Wife vs. Secretary (1936)

Wife vs. Secretary is a 1936 comedy film directed and co-produced by Clarence Brown, and starring Clark Gable as a successful businessman, Jean Harlow as his secretary, and Myrna Loy as his wife, supported by James Stewart, in one of his first memorable roles, as the secretary’s suitor. The film was the fifth of six collaborations between Gable and Harlow and the fourth of seven between Gable and Loy. May Robson portrays Gable’s character’s meddling mother. The story was based on the short story of the same name by Faith Baldwin published in Cosmopolitan Magazine in May 1935.

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This was the fifth collaboration of Gable and Harlow and the fourth of Gable and Loy. The picture was the first time  that Harlow and Loy worked together; they would also both appear in Libeled Lady later in 1936, also starring William Powell and Spencer Tracy, with Harlow billed first.

On Harlow during the making of Wife Vs. Secretary, Loy said, “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. That’s the sexiest wife I’ve ever played. In one scene, Clark stands outside my bedroom door and 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. (In fact, the only vulgarity in the picture is in the breakfast scene, where I discover a diamond bracelet that Clark has hidden in the brook trout I’m about to eat. It didn’t seem chic or funny to me—merely messy, typical of Hollywood’s misguided notion of upper-class sophistication.

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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?). 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.”

James Stewart, meanwhile, spoke of his scene in the car with Harlow, saying, “Clarence Brown, the director, wasn’t too pleased by the way I did the smooching. He made us repeat the scene about half a dozen times…I botched it up on purpose. That Jean Harlow sure was a good kisser. I realized that until then I had never been really kissed.” Despite being billed sixth in the cast, Stewart enjoys the most screen time aside from the three leads, mainly romantic sequences with Harlow, including the final scene and dialogue in the movie.

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Very close to a perfect movie

It goes without saying that the best Myrna Loy movies have William Powell – but this movie has enough cast that it can virtually throw away Jimmy Stewart and still carry you along with the strength of the character performances. Clark “Big Ears” Gable is not my favorite star, but he plays the role of the loving but thoughtless husband perfectly. He believably pulls off being shrewd in business, but naive enough of his personal life to be almost innocent while looking completely guilty.

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Actually, it is the pair of leading ladies that makes this movie so great – Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow. Myrna is great in everything she does – and so is Harlow. Harlow is proof that the original is nearly always the best. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a Marilyn Monroe movie is simply watching second best – Harlow was the original “blonde bombshell” – and is still the best. Her usual forte is comedy, but she nails this light dramatic role perfectly. There are times when you don’t know who to cheer for – the Wife or the Secretary – and that’s the movie. The whole tension rides on which of these two ladies Gable chooses – or, rather, which one the audience wants him to choose. Myrna may have been the only actress who could have given Harlow a run for her money – and Harlow may have been the only one who could challenge Myrna Loy.

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Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow teamed up in another movie – “Libeled Lady” – another tour de force of casting with William Powell and Spencer Tracy along for the ride. “Lady” is a very good movie; a comedy with both drawing room and slapstick elements. This type of comedy is usually more my cup of tea, but as good as “Lady” is, “Wife vs. Secretary” is better – mainly because “Lady” doesn’t let Harlow bust loose until the end of the movie.

The light touch that these two great actresses bring to “Wife vs. Secretary” offsets one of the fundamental conflicts and tragedies of life – that though we are often presented with two paths in life, we can only choose one – knowing that we will always wonder about the other….

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Loy, Gable and Harlow shine in this great comedy

8/10
Author: Incalculacable (vintagous@hotmail.com) from Perth, WA
27 June 2006

In this wonderful comedy/drama, all three major stars go against their stereotyped roles. Clark Gable, for example, plays devoted husband and businessman instead of a tough guy like he usually does. Jean Harlow plays a hard working, good natured secretary, who doesn’t seem to know just how damn sexy and gorgeous she is, and no wise cracks! Then there is the lovely Myrna Loy, who plays an extremely sexy wife (in contrast to her other wife roles). This could have been another formulaic, predictable film but the stars – Loy, Harlow and Gable – shine in their roles and make this a truly funny, magical film.

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The conflict starts when Linda Stanhope’s (a gorgeous Myrna Loy) mother in law makes a careless comment about how nice her son’s (a dashing Clark Gable) – Linda’s Husband – secretary (played by Jean Harlow) is. From there, a usually non-jealous Linda becomes increasingly suspicious to her husbands actions. Many things seem to point to the conclusion that Van is having an affair. Hm!

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It’s rather tragic that this brilliant piece of comedy is not that well known, as it should be. All three stars are exquisite and really entertaining to watch and raises above the boring, run of the mill comedy/dramas. Wife Vs. Secretary is a great movie – I thoroughly enjoyed it.

“Hey, battleship, haven’t you ever seen a blonde before?”

7/10
Author: utgard14 from USA
8 August 2014

Van Stanhope (Clark Gable) is a successful magazine publisher with a perfect marriage to lovely wife Linda (Myrna Loy). The two are blissfully happy. That is until Van’s mother, Mimi (May Robson), starts putting doubts in Linda’s ear about his relationship with his devoted secretary, Whitey (Jean Harlow). Linda trusts in her husband and ignores the warning but slowly becomes more and more suspicious of Whitey and all the time Van spends with her. Complicating matters further is that Whitey really does have feelings for Van, which is fracturing her relationship with fiancé Dave (Jimmy Stewart).

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I’m not sure why this is listed everywhere as a comedy when it’s a romantic drama. There’s very little humor in it, except for some throwaway lines from supporting characters. It’s an enjoyable film, helped by a great cast of likable stars. ‘Dracula’s daughter’ Gloria Holden has fun in one scene as a catty partygoer. Some of the views in this are dated and will no doubt ruffle modern viewer’s feathers, especially when the story begins to lend credence to them. It reminds me a little of The Women, which also had an icky one-sided view of infidelity. By the way, I believe the title has a subtle double meaning. ‘VS’ is also Clark Gabe’s character’s initials and nickname.

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Her Husband’s Secretary

Author: lugonian from Kissimmee, Florida
12 May 2011

WIFE VS. SECRETARY (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1936), directed by Clarence Brown, with title promising loud and sassy comedy, is actually a somber story by Faith Baldwin featuring a top-notch cast of Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, and a young James Stewart shortly before reaching star status himself. Harlow, who earlier encountered a “wife vs. secretary” situation of her own in RED-HEADED WOMAN (1932) opposite Chester Morris, is the secretary again. No longer the vulgar, sex-starved, immoral type from that pre-code era, but resolved, soft-spoken, and highly efficient. With the screenplay by Norman Krasna, Alice Duer Miller and John Lee Mahin, the film itself comes across as not highly original in premise but something slightly ahead of its time as well as better scripted than others bearing a similar theme.

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The introduction to the central characters starts with the boss. He’s Van Stanhope (Clark Gable), a happily married man of three years with an attractive wife, Linda (Myrna Loy), living in a luxurious New York City Park Avenue apartment equipped with servants and expensive furnishings. A magazine publisher of his very own business, Stanhope Publications, Van has an attractive secretary, Helen “Whitey” Wilson (Jean Harlow), who affectionately addresses him as “Dear.” A middle-class girl living with her brother and his wife (William Newell and Margaret Irving), Whitey is also engaged to Dave (James Stewart), an ambitious $75 a week working man who wants her to quit working after they get married. Upon her initial meeting with Whitey during an office visit with Linda, Van’s mother, Mimi (May Robson), with a suspicious nature based on her own marital experience, advises the non-jealous Linda to have Van dismiss his secretary, but overlooks it, believing their partnership is only platonic.

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After hearing similar accusations from her society friends (Marjorie Gateson and Gloria Holden) attending her dinner function, and observing Van and Whitey ice skating together at a company party as she sits in the grandstand suffering from a cold, Linda slowly starts believing these accusations to be true. Even Dave, who patiently awaits for Whitey in his car while she works overtime, begins to have his doubts, causing the engagement to be broken. As Van gets called off for an important business deal in Havana, Cuba, Linda eagerly awaits his telephone call that never comes. She finally makes the call herself, connecting to his hotel room at 2 a.m., only to be surprised that it’s Whitey, not Van, who answers the phone.

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Initially a disappointment for anyone expecting a retread of RED-HEADED WOMAN or a wild and crazy farce as Harlow and Loy’s second and final union in LIBELED LADY (1936), WIFE VS. SECRETARY is actually quite effective in the way the actors present themselves: Gable the serious-minded businessman who loves his wife (“If you want to keep a man honest, never call him a liar”) while looking upon his secretary simply as his loyal assistant; Loy, the highly sophisticated and refined type wearing fur coats, outlandish gowns and even a classy wardrobe at the breakfast table, as the trusting wife. Breaking away from stereotypical feuds between in-laws, wife and mother-in-law get along quite favorably. Resorting to tears at one point, wife’s crying is not enacted in the usual outbursts and screeching in the Carole Lombard or later Lucille Ball manner, and thankfully so.

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Harlow’s Whitey is serious-minded and hard-working, but because of her attractiveness and relationship with her employer, falls victim to accusations for which she is innocent. Whitey’s confrontation with the wife while on the verge of leaving her husband concludes with her saying, “You’re a fool, for which I am grateful.” The familiarity of the James Stewart persona is quite evident here, even at this point of his early career. Regardless of he using the male ego reflection of he “wanting to wear the pants,” his character is soft-spoken, patient and caring in spite of playing second fiddle to his girlfriend’s job. Stewart’s two extended scenes with Harlow as they converse late at night while seated in his car gives him worthy attention from its viewers. Director Clarence Brown keeps the leisurely pace moving at 88 minutes. Under less capable direction, WIFE VS. SECRETARY wouldn’t have been as interesting with its result. Of its three, or four central characters, it’s Harlow who comes out best. Other members of the cast include George Barbier, Hobart Cavanaugh and Gilbert Emery.

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Seldom seen and revived until cable television came along, WIFE VS. SECREtARY finally turned up on Turner Network Television before finding its place on Turner Classic Movies. Distributed to home video in the 1990s, WIFE VS. SECRETARY is also available on DVD. (*** steno-pads)

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The Show- down.  the two Movie Stars were in fact very close friends…

Quite engaging

8/10
Author: Zoooma from Oakland, New Jersey
3 October 2014

Excellent performances, especially Jean Harlow. The Blonde Bombshell she isn’t so much here, but more of a regular working gal. Such great talent, such a shame she died just a year and a few months after this came out. Gable is interesting in this straightforward businessman role and not the brash larger than life lead he often is. Jimmy Stewart gets fourth billing because he’s not yet the big movie star yet but getting there. The story isn’t so much full of comedy or romance, or bitter rivalry, but jealousy and misunderstanding. Don’t convict and divorce on circumstantial evidence alone because jealousy might be mixing up all the signals you think you’re getting when in fact there’s no guilt there whatsoever.

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A “real” Harlow

8/10
Author: vincentlynch-moonoi from United States
23 March 2011
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I thought this was a very good film, mature for 1936, and one of the few films I have seen with Jean Harlow where she didn’t play some version of the blonde bombshell, but rather played a “real” human being. All of the major here are played with a subtle maturity that makes this drama seem more like a mid-40s film, rather than a mid-30s film. Clark Gable’s demeanor in the film is also quite different from his typical bravado. He plays it straight as a businessman who has a wonderful and beautiful secretary who is just that — a wonderful secretary. And, as always, Myrna Loy is superb as the wife who may have been cheated on. And that is the crux of the plot — an innocent business relationship that is misinterpreted by many, leading to the potential of divorce. Jimmy Stewart is still a couple of years away from the big time here, although he is more mature than in a few of his later films…although this is only a supporting role. May Robson, playing Gable’s mother, is one of those character actresses to cherish, even though you may not recognize her name.

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Sexy and Mature

9/10
Author: evanston_dad from United States
27 November 2008

Myrna Loy was never lovelier than she is in this surprisingly sophisticated and mature 1936 film.

Though billed as a screwball comedy, the movie has much more than screwball comedy on its mind. Loy plays wife to Clark Gable, a successful business exec who spends much of his time at the office with his irreplaceable secretary, played by Jean Harlow. Loy completely trusts her husband until a seed of doubt is planted in her mind by her cynical mother-in-law (May Robson). The film examines the idea of trust in marriage, and it’s honest about the nature of infidelity. In a fascinating scene that takes place between Gable and Harlow in a Haitian hotel, the film suggests that the key to making relationships work lies not in avoiding temptation (which it also suggests is impossible anyway), but in knowing how to say “no” to it when it arrives.

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1936: Jean Harlow (1911 – 1937) is on ice-skates in a scene from the film ‘Wife Vs Secretary’, a star comedy drama directed by Clarence Brown for MGM.

Gable and Loy have as much chemistry together as Loy did with William Powell, her other frequent co-star, and Jean Harlow is as cute as I’ve ever seen her. I don’t normally like her much, but I liked her in this as much as I’ve ever liked her in anything else. There are no good guys or bad guys in this movie; Gable isn’t a cad and Harlow isn’t a floozy. The three just play normal people navigating the tricky waters of male/female relations.

This one’s a winner.

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