Van Stanhope (Clark Gable) seems to have it all: he’s a very successful magazine publisher, he’s been very happily married to Linda (Myrna Loy) for three years, and he’s got Whitey (Jean Harlow), the best secretary he could ever want. Most wives would be worried about their husbands having secretaries who look like Whitey, but Linda trusts Van completely and she has every reason to. At least she trusts him until all the suggestions from friends and family that Whitey must be one of those secretaries finally start to get to her. But Linda isn’t the only one jealous of Van and Whitey’s working relationship. Whitey’s boyfriend Dave (James Stewart) wants to marry her, but she loves her job and doesn’t want to quit to stay at home.
When Van decides to take on a new business venture, he has to keep it top secret from everyone, including Linda. Whitey is the only person who knows what’s going on. So when he says he’s been at a club all afternoon one day, Linda does a little investigating and finds out he wasn’t at the club all day, he was with Whitey. Linda begins to fear that all those insinuations were right after all, she has no idea that he and Whitey were working together on the new business deal. Things get even worse when at a company skating party, Linda thinks Van and Whitey look like a little too friendly and she asks Van to transfer Whitey to a new job. Van refuses and Linda eventually decides she’s being ridiculous and Van promises to take her on vacation soon to make it up to her.
But just when Linda thinks they’re going to leave for vacation, Van has to go to Havana on business and can’t bring Linda along. This was upsetting enough, but she is pushed to the breaking point when she calls him in Havana at two in the morning and Whitey answers his phone. Whitey had to join Van in Havana at the last minute to take care of important business. Even though there are hints of a mutual attraction between the two of them after they have a few drinks together, nothing happens. But, of course, Linda assumes the worst and when Van returns, she asks for a divorce. Van is devastated and begins to get a little too friendly with Whitey. Even though Whitey likes the attention, she knows her boss well enough to know what he really needs and makes a last ditch attempt to get Linda to stay with Van.
Wife Vs. Secretary is a very smart movie. Even though the title may conjure up images of Myrna Loy comically sneaking around, following Clark Gable and Jean Harlow around by peering in through office windows and hiding behind menus at restaurants in an attempt to spy on them, it’s far more subtle than that. Clark Gable was often downright hilarious and both Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow gave very thoughtful performances. Myrna’s character went through a whole gamut of emotions during the movie and she played each one very naturally. It didn’t matter if her character was happy and engaging in witty banter or absolutely heartbroken, she handled it all like the pro she was.
At the time, Jean was working to try to soften her image a little bit so she really wanted to play something different from some of her past roles. This wasn’t the first time she played a secretary, but Whitey is the polar opposite of Lil in Red Headed Woman. Whitey’s not the type to keep her boss’ picture in her garter, she has no intention of breaking up anyone’s marriage, and she’s no gold digger. She’s just a good-natured gal who loves her job and cares about her boss, but not indecently. She really did seem like the kind of girl who would go for a Jimmy Stewart type. Red Headed Woman is one of my favorite Jean Harlow movies, but I think she played Whitey just as well as she played Lil. Speaking of Jimmy Stewart, this was one of his first movies, but he already showed a lot of promise as that very down-to-earth type of guy that he’d become best known for playing.
I loved pretty much everything about Wife Vs. Secretary. They couldn’t have asked for a better cast, I loved Clarence Brown’s direction, and I loved the writing. With a story like this, it could have easily gone down a more over-the-top route and turned into an all-out screwball comedy. But the subtlety of the writing gave the actors the perfect opportunity to take over and really make it great. With a lesser cast, this movie would have been completely forgettable. Instead, it’s a real gem.
Fun Fact: Wife Vs. Secretary was first released on February 28, 1936 so this review was published on the 75th anniversary of the movie’s release.