A comedy-drama of restraint and charm rather than of screwball antics, Clarence Brown’s Wife Vs. Secretary features three top MGM stars – Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and Myrna Loy – in a roundelay plot that’s grounded in decency with little tinges of jealousy, gossip, and dirty minds hovering around the edges.
The Production: 3.5/5
A comedy-drama of restraint and charm rather than of screwball antics, Clarence Brown’s Wife Vs. Secretary features three top MGM stars – Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and Myrna Loy – in a roundelay plot that’s grounded in decency with little tinges of jealousy, gossip, and dirty minds hovering around the edges. The MGM production that surrounds its stars is as expectedly lavish as one would imagine, and the three stars along with a newcomer named James Stewart do some really excellent work here under the direction of one of MGM’s great directors – Clarence Brown.
Publisher Van Stanhope (Clark Gable) has a happy marriage to easy-going socialite wife Linda (Myrna Loy) and a smoothly running office thanks to the highly professional work ethic of his private secretary Helen “Whitey” Wilson (Jean Harlow). Though he’s never given her even a moment’s pause to be jealous, Linda is warned by her mother-in-law (May Robson) and various catty friends that the beautiful secretary needs to be kicked upstairs to put Van out of temptation’s grasp, but Van isn’t willing to sacrifice her proficient efficiency to hold down silly wagging tongues. A secret deal for Van to buy another publishing company is being handled on the sly, however, with Miss Wilson the only person in the office who knows what’s going on and the only one qualified to spend the long hours with the boss to put the deal together, all leading to a series of misunderstandings which makes Linda fear the worst about the state of her marriage.
The screenplay by Norman Krasna, Alice Duer Miller, and John Lee Mahin substitutes wit and adult behavior (at least for the film’s first two-thirds) for melodrama and the expected frenzied emotional outbursts. As usual, keeping secrets is what leads to all of the misunderstandings, and except for the necessities of the plot, there doesn’t really seem to be a good reason Van isn’t being honest with his wife about his business deals. She’s never shown to be hysterically overemotional or a blabbermouth; indeed, she’s the soul of discretion throughout the film until she finally takes her suspicions and pours her heart out to her mother-in-law in probably the movie’s most emotional sequence. Before that, though, Clarence Brown runs a tight, smooth ship directing an elegant party with ease and flair and shooting an ice skating sequence with some clever set-ups. Even a business deal conducted during a dual steam bath is staged with some hilarious actions and reactions. Being a 1930’s film, Art Deco is everywhere to be seen in the lavish homes, clubs, and luxurious business offices where most of the action takes place. As the romantic comedy turns dramatic, however, there is the inevitable confrontation between the title characters, and a silent declaration between Linda and Whitey at film’s end is worth the entire movie for the unspoken but strong understanding conveyed between the two females over the man they both love.
Top-billed Clark Gable plays up his usual peppery personality, and while his on-screen wife might not know what he’s up to, we see he’s innocent of philandering making the dramatic irony especially profound for the viewer as the film runs. Myrna Loy is soft-spoken and appealing throughout, cast perfectly to type here. But Jean Harlow is the real revelation: not playing a gold-digging vamp or an air-headed showgirl but an intelligent, highly proficient professional for a change, she’s softened her hair color and downplayed her looks without sacrificing her innate appeal giving the best performance in the film. Early in his film career, James Stewart is underused as Whitey’s boy friend who doesn’t like the long hours she spends with her boss nor her decision to continue working after their marriage. He’s better served opposite Myrna Loy in another of his 1936 vehicles After the Thin Man. May Robson’s Mrs. Mimi Stanhope is something of a surprise, a mother who doesn’t trust her son around a beautiful woman not his wife. That’s unusual for a film during this era.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully delivered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Sharpness is near perfect, and there are certainly no visual anomalies like scratches, splices, or missing frames to worry about. The grayscale is solid with nicely deep black levels. The movie has been divided into 25 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix offers very good fidelity for the age of its elements. At quieter moments, one can sense some soft hiss on the soundtrack, but there are no other anomalies like crackle, flutter, or pops. Dialogue is always clear, and it has been deftly mixed with the Herbert Stothart-Edward Ward background score and the sound effects to produce a fine aural experience.
Special Features: 2/5
The Public Pays (18:20, HD): Oscar-winning 1936 Crime Doesn’t Pay two-reeler.
Theatrical Trailer (2:40, HD)
Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and especially Jean Harlow are in fine form in the enjoyably adult comedy-drama Wife Vs. Secretary, directed by Clarence Brown. The Warner Archive Blu-ray disc offers a sparkling high definition version of this classic from the Golden Age.
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