You look exactly like Clark Gable, you’re married to a woman who looks exactly like Myrna Loy and you get to go to an office every day where your secretary looks exactly like Jean Harlow. Oh, and you have a successful career and make lots of money. In other words, your life is perfect. Until one day the seeds of jealousy are planted in your gorgeous wife’s head, the wife you adore, who begins to suspect that your sexy secretary is doing more for you than taking dictation. Tongues start wagging and your wife’s suspicion threatens to destroy your marriage, crumble your world.
That’s the story of Clarence Brown’s 1936 charmer, Wife Versus Secretary and following are my views with plenty of spoilers.
The premise here is not original, but with the cast of first-rate players who give good performances across the board and a production that matches their popularity and grace make Wife Versus Secretary a treat – with a major flaw. It’s missing the “vs” in the film’s title. That is, a flaw in characterization as one expects a battle between the two forces that are Loy and Harlow that never materializes. The adversaries are not well matched and the drama in the movie suffers as a result.
Myrna Loy plays Linda, the beautiful, sophisticated, sexy wife of Van Stanhope (Clark Gable) or VS as most call him, a very successful publisher. In other words, Linda’s perfect. She’s understanding and never jealous, which in this case also leaves her with little depth. Or little depth knowing how great Myrna Loy is.
On the other side is Jean Harlow who plays Helen Wilson, nicknamed Whitey. Whitey is VS’ secretary – sexy, gorgeous and competent. In fact, VS can’t do without her. In addition, Whitey is a woman of substance, in love with her boss all along but never lets on, not even taking “advantage” when she and VS are in a hotel room alone together with the coast clear.
Here are a few words by Myrna Loy on the roles both she and Jean Harlow play in Wife Versus Secretary:
“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 reversal in that picture. Jean, supposedly the other woman, stayed very proper, while I had one foot in bed throughout. That’s the sexiest wife I’ve ever played.”
Myrna’s explanation of the role reversal plays well in the movie in that the “other woman” is straight-laced, honest and hard-working, not the typical throw-herself-at-the-man, gum-chewing, airhead. If only Linda had a bit more fight in her the reversal would have been more effective, culminating in a real battle. Then there’s the fact that Gable’s character, VS, never gives an inkling that he is the tiniest bit romantically or sexually interested in Whitey. He is, throughout the movie, head over heels in love with his wife so it never really seems as though he’s interested in choosing between them. So, when Whitey confronts Linda it’s a dud. Whitey is declared the victor without a fight, yet she still gives up. She has the spine to confront her boss’ wife, the man she’s in love with, makes a heartfelt speech but it all culminates in a let-down – a great scene for Harlow, but a let-down. Linda all but shrugs and as far as I know VS has never declared his love for Whitey. The entire love triangle is missing the sharp angles.
By the way, I wasn’t hoping for a cat fight between two women fighting over a man, but a confrontation worthy of both talents would have served the story better, been more believable.
Whitey: “You’re a fool, for which I am grateful.”
Despite all I’ve mentioned with regards to weaknesses in characterization, however, Wife Vs. Secretary is still an enjoyable movie thanks to the cast. I mean, Gable, Harlow, Loy? It can’t be all bad and it isn’t. Clark Gable is fun to watch and an eye full as VS, a loud, energetic type just like I picture a successful publisher should be. I won’t mention his chemistry with both actresses he works with here because it’s really a no-brainer. Wife Versus Secretary is the fifth of six collaborations between Gable and Harlow and the fourth of seven between Gable and Loy. Myrna Loy is Myrna Loy – as entertaining as ever if one overlooks the depth her character lacks when the time calls for it. To be honest, I could watch Myrna recite the alphabet for an hour-and-a-half and enjoy it. Harlow, however, is great here, making a statement whenever she enters or exits a room. As I mentioned, hers is the meatier role and she does well by it. My favorite scenes in this movie are due to her – the scene between Whitey and Linda lacks the required drama, but Harlow delivers and her final departure scene is quite something to see as she walks out of VS’ life never to come back.
Finally, the supporting players in Wife Versus Secretary are at least worth a mention. May Robson is good as VS’ meddling mother, Mimi who goes far in planting the seeds of jealousy in Mrs. Stanhope. And James Stewart plays Dave, the guy who’s hoping to marry Whitey. Stewart’s role is not all that great in this either, but spending time with him is never a waste.
Wife Versus Secretary is a pretty lavish MGM production – as if there were any other kind of MGM production, but anyway – the sets and clothes here are impressive enough for even me to notice. Worth noting also is that Wife Vs. Secretary is based on the short story of the same name by Faith Baldwin published in Cosmopolitan Magazine in May 1935.
This is dedicated to Clark Gable who would have celebrated a birthday today.
“Back to silents,” Mr. Gable
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Additional images from Wife Versus Secretary: