THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS: Blu-ray (Universal/Rastar, 1987) Kino Lorber

 The romantic/comedy will always be a main staple in Hollywood’s daily digest. Fundamentally, we are suckers for the ‘love conquers all’ screen scenario. It serves a need – especially since real life is rarely (if ever) as perfectly resolved. And the formula becomes even that much more intoxicating when wed to the impossible rise and triumph of the underdog. Throughout the decades, the romances of celluloid have gone through several permutations, from screwball to serious, from frothy to forlorn, from genuine to silly, and back again. But in the 1980’s the rom/com became inextricably linked – with increasing regularity – to the corporate world; America’s burgeoning prosperity in the age of Ronald Reagan gilding the euphoria, usually exclusively reserved for lovers. In this devil-may-care epoch of ‘greed is good’, sex and money, frequently mingled as the interchangeable and ultimate definitions of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.  The cycle fervently begun 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 (both in 1988). But sandwiched between them was Herbert Ross’ guilty little pleasure, The Secret of My Success (1987); a deliciously smart entrée with a killer 80’s soundtrack supplied by then reigning film score impresario, David Foster, and, starring Michael J. Fox at the veritable height of his popularity as a 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. Here, he is cast as Brantley Foster, a bumbling hick from the mid-west who aims to tackle the corporate power structure in 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 ‘auntie’ Vera Prescott (the alluring and delectable, Margaret Whitton), with whom he just happens to be having a sexual affair. Relax – it’s not family incest. Vera is Brantley’s aunt by marriage. The Jim Cash, Jack Epps Jr. and A.J. Carothers’ screenplay nimbly skirts around the issue, first by clarifying no direct blood ties have been violated, and second, by introducing both parties as absolute innocents, neither aware 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. In this ‘oh what a tangled web we weave…’ of a rom/com, all points of misdirection eventually point to a weekend stay at Vera and Howard’s country estate in which the order of the hour will be anything but restful.

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 that more slickly packaged and timely snapshot in American life; a comedy of errors, with the added infusion of high-powered wheeling and dealing from the Reaganomics sphere 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 now appear – truly – to have come 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 with vintage eighties’ nostalgia for that big-haired, spend/spend decade of good-humored keeping up appearances. And indeed, the whole premise of Brantley’s transformation from hick to hipster is predicated on a promise made to his parents before departing Kansas: to return ‘more worthy’ to them in his own private jet.

David Foster provides us with three central orchestral themes to punctuate, counterbalance and carry the picture. His rather clinical ‘corporate’ march gets juxtaposed with the pulsating optimistic ‘Brantley Foster’ theme, a celebratory triumph of the naïve over the socially jaded, of which Christy Wills represents the Mount Everest of the lot. For she is the innocent corrupted; the gal, unable to wrap her head around Brantley’s bright-eyed corporate virgin until she disentangles herself from the affair with Howard, to have thrown a heavy weight about her own aspirations for keys to the executive washroom. There is even an offhanded joke about it after Brantley, in an attempt to hide out from his advancing Uncle by ducking into Christy’s office, suggests he was seeking the lavatory instead. “This isn’t the men’s room,” he sheepishly mumbles, to which Christy mercilessly replies, “No, I had the urinals taken out last week, I didn’t like them…how about a paper cup?” Foster’s other great contribution to the movie is a piano-heavy ‘love theme’, providing a musical bridge apart from the visual hijinks; also, serving as a leitmotif for the Brantley/Christy affair du Coeur – functioning in an entire realm apart from the otherwise pop/rock-heavy repertoire. Finally – and best of all – is ‘Gazebo’; Foster’s inspirational blend of all the aforementioned musical elements and themes, expressly written for a sequence played completely in pantomime: 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’. It could just as easily stand for ‘fantastic’, ‘frenetic’ and ‘fun’. The Cash/Epps/Carothers’ screenplay is a potpourri of improbably concocted scenarios, leant merit via performance and 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. In our rather unflattering present age, these machinations appear sillier than they did in 1987. Even as the decade was winding down, the party inculcated by America’s need to cut loose after the cost-crunching seventies, continued to pump out the joy.  Apart from Helen Slater’s lethal turn as the undeniably handsome, but thoroughly ineffectual and 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. The Secret of My Success is a magic elixir of brash comedy and some expertly-timed musical montages, all of it immensely fleshed out by a central cast of real/reel characters and bit players who strike an indelible chord to gild the lily. 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. Susi doesn’t have to do anything more than react with faux disgust to a half-naked Brantley, flexing in the elevator, and we love her almost immediately for her unvarnished genuineness. 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 as good ole corn-fed folk from the Bible belt - two easily identifiable faces to help ground us in Brantley’s Midwestern congeniality and sense of honor – qualities, decidedly at odds and in stark steel and concrete jungles of New York’s 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 rigid hatchet man, Art Thomas; Fred Gwynne (TV’s Fred Munster, who experienced something of a minor career renaissance throughout the decade) as malevolent corporate raider, Donald Davenport, and finally, Christopher Murney - an unrepentantly jaded and frazzled 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 runway and magazine supermodel, Cindy Crawford, beneath the movie’s main titles as one of the fashion district’s stunning physical specimens from the world of the anatomically gifted. Aside: as I enter middle-age I am exceedingly grateful to have come, merely, from the world of the anatomically correct!

Movies from the 1980’s often get a very bad rap as being purely nonsensical.  Alas, those too quick to judge Hollywood’s output en masse then are missing a fundamental point of movies in general and those in 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 the reality of the times; rather, to rewrite it in its own image, and, to tell stories that elevate the human spirit, offering an affinity for such obtuse, charming and sincerely flawed 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 as her lover, but ultimately respects and admires as much more by the end. As the audience, we can completely buy into Vera’s misguided rapture. For Michael J. Fox is a presence rather than an actor. We are never particularly interested in his Brantley, per say (something of a cheap knockoff of his Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties). But we are 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 by way of its boudoir, and, win the girl of his dreams, undetected by the lascivious Howard or terminally micromanaging Rattigan, keeping his own envious 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 ambitions to leave home and carve a niche for himself in the big bad city. Brantley’s a college grad with big dreams doomed to disillusionment. Carlo Di Palma’s cinematography shifts from the bucolic digs of Kansas to the gleaming steel and concrete canyons of New York; the autonomous and shadowy skyscrapers juxtaposed with a sea of humanity in its many forms, 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 kind, hocking stolen furs, drugs or selling themselves on the city streets. Director, Herbert Ross gives us Manhattan in all its urban drama, decay and exaltation – a writhing tome for the fallen and forgotten dreamers – shattered and/or otherwise – caught in the noonday bump and grind on these overcrowded thoroughfares and garbage-infested 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 titles as he soon discovers the company who hired him out of college has since been liquidated in a hostile corporate takeover. He is out of a job even before he has begun and finds no sympathy during the various disheartening interviews 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 would only benefit another opportunity to be mined elsewhere. Another, interviewer, Mrs. Meacham (Judith Malina), promptly informs Brantley he is perfect for the job (this, after he has 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) come into play.

Remembering a telephone number his mother gave him, Brantley attempts to broker favor with an uncle he does not even know: Howard Prescott, the CEO of the Penrose Corporation – a multinational conglomerate. What he discovers is Howard is just as heartless. Mercifully, 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 is 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, here is the start of everything, and Brantley is determined to make a success of it, come hell or high water. Melrose informs him he is not to ‘consort’ with the executives on 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, plus all the necessary supplies he needs to set up shop as Penrose’s newest ‘suit’. 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 splits his daily routine between mailroom deliveries and morphing out of his work clothes into a three-piece and tie, using the emergency stop on the elevator to buy him the necessary few seconds for this quick change. Occasionally, all does not go as planned. And 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 corporate meeting. To escape detection, Brantley fakes a nosebleed. In the meantime, Brantley, as Carlton, has made inroads into his romantic liaison with Christy Wills. At first, 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 a dream.

Brantley is ordered by Rattigan to chauffeur ‘an executive’s wife to Litchfield’. 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) Brantley attempts to broker favor with kindness. This, alas, gets misunderstood by Vera who, deprived of male companionship, 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 couple winds up in the bathhouse, post flagrante delicto when Howard suddenly comes home. Realizing the woman he has 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 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 are not meant to question; even, to 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. 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 this 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 over these titans of industry 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 how his files came to be 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 insists Christy is worth putting up a fight. Christy and Brantley meet in an elevator after she apparently has been fired. A hostile argument breaks out 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 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, Penrose has launched an aggressive counterattack against Davenport Industries. They are buying Donald out! The company saved, Vera and Melrose hook up and share a limo on their way to the opera with Christy and Brantley, the car driven by Rattigan, now, his chauffeur!

The Secret of My Success is so utterly steeped in its fairy-Godmother-ish wish fulfillment scenario, so blind to any reality outside of its fanciful own – even when taken at face value in its own fantastic Tiffany-setting, 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 own the monopoly on this)…and a good time was decidedly had by all, but especially, the audience.  The Secret of My Success retains its ability to entertain, despite the shifting culture and total demise of that homage to corporate America. For those who were not around during this heady self-congratulatory strain of capitalism run amok, no explanation – clinical or otherwise – will suffice. You had to be there. America at large was on its’ magic carpet ride; optimism on full throttle and 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 experienced nothing short of an absolute renaissance 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. This movie is still a personal guilty pleasure for yours truly, a dream remembered that only a diehard capitalist, ensconced in the media hype of Hollywoodized America - where anything was possible for the everyman – could distract and satisfy…if only for an hour or two.

And now, finally, The Secret of My Success arrives once again on native soil. Until Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray, the only hi-def incarnation was a ‘region free’ disc from Germany, and, in examining the Kino release in compared to that aforementioned disc, one finds it virtually identical, suggesting Universal – the custodians responsible for farming it out – have done absolutely nothing in the interim to spruce up these elements. 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 will address ‘the wrong’ first. Continued edge enhancement is present. Also, there are several instances where the image is inexplicably soft. The montage of the Manhattan skyline lit at dusk and throughout the night, set to Roger Daltrey’s ‘The Price of Love’ contains not a crisp shot among the lot. Contrast appears to have been somewhat boosted, with weak black levels and the gleaming tops of the skyscrapers bleached out. I am uncertain what went wrong here. Mercifully, this is an anomaly, and thankfully, one that is not persistent elsewhere in this hi-def transfer.

The pluses: most of the image is remarkably clean. While some artificial sharpening has been applied, it remains not at egregious levels. 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. Long shots are more problematic, occasionally with a bump in film grain not looking indigenous to its source. Thankfully, no undue DNR has afflicted this presentation. For the most part, the movie looks about as good as I remember it in theaters, and runs rings around the tired old non-anamorphic DVD we in North America have had to endure for far too long. The DTS 5.1 audio really packs a wallop – especially the rock/pop montage interludes, showcasing David Foster’s original orchestrations to their best advantage. Dialogue is always crisp and clearly delineated. Kino has shelled out for a pair of extras.  Entertainment journalist, Bryan Reesman offers up some interesting reflections on the movie and the decade that spawned it in an ‘easy on the ears’ audio commentary. We also get a retrospective interview with Helen Slater, plus the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: The Secret of My Success is a wonderful time capsule from a fabulously frothy decade when movies were a ‘fun’ way to spend a few hours. This Blu-ray, while hardly perfect, is the best way to enjoy it on home video. Recommended with caveats.

FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)