June 8, 2014 by smumcounty
Van Stanhope (Clark Gable) and his wife Linda (Myrna Loy) are, by all accounts, a deliriously happy couple. He’s the very capable publisher of a top magazine and she’s a stay at home wife who’s happy to be so. They’ve got a beautiful duplex apartment in Manhattan with a stunning art deco staircase and hot and cold running servants. But what’s most important is that they are in love. After three years of marriage they still dance cheek to cheek at dinner parties so it makes their friends envious. They sleep in separate rooms, as any good couple in the 30’s would, but it is made abundantly clear that they have had intimate relations the previous night. “How did you sleep after that man disappeared? He hated to go,” Van asks the next morning. “I don’t remember him being asked to go,” she replies. He even jokes with her about growing old together. “You know, some day they’re going to put us both in a wheelchair and then when my lumbago isn’t bothering me, mmm honey, you watch out.”
And yet there is no relationship so good which the green-eyed monster can’t destroy. Helen ‘Whitey’ Wilson (Jean Harlow) is Van’s secretary, really more of a personal assistant, and she is indispensable to his work. So much so, that when he decides it’s time to purchase a “five cent weekly” from J.D. Underwood (George Barbier), she’s the only one that he confides in for fear that a competitor will get wind of the deal and out-bid him. He won’t even tell his wife. Van and Whitey make the initial call to J.D. in a phone booth in the lobby of the building so he doesn’t have to go through the company switchboard. Whitey joins him in the phone booth, of course, since a businessman of his caliber can’t be expected to dial his own phone. Linda and Van’s mother, Mimi (May Robson), walk up to the phone booth just as Whitey is stepping out. Linda thinks nothing of it. She’s known of her husband’s dependence on Whitey for a long time. But Mimi doesn’t like it one bit. Van’s father was a womanizer and she’s concerned that Van may have inherited that gene. “Get rid of that secretary,” she advises Linda.
Linda laughs off her mother-in-law’s concern but a small incident later makes her wonder. When Van first meets with J.D. to discuss the sale of his magazine, they meet at J.D.’s house and partake of his new steam bath. When Van returns to Linda that evening, she notices that his bow tie has been retied. “I was swimming at the club,” he says as way of explanation. Later they have dinner with friends and while Van has stepped away the husband mentions that he’s been to the club that day for a swim and he hasn’t seen Van there in months. That same night Linda speaks to the chauffeur to ask him to run an errand and she asks if he’s had time for dinner. He says no, “I took Miss Wilson home, after I brought Mr. Stanhope.”
Mimi’s not the only one who’s questioning Van’s relationship with his secretary. Whitey delivers some files concerning J.D.’s magazine to Van while he and Linda are having a party to celebrate their third anniversary. Whitey was on her way to the theater with her beau Dave (Jimmy Stewart) so she’s dressed in an evening gown. When she and Van start to dance the women give each other knowing glances and the men leer. “Hey, haven’t you ever seen a blonde before,” one lady quips to an obviously beguiled male guest. “I’m beginning to wonder,” he replies. Later when Van, Linda, Whitey, and Dave are at a company ice skating party, Linda gets an earful from a woman while she’s sitting on the sideline nursing a cold and Van and Whitey are skating together. This bothers Linda in that she’s not worried about her husband straying but she does care about what people think. When Van tells her that another department has asked to hire Whitey away from Van, she asks Van to let her go so that the rumor mill will stop. But Van won’t do it. He depends too much on Whitey and he certainly won’t do it because of what other people think. This disagreement causes a small tiff between the two which eventually ends amicably with Linda promising not to pay attention to what other people say.
But circumstances occur to put further stress on their relationship. After one of Van’s salesmen becomes sick, Van decides to cover a convention in Havana himself because he knows that J.D. will be there and this will give him a chance to discuss the business deal. Linda begs him to take her just so they can be together but Van says he’ll be much too busy to spend any time with her. Linda’s disappointed but as way of compensation she gets Van to promise to call her every evening at 7:00.
Van doesn’t initially take Whitey with him on this trip but then Whitey learns that they have some very real competition for the purchase of J.D.’s magazine. Van decides that if they’re going to make the deal, it’s now or never. He flies Whitey down to Havana so they can prepare a contract and present it to J.D. on the spot. It means a lot of late nights in order to prepare the contract in time but they manage it and Van succeeds in finalizing the deal with J.D. Whitey and Van are so ecstatic they go out to get drunk and Van completely forgets to call Linda. Later when they stumble back to their rooms at 2am, Whitey steps into Van’s room to collect her notes. Of course that’s when Linda calls and, like a well trained assistant, Whitey answers the phone.
That’s it for Linda. She feels she has real proof that Van has been having a relationship with Whitey. There’s no gnashing of teeth or tearing of hair on Linda’s part, however. She never even raises her voice, but she’s decided that their relationship is over. Van tries to reconcile with her and explain why Whitey was in his room. “Won’t you try to understand? I can make it clear to you.” But Linda can only think of a divorce. “It is clear. Perfectly clear,” she replies. This is the end for her.
What I appreciate about this film is that Van and Whitey aren’t blind to each other. We are talking about Gable and Harlow here, after all. To pretend they don’t feel some attraction would be unrealistic and the film clearly shows that they do. When the chauffeur takes Whitey home after the initial meeting with J.D., he sings the praises of his boss. Whitey’s thoughtful silence at this time speaks volumes about her real feelings for Van. The day after Linda and Van have the argument about Van letting Whitey take another position, Van looks at Whitey across his desk as if for the first time. “What is it? What’s the matter?” she asks. “There’s an old Chinese proverb that says ‘If you want to keep a man honest, never call him a liar,’” he replies. The film even gives the two a real moment of truth when they wind up back in Van’s hotel room after celebrating their success. Here again the film allows a few longing looks from Gable and Harlow to carry the entire text of the film. Then finally, “We’ve had an awful lot to drink.” “Yes, we have.” And that’s it. The spell is broken. A catastrophe averted. Or so it seems at first.
With Linda out of the picture it would appear that Whitey can seek to have a romantic relationship with Van with a clear conscience. Van is presented as the perfect man and if Linda doesn’t want him, why shouldn’t Whitey take him? But Whitey is more concerned with Van’s well-being than her own. She knows he would be happier with Linda. So, she confronts Linda to try to set her straight. This is my favorite scene of the film. Whitey doesn’t try to reason with Linda. She doesn’t try to deny what she thinks happened. She just tells her what will happen if she lets Van go.
Linda: We’re leaving in a few minutes.
Whitey: It’ll only take a minute.
Linda: I’m not at all interested.
Whitey: You’re going to hear me though.
Linda: My husband loves me. He’s innocent. 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.
Linda: You’re frank about it anyway. You’d really better go.
Whitey: If you leave him now, you’ll never get him back.
Linda: Yes, that’s occurred to me.
Whitey: 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.
Linda: I’m sure I do.
Whitey: 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.
Linda: You’ve only a minute.
Whitey: 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?
Whitey: You’re a fool – for which I’m grateful.
The film leaves it up to Linda to decide for herself if this one supposed dalliance is reason enough to end her marriage. I like that. The film could easily have thought up some contrivance to come forward at the eleventh hour to prove to Linda beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was no hanky-panky in Havana and thus force Linda back into the arms of Van. But this seems more real to me and more honest.
“Wife vs. Secretary” stars three of MGM’s top stars at the peak of their abilities. This was the fifth paring of Gable and Harlow and the fourth for Gable and Loy. This was the second time that Harlow and Loy had starred in a movie in 1936, the second being “Libeled Lady”. Clark Gable had just been nominated for the Academy Award for his portrayal of Spencer Christian in “Mutiny on the Bounty” the year before and 1936 also saw the release of “San Francisco”, one of his biggest hits. Myrna Loy had starred in the first of the Thin Man series two years earlier and 1936 would see the second of the popular series released. In this film, Gable is great as a charming business man and loving husband. He sweeps the audience right off their feet. Loy is a playful, loving wife and this is one of her sexier roles. But for me, Jean Harlow is the real revelation in this film. According to Loy, Harlow was eager to shed the floozy image that she had previously had and was itching for a role that wouldn’t require “spouting slang and modeling lingerie”. “Wife vs. Secretary” fit that role very nicely. Whitey is a competent business woman who does far more than take dictation. She is integral to determining the circulation of J.D.’s magazine and his advertising income. It is she who convinces Van to fly to Havana to pursue J.D. The studio lightened Harlow’s hair a shade from its normal platinum blonde to give her a more serious image and it fits nicely with this role. The scene at the end of the film with Myrna Loy is a real tour de force for Harlow and show’s what a really serious actress she could be. It’s unfortunate that she died suddenly the following year from kidney failure. She had many good years of work ahead of her.
Let’s not forget Jimmy Stewart in the role of Whitey’s boyfriend. Stewart’s career was just getting started in 1936 and this was one of his first meaty roles. He gets the most screen time of any character besides the three stars and he gets to spend a good amount of screen time with Harlow. Not bad for a young actor who’s still wet behind the ears. It wouldn’t be long before Stewart would be headlining the films with “You Can’t Take it With You” in 1938 and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in 1939.
The film ends with Van and Linda reconciling and then Dave and Whitey as well with the clear implication that they will marry. Stewart gets to the sum up the theme of the film with the closing lines: “Gosh, all the fighting and worrying people do, it always seems to be about one thing. They don’t seem to trust each other. Well, I’ve found this out. Don’t look for trouble where there isn’t any, because if you don’t find it, you’ll make it. Just believe in someone.” You said it brother.
“Wife vs. Secretary” is really not a great title for the film. It calls up images of an all out battle between the two with the husband in the middle unable to choose between them. That’s about as far from the real story as you can get. “Wife vs. Herself” or “Wife vs. Suspicion” would be more accurate, or maybe just “Suspicion” but of course that’s already taken. Still it’s a great film with a great cast. Just overlook that awkward title.