Friday, October 16, 2015

WIFE VERSUS SECRETARY (MGM 1936) Warner Home Video

Was there ever a more perfect specimen of male virility than Clark Gable? Gable: who could command a room simply by entering it, was the envy of every amiable young guy, seeing himself as the epitome of the he-man/lady’s man, and the object of adoration by every woman wishing she could be resting comfortably at his side or, at the very least, be chaperoned to a grand Hollywood party, capped off by an innocent peck on the cheek. In later years, it would matter not to discover Gable had false teeth that frequently caused his leading ladies to swoon for the wrong reasons, or, that his ears, without the proper paste and appliances to hold them back for the camera, resembled the generous arms of a loving cup. As charisma is largely in the mind rather than the deportment, Gable, above all reigning male superstars of his generation, had this intangible quality in spades. Even from his earliest appearances in the movies, it was blatantly obvious Gable possessed the invisible known as ‘star quality.’ Like Bogart, in the beginning, Gable was often cast as the heavy rather than the leading man; his cruel womanizer in A Free Soul and shifty-eyed chauffeur in Night Nurse (both made and released in 1931), suggesting that his future in the movies would be as a second string bad guy destined for the untimely end.
Gable once professed that the best thing any man could have in life was either a devoted mother and/or sweetheart rooting in his corner. Tragically, Gable had neither; his mother – dead before her infant son was barely ten months old; his stepmother, dying before the youth had exited his teens. After celebrity took hold, Gable’s name would be associated with some of Hollywood’s most exotic women; rumored to have slept with most every leading lady (good for the banana oil in these ‘romance of celluloid’ rags) and siring an illegitimate child with Loretta Young (whom he had starred with in The Call of the Wild, 1935). The latter affair and subsequent baby were, of course, kept hush/hush from both the public and Gable’s second wife, Rhea, who had worked like the devil to mold this farm boy into an affable hunk du jour. Nevertheless, Gable enjoyed the perks of being a star without ever considering himself as such. At parties, he could be counted upon to be talking horse racing and cars with the chauffeurs, rather than hobnobbing with his fellow glitterati. In these early years, Gable possessed a breezy outlook on life that made MGM’s child stars, Jackie Cooper and Mickey Rooney, positively worship him as their ‘hero’ – Rooney, later paying homage by doing a wicked improvisation of his hero. Privately, Gable cut his cuffs on a torrid liaison with Joan Crawford with whom he was frequently paired on screen. He also had his moments with the studio’s radiant sex bomb, Jean Harlow.
Interestingly, early praise from on high was not forthcoming. Indeed, viewing Gable’s first screen test for 2oth Century-Fox, mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck reportedly muttered, “His ears are too big and he looks like an ape.” There is something to this snap analysis, Gable’s toughness leaning more towards the Neanderthal than the stud. But this too would change – or rather, be whittled out of him, first by Rhea, then later, his affair with the exuberant raconteur and comedian, Carole Lombard (the third Mrs. Gable, and, by all accounts, the great love of his life – tragically killed in a plane crash while doing her part on a war bond tour in 1941). Today, it seems inconceivable that the image of Clark Gable most of us have is of a easy-going charmer, perhaps because it is so untrue. While Lombard, during their brief whirlwind romance and wedded bliss, would make light of the relationship for the fan magazines, with such off-the-cuff double entendre, expressly designed to unruffled the status quo, as “I’m really nuts about Clark…not just his nuts”, occasionally, the madcap would reveal a more genuine affection for her man, “Clark isn’t the happy-go-lucky, carefree man the public sees. He’s not had a very happy life and is inclined to be depressed and worried. I want to make it up to him - if I can.” After Lombard’s untimely demise, Elaine Barrymore (wife of John) astutely surmised, “Clark adored her. She was the light in his eyes. He admitted to me that he had always loved the company of ladies and he knew he had a reputation of being a ladies man, but with her it was different. He really was in love. To have her taken from him was like someone ripped out his soul. I saw him periodically for years afterward. But the light in his eyes was gone. Even when he smiled. That light never returned.”
The winter of Gable’s life and career had been preceded by a radiant summer season of megahits, capped off by his indelibly etched incarnation of Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind (1939). The films Gable made just prior to the start of WWII firmly established him as the reigning ‘king’ of Hollywood. Louis B. Mayer, MGM’s raja and imminent star-maker, had wasted no time exploiting Gable’s obvious (and not so obvious) assets to great effect. In 1931, the hard work was recognized by The Hollywood Reporter, who began to craft the Gable mystique with their review of Dance Fools, Dance, writing in part, “A star in the making has been made, one that, to our reckoning, will outdraw every other star... Never have we seen audiences work themselves into such enthusiasm as when Clark Gable walks on the screen.” By the mid-1930’s, it was impossible to go more than a few months without a new Gable movie headlining the marquee. Like most stars, not everything Gable did was grade-A quality. But to each project he at least brought the best of himself to bear on the part – hitting the target far more often than not and sending cash registers ringing around the world. Gable’s public persona might have gone on indefinitely as the epitome of manly grace, charm and undulating sex appeal, if not for Lombard’s death.
In retrospect, one can see how much Lombard’s untimely passing affected Gable’s on-screen image; his latter day movies utterly void of that intangible playfulness so readily, and infectiously, on display in films like director, Clarence Brown’s exquisitely light – but with serious underpinnings – romantic comedy: Wife Versus Secretary (1936).  This movie marked Gable’s fifth to final collaboration with co-star, Jean Harlow and his fourth pairing with Myrna Loy. During Hollywood’s golden era, such frequent co-starring bred a sort of in-house familiarity amongst its stable of stars; the comfortableness translating onto the screen.  For the first time, Gable played a devoted husband rather than a lover – Van Stanhope; magnet of a publishing empire; Harlow, softened around the edges and shedding the raucous sexpot image that had made her infamously adorable as a lowbrow lady of the evening, herein cast as Van’s selfless secretary, Helen ‘Whitey’ Wilson, and, Loy, his eternally forgiving spouse, Linda. The title, ‘Wife Versus Secretary’ is rather deceiving, in that there is never any real rivalry between Whitey and Linda; the latter already firmly established in her affections for Van (and vice versa), the former, not particularly interested in a spouse-stealing flagrante delicto with the wealthy publisher, despite frequently being thrust into situations with tangible romantic underpinnings, denied at the last possible moment in the Norman Krasna, John Lee Mahin and Alice Duer Miller screenplay (itself based on Faith Baldwin’s 1935 serialized story of the same name in Cosmopolitan Magazine).
Van loves Linda. There is never any question of this, except the kernel of doubt gradually seeded into Linda’s unbiased mind by her well-meaning mother-in-law, Mimi (May Robson); and ever so slightly – if constantly – being provoked by the fashionable couple’s flock of fair-weather and extremely jaded friends. They say the wife is always the last to know. But the truth of the matter is that Linda does not know anything for certain; her imagination eventually overtaking her more practical self; threatening to end what was only a brief time earlier, a very contented marriage. For once in her career, Harlow plays noble. Gone are the trappings of the hot-blooded and gold-digging firebrand, out for all she can get. It’s rather sweet and refreshing to see Harlow as the ‘good girl’ – the one who, despite having every opportunity to steal Van away from Linda, in the movie’s penultimate confrontation, instead pulls the old Jedi mind trick on her competition, explaining how she intends to take Van away from the one woman he so obviously loves, simply because Linda has made this seduction possible.  There is something truly empathic and satisfying about Whitey ‘confession’, all but pleading with Linda to open her eyes and take her husband back as she explains, “If you leave him now, you'll never get him back. He's going to be lonely. His life won't end with you. And when the rebound sets in, he’s going to turn to the woman nearest…pretty soon he’ll want to buy me things. That's how it always starts. And then it’ll be too late, because if he ever turns to me, I won't turn away. I'll take him second best. But he'll be fairly happy. Not as happy as he was, not as happy as you could make him, but as happy as anybody else could make him…You're a fool - for which I'm grateful.”
Wife Versus Secretary is a fascinating character study, in that the only genuinely injured party in the piece is second-string male ingénue, David, played with petulant dissatisfaction by the otherwise genial, James Stewart.  David and Whitey are engaged. He tolerates her ‘working woman’ to a point, though suggesting after he has secured a raise at his place of employ, it is high time Whitey turn in her notice to Van so they can marry and start a family. Frankly, Harlow’s indentured Ms. Wilson will not permit love to enter the picture one way or the other; suggesting ever so subtly that without her, the Stanhope publishing empire could not survive. Indeed, she is rather indispensable to Van; whether taking notes at a meeting of the editorial staff, softening Van’s corporate image by redecorating his office – or providing some very sound business advice along the way as his gal Friday – even orchestrating an impromptu, but strictly ‘business trip’ to Havana to iron out last minute kinks in a corporate merger; Whitey Wilson is the fighting spirit behind Van’s outwardly good-natured titan of industry. It’s still Van’s show, as far as he is concerned, and with Gable in the part, there is little doubt who is wearing the pants in this family. Still, Van hopes against hope he can juggle the boardroom and the bedroom in tandem without letting either his professional or personal life go to hell.
It won’t work – chiefly, because Linda has allowed her head to be turned by cheap gossip, innuendo and rumor; presumably confirming her worse suspicions with one thoroughly misguided phone call, placed to Van’s suite in Havana during the wee hours of the morning after Whitey has arranged for an all-night session with a small army of typists to get the last minute contracts printed up to seal the deal for Stanhope Publishing. Regrettably, Van is indisposed when the call comes and Whitey, unthinkingly, picks up the receiver instead. So, what other motive could a young and attractive woman possibly have for being in a married man’s bedroom at two o’clock in the morning? Despite Van’s best efforts to explain, Linda isn’t buying any of it. And who can really blame her? It does look very bad. The first two acts of Wife Versus Secretary cast Gable as the genial gent. However, when push comes to shove, Van isn’t about letting Linda’s insinuations send him asking for her forgiveness. Besides, there is nothing to forgive…not yet!
Wife Versus Secretary performs a minor miracle in that it manages to tread upon some very adult issues in this fairly antiseptic ménage à trois, and, in an equally frank and honest manner, with some juicy bits of comedy and loaded dialogue thrown in to suggest more titillating moments yet to follow. A good deal of the picture’s success can be credited to director, Clarence Brown; today, one of Metro’s tragically forgotten workhorses. Revered in his own epoch and Oscar-nominated five times, Brown not only made the difficult transition from silent to sound movies, but he quickly established himself as one of the irrefutable masters in the ‘new’ medium – an actor’s director, intuitively respecting human instincts and creating wholly believable and under-played drama, pulsating with an authentic cadence. Herein, Brown is clearly working with three exceptional stars; Gable, Harlow and Loy all at the top of their game; each, able to give him the sort of varied richness required to sell their roles as convincing counterpoints of their own authentic selves.  Loy’s performance in particular, smacks of a self-styled respectability as the women led to believe she has been wronged by her devoted husband. Loy would make something of a career playing these adoring – mostly good-natured, generally playful and occasionally seductive wives and lovers; the actress nicknamed “so nice to come home to.”  There is a sort of liquidity to her finely wrought art as the matron of this maison, as easily plugged into Gable’s DNA as William Powell, with whom she was frequently costarred.
Wife Versus Secretary opens with an innocuous ‘day in the life’ scenario unfolding in Manhattan. It’s just another routine moment in the Stanhope’s three year marriage – except that today, in particular, is not like every other, but instead marks their three year anniversary. Gable’s Van plays it cagey from the start, serenading the Mrs. through her closed bedroom door, planting several affectionate kisses on her lips (to which she playfully calls out the names of their butler, Simpson {Gilbert Emery} and chauffeur, Finney {Tom Dugan} first before conceding it is Van to whom her heart definitely belongs), then concealing a diamond-studded bracelet inside Linda’s breakfast trout to be unearthed as a surprise.  Some years later, Loy would infer she found this scene ‘vulgar’ and pleaded with Clarence Brown to remove it from the final edit. The scene stayed in and became one of the most often recalled whenever the picture was mentioned thereafter. “It just goes to show you how much I know about anything,” Loy would add with a wry smile.
Linda informs Van of a grand ‘surprise’ party she has planned to mark the occasion, having already invited all of their closest friends to partake. Van promises to arrive home early. At the midtown offices of Stanhope Publishing we are introduced to Van’s secretary, Helen ‘Whitey’ Wilson, putting the finishing touches on her redecorating efforts. Van is interested in taking over J.D. Underwood’s (George Barbier) rival publication – a five cent novelty, presently raking in the profits and having all but cornered the marketplace. Underwood’s nearing retirement age, and Van has wisely deduced the old-time magnet is rife for a buyout. Underwood isn’t all that convinced, however, forcing Van to do some real homework and discover how best to sweeten his deal. To this end, Van interrupts his own anniversary shindig, telephoning Whitey at home. Even as she is enjoying dinner with her family and has already dressed to attend the theater with David, Whitey nevertheless agrees to hurry over – first to the office, then to the Stanhope’s fashionable penthouse apartment – to crunch the numbers with her boss. Her gesture of goodwill incurs David’s mild displeasure. After all, when does Whitey get to share her life with him? Apparently, not in the evenings. This one will once more be spent at Van’s beckoned call.
Retiring to his upstairs den with Whitey, Van’s departure from his own gala raises more than a few eyebrows among the guests; a few more still when, sometime later, he encourages Whitey to forgo her plans with David and join the party. Linda’s magnanimous prodding to help her manage the eligible bachelors in attendance sways Whitey to remain. She shares a rather intimate spin around the dance floor with Van, returning home in the wee hours of the morning, only to discover David’s car still parked outside. He has fallen asleep behind the wheel. She quietly stirs him from his slumber and he confides in her that thanks to his own shrewd maneuvering, his boss has authorized him for a raise. Whitey is overjoyed. And yet, there remains a queerly sisterly bond to David utterly void of any promise for a romantic future. He asks about the party and she lavishes the details. David is no fool. He can plainly see how being exposed to this uber-wealthy lifestyle has already begun to turn Whitey’s head. She desires the good life. David reasons that theirs could be just as good together, though hardly has highfaluting and moneyed.
Linda isn’t the jealous type. Moreover, she is most forgiving of Van’s frequent business meetings; Whitey permanently sewn to her husband’s hip, taking dictation, firing off memos, arranging power-broker luncheons and meetings with the marketing and art departments, and also, setting up the Havana deal with Underwood. Earlier, Van’s mother, Mimi, had suggested to her daughter-in-law she should strongly advise Van to get rid of his secretary.  No matter how loyal the husband, a pretty girl is always a distraction and Van – like his father before him – does not need such diversions at the office. At first, Linda is fairly amused by the notion Whitey might try and seduce her husband. Moreover, she trusts Van implicitly. However, as time wears on, Linda allows even the most innocuous exchanges between Van and Whitey to take on an unintended double meaning. Hence, after learning of Van’s intensions to fly off to Havana to close the deal with Underwood, Linda packs a suitcase to tag along. She is shot down in her attempts to partake by Van, who not only suggests the ‘getaway’ as ill-advised (all business, with no time for play), but equally orders Linda to remain at home so he can swiftly bring about a resolution to his takeover plans.
Linda takes Van at face value. Except that she grows restless and suspicious lying in bed alone; her mind whirling with the possibilities as to what is actually going on in Havana. Unable to put these nagging beliefs to rest, Linda telephones her husband’s private hotel suite at two o’clock in the morning and is more than mildly wounded and shocked into silence when Whitey picks up the telephone.  Realizing the call is long distance, Whitey reasons she has made a grave error in answering the phone. What Linda does not realize is that Whitey and Van have not been alone since they landed in Havana; Whitey having hired a small army of typists to prepare the Underwood contracts while she and Van iron out the legalese in the next room. There is no hanky-panky to apologize for. Alas, Linda utterly refuses to believe this. Linda’s close friend, Joan Carstairs (Gloria Holden) attempts to knock some common sense into her head, explaining “There's an old Chinese proverb that says if you want to keep a man honest, never call him a liar.” But Linda is convinced she has been wronged. She orders Van to prove his fidelity to her by firing Whitey at once. As Van absolutely refuses to do this on the grounds it would not only be legally wrong, but morally too, Linda erroneously assumes Van has sided with Whitey against her. The couple separates and Van moves into his men’s club.
The last act of Wife Versus Secretary is exceptionally well-scripted and superbly played out for maximum dramatic effect. Linda reasons a legal separation will inevitably lead to divorce. After all, what is there to keep them together anymore? Her trust in Van hopelessly eroded, Linda books passage on a luxury liner bound for Europe for an extended stay. In the meantime, Van is wounded by Linda’s inferences he is a liar and a cheat. Stubbornly, he refuses to make any attempt to explain himself. Instead, he proposes a vacation for Whitey and himself, hinting that with his marriage already on the rocks why not give the wife something to really talk about with her friends. Superficially, Whitey allows Van to go on making plans. After all, she and David have had a bitter fight over her wanting to keep her job. They have since called off their engagement. It dawns on Whitey that if she plays her cards right she could have everything she has ever wanted – everything, that is, except love. David genuinely wants to make an honest woman of her.
Although he ultimately respects her as a professional colleague, Van would make Whitey a permanent fixture in his bed merely to spite Linda and break up their marriage for good. Ultimately, Whitey makes the right decision for all concerned. She confronts Linda as she is unpacking her luggage in a stateroom aboard the luxury liner, informing Linda of the obviousness in her escape plans; that it will put a definite period to whatever is left of their three year marriage and provide Whitey with the opportunity to step right into Van’s life without any impediments between her and the altar.  Linda is marginally disgusted by Whitey’s frankness, but later reasons the truer purpose to her rather obvious deception – to bring her and Van back together.  The finale to Wife Versus Secretary is exquisitely underplayed and directed with subtly nuances by Clarence Brown; Van and Whitey in conference at the office, his heart quickening a beat at the sound of high-heeled footsteps approaching, only to discover the shoes belong to one of the night staff cleaning crew. Van’s look of abysmal disappointment causes Whitey to realize she will never mean more to him than she does at this moment. A few moments later, another set of women’s shoes echo from the hall; more spiritedly approaching. Enter Linda; grateful and repentant, throwing her arms around Van’s neck as the couple embrace; she and Whitey exchanging telling glances as Whitey saunters off to be reconciled with David, and, one may presume, hand in her resignation.
Wife Versus Secretary was Harlow’s fifth to last movie. Regrettably, she had a little over a year to live; stricken with uremic poisoning that caused her to bloat uncontrollably during the shooting of her last picture, Saratoga (1937, also with Gable) and succumb to a high fever on the set before the shoot was finished. Rushed to hospital too late to make any difference, Harlow would die at the age of 26; her mother’s religious beliefs precluding her from getting the necessary care that may have saved her life. “Jean was beautiful,” Myrna Loy would later acknowledge, “…far from the raucous sexpot of her films. She'd begged for that role. It didn't require spouting slang and modeling lingerie. She's really wonderful in the picture and her popularity wasn't diminished one bit.”
Wife Versus Secretary has been ill-served on DVD from Warner Home Video. The transfer is abysmal, to say the least. Not only is the image riddled in age-related artifacts hopelessly distracting throughout this presentation, but the B&W image suffers from horrendously muddy tonality. The gray scale is flat and mid-register; contrast lower than expected. Whites are never clean or pristine and blacks come off an unremarkable, dull gray. Worse, there are hints of edge enhancement throughout. It’s quite obvious no restoration work has gone into this release and such a grave pity too. The movie is sincerely worthy of a digital remastering effort.  The mono audio fairs slightly better, but it too is at the mercy of less than perfect elements with some minor hiss and pop detected during quiescent scenes.  Extras are limited to a pair of short subjects and original theatrical trailer.
Frankly, it is appalling that in 2015 we are still having to grapple with such substandard home video product; particularly as the star in question was the reigning ‘king’ of Hollywood for nearly two decades. I keep harping on the preservation of legacy from golden age Hollywood in general and of its seminal stars in particular. Cultural touchstones should never be ignored. If we were speaking of the marble statues of Michelangelo or Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa the question of preservation would be moot. No one would say, break down the marble or recycle the canvas. Why movie art never gets this same consideration is, frankly, beyond me. I would like to champion the Warner Archive to give us at least three or four Gable classics remastered to Blu-ray. Wife Versus Secretary should be among them, the others including San Francisco, China Seas, Red Dust, Boom Town, Honky Tonk, Test Pilot and Idiot’s Delight – all definitive examples of Gable’s inimitable brand of male machismo and magnetism. Will we get any of them any time soon, if at all? Hmmmm…
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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