Wife vs. Secretary — directed by Clarence Brown. Comedy. Malicious friends raise their eyebrows at a pretty secretary and nearly ruin a marriage. 88 minutes Black and White 1936.
To me, Clarence Brown has always seemed a clunky director. Through silents and sound, he was Garbo’s principal director and gave her the closed sets she desired but not her best films. So it is mystifying to me how beautifully made this comedy is, for he seldom directed comedies. But this film is lively and bright. This is partly due to a terrific script. (“’Have you been faithful while I was away?’ he asks. ‘Yes. Twice,’ she responds.”)”The title is crude and off-putting, but Alice Duer Miller who wrote it with John Lee Mahin and Norman Krasna has made a snappy and unusual entertainment. Brown gives Jimmy Stewart, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, and Clark Gable room to shine in finely detailed and energetic performances in every scene. And both the choices of what to shoot and where and the film’s editing grant it narrative success. Myrna Loy plays the wife, as she always did, as a good sport at home and a glamor girl on the town. And Gable is a model of comedic actor enterprise, playing his scenes with high-hearted zest, moving across streets and sets with a will and a way. Gable was one of the most remarkable actors ever to appear in films, for the reason that, even though his natural energy was heavy, he was great in playing comedy. He really could do it. He could be very funny. That is to say, dignified though he was and mountainously masculine, he could make a jackass of himself at will. He could stumble, fall, be outwitted, look foolish, sing and dance badly, and be the dupe of the female of the species without permanent loss of dignity. He won his Oscar for a comedy. Like all the great male stars of 1930s who went to War he made few comedies after it, but here he is the snuggling lover of Loy, all over her, kissing her whenever he can and being sweet and funny for her when he can’t, and who wouldn’t want to?. His energy for comedy playing is the driving force behind this very smart and highly watchable work. But the part of the secretary is the one that surprises, for it is played by Jean Harlow, who could be covered in an ankle length mink and yet appear to be wearing nothing but a negligee. Here the platinum hair is gone and the sexpot is also gone. What we have instead is the embodied role of a high-end executive secretary and Gal Friday. One completely believes in her competence, her efficiency, her mastery of files and steno pads and contracts and big business. One believes that if her boss died she could run the firm. I never thought she could act, until now. Her take on this character is subtle and kind, and her confrontation with Loy at the end quietly and fully renders the material with the surprise the scene naturally contains. By never attempting either to emotionalize or to steal a scene she achieves presence and a character. This was her last completed film. She and Gable and Stewart and Loy, with a marvelous script, with magnificent white telephone art deco décor, with perfect suits for Gable and dresses for the dames, and sure-handed direction make a delightful entertainment – perfect for TV screens and for family viewing, then as now.