Poor Clark Gable, he has Myrna Loy as his loving sophisticated wife, so confident in her own womanhood and her marriage that she does not mind hubby having Jean Harlow as his beautiful secretary. Harlow is not only a snazzy looking woman, she’s smart and essential to Gable’s corporate executive’s success. In fact, she seems to be the real brains of the organization and by 2012 standards it becomes a bit hard to believe she remains just a secretary. But this is 1936 and equality in the workplace is non-existent. Gable knows she’s good. When there is a chance for Harlow’s character to advance her own career he selfishly wants to keep her on board with him.
Directed by Clarence Brown with a script by Norman Krasna, John Lee Mahin and Alice Dure Miller based on a novel by Faith Baldwin; “Wife vs. Secretary” is both a sophisticated and a charming piece of fluff with a typically glossy MGM cast that includes James Stewart and May Robson in supporting roles. Baldwin authored more than one hundred novels, many focusing on women juggling the duel life of career and family. Other works by Baldwin made into movies include “Skyscraper,” “Office Wife,” “Men Are Such Fools” and “An Apartment for Peggy.”
Gable is magazine publisher Van Staplehorn happily married to Linda (Loy). The couple seem to have it all, a loving marriage, an elegant New York apartment with full staff and plenty of friends. All’s well until Van’s mother, Mimi (May Hobson) plants a seed into Linda’s head wondering how can she be so comfortable with Van spending most of his day with his way too beautiful secretary Helen “Whitey” Wilson (Jean Harlow)? Mimi has little confidence in her son’s ability to avoid female temptation, “My dear, men are like that,” she explains, “so honorable and wise in some things and just like naughty children in others. You wouldn’t blame a little boy for stealing a piece of candy if left alone with a whole boxful, will you?” Linda refuses to heed Mimi advice. She trust Van, they are happy and in love.
Whitey is having her own relationship problems with Dave (James Stewart) who feels her job has become too important to her. He wants her settle down, raise a family like other women. Besides this guy Staplehorn is constantly calling her at all hours of the night. He even has her come to his place during a dinner party so they can finish up some work.
Life begins to head south when Van starts secret negotiations with J.D. Underwood (George Barbier) to buy one of his weeklies. In fear a competitor will snatch the deal Van tells Whitey he wants to keep the deal quite from everyone; he is not even going to tell Linda what is going on.
Lie number one appears when one evening before a dinner party, Van tells Linda he was at the men’s club all day while he really was wheeling and dealing with Underwood. The lie comes out later that evening when one of the dinner guests innocently mentions that Van has not been to the club for a long time.
Van plans a vacation trip for him and Linda only for it to be postponed when he learns Underwood is going be in Havana for a conference. Linda want to join him but Van is adamant, he’ll be busy the entire time, and they will not have a chance to spend any time together. While Van is in Havana, back home Whitey learns of some important information about their competitor for the acquisition. Van tells her to catch the next plane and head down to Havana; they need to close the deal before the conference ends. Two days of working night and day Van and Whitey close the deal. In celebration they share a few drinks, a few too many and find themselves attracted to each other. Is something going to happen? Well no, a phone call from Linda interrupts the eye contact. However, it is Whitey who answers the phone, and it is two o‘clock in the morning, the already suspicious Linda quickly hangs up. Van’s cheating! What else can Linda think?
Van heads back to New York in an attempt to salvage his marriage but Linda doesn’t want to hear it. Not until Whitey catches up to Linda as she is about to sail off, telling her how much Van loves her. Whitey admits she would love to steal Van for herself, but she also realizes that he would never love her as much as he loves Linda. It all does get a bit melodramatic at this point and of course Linda goes back to Van and Whitey is met by the neglected Dave who still wants to marry her, job or no job.
For Harlow this was a major change in her screen persona. Just a few years earlier in the racy “Red-Headed Woman” Harlow played a secretary who willingly uses her sexuality to seduce her boss. Here she is totally professional, smart and essential to the success of the business; in fact she could run the company as good if not better than Gable’s character. She does everything from research and development, writing the contracts, advising Van of strategic moves as well as watering the flowers, yet the chances for advancement are slim and none. Gable’s character, Van, selfishly, wants to keep her as his assistant when one opportunity does appear.
Harlow convinced the studio to let her tone down her hair to a more natural color and avoided the sexy lower class slang talk she used in so many earlier films. Here she plays the bright business woman who just happens to be beautiful. Myrna Loy’s role is actually the sexier one of the two ladies. In her biography, Loy writes, “Actually we did kind of a role 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 ever played.”
She goes on…
“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.”
Loy is good, but Harlow may have given one of her best performances. As for Gable, well not so much. His character comes across as rather dumb for a top company executive and his acting is way too broad. I have never thought of Gable as a very good actor as much as he is a charismatic movie star. James Stewart, in what was only his fourth film, as Harlow’s boyfriend is fine in a small role and from what I have read had a good time kissing Harlow. She apparently, put quite a bit of effort in those scenes.
This was Gable and Harlow’s fifth film together. They would make one more, “Saratoga,” before Harlow’s untimely death. Gable appeared in seven films with Myrna Loy.
“Wife versus Secretary” was a moderate success at the box office. The critics seemed to have been all over the map but to its credit the film was quite astute as to sexual politics in the office. Women, no matter how smart and professional were still looked upon as second class citizens. As Loy’s character, Linda tells Gable at one point, “people aren’t willing to believe that looks go with brains.”