wifevs.jpgFor date night this past weekend, me and the Mrs. decided to check out Wife Versus Secretary, a smart, stylish classic that seemed appropriate for the occasion. The film has three of the 1930s’ biggest stars in their heyday – Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and Jean Harlow – and also features a young Jimmy Stewart in one of his first roles. The plot basically revolves around Van Stanhope (Gable), a successful businessman who is happily married to Linda (Loy). In business, Van relies heavily upon his beautiful secretary Whitey Wilson (Harlow), who happens to be engaged to Dave (Stewart). When a proposed purchase of a rival company necessitates Van and Whitey to start working long hours in private, their significant others begin to get suspicious, and jealousy runs rampant.

This was one of those nice little surprises where we really hadn’t heard much about it beforehand, but it turned out to be a rather good film. The sets are some of those great, lavish affairs of the 30s that make you feel nostalgic. The script is good, as is the directing. It’s the acting, though, that steals the show. The cast is as good as advertised, and the chemistry between the stars works well. After so long associating Myrna Loy with William Powell, I was surprised by how well the Gable/Loy combination worked (which probably explains why they made eight movies together). Of course, there was also the noted great chemistry between Gable and Harlow, who collaborated on six movies together before her death at 26. You can also recognize the talent of Jimmy Stewart, and it’s easy to see why he wasn’t given such small roles for long. It really is the acting, in my opinion, that makes this film work. (On a side note, I’m cautiously optimistic that I’m slowly ridding my wife of her anti-Gable bias by convincing her he’s so much more than just Rhett Butler.)

Although technically, this film fits the general definition of a screwball comedy, it deviates significantly from the quintessential examples of the genre (much like the screwball comedy that supposedly marks the starting point of the genre – It Happened One Night, also starring Gable). It is much more serious in nature than most screwballs, and it lacks some of that zaniness that tends to make the genre so fun.  In fact, despite the overall brevity of the film, there are one or two stretches where the film moves slowly and is not overly engaging. For that reason, I would be somewhat reluctant to recommend this film to someone who is new to classics (I’ve found the pacing of these old films to be the most common turn-off to contemporary sensibilities). To those lucky ones already indoctrinated into the world of black and white, however, this showcase of some legendary 30s talents is one of those often overlooked films that you might be happy to discover. It’s not perfect, but it’s still very good.