Wife vs. Secretary (1936): One of Hollywood's Most Likable Love Triangles


Clark Gable. Myrna Loy. Jean Harlow. Jimmy Stewart. Despite this stellar cast, I must admit Wife vs. Secretary falls a little flat. It's not exactly the sparkling romantic comedy you'd expect it to be, mainly because it does the one thing a film should never do: turn Myrna Loy into a jealous wife.

One of the most refreshing aspects of Loy's persona has always been that, even though she often portrayed wives, she didn't play into the nagging, eye-rolling stereotype. She would be an equal with her leading man, and together they'd have lots of witty repartee, warm embraces, and neverending fun. Loy illustrated that marriage wasn't some dire prison that forever entrapped you into stiflingly dull gender roles. With her, marriage was a partnership, something to be treasured because it likely made you a better person.

For the most part, Wife vs. Secretary adheres to that ideal. It's a film that can't stop showing you how in love Gable and Loy's characters are with each other and how in sync they are, yet it also can't help reverting to the old "silly wife makes a fuss over nothing" trope. It's a plot point that is just too easy to make, and the movie almost collapses from the weakness of it. I say "almost" because for me, the performances, particularly Harlow's, save the day.

To understand what I'm talking about, let's dig into the film.

We open with a beautiful Art Deco apartment. In case you doubt how luxurious this place is, the film shows us that even the head butler has a butler. All of this wealth, however, hasn't affected the man of the house, Van Stanhope (Gable). Like many of Gable's characters, Van is sweet, vibrant, and funny. We notice that immediately as he knocks on his wife Linda's (Loy) bedroom door. She sticks her head out with her eyes closed, leading Van to kiss her as she playfully guesses who he is. They then walk arm in arm to breakfast. Their conversation on the way there is eyebrow-raising, and definitely something that would confuse someone if they weren't used to the Code:

Van: "How did you sleep after that man disappeared?"
Linda: "Deep, deep, deep."
Van: "He hated to go."
Linda: "I don't remember him being asked to go."

In her book Being and Becoming, Loy wrote that Linda was "the sexiest wife I've ever played. In one scene ... we banter, nothing more, but there's just no question about what they've done the night before. Clarence Brown, our director, made it all so subtle, yet, oh, so wonderfully suggestive. ... Where sex is concerned, the double entendre, the ambiguity, it seems to me, is much more
effective than being too explicit. This is something the moviemakers don't seem to understand today." Agreed!

Loy wasn't as enamored with what happened next in the scene, though. As Linda and Van sit down to breakfast, she believes that he has forgotten their third wedding anniversary. Disappointed, she cuts into her trout and finds a gorgeous diamond bracelet inside. Loy called this "the only vulgarity in the picture... It didn't seem chic or funny to me—merely messy, typical of Hollywood's misguided notion of upper-class sophistication. I tried to get them to take it out, but they wouldn't. Needless to say, it's the scene
everyone remembers, so what do I know?" It does seem pretty silly, but this opening scene perfectly establishes the Stanhopes' domestic bliss.

After breakfast, Van heads to his job at Stanhope Publications. As he walks into his office, we meet Helen "Whitey" Wilson (Harlow), his highly competent secretary. She anticipates all of his needs and they get along beautifully. I must admit that the scenes at the office confuse me slightly. Everyone uses business jargon that I can barely comprehend and it makes me feel dumb. There is one meta moment, though, that I understand. While looking over page
proofs, there is a shot of an article by Alice Duer Miller entitled "Are We Debutantes or Are We Mice?" "Hey, Alice has written a very nice article here!" Van remarks. Miller co-wrote the script for Wife vs. Secretary with John Lee Mahin and the brilliant Norman Krasna. Miller is an interesting figure. She was heavily involved in the suffragette movement and wrote a lot of feminist verse. You may know Miller from her story Gowns by Roberta, which became the stage musical and 1935 film Roberta. Miller also wrote the 1940 verse novel The White Cliffs, a major bestseller that was turned into the hit 1944 film The White Cliffs of Dover.

Back to our film! At a board meeting, Van is told that the company is losing a lot of advertising to cheaper publications like National Weekly. This gets Van to thinking and he confides to Whitey that Stanhope Publications is going to buy National Weekly. In order to keep this a secret from rival publisher Hansom House, Whitey and Van promise to keep this deal strictly between the two of them. They go to a rather roomy phone booth to call up National Weekly's owner J.D. Underwood, right as Van's mother (nicknamed "Mimi" and played by May Robson) and Linda stop by. After his call, Van shows the ladies the remodeling Whitey did to his office, making Mimi purse her lips.

Out in the car, Mimi advises Linda to have Whitey fired. "Miss Wilson? Van couldn't live without her," Linda replies. "I hope not with her," Mimi retorts. When it comes to Whitey and Van, Linda isn't concerned in the least. She believes that there is no point in being suspicious or jealous, especially since Van spends all day working with and looking at pretty women. In Linda's opinion, she needs to be Van's respite from his crazy, busy job and jealousy doesn't figure into that. "I see your point of view, dear, and it's all very modern and noble," Mimi says. "Nevertheless I advise you to get rid of Miss Wilson."

At Whitey's house that night, she and her fiancé Dave (Stewart) are having dinner with her parents. There's a cute moment where Dave catches Whitey reaching into his pocket for the present he brought her; they pretend to be a pickpocket and a cop and I really enjoy it. It kind of loses its cuteness, though, when Whitey tells her parents that withholding the gift is Dave's way of wearing the pants in their relationship and he says "If and when you trick me into marrying you, dear, I'll wear the pants." Ugh. Luckily, the telephone rings. It's Van, and he needs Whitey to get him a folder from the office right away. What's important to note is that he makes sure he isn't interrupting any plans Whitey might have for that evening and she
assures him that it's fine, never mentioning her theatre date with Dave. Unaware that it's his own fiancée's fault, an annoyed Dave complains that Van always expects Whitey to be at his beck and call. This moment is our first clue that Whitey may possibly have feelings for her boss. You can see the scene here.

Whitey tells Dave she'll meet him at the theatre and then dashes off to take the folder to Van's apartment where an anniversary party is in full swing. To get away from the noise, Van takes Whitey upstairs to go over the folder's content, clearly clueless about how it looks. When they come down some time later, Linda invites
Whitey to stay. As she and Van dance, all of the women disapprovingly stare while all the men ogle her. (One disgusting quote: "Gentlemen, I fear that even I could give that little lady dictation." Ew.) At the end of the party, Linda talks with her friends Eve (Marjorie Gateson) and Joan (Gloria Holden), who marvel at Linda's inability to be jealous of Whitey. "Well, I don't understand a woman who treats her husband's business as if it were a bad habit she couldn't break him of, and then spends every cent he makes," Linda remarks. There are times when I really do like Loy's character. I have a feeling Alice Duer Miller is the one responsible for many, if not all, of Linda and Whitey's perfect quotes.

Despite the brave face she puts on, there are some doubts that are starting to drift into Linda's mind, mainly because almost every single person she talks to tells her she should be worrying. Whitey, meanwhile, smiles to herself as she is driven home by the Stanhopes' chauffeur. She finds Dave asleep in his car after waiting hours for her. She apologizes about missing the theatre and then gushes about the party. Dave interrupts her, though, to reveal that he got himself a $20 raise, allowing them to get married much sooner than they expected. He quickly kills the mood, however, by asking Whitey when she is going to put her two weeks' notice in. Despite being played by one of the most lovable actors ever, Dave
is a jerk. He thinks that it's "unnatural" how much Whitey loves her job and says most girls have no problem forgetting their careers because their ultimate goal is to have a husband and kids. (I'm giving myself a headache from the sheer amount of eye-rolling I'm doing.) Whitey tells Dave this is "just an idea that you have" and insists that she can't leave her job right now. She then says they'll figure it out and they kiss. Stewart would later admit that he continually screwed up the kiss so they would have to keep doing takes. "That Jean Harlow sure was a good kisser," he recalled. "I realized that until then I had never been really kissed." You can watch the scene here.

The next day, Van goes to J.D. Underwood's house to start negotiations. But first, Underwood asks Van to join him for a steam bath in his new steamer. It's a little odd. Anyway, Van becomes surprised when Underwood beats him to the punch and suggests he buy National Weekly. By the end of their meeting, Underwood is practically begging his friend to take it over. Van howls with laughter recounting it all to Whitey as they're driven to Van's. Before he leaves the car, he reminds her how important it is that they stay mum about the deal -- he can't even tell Linda! (Which seems a tad ridiculous. Linda isn't a blabbermouth. She would know to keep quiet.)

At his apartment, Van greets Linda by picking her up and carrying her around. While chatting, Van lies that he was at the club all day. When she notices his bow tie has been tied differently than how she did it in the morning, he fibs again, saying that one of the men at the club did it after he went swimming, although it was really Underwood after their steam baths. (Van is hopeless at tying his own bow ties.) It's impossible not to smile at how irresistibly adorable Gable and Loy are together and this movie makes the most of it. Van and Linda can never keep their hands off of each other. As Linda attempts to redo his tie, he snuggles her and kisses her all over her face and neck. Loy wasn't kidding when she said
this was the "sexiest" wife she ever played.                         




Later that evening, the Stanhopes have their friends the Barkers over for dinner. When Van leaves the room for a minute, Mr. Barker notes to Linda that he hasn't seen Van at the club in months. Things get much worse when Linda goes to the kitchen to ask the cook for a recipe for Mrs. Barker. Finney, the chauffeur (Tom Dugan), comes in and says that he just came back from taking Whitey home. Now Linda is really starting to become worried. Her fears are intensified soon afterwards at an employee party at an ice-skating rink. Because she has a cold, Linda doesn't take part in the skating; Dave sits it out, too. Without their dates, Van and Whitey partner up and have a grand time while Linda and
Dave watch. Linda finally goes to wait in the car after hearing an employee make a crack about her husband and Whitey; Dave just gets jealous and silently stews.

When Whitey returns to him, he begins to pick a fight. Calmly, she tells him she has cab fare and gives him back his ring. Meanwhile, during their drive home, Van tells Linda that he just heard Whitey was being considered for an assistant job. Van nixed the idea, though, because he wants her to stay on as his girl Friday. Linda thinks Van should allow the promotion because people are starting to gossip about Whitey. Van is shocked that anyone would think
something so vulgar about Whitey. (Dude, you are so oblivious, it hurts.) "People aren't willing to believe that looks go with brains," Linda wisely says. It's an excellent statement, one that so aptly describes the problem Whitey faces in this film. The one reason why everyone believes an affair is happening is because of Whitey's looks. They cannot fathom that Van values her because she is an intelligent woman who excels at her job. Linda knows that nothing is going on between Van and his secretary, but other people's opinions are starting to undermine that belief. Unwilling to lose Whitey just because of malicious gossip, Van refuses to offer her the promotion. (Side note: I don't like that Van doesn't even give
Whitey a choice in the matter. I doubt she would've taken the promotion, but still.)

Upset, Linda runs into their building and Van angrily goes to the club. Their argument doesn't last for long, though. Unable to sleep, Linda calls Van and tearfully tells him to come home. Without missing a beat, Van rushes to her side. As they (literally) kiss and make up, he agrees to give Whitey the new job, but Linda has changed her mind. Van then promises to take his wife on a vacation in a few weeks, as soon as he ties up a few things at work. The scene ends with the couple embracing on Linda's bed, but
don't worry -- Van's feet are on the floor, so there's no hanky panky going on...

Except there definitely was because the next morning, Van comes to the office with Linda's cold. After his heated discussion with Linda the night before, Van appears to notice Whitey's beauty for the first time, but it's a fleeting realization. For the next two weeks, the pair work on getting ready to take over National Weekly. When Van suddenly has to go away to an advertising convention in Havana, Linda misconstrues the information and packs her bags for their promised vacation. Van gently breaks the news and tells her that it will only be for two days. Their second honeymoon will have to wait just a bit longer.

While Van is flying down to Cuba, Whitey is interviewing an auditor (John Qualen) to help prepare some figures for the National Weekly takeover. Whitey panics, though, when he reveals that he just did the same job for competitor Hanson House. She calls Van and, since Underwood is currently at the convention, he tells her to come to Havana with all of the necessary paperwork. They're determined to get to Underwood before Hanson House, forcing them to work all night on putting together a contract. Van becomes so distracted that he forgets to call Linda. He quickly closes the deal and celebrates by having drinks with Whitey at the hotel bar. Tipsy, they head back to Van's room. Whitey comes in to collect her notes, but she stops to help Van take off his shoes as he lays on the bed. For a few breathless seconds, they gaze at one another in silence...



...and then quickly agree it would be best if she left. Before she can, though, Linda's call from New York finally comes through -- and Whitey answers it. Devastated, Linda hangs up. Whitey realizes who it was and Van frantically calls her back, but Linda decides to leave the phone off the hook.

When Van returns home, Linda avoids seeing him for as long as she can. When she does appear, she tries to rush off to a hair appointment, but Van stops her and tells her all about the National Weekly deal. He attempts to explain about Whitey, too, but Linda is too hurt and won't hear it. She goes to Mimi's and asks to stay there a few days. Sobbing, she tells her mother-in-law about Havana. Sniveling is not a good look on Myrna. Also, Mimi is pretty terrible at the consoling thing. She basically tells Linda "boys will be boys" and implies that Van's father cheated on her all the time. Not helpful, Mimi.

Instead of talking things over with her husband, Linda puts divorce proceedings into motion and refuses to speak to Van, causing him to ambush her at her friend Joan's house. He begs her to reconsider and kisses her, but she remains firm. Some time later, at the office, Van seems distracted, especially when he learns that Linda will be sailing on the Ile de France that day. He asks Whitey to book him a cruise to Bermuda and then surprises her with an invitation to join him as a friend. Whitey is happy to go, but first she must see Linda. Uninterested in what Whitey has to say, Linda unpacks her suitcases in her stateroom as they talk:

Linda: "You want me to go back to him. What else?"

Whitey: "But I don't want you to go back to him. I hope he never sees you again. ... If you leave now, you'll never get him back. ... He's going to be lonely. His life won't end with you, you know. And when the rebound sets in, he's going to turn to the woman nearest. And you know who it'll be. ... Tomorrow he's taking me to Bermuda as a friend. But it won't go on like this. 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 still going?"

Linda: "Yes."

Whitey: "You're a fool, for which I am grateful."

I love this speech. It's so honest and it's the first time Whitey really lets us know what she is thinking. For most of the film, Harlow can only wordlessly convey what her character is feeling, thanks to
many luminous close-ups of her face. This is easily one of my favorite of Harlow's performances.

Back at the office, Van is finishing up some work and Whitey joins him. We see what she told Linda come true when Van tells her that she should buy new summer clothes and charge it to him. It's clear that he is still hopelessly in love with his wife, though -- he can barely look at Whitey and he jumps when the cleaning woman walks in, having thought it was Linda. The next time the door opens, though, it is Linda. She and Whitey exchange small, knowing smiles, and then she runs into Van's arms.

Knowing that is her cue to leave, Whitey heads downstairs and hears Dave call her name outside. She gets into his car and listens as he admits he made a mistake. "Don't look for trouble where there isn't any, because if you don't find it, you'll make it," he says. "Just believe in someone." With that, they smile at one another and drive away.

Wife vs. Secretary was based on a short story by Faith Baldwin that was published in 1935 in Cosmopolitan Magazine. Baldwin was a very successful romance writer who worked from the 1920s until her death in 1978. In addition to today's film, other cinematic adaptations of Baldwin's work include Comet Over Broadway, An Apartment for Peggy, and Love Before Breakfast.

Wife vs. Secretary was a reunion for a lot of the cast and crew. It was the fifth of sixth films Gable and Harlow would do together, and the fourth of seven for Gable and Loy. For director Clarence Brown, it was his fourth time working with Gable and his second time with Loy. Best friends Loy and Harlow collaborated for the first time on this film; their second and final collaboration would be another 1936 picture, Libeled Lady. Interestingly enough, Loy and Stewart only did two movies together, this one and After the Thin Man, both in 1936.

Speaking of her friend, Loy wrote:

"Jean was beautiful, but far from the raucous sexpot of her films. As a matter of fact, she began to shake that image in Wife vs. Secretary... She'd begged for a role that didn't require spouting slang and modeling lingerie. She even convinced them to darken her hair a shade, in hopes of toning down that brash image. It worked. She's really wonderful in the picture and her popularity wasn't diminished one bit. Actually we did kind of a reversal in that picture. Jean, supposedly the other woman, stayed very proper, while I had one foot in bed throughout."

It is a testament to Harlow's talent that even though she was starring opposite two of the most charismatic, capable actors Hollywood ever had, she steals the film. It helps that Whitey is the best character, but it is Harlow who fully brings her to life. There is a poignancy and a sweetness to Whitey. Harlow's roles always had a
vulnerability to them, despite their wisecracking, hard-scrabble exteriors, but as Loy noted, Whitey is quite different. She is quieter and less prone to make every line a verbal jab or joke. So far as I can tell, Whitey was very close to what Harlow was like in real life. At the time of this film, she actually told a reporter that while playing this role, free from the platinum wigs and hair dye, "I felt more real than I had ever felt. If I feel more real, I'm likely to act more real." Sadly, we would never get to see how incredible Harlow's future career could have been. She died in 1937, one year after the release of Wife vs. Secretary.

As Van, Gable is delightful. Van is like a big puppy, and the actor completely embodies that. He also has off-the-charts chemistry with both of his leading ladies, which is a great asset. The film wouldn't work at all if we didn't see how much Van and Linda adored each other, and how well Van and Whitey worked together. The scenes between Gable's boss and Harlow's secretary are particularly important because there is a line they can never go near, yet there still needs to be the possibility of a romance. That moment in Van's hotel room actually makes you clutch your pearls. Will they go for it? What will happen to their friendship? Was everyone actually right to warn Linda? It's intense, all because it is Gable and Harlow.

By the way, when you watch the film, you might be confused as to what Gable's character is named. For the first 20 minutes or so, he actually has three different names! Whitey and his business associates call him "V.S." Mimi calls him "Van," which is also what the opening credits say. Linda, however, calls him "Jake" until the scene where she and Mimi visit the office. She then switches to "Van," saying "Jake" just once more further into the movie. It's quite bizarre and I haven't found any reason for it.

One of the highlights of Wife vs. Secretary is the dazzling art direction done by Cedric Gibbons. Luckily, TCM has some amazing photographs of the sets for Linda's bedroom, Stanhope Publications, and other rooms in the Stanhope apartment (you can find a few more pictures in my collection of screenshots at post's end):


The dining room (above) and the Stanhopes' bar/breakfast nook (below):



Stanhope Publications:




Van's room:


Linda's room:



Wife vs. Secretary is a curiosity. On the one hand, it focuses on the tired idea of a marriage put in jeopardy because of jealousy. On the other hand, that jealousy is shown to be (almost) completely unfounded. Van and Whitey truly are just co-workers and friends. There are moments where Whitey seems to have a crush on her boss, but I suspect what she really wants is a relationship where she isn't expected to drop her career and let the man "wear the pants." The ending is ambiguous enough that you could argue Dave has learned to give her that -- the film's last words, after all, are "Just believe in someone."

Although I can't say that this movie is one of my favorites, it is genuinely good entertainment. The trio of Gable, Harlow, and Loy is stunning, as is the mise-en-scene. If nothing else, Wife vs. Secretary is just plain lovely to look at.








































































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This is my entry to the Clark Gable Blogathon, a celebration of the actor that I'm all too glad to be hosting. Please check out the brilliant roster here!

Comments

  1. Wow! That apartment makes the Bonner's place in Adam's rib look like a shack! I have to imaginary move from my imaginary home.

    I have avoided this for years because it looked like it might let the stars down, but I can see that it would be worth watching just to see those stars do their stuff. Jean Harlow's career is so fascinating to watch as she turned into a genuinely talented actress. Gable, I don't believe gets enough credit for his ability to work well with a variety of leading ladies.

    Very enjoyable article.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! I will gladly move into the Bonners' after you leave. ;)

      This is definitely a case of the stars overpowering the material. But I don't mind when those stars are Gable, Loy, and Harlow. I would actually say that if you're a fan of Harlow (how could you not be?), this film is a must. I really believe she is that good in it.

      It's quite amazing what actresses Gable worked with. You're right that he did well with a variety of them -- Sophia Loren, Loy, Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, Gene Tierney... all of them so different, yet all of them did beautifully with Clark.

      Delete
  2. To me, the plot of this film has always been irksome, i.e. the jealousy of Loy's character and how quickly it escalates to near-divorce. I just don't buy it from her character. But, having said that, this is also a film where the performances make the script better than it would be otherwise – like you pointed out.

    I also like what you said about Gable's chemistry with both Loy and Harlow. He has palpable chemistry with both women.

    Thanks for organizing this wonderful Clark Gable blogathon. He's sort of fading from view nowadays, and tributes like this help newer audiences appreciate his talent.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, the plot is by no means great. But I just love the cast. I would follow Gable, Loy, Harlow, and Stewart anywhere.

      Thanks for taking part in it! Gable is truly one of my favorites, and it's sad to think that he hasn't undergone the same critical appreciation as Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart.

      Delete
  3. I always wondered what could have been- If Jean was the wife and Myrant the secretary - both a big role change from the typical roles they played and Jimmy could have been with Myrna in this one- I was always shocked that Jeana and Clark lost out to Myrna and Clark in this one- but nonetheless YES this cast is stellar and the reason why it's a classic today!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What interesting recasting! It's a little sad that Myrna and Jimmy never really got to play the leads together in something. I'm not sure how good their chemistry would have been, but then again I've yet to see a man who didn't look good opposite Myrna!

      Delete
  4. Although not as good as Libeled Lady, I can't deny that Wife vs. Secretary has its charm. Too bad Myrna's character is jealous, but I'm glad Jean's was always so sympathetic and nice. It also helps that Myrna, Gable and Harlow were good friends.
    Marvelous review, dear! I liked the bit about Alice Duer Miller, something I didn't pay attention to.
    Kisses!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! It definitely doesn't top Libeled Lady, but I still like it. It is a little odd that Myrna's character is so clearheaded and logical for most of the movie, and then she suddenly turns into a stereotype.

      I never paid attention to Miller, either -- it's quite interesting that they gave her a shout-out in the film.

      Delete

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