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The Films of Jean Harlow: Wife vs. Secretary (1936)

I feel like I’ve been harsh on the films of Jean Harlow.  It’s not that their bad movies, I just expected more from them…more humor, more heart, and I haven’t gotten that.  Well, it’s turning around with a film that’s easily on par with Libeled Lady (the more I hype this movie the more I’m thinking of actually rewatching the movie and rewriting my upcoming review of it).  Wife vs. Secretary tells everything in the title and while it could have been a sleazy, cautionary tale about working women, the movie is a heartfelt romance with a stellar performance from Harlow and two capable co-stars in Clark Gable and Myrna Loy.

Van Stanhope (Clark Gable) is a magazine publisher in a loving relationship with his wife Linda (Myrna Loy).  He’s also extremely reliant on his secretary “Whitey” Wilson (Harlow).  When Linda is continuously told by friends and family that it’s bad news for Van’s secretary to be so attractive, Linda fobs them off…until she starts to suspect their relationship is more than just that off boss and secretary!

As mentioned above this movie could have been a really exploitative and sleazy movie.  Just in looking at the title you’re expecting a classy (this was 1936 after all) showdown and fight for Van’s love.  Instead you get characters who say, from the get-go, their feelings towards each other.  We know from the beginning that Van and Linda are hopelessly in love and that Van and Whitey are friends and nothing more.  That’s why you’re just as frustrated as Linda when her mother and friends tell her Van could easily be having an affair with Whitey.  The three have such flawless chemistry with each other that it appears they’d be great friends off-screen as easily as they are on.

Harlow reverts back to that dominant, business minded character we’ve seen in her earlier work.  Here she’s told by the bland (and jerky) Dave (Jimmy Stewart) that it’s not “natural” for a woman to be working and that she needs to quit and marry him.  I was looking for this to be the third act climax/ultimatum that would propel Whitey into going into the role of the women at the time…but instead it’s told in the beginning to show the type of woman Whitey is.  She tells him no and actually becomes Van’s right-hand girl, wheeling and dealing with him!  This had to be somewhat scandalous for 1936, a time when women weren’t into the war effort yet, but they were getting out into the workplace.

When Van and Whitey go to Havana to close a deal is when things get messy.  Having seen what happens when Clark Gable and Jean Harlow are in exotic locales (see my Red Dust and China Seas reviews), I easily expected some drunken debauchery….and again the movie proved me wrong (stop that movie!).  While the two get drunk and end up in Van’s hotel room, they don’t do anything even though you can tell they’d be interested in it.  The two bubble with sexual frustration and while I loved Myrna Loy as Linda, a part of me really wanted Gable and Harlow to hook up!

Loy is just as prim and proper as when she was Nora Charles in The Thin Man (again the group of people Harlow worked with is pretty incestuous) and considering that came out 2 years before this leads me to believe Harlow and Loy were friends off-screen.  Gable and Loy are great together and it’s nice to see Gable cut loose and not be the cad I’ve seen in previous works.  The only anomaly was Jimmy Stewart as Whitey’s boyfriend David.  He’s just too weak and whiney for me.  I’m used to seeing Stewart as more of an everyman, and while I’m not a big fan of his, I just didn’t like this role for him and thought he was nowhere near a worthy suitor for Harlow.

Wife vs. Secretary is a sweet little comedy with a bunch of great performances that doesn’t go where expected.  It’s not a classic screwball comedy but it’s a fun movie and definitely shows the easy chemistry between Loy, Gable, and Harlow!

Grade: B

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Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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