Monday, January 23, 2012
“More Than a Secretary” (1936) is like a time travel adventure. It is impossible to watch this movie about the editor of a fitness magazine without being reminded of the all-pervasive diet industry and social consciousness about health today. The setting is1930s screwball patter, and man-crazy dumb blondes who connive to marry (or be kept by) their bosses. We travel back and forth through time in every scene, reevaluating our perspective, old and new.
Today’s post is part of the Comedy Classics Blogathon sponsored by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Have a look here for a schedule of the other participating blogs.
January, typically a month for resolutions about changing one’s life, and being deluged with diet and fitness ads and infomercials, is an especially fitting time to watch Jean Arthur try to change herself. She runs up against the extremely high standards of George Brent.
In fact, considering how much I type and have typed through the decades since, that one semester of Typing 101 in high school was probably the most beneficial and practical class I ever took.
And working for so many years (ago) on a manual typewriter, I have fingers like Hercules. I continually wear out flimsy plastic computer keyboards. I run through them like Kleenex. I could crush you like a bug.
But Jean’s and Ruth’s students, or at least some of them, do not envision decades of typing, or any career at all. They are there to learn the skills that will get them jobs as executive secretaries to rich businessmen, and then marry them. Or be kept as mistresses.
Dorothea Kent comes pretty close to stealing this movie.
She had a less than stellar career in B-movies as the dumb friend, but here her “Maisie” character, despite the high-pitched whine and clueless attitude, is really quite street-smart and self-sufficient. She knows what she wants, and she goes out and gets it. Also, coloring her dumb blonde act is a biting nastiness that makes her fascinating, even as you want to club her for her blatant rudeness to Jean. Her supposedly obtuse double entendres are perfectly executed. She blithely but with a spin of sophistication talks of the corporate head to whom she finally becomes…indispensible. “You’ll never know how he leans on me.”
For Jean Arthur, 1936 was a busy year. In this one year she did five movies. Along with this one there was “The Plainsman” (see our previous post here), “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford”, “Adventure in Manhattan” and “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”. Each role was different, and we see that though the studio system could be something like a conveyor belt of sameness in roles for many actors and actresses, Jean refused to cooperate with studio head Harry Cohn enough times to forge her own mark on her career.
It is as if she is still working through the transition of so many earlier roles where she played the sad but forthright heroine seeking love (“Danger Signals” 1930) or justice (“Party Wire” - 1935) to the working girl whose delightful sense of irony is her self-preservation (“Public Hero #1” - 1935) and (“If You Could Only Cook” - 1935).
The further along in her career she got, the more of the world’s troubles she took on her shoulders and she became the moral compass of screwball comedies. “Mr. Deeds” and “Mr. Smith” were ahead of her, but by then she would be ready for them.
Here she has George Brent, who might not seem like the answer to this frustrated businesswoman’s prayers. We last saw Mr. Brent here in "My Reputation". I think I really prefer him in light comedy to drama. He has nice touch with slightly absurd characters. Here, his delightfully serious naiveté, despite the science of his health beliefs, both maddens and appeals to her.
What was I talking about? Oh, yeah. George. Jean. He mistakes her for another applicant, and brusquely runs her through a quick job interview. Intrigued, she decides to play along and take the job, and see what this weirdo is all about.
Much to the consternation of her business partner, Ruth Donnelly, who wonders why she would leave her business to take a lousy $25 a week job.
We see, before Ruth does, before Jean does, that she is smitten with George Brent.
He treats to her a lunch of a bran muffin, and a vegetarian supper. I think my favorite line is when, half-starved she buys groceries on the way home and, tired about hearing how her regular diet is bad for her, plucks an enormous raw steak out of her shopping bag. Just before dropping it in the frying pan, gives it an enthusiastic kiss,
“Steak, come kill mama!”
Much of George Brent’s health regimen is used for comic effect, too ridiculous in 1936 to be taken seriously. Today, in a US where obesity has become common, many people watching this film now probably are on diet restrictions for various medical concerns. What was once freakish became fad, and now has become a matter of life or death for a lot of people.
Another facet of George Brent’s rigid outlook is his refusal to use images in his magazine that are sexual. He is a proponent of bodily grace and physical perfection, but the idea of using cheesecake to illustrate his articles is abhorrent to him. Jean has to turn him around on this one and convince him that a little glamour will sell more magazines.
Today, our magazines images (as well as articles) are examples as to how sex sells. Poor George would be aghast.
But George’s modern ideas on health and Victorian ideas on how to sell it are only the least of Jean’s problems. Dorothea Kent comes back into her life with a vengeance.
Her boss, whose wife is returning from Europe, must get rid of her for a while, and palms her off on the unwitting George Brent. Mr. Brent hasn’t the sophistication to deal with so avid a man-chaser and so inept a secretary as our Dorothea. He is overwhelmed by her, and hasn’t the mettle to send her packing.
He succumbs to her…charms.
He makes Jean his assistant editor to keep both ladies happy, and Jean makes good at this new challenge, but is crushed that he now spends his days, and nights, with Dorothea. Dorothea has another good scene where she insults Jean through the sheerest gauze of innocence, “And you actually thinking you had a chance with him,” she laughs. You want to sock her.
Jean is more angry at herself for not being able to compete with such fluff. In her way, she is very much like George Brent, a lover of order and routine, a hard worker, and a social misfit. She quits, and there are layers to her disgusted remark to Brent, “You’re such a fool.”
Here George finally figures out he loves her and wants her back. He pushes the ambitious Dorothea Kent onto the big boss, Charles Halton.
A couple of fun period items in this movie - Brent’s Art Deco office furniture, and the trailer or “land yacht” Jean and Ruth buy to travel and start over.
Ruth exclaims, “If I’d known how much fun it was to quick work, I wouldn’t have slaved the last 18 years without a vacation.”
Jean shows us how not to park a car with a land yacht attached to the back of it.
I love George Brent’s look when Dorothea Kent returns unexpectedly just as Jean is about to come back into his life. It is a priceless expression of horror and dread. All he needs is one of Curly’s “Nyah, Nyah, Nyah” groans of anxiety to complete it.
The scene where, brooking no more nonsense, Jean (“The time has come.”) spanks Dorothea like the naughty child she is, and tells her that, “I can’t bear looking at you!” -- is a resounding moment of screwball retribution.
A cute ending, and one in which Jean finally gets to shed her somber mood, is when she’s about to explode and cut into Brent, but the morning calisthenics interrupt her. Like the other office automatons, when given the order by Lionel Stander to inhale and begin the stretching exercises, she unthinkingly extends her arms. Brent grabs her in a cuddle, and her “exhale” position is to wrap her arms around him.
See? Exercise is good for you. It makes you feel better.
Don’t forget to check out the other great posts in the Comedy Classics Blogathon.