pop/rock repertoire, and finally – and best of all – ‘Gazebo’; an inspirational blend of the aforementioned musical elements, expressly written for a sequence played completely in silence: Brantley, with Vera’s connections, managing to woo the reigning Wall Street tycoons to his way of thinking at the Prescott’s weekend retreat in Litchfield.
The Secret of My Success delivers the proverbial ‘feel good’ with a capital ‘F’. This could just as easily stand for ‘fantastic’, ‘frenetic’ and ‘fun’. The Cash/Epps/Carothers’ screenplay is a potpourri of improbably concocted scenarios, given weight in performance and credence by the underlying fact that, at least in the 1980’s, such improbably featherweight situations were readily on tap and taken at face value by the audience. Apart from Helen Slater’s lethal turn as the undeniably handsome, but thoroughly ineffectual soulless female executive of the Penrose Corp., the rest of the cast come off pretty much smelling like the proverbial rose – sweetly scented in Chanel No. 5, wafting from the moneyed balconies of 5th Ave.; a magic elixir of brash comedy and some expertly timed musical montages, all of it immensely fleshed out by the support of its key players. In all, The Secret of My Success excels because its cast is so expertly put together. We get actors who know how to do so much with so little, their presence immediately felt and lingering long after their few minutes of screen time is over.
For starters, we tip our hats to Carol-Ann Susi as Jean; Brantley’s portly secretary, who tolerates her boss’ frequent stripteases throughout the movie while remaining bemused, empathetic and wholly loveable besides. Almost as good is John Pankow as oversexed mailroom horn dog, Fred Melrose: a joyously obtuse underachiever with a bit of playful larceny brewing behind his perpetually donned dark sunglasses. Elizabeth Franz and Drew Snyder, barely glimpsed in the film’s Kansas prologue as Brantley’s parents, Grace and Burt Foster respectively, manage to make their mark; two easily identifiable faces to help ground us in Brantley’s Midwestern mentality of congeniality and honor: qualities decidedly at odds and in stark contrast to New York’s more cosmopolitan and hedonistic lifestyle.
The film’s portrayal of cruel corporate America is amiably fleshed out with turns from Susan Kellerman, as Howard’s sterile secretary, Maureen; Jerry Bamman, the Penrose Corporation’s stern hatchet man, Art Thomas; Fred Gwynne (TV’s Fred Munster, who experienced something of a minor career renaissance in films throughout the decade) as malevolent corporate raider, Donald Davenport, and finally, Christopher Murney - an unrepentantly crude and equally as jaded mailroom manager, Barney Rattigan (who gets his comeuppance in the end). Also, watch for a very brief, but unforgettable turn by Mercedes Ruehl as Sheila, a ditzy ‘new age’ waitress, and a fleeting glimpse of then supermodel, Cindy Crawford, beneath the movie’s title credits as one of the fashion district’s stunning physical specimens from the world of the anatomically gifted.
Movies from the 1980’s often get a very bad rap as being purely nonsensical. Alas, those too quick to judge are missing the fundamental point of movies in general and those particularly from this decade; meant to entertain rather than indoctrinate. Like so many of the more quality-orientated flicks produced and slickly packaged throughout the 1980’s, The Secret of My Success is not about recreating or even reconstituting reality for the screen; rather, telling stories to elevate the human spirit, offering an affinity for these characters we are asked to invest in, and thus live vicariously through while they occupy the screen.
At one point, Whitton’s Vera Prescott exclaims to Brantley, “I could get lost in those big brown eyes” – a throwaway line, symbolic of her insatiable infatuation for the nephew she has come to understand first, but ultimately respect and admire later as more than her lover. As the audience, we can completely buy into Vera’s clunky and misguided rapture. For Michael J. Fox is a presence rather than an actor. We’re never particularly interested in his Brantley, per say (something of a cheap knockoff of his own Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties). But we’re very much hopeful Fox – as Fox (or, at least, what we’ve come to perceive as Fox) – will excel in his passions to assuage into the corporate boardroom and win the girl of his dreams, undetected by the lascivious Howard or Rattigan, who is keeping his own jealous vigil on Brantley’s frequent absences from the mailroom.
The Secret of My Success opens – appropriately – with Night Ranger’s bass-heavy title song, a kick-starter for the movie’s chart-topping soundtrack. We meet the Fosters; Brantley, bailing hay in the family’s barn; Burt and Grace quietly debating the merits of their son’s venture to leave home and carve a niche in the big bad city of Manhattan. Brantley’s a college grad with big dreams doomed to disillusionment; Carlo Di Palma cinematography shifting from Kansas’ bright-skied bucolic optimism to the gleaming steel and concrete canyons of New York City; the autonomous and shadowy skyscrapers juxtaposed with a sea of humanity in its many forms milling about; suited up senior execs caught in a daily fashion parade alongside drug dealers, prostitutes, high-profile supermodels, uniform-clad schoolgirls in knee socks and plaid tartans, and scumbags of every shape and size, hocking stolen furs, drugs and selling themselves on the city streets. Director Herbert Ross gives us Manhattan in all its urban drama, decay and exaltation of fallen/forgotten dreams – shattered and otherwise – everything caught in the noonday bump and grind on these overcrowded thoroughfares and byways.
Ross’ snap analysis of everything that is both right and wrong with the Big Apple is broken by Brantley’s first excited glimpses from the window of his bus; further deflated immediately following the opening credits as his quickly learns the company who hired him out of college has since been liquidated in a hostile corporate takeover. He’s out of a job even before he’s begun, and finds no sympathy during the various disheartening interviews he endures in the days that follow. At one point, a prospective employer glibly informs this career ingénue he has “no practical experience”; also, that any he might hope to accrue herein would only be used to benefit another career opportunity elsewhere. Another, interviewer, Mrs. Meacham (Judith Malina), promptly informs Brantley he’s perfect for the job (this, after he’s made some creative ‘additions’ to his CV), if only he were a minority woman: the first hints of sexual discrimination (sadly, still very much with us) coming into play.
Remembering a telephone number his mother gave him, a contact for his Uncle Howard, the CEO of the Penrose Corporation – a multinational conglomerate – Brantley attempts to broker favor with the estranged relative he’s never met; only to discover Howard is just as heartless. Alas, Brantley’s impassioned pitch and self-promotion manages to stir something in Howard, if only abject dread and a modicum of pity. He telephones personnel; Brantley, promptly installed at the lowest possible rung of the corporate ladder overseen by Rattigan. “Can you get promoted from the mailroom?” Brantley asks fellow co-worker, Fred Melrose. “You can’t even get paroled from the mailroom,” Melrose replies. Nevertheless, it’s a start, and one Brantley is determined to make a success of come hell or high water. Melrose informs him he is not to ‘consort’ with the executives in his daily deliveries. They’re ‘suits’ – he’s mailroom: no consorting. The concept is foreign to Brantley, who cannot resist asking questions and almost immediately falling for one of the company’s few female executives, Christy Wills.
After a top-level executive gets the axe, Brantley taps into the idea of masquerading as a new hire, commandeering the corner office and filling out the necessary requisitions to get him a secretary and all the necessary stationary and supplies he needs to launch his venture. Stealing the identity of a fellow classmate, Carlton Whitfield, whom we learn from Brantley’s parents went off to New York a normal boy, but came back to Kansas with his head shaved and an earring stuck in his cheek, Brantley assumes the role of a ‘suit’ after performing his daily deliveries, morphing out of his work clothes into a three-piece and tie in the elevator and using the emergency stop to buy him the necessary few seconds for this quick change. Occasionally, all does not go as planned. Rattigan is becoming suspicious of Brantley’s frequent delays and absences. Later, Brantley is almost found out by Howard, who makes an impromptu visit, first to Carlton Whitfield’s office, then, to the boardroom, to see how things are progressing during a routine meeting. To escape detection, Brantley fakes a nosebleed.
In the meantime, Brantley, as Carlton, has made inroads into a romantic liaison with Christy Wills. At first, she is both unreceptive and frankly hostile to the idea. Gradually – and rather predictably – her inhibitions dissolve; Brantley engaging this Harvard ‘A’-type personality on a strictly platonic plain by analyzing Penrose’s corporate assets. The whole company is thrown into a tizzy after it is discovered corporate raider, Donald Davenport is eyeing Penrose for a hostile takeover; the net result being most employees will likely lose their jobs. Howard is more interested in his own golden parachute than what will ultimately become of the company Vera’s father built from the ground up with nothing more than his own two hands and a dream for success.
Brantley is ordered by Rattigan to chauffeur ‘an executive’s wife to Litchfield’; Brantley, unaware the woman in his care is, in fact, his Aunt Vera, and empathetic to her overheard conversation on the telephone in the back of the limo he is driving (she confesses to a girlfriend her husband is having an affair) attempts to broker favor with kindness. This, alas, is misunderstood by Vera who, deprived of male companionship for so long, decides to seduce Brantley after he has driven her to a palatial country estate. Vera makes sure Brantley gets full credit on his time card, then wastes no time getting him into a pair of swim trunks that come off promptly in her pool. The pair winds up in the bathhouse, post flagrante delicto when Howard suddenly comes home. Realizing the woman he’s just made love to is his aunt, and terrified at being discovered by Howard, Brantley makes a daring escape, pursued by a pair of Dobermans.
The next day, Brantley continues his pursuit of Christy, unaware she is Howard’s lover. Christy resists getting to know the brash Brantley further, but then decides to entertain him over dinner as her blood sugar has dropped due to lack of food. The two discuss the corporate responsibility each has to ensuring Penrose Inc. does not fall into Donald Davenport’s hands. Christy is feeling insecure over the fact Howard has asked her to spy on Whitfield, whom Howard has never met, but naturally assumes is an insider working for Davenport. Aside: why Howard shouldn’t insist to see Whitfield immediately, and then fire him on sight if this were actually the case, is anybody’s guess. Again, it’s a movie. We’re not meant to question, or even look too closely at the inaccuracies or loopholes. Reluctantly, Christy steals some of Brantley’s files she later gives to Howard. In the meantime, Howard invites his top-tier executive brain trust to the country estate for the weekend to hammer out the details of their downsizing. Alas, by now, Brantley has managed to convince Christy the only way to stave off Davenport’s takeover is to expand the company’s holdings instead.
Vera suggests Howard invite Brantley for the weekend as well. Sensing he can manipulate Brantley as a buffer to entertain Vera while he pursues Christy – who has since sworn off Howard because she would rather pursue Whitfield (a.k.a. Brantley) – Howard agrees to the invite. Instead, Vera coaxes Brantley into a tête-à-tête with some of Wall Street’s biggest tycoons who are also part of this weekend’s glittery assemblage. Brantley easily wins these titans over with his college smarts. That evening, Howard sneaks off to Christy’s bedroom. Christy skulks to Whitfield’s room. Vera pursues Howard. Brantley discovers his stolen files in Christy’s possession moments before Howard walks in. Hiding under the bedcovers, Brantley pretends to be Christy while Howard attempts his seduction. Christy and Vera burst into the room, discovering Brantley in bed with Howard. Declaring the sexual revolution over, Vera challenges Howard to explain his presence in Christy’s bed; Brantley, equally challenges Christy to explain his files in her possession.
In the resultant series of revelations, Vera tells Howard she intends to file for a divorce; Howard calls Christy a bimbo and Brantley and Christy’s burgeoning romance comes to an end. The next day, Brantley bids Jean and Melrose farewell; Melrose insisting Christy is worth fighting for. Christy and Brantley meet in an elevator; she, apparently having been fired. The two break into a hostile argument as the elevator doors close behind them. However, when the doors part again, the two are in a state of half undress – seemingly forgiven one another for their indiscretions. Thwarting the finalization of the Davenport takeover bid, Brantley, Christy, Melrose and Jean are accompanied by Vera, who informs Howard his days as the company’s CEO are over.
As she still controls the voting stock, Vera promptly fires her husband before he can affix his signature to the takeover deal. Brantley is appointed the company’s new CEO and now informs Davenport that, through Vera’s connections and his own newly acquired Wall Street investors, the Penrose Corp. has launched an aggressive counterattack against Davenport Industries. They’re buying Donald out! The company saved, Vera and Melrose hook up, the two sharing a limo on their way to the opera with Christy and Brantley, the car driven by Rattigan who is now owing to Brantley for his livelihood instead of the other way around.
The Secret of My Success is so utterly steeped in its fairy-Godmother-ish wish fulfillment scenario; so blind to the reality no such bait and switch like the one perpetrated by Brantley Foster could ever succeed, that at some point, the expectation for truth – or even thinly disguised verisimilitude – must be set aside in favor of the hearty laugh, however insincerely perpetuated. Remember, this is the 80’s. Joy alone is purposeful. Love is the answer (no, the sixties do not have the monopoly on this)…and a good time was had by all, but especially, the audience. The Secret of My Success retains its ability to entertain, despite the shifting culture of corporate America. For those who were not around during this heady self-congratulatory ‘greed is good’ capitalism run amuck, I suppose no explanation – clinical or otherwise – will suffice. You had to be there. America at large was on its’ magic carpet ride; optimism running high; profits higher still.
Following a fallow decade of financial retrenchment and corporate takeovers in the 1970’s, Hollywood was able to breathe a badly needed sigh of relief; the American movie industry experiencing a flourish of renewed success and worldwide interest in its product; the biggest influx of ticket buyers since the 1950’s. For the country as a whole, the 1980’s were a time to relax and bask in the afterglow of all this newfound, fiscally solvent ‘freedom’; fame and politics, intermingling in Ronald Reagan’s White House. In retrospect, The Secret of My Success taps into this ‘what me worry?’ groundswell with spectacular precision, letting the good times roll and without fear of reprisals or much clairvoyance for the end of the era, too soon to follow it. The movie is still a personal guilty pleasure for yours truly; a dream only a diehard capitalist, ensconced in the media hype of a Hollywoodized America - where anything was possible for the everyman – could distract and satisfy…if only for an hour or two.
Alas, The Secret of My Success is only available in Germany on Blu-ray. The good news: although this disc is erroneously advertised as Region B locked, it’s actually region free. You can play it anywhere! I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this one, having endured the grotesque non-anamorphic transfer from Universal state’s side for nearly three decades. So, how does the picture size up? Well, for starters, let’s chase the more obvious ‘elephant’ out of the room. There’s no comparison between this 1080p rendering and the aforementioned DVD. The latter is now officially a coaster for my drink and soon to be a Frisbee in the ash can. Does the new Blu-ray live up to today’s remastering standards? Alas – no.
So, what’s wrong and what’s right with this disc. We’ll do the wrong first. Continued edge enhancement is present. It was downright obtrusive on the DVD. On the Blu-ray it’s less so, but still there. Also, there are several instances where the image is inexplicably soft. Watch the montage, for example, of the Manhattan skyline lit at night; the scene set to Roger Daltrey’s ‘The Price of Love’. There isn’t a crisp shot among them; contrast also somewhat boosted; weak black levels and the gleaming tops of the skyscrapers bleached out. I’m not exactly certain what went wrong here. It’s an anomaly, and thankfully, one that is not persistent otherwise in this hi-def transfer.
The pluses: most of the image is remarkably clean and razor-sharp. Colors pop – particularly greens and reds. Medium shots and close-ups reveal a spectacular amount of fine detail in hair, skin, fabric and background detail; the ‘wow factor’ really showing to its best advantage. Long shots are more problematically resolved, occasionally with a bump in film grain not looking all that natural. Thankfully, we don’t get undue DNR. For the most part, I really can’t complain. The movie looks about as good as I remember it in theaters, and occasionally, on disc, surpassed my expectations for overall clarity.
The DTS 5.1 audio is another reason to rejoice: really packing a wallop – especially during the rock/pop montage interludes and showcasing Foster’s original orchestrations to their best advantage. Dialogue is always crisp and clearly delineated. So, no complaints here either. The audio naturally defaults to German and the menus are all in German too, but it’s not hard to figure out how to navigate through them. As American film companies persist in restricting our consumption of their vintage catalog here in North America, you’ll have to muddle through this import to get your fix. Extras are limited to a few brief interviews and a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: if you love this movie as I do, you’ll want to snatch up this disc. The Blu-ray is the best way – presently – to enjoy it on home video. Recommended with caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)