In a Nutshell: Wife vs. Secretary (1936)

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Directed by: Clarence Brown

Co-stars: Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, James Stewart

Synopsis: Gable is Van, “Jake”, or “V.S.” Stanhope, a publishing executive happily married to the elegant Linda (Loy). Tongues start wagging about Van and his beautiful secretary, Helen “Whitey” Wilson (Harlow), whom he considers a close friend and confidante, but nothing more. While trying to secretly buy rights to a magazine from a rival publisher, he sneaks around town with Whitey, finalizing the deal. As his stories become inconsistent, Linda begins to suspect him and Whitey are having an affair. So does Whitey’s patient fiancé, Dave (a youthful Stewart). Dave grows irritated that Whitey refuses to quit her job, telling her that it isn’t natural for a woman not to want to stay home and be married and have children. She breaks up with him after he insinuates her relationship with Van is indecent. Linda’s suspicions finally bubble over when Van refuses to take her along on a business trip to Havana. An emergency occurs and Van calls Whitey to Havana to help him close the deal. When Whitey answers Van’s hotel room phone at 2:00am after a long night, Linda feels she needs no further evidence and begins divorce proceedings when Van returns to New York, refusing to believe his explanations.

Best Gable Quote: “You know, Linda, sometimes I just sit in the office and think about us. I try to be very fair about it and I am too. And I say to myself: who are you to think you are entitled to Linda? Are you good enough for her? And I say to myself: No. Then I say to myself: Well who is entitled to her? Is anyone good enough for her? And I say to myself: No. Then I say to myself: You’re as little entitled to her as anybody else so you hold right on. And I’m holding.”

Fun Fact: Gable and Loy became close friends on the set. She said he brought her coffee every morning and would read her Shakespeare and poetry in her trailer between takes.

My Verdict: I love this movie. The premise is silly and a common one form the 1930’s—a ridiculous stream of misunderstandings leads to marital strife—but this movie stands out because of the snappy script and the great cast. Clark Gable, Myrna Loy AND Jean Harlow! Plus throw in a young Jimmy Stewart as Harlow’s beau! Fabulous. Clark and Jean have their usual great chemistry, and Myrna and Clark’s scenes are adorably sweet. This one may not be one of his most dramatic parts or one of this pinnacle films, but it is a standout to show people in generations to come –“Hey, this is why Clark Gable was so popular.”

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It’s on DVD.

Read more here.

It was Movie of the Month in July 2010.

 

In a Nutshell: San Francisco (1936)

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Directed by: W.S. Van Dyke

Co-stars: Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy

Synopsis: Gable is Blackie Norton, a ruthless saloon-keeper in 1906 San Francisco, proud of his gambling ways. Despite their differences, he falls in love with Mary Blake (MacDonald), an aspiring opera singer who he hires to sing in his revue. His childhood pal, priest Tim Mullin (Tracy), objects to him putting Mary on display and stopping her from her opera aspirations. Realizing that Tim is right and that she should pursue her dreams instead of letting Blackie hold her back, Mary leaves him and becomes a successful opera star. It isn’t until the shattering earthquake that Blackie realizes his true feelings for Mary and sets out to find her among the rubble.

Best Gable Quote: “You know, I never tried to kid you, Mary. You take me as I am or you don’t take me. Tim doesn’t try to change me because he knows he can’t. And you can’t either. Nothing can. You know what I’ve been waiting for? I’ve been waiting to hear you say that I’m alright with you the way I am. Maybe you’re ready to say it now. Are you?”

Fun Fact: The film was one of the biggest hits of 1936, earning $5.3 million and a profit of $2.2 million. It became Gable’s highest grossing film after Gone with the Wind.

My Verdict: This is one of those films that has it all—drama, comedy, romance, action. It is difficult not to like this film! Although Gable did not like working with MacDonald, I don’t think it shows; they do have great chemistry. She may not be the sexiest of his leading ladies for sure, but she’s beautiful and her purity rubbed up against Clark’s ruggedness works. Gable and Tracy are always a great pairing and here is no exception. The special effects used for the earthquake are extremely impressive if you take in account that you are looking at a film made at a time when talkies hadn’t even been around 10 years yet. No CGI here, real effects and stunt people. The songs are great (although I must confess I always fast forward through MacDonald’s opera sequence…) and the costumes superb. An essential for sure, although I must say I think Clark should have nabbed an Oscar nomination for this one. Just sayin’.

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It’s on DVD.

Read more here.

Ratings

Myrna Loy and Clark Gable

Myrna Loy and Clark Gable

I have a crush on Myrna Loy. That wasn’t hard to admit. Miss Loy (nee Williams) was one of the biggest stars of the studio era, largely due to the hugely successful Thin Man series, in which she was Nora to William Powell’s Nick. In 1938, she was elected the Queen of Hollywood along with the King–Clark, of course. After their crowning, from then on he affectionately called Myrna “Queenie.” Sadly, as Clark carried the King title to the end of his life (and beyond!), the Queen title slipped off Myrna quickly and unfortunately most non-classic movie lovers have no idea who she is. She has over 100 films in her filmography and played opposite pretty much every male star you can think of:  Gable, Powell, Cary Grant, Charles Boyer, Melvyn Douglas, Frederic March, Franchot Tone, Walter Pidgeon, Tyrone Power, even Paul Newman. She was overlooked for Oscars several times, for The Thin Man and, most notably, for The Best Years of Our Lives, arguably one the greatest movies ever made. In fact, she was never nominated for an Oscar. She was awarded the “booby prize” Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1993. Her acceptance via satellite was her last public appearance before her death on December 14, 1993.

Myrna and Clark were very close friends.  And nope, there was no romance. They starred in six films together: Men in White, Manhattan Melodrama, Wife vs. Secretary, Parnell,  Too Hot to Handle and Test Pilot. (They also both appeared in the ensemble piece Night Flight but have no scenes together.) Surprisingly, Myrna was quoted late in her life saying her favorite film of her own was Test Pilot, not one of “The Thin Mens” as one would suspect.

Clark & Myrna square off in Test Pilot

Clark & Myrna square off in Test Pilot

Although they became close friends, Clark and Myrna’s initial meeting was anything but friendly. They were introduced by Clark’s agent Minna Wallis at the annual Mayfair Ball in 1933. Myrna recalled:

Whenever I hear “Dancing in the Dark” I think of him, because we danced to it that night and he was vibrant and warm, a marvelous dancer. It was divine

Coming home, we dropped Minna off first, leaving the three of us, the Gables and me, in the backseat of the limousine. Clark’s second wife, Rhea, who had been charming all evening, was much older than he and somewhat matronly. As we drove toward my mother’s house, I could see that Clark was beginning to feel a bit amorous. He started edging toward me–with his wife sitting right there beside him. Of course, he was probably loaded by that time. We all were, to a certain extent.

Clark escorted me to the door. As I turned to unlock it, he bent down and gave me a “monkey bite.”(It left a scar on my neck for days.)  I turned around and gave him a shove, sending him backward two or three steps off the porch and into the hedge. As he stumbled back, I remember, he laughed a little, which infuriated me all the more. It was just the idea of his wife sitting out in the car. I’d had quite a few beaus, but this was different, you see, this was not right. I wanted no part of it.

Soon afterwards she was informed Clark would be her costar in Men in White. He ignored her on set, only paying attention to her when the cameras were rolling. (He was, after all, more interested in another costar, a certain Miss Elizabeth Allan).

Clark and Myrna in Men in White

Clark and Myrna in Men in White

By the time that they started filming Manhattan Melodrama in 1934, his chill toward her had melted and a friendship began. Manhattan Melodrama is best remembered as being the first time Myrna was paired with William Powell, and their excellent chemistry led to them being cast in The Thin Man.

Not a bad place to be: Myrna sandwiched between Clark and William Powell in Manhattan Melodrama

Not a bad place to be: Myrna sandwiched between Clark and William Powell in Manhattan Melodrama

Myrna recalled that Wife vs. Secretary was a fun set, as she, Clark and Jeah Harlow were all friends (not to mention, Jean was dating William Powell at the time). Myrna was also Clark’s leading lady in his biggest flop (and hers, too): the much maligned Parnell. It was Clark’s least favorite film of his own and he would have just as soon forgotten it. Myrna recalled that despite it’s failure, she didn’t dislike the film and she pointed out this sad truth:

Clark never again challenged his public after Parnell, even Rhett Butler was an extension of the kind of character everybody expected from him.  He finally believed that was all he could do, and maintaining that macho image plagued him to the end. It finally killed him, roping and being dragged by all those horses in The Misfits when he was way past the age to be doing such things. You know the only thing that bothered us about Clark playing Parnell? The fact that nobody would believe he could die of a heart attack in the role. Ironically, that’s just what happened in real life.

Clark and Myrna flopping in Parnell

Clark and Myrna flopping in Parnell

Clark and Myrna’s next two ventures, Too Hot to Handle and Test Pilot, were very successful.I have always found it surprising that MGM didn’t think to re-cast them in the late 40’s/early ‘50’s. They would have been superb in a Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House-type vehicle. But unfortuantely, the last time they were cast together was 1938. I suppose Myrna grew “too old” for Clark, as his co-stars in the 50’s were the likes of Jane Russell, Carroll Baker, Marilyn Monroe and Doris Day…Myrna could have been their mother.

Clark and Myrna get steamy in Too Hot to Handle

Clark and Myrna get steamy in Too Hot to Handle

In her autobiography, “Being and Becoming”, she was quite nostalgic about Clark:

[Clark] happened to be an actor, a damned good one, and nobody knew it–least of all Clark. Oh, he wanted to be an actor, but he always deprecated his ability, pretended it didn’t matter. He was a really shy man with a terrible inferiority in there somewhere. Something was missing that kept him from doing the things he could have done.

 When I think about [my relationship with Clark Gable] now, considering the way it started it was curious. We became devoted to each other. We weren’t lovers–he was in love with Carole Lombard by that time. In fact, after I repelled his initial attack, we eventually became more like siblings. Nobody believes that…but our relationship was unique. Oh, he sometimes gave me the macho routine when people were watching, but he changed when we were alone.

We always used to celebrate together at the end of a picture. Clark insisted on it. Maybe we’d include the director, maybe not. It was just a kind of ritual that the two of us had. We would share a bottle of champagne while he read poetry to me, usually the sonnets of Shakespeare. He loved poetry, and read beautifully, with great sensitivity, but he wouldn’t dare let anyone else know it. He was afraid people would think him weak or effeminite and not the tough guy who liked to fish and hunt. I was the only one he trusted. He never wanted me to tell about this, and here I am giving him away, but I never mentioned it while he was alive.

Around the time her biography was released though, she was the subject of a People magazine article in which she changed her tune:

Today she likes to recall romancing Gable on a farmhouse porch in Test Pilot—an especially charged love scene, she says, because they never touch. Still, Loy doesn’t mind admitting the king’s shortcomings.

“Oh, Clark was a terrible actor,” she says. “He couldn’t act his way out of a bag.”

Rather contradictory, wouldn’t you say? I’ll chalk that up to old age…

Myrna is carried away by Clark in Wife vs. Secretary

Myrna is carried away by Clark in Wife vs. Secretary

 Myrna is one of the few ladies of the Golden era who kept a low profile; she was not about the limos and furs and scandulous affairs.  Her autobiography is one of my absolute favorites; it is brutally honest and very engrossing. She was plagued by the title  “The Perfect Wife” assigned to her by the media. “Some perfect wife I am,” she said. “I’ve been married four times, divorced four times, have no children, and can’t boil an egg.”

Clark and Myrna at a Hollywood Victory Committee Meeting in December 1941

Clark and Myrna at a Hollywood Victory Committee Meeting in December 1941

She’s still perfect to me. I think Clark would agree.

This month, fittingly our one year anniversary, I am starting a new blog feature. I am going to be featuring one of Clark’s films every month, as the “Movie of the Month”. In no particular order really. Hopefully it will showcase some movies that Clark fans have yet to see and will pique their interest.

So, for the inaugural month, I am selecting one of my very favorites: Wife vs. Secretary, from 1936.

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This film is pretty much everything you would want from a fluffy 1930’s comedy/drama. The cast is stellar: Clark, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, May Robson and a young Jimmy Stewart in a supporting role. 1936 begins what I personally believe to be the “golden years” of Clark’s life and career, ending of course, in 1941, after Carole died in early 1942. This is the time when Clark was at his happiest in his personal life—separated from Ria and romping around with Carole—and professionally, churning out hit after hit playing the same rogue characters that his fans yearned for more and more of.

Clark is the dashing editor-in-chief of a magazine in this one. Myrna is his delightful wife, who seems to spend her days lounging around their spacious two-story New York apartment in glamorous gowns, throwing lavish parties, assisted by a full-time cook, maid, driver and butler. Ah, to be a rich 1930’s housewife! Jean is Clark’s loyal secretary, who says how high when he says jump. Jimmy is Jean’s neglected fiancé, who is constantly snubbed by Jean’s work commitments and is growing quite tired of it. Despite the fact that Clark showers her with affection, Myrna begins to grow suspicious of Jean and Clark’s relationship after his mother (Robson) puts a bug in her ear about “attractive secretaries”. As is typical in these types of movies, Myrna requires no real proof to kick Clark to the curb! Sure, the plot is a bit predictable but the lavish Art Deco sets, beautiful clothes and perfect cast make this one a real treat. Some favorite scenes of mine are Clark dashing home from his poker game once Myrna has forgiven him, Clark arriving home,  rushing up the stairs and sweeping a waiting Myrna into his arms, and Clark and Jean having a hard time staying upright while playing “whip” on the ice skating rink.

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Myrna and Jean both had excellent chemistry with Clark no matter what the film, so to have them both in the same one is a double treat. Myrna later recalled that the set was a lot of fun and how sweet Jean was. Her and Jean spent a lot of time together around then, as Jean was dating Myrna’s Thin Man costar, William Powell, and had been around the set of After the Thin Man. And while Jimmy and Clark don’t share the screen for long, it’s still a delight to have the two legends in one picture. Later in his life, on a talk show, Jimmy recalled that he kept messing up his lines on purpose during a romantic scene with Jean so that he could keep kissing her! Who could blame him!

This film also marks a switch in Jean’s career. She had begun to break away from the saucy platinum blonde parts into more “respectable lady” parts. Her hair is a honey blonde and her wardrobe is quite modest. She shows some dramatic chops too, especially in a scene towards the end where she tells Myrna what a fool she is for leaving Clark. Unfortunately for us all, she didn’t have a lot of time left to broaden her career, as she died at age 26 the following year.

For more, check out the film page and the section in the gallery.

 Wife vs. Secretary is available on DVD in The Clark Gable Signature Collection.

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