Wife vs. Secretary may sound like a tacky potboiler, but it's anything but. Director Clarence Brown's slick, absorbing comedy-drama forgoes mudslinging in favor of an adult examination of marital and workplace dynamics that's elevated by the stellar performances of Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and Myrna Loy. A new 4K scan struck from the best surviving elements yields a glorious transfer that far outclasses the 2006 DVD. Though hardly groundbreaking, Wife vs. Secretary is very entertaining and more substantive than its title might suggest. Highly Recommended.
Though the archaic title reeks of sexism today, Wife vs. Secretary was topical, relatable stuff back in 1936. Director Clarence Brown's classy comedy-drama may not deliver the promised catfight showdown, but its incisive examination of marital and workplace dynamics, gender roles, ambition, and a judgmental, class-conscious society still has plenty of bite. The movie also epitomizes MGM Golden Age gloss and what once was called a "star vehicle." Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and Myrna Loy all shine brightly in this engaging film that includes a stellar supporting performance by an up-and-coming James Stewart.
The not-too-original plot chronicles the tension that develops when magazine publisher Van Stanhope (Gable) begins spending too much time at the office with his highly competent - and very pretty - assistant, Helen "Whitey" Wilson (Harlow). Though Van is very happily married to Linda (Loy), she begins to doubt his affection after her mother-in-law Mimi (May Robson) sows the seeds of mistrust. Mimi worries Van will stray if given the chance, simply because that's what men do, so she advises Linda to find a way to get Whitey out of Van's office before Whitey gets her claws into Van. Linda scoffs at first, but when a top-secret project requires Van and Whitey to spend long hours together and take a business trip to Cuba, she believes an affair is brewing.
The kicker here is Whitey is not the conniving sexpot we expect, even though she's portrayed by the Blonde Bombshell herself. Nowhere to be found is the stereotypical vixen with dollar signs in her eyes who's eager to climb out of poverty and into bed with her rich boss, then steal him away from his patient, loving, trusting wife so she can run amok with his checkbook. (That character, played by Joan Crawford, would crop up in The Women three years later.) On the contrary, Whitey is professional, dedicated, smart, and mature. Yes, she's ambitious, but not a predator. Her steady, devoted boyfriend Dave (Stewart) is eager to marry her, but Whitey isn't quite ready to chuck her career so she can sit at home and raise babies. Her reluctance to settle down drives a wedge between the two that grows bigger when Dave sees the rapport she shares with Van.
Like many men, Van is oblivious to the storms swirling around him. He appreciates Whitey's talent and skills, views her as a valuable professional asset, and doesn't want to lose her. He's probably attracted to her, too (who wouldn't be?), but doesn't act on those impulses. That's another interesting twist, especially with the virile Gable - who usually jumps at the chance to tangle with Harlow - in the part. Loy, as usual, plays the perfect wife, but though she might seem like a Nora Charles knockoff early in the story, Linda is not as easygoing and level-headed as her martini-swilling counterpart. Linda lets her imagination get the better of her and, thanks to Mimi, thinks the worst of her husband instead of the best.
Though refreshing, the lack of a prolonged, vindictive tug-of-war between the two women makes Wife vs. Secretary a bit puzzling and unsatisfying on a first viewing, but look more closely and you'll discover it's quite an elegant, perceptive piece of moviemaking and social commentary. Clarence Brown's name in the credits instantly elevates expectations and telegraphs the film won't be a run-of-the-mill bit of fluff. A six-time Oscar nominee who directed Greta Garbo in seven films and helmed such acclaimed family pictures as National Velvet and The Yearling, Brown brings gravity, sensitivity, and artistry to the table, while solid writers like future Oscar-winner Norman Krasna and two-time nominee John Lee Mahin lend the trite premise substance, wit, and plausibility. They also give the actors meaty roles and some surprisingly risqué banter.
Gable, with his mile-wide grin, irresistible charm, and imposing presence, pretty much plays Gable throughout...and that's completely okay. Wife vs. Secretary is the fourth of his seven films with Loy and the fifth of his six movies with Harlow, making it tough to predict who he might end up with at the end. His chemistry with each actress is both unique and potent. He's wonderfully playful with the light-hearted Loy and you can see his libido perk up in his scenes with the always alluring and utterly captivating Harlow, who after much campaigning at last convinced MGM to grant her a more challenging and serious role.
Harlow even received permission to darken her trademark platinum locks to a more mainstream color, a major concession from a studio that continually cast her as wise-cracking floozies and empty-headed tarts. She also lowered her vocal timbre, resulting in more natural, mellifluous tones. Much like Marilyn Monroe blossomed as an actress as her career progressed, so too did Harlow, and her sincere, understated, often luminous work in Wife vs. Secretary is a revelation. She always clicks with Gable, but her scenes with the young Stewart - who makes a huge impression in just his fourth film - rank among her best. Tragically, Harlow would pass away the following year at the tender age of 26, just as she was beginning to realize her potential. Who knows what heights she might have scaled had she been able to enjoy a lengthy, fruitful career.
Wife vs. Secretary is a well-made, but hardly groundbreaking film. It coasts along on the strength of its glamorous cast, brims with MGM opulence, and deftly mixes light comedy with light drama. Some dated elements creep in here and there, but never compromise the quality or relevance of this absorbing movie that examines personal and professional relationships in a surprisingly adult manner. Though we've evolved and society has considerably changed in the 87 years since the picture premiered, its core principles still ring true. And that's why Wife vs. Secretary, despite its lowbrow title, is still worth watching today.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Wife vs. Secretary arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A new 4K scan struck from the best surviving elements - in this case, a preservation safety fine grain made from the original negative in the 1960s - yields a stunning 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that's a huge step up from the 2006 DVD. All the print damage that littered every frame of the DVD transfer has been erased without sacrificing the film-like appearance or dishonoring the cinematography of three-time Oscar nominee Ray June, whose most famous credit is arguably the Fred Astaire-Audrey Hepburn musical Funny Face. Grain is evident, but naturally woven into the film's fabric, and excellent contrast and clarity, deep blacks, bright and stable whites, and beautifully varied grays all combine to produce a picture that brims with fine detail, vibrancy, and depth. Breathtaking close-ups of Harlow and Loy highlight their inimitable glamor, while the tight shots of Gable showcase his pencil-thin mustache, eyebrows, and square-jawed ruggedness. Top-notch shadow delineation and the spotless source material also enhance the appeal of this exceptional transfer that renders the DVD obsolete.
Though this dialogue-driven comedy-drama doesn't possess many sonic bells and whistles (literally and figuratively), the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track still earns high marks and outclasses its lossy DVD counterpart. All the hiss, pops, and crackle that plagued the DVD have been erased, resulting in a clean track that prioritizes the all-important exchanges between Gable, Loy, and Harlow. All the banter, arguments, and quiet conversations are easy to comprehend, and good fidelity helps the sparingly employed music score by Herbert Stothart and Edward Ward fill the room with ease. The subtle off-screen footsteps that play such a crucial role in the film's climax are distinct, sonic accents like ringing telephones are crisp, and silences are clean.
Most - but not all - the extras from the DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release. For some reason, the vintage musical short New Shoes didn't make the cut, so if you're a fan of that one-reeler, you'll want to hang onto your DVD.
Vintage Short: The Public Pays (SD, 18 minutes) - This action-packed, Oscar-winning short, part of MGM's long-running Crime Does Not Pay series, exposes the dangers of racketeers through a story about extortionists who threaten and terrorize honest businessmen. Eagle eyes will notice one of the office sets used in the short is a stripped-down version of the same one seen in Wife vs. Secretary.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview touts the "high voltage, ultra modern" presentation of the "story of three people in love."
Wife vs. Secretary may possess a dated premise, but beneath its provocative title lies a perceptive and entertaining film that examines women's roles and the misconceptions surrounding them. Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, and a young James Stewart supply not only star power, but also nuanced portrayals that raise this movie above others in its class. Terrific remastered video and audio transfers that far outshine the DVD distinguish Warner Archive's Blu-ray presentation of this quality comedy-drama that epitomizes Golden Age moviemaking. Highly Recommended.