Monday, January 23, 2012

More Than a Secretary - 1936

“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.

Mr. Brent plays the editor of “Body and Brain” magazine, who runs his office and his personal life with the discipline of a professional health guru. In 1936, however, when this movie was made, he is seen as a freak. Much of the comedy is derived by sensible Jean Arthur’s bewildered reactions to his diet and exercise regimen.  He pulls raw carrots out of his desk drawer and chomps on them like Bugs Bunny.

Jean is the co-owner (along with reliable sidekick Ruth Donnelly) of a secretarial school. We first see them in their classrooms droning repetitious typing dictation for their students, who pound away at clunky black manual typewriters the size of Buicks. I must confess, I view this scene with some fondness. It is how I learned to type. That quick brown fox and lazy dog are old pals of mine.

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.

This is student Dorothea Kent’s objective.

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.”

Charles Halton plays the head man who eventually gets Miss Kent on a rent-to-own basis. He had a long career on screen as a fussy, humorless, officious type, but he began on the New York stage and had trained at the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Ruth Donnelly, too, had spent her earlier years on Broadway, but came west as did so many when the Depression hit and movies became less demeaning to those on the “legitimate” stage. The two of them would spend their careers as bit players in a studio system which would guarantee them work as “types” but rarely challenge them.

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.

Here her portrayal is of the career businesswoman who falls for the boss -- exactly what she cautions her students against, preferring that they take the honorable tack of learning proper business skills.  She seems a more somber character than what we are used to seeing in her screwball roles.

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.

She visits his office because he has fired so many of her graduates. He is very demanding. He is pleased by her business suit and spectacles, thinking she is brainy and serious.  People who wear glasses are usually very brainy and also quite glamorous. 

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 has a good role here, and plays it most charmingly. He is intelligent and disciplined, two qualities which Jean admires, being both herself, but he is also a little out of touch with the real world, and this is what mystifies and intrigues her. Soon, he grows dependent on her capability in the office, which compliments his own need for order.  It is not until very late in the movie that he realizes he loves her.

Jean has to jump through a lot of hoops before that happens. First, there is his confounding health regimen which he imposes on his staff. His right-hand man, Lionel Stander, a body builder straight from the gym, puts the office workers through morning calisthenics. Brent opens the windows and breathes deeply, ordering Jean to follow along with deep knee bends and provocative lunges.

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.


Caftan Woman said...

Wonderful look at an adorable film.

It's very interesting how our relationship with food has changed over the years. Intellectually we may be more in tune with George Brent's character, but emotionally we're still with Jean.

There's an old crime picture called "Postal Inspector" where Ricardo Cortez investigates mail fraud. The top three cons were Get Rich Quick Schemes, Lose Weight Quick Schemes, and Miracle Kitchen Gadgets. Sounds like a bunch of infomercials.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

"Intellectually we may be more in tune with George Brent's character, but emotionally we're still with Jean."

You got that right, CW. I've never seen "Postal Inspector" -- got to, now. Sounds fun. And very timely.

FlickChick said...

Oh my! I have never seen this movie and now I must! I must! Totaly charming post and a great topic.

Rick29 said...

Though I'm not a big fan of either star, the premise sounds quite enjoyable and timely given the emphasis on healthy eating (I plan to use Jean's steak line next time I cook one). As always, I've learned somEthing new at ANOTHER OLD MOVIE BLOG.

KimWilson said...

Jacqueline, I loved all your asides about this film. I've never seen this one, but I love Jean Arthur so I'm going to watch it the next time I see it on TCM's lineup.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you all. I hope you can see the movie one of these days. It's cute. It makes you want to have a nice big steak, and then do push-ups.

Dawn said...

Please add me to the list of people who have not seen this charming classic film. Your Awesome review makes me sorry I gave up eating red meat years ago..

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Dawn, you're probably healthier than all of us.

Hannah said...

Fantastic look into what sounds like a gem of film, must watch it now, very much partial to Mr Brent!

Yvette said...

Another great review, Jacqueline. I don't remember ever seeing this film though I know I saw just about every romantic comedy ever made at one time or another. (Just kidding.) But I loved these sorts of movies when I was a kid. Still do, as a matter of fact.

I'm not George Brent's biggest fan, but, like you, I do prefer him in light hearted roles.

Kevin Deany said...

Sounds great, and yet another one I need to see. The health craze topic is an interesting one. Last year I saw a Paramount title from 1934 called "Search for Beauty" starring Ida Lupino and Buster Crabbe and it also stressed things like exercise and healthy eating. Unlike George Brent's character in "More Than a Secretary" this movie definitely stressed the sex angle. George would not have approved here either.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by, all. Kevin, that "Search for Beauty" sounds interesting. I wonder if our attitudes to diet and exercise through the years are more dated than our clothing and hair styles.

DorianTB said...

Jacqueline, your delightful review of MORE THAN A SECRETARY is a wonderful example of how the more things change, the more they remain the same! It's fun to compare and contrast what was considered healthy eating and exercise was hot back in the day, not to mention the mores among employers and employees, and who better to show us the way than Jean Arthur and George Brent? :-) Suddenly I'm reminded of the scene in Woody Allen's SLEEPER, when he wakes up to find himself in the far future, where hot fudge and are considered health food! :-) Loved your post!

Rich said...

I took a typing class in junior high, believe it or not, although I can't say that it did much for my typing skills. I managed to become an adequate typist later in life mainly by remembering where the letters are on the keyboard. I probably use anywhere from two to four fingers at the most.

Speaking of junior high, you talking about how fitness is looked on as weird in this movie but accepted today reminds me of a science teacher I had in junior high (early-to-mid 80s). He would always talk about recycling like it was a big deal, but we always just thought it was his quirky little fad. Now, of course, everyone recognizes the importance of recycling.

This sounds like a good movie. I'll have to look it up one day.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Rich, I remember in the early '80s a college professor I had confidently announced that the Soviet Union would likely fall apart and dismantle its regime. I don't remember him giving us a timeline, but we thought he was nuts. It happened within a decade.

Dorian, I always thought hot fudge sundaes were health food. That's what I tell myself every time I have one.

whistlingypsy said...

Jacqueline ~ I think it is fair to say this blogathon is as much about sharing old favorites as it is discovering new gems. I count myself among the fortunate to have seen both “More Than A Secretary” and the very similar film “Ever Since Eve” (1937) with Marion Davies. You mentioned the somewhat dated concerns of diet and health that have not only managed to survive but every January emerge to thrive anew. I find it fascinating how many comedies made during the 1920s and 1930s use the ugly duckling to beautiful swan transformation to explain away competent but plain women (not that I’m p-c about the subject, since I do love these little films). Thank you for the wonderful reminder of a film I have enjoyed watching.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, gypsy. I don't remember seeing "Ever Since Eve", but I'll have to track it down sometime. I guess the ugly duckling to swan routine was used quite a bit back then. Today we have total makeover shows. Without the Marcel hairdos.

Page said...

A fun choice for the Blogathon! Jean Arthur did screwball comedies as well as Heburn, Harlow, Loy or Lombard in my opinion. But then again, I enjoy her regardless of the genre.

When you started out talking about fitness in the 30's I couldn't help but think of The Women and those crazy exercises and spa treatments they signed on for.

The backstory and bit of trivia you added on Arthur made a beautifully written review even more entertaining. And seeing that old trailer was a hoot. I bought my father a metal model of one just like it being pulled by a Cadillac last Father's Day.

A perfect choice for our Comedy Blogathon.

Steven Rowe said...

I was wondering how much of
the Body and Brain magazine were takes on Bernarr MacFadden and his Physical Culture magazine. Of course MacFadden was well known for using sexual images in his magazines.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Page. I wonder what it would be like going camping in one of those tin cans?

Steven, I didn't think of that, but you could be right about this being a take on "Physical Culture".

R. D. Finch said...

Jacqueline, a very entertaining post. Jean Arthur is one of my favorites, so anything written about her is of interest to me. Reading about all those obscure movies she made in the mid-30s makes me realize she certainly paid her dues and helps explain the relaxed professionalism of her later roles. Love Ruth Donnelly too, an actress I've only recently become aware of through her Warners pictures of the 30's (loved her as Eddie Robinson's wife in "A Slight Case of Murder')--the perfect wisecracking sidekick in the Eve Arden mold. I agree about Brent being better in comedy parts. His combination of ultra-sincerity and unctuousness in dramatic roles leaves me cold. What a thankless career he had after becoming typecast in such parts. Finally, I absolutely agree with you about the value of high school typing classes (now called "keyboarding," I suppose). Easily the most useful "practical" course I ever took, even though I never cracked the 40 wpm barrier!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Keyboarding! Oh, my gosh, R.D., yes. Perish the thought.

I think I've got "A Slight Case of Murder" recorded, but I haven't watched it yet. I think. I'm really losing track. I hope so.

Thanks for your comments, and it's good to see so many fans not only of Jean Arthur, but of Ruth Donnelly as well.

Classicfilmboy said...

Great post! I am a big Jean Arthur fan so I will have to check this one out!

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