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Film / Wife vs. Secretary

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Watch out, Linda!

“There’s an old Chinese proverb that says ‘If you want to keep a man honest, never call him a liar.’”
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Wife vs. Secretary is a 1936 film directed by Clarence Brown.

Van "V.S." Stanhope is a magazine publisher, so wealthy that his servants have servants. He and his wife Linda are living in palatial comfort and domestic bliss. Unfortunately, Van's mother can't keep her nose out of her son's marriage, and more unfortunately, Ma Stanhope's marriage apparently collapsed when her husband cheated on her. Ma Stanhope is very suspicious of Van's smoking hot secretary, Helen "Whitey" Jackson.

There isn't anything going on between Van and Whitey; Whitey has Dave, a loyal boyfriend who has asked her to marry him. But Ma Stanhope's paranoia starts to make Linda paranoid. When Van elects to buy out another magazine, he does it in secret, with only Whitey helping him make the deal. This secrecy makes Linda even more suspicious of the relationship between Whitey and Van.

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Wife vs. Secretary boasted a remarkable selection of MGM talent: Clark Gable as Van, Jean Harlow as Whitey (this being the fifth of six movies Gable and Harlow appeared in together), Myrna Loy as Linda, and 28-year-old James Stewart in one of his first big roles as Dave.


Tropes:

  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Even Whitey's boyfriend calls her "Whitey".
  • Gilligan Cut: Van kisses Linda despite her cold, saying "I've never caught a cold in my life." Cut to Van sneezing the next day.
  • Girl Friday: Whitey is more an overall assistant than a simple secretary. When Van decides to buy Underwood's magazine, Whitey is the only person in the office he tells, and she helps him assemble the deal.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Linda gets progressively more jealous of Whitey.
  • Happily Married: Van and Linda, until Ma Stanhope starts planting suspicions in Linda's head.
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  • Held Gaze: While they never act on it Van and Whitey do have an attraction for each other, as shown in the long look they share in Van's hotel room at 2 a.m.
  • Literal Metaphor: Van is taking a steam bath with Underwood while Underwood is expressing skepticism about Van's deal. Underwood says "I hate to pour cold water on you," and a servant promptly pours cold water on Van, the steam bath having ended.
  • Mistaken for Cheating: Whitey helps an intoxicated Van back to his hotel room. When Linda calls at 2 a.m. and Whitey answers, Linda assumes the worst.
  • Quitting to Get Married: Dave leans hard on Whitey to do this. Possibly a bit more understandable as Van is a workaholic and thus his loyal secretary Whitey has no private life. Unlike many uses of this trope in this era, there is no hint in the movie that Whitey is going to quit working.
  • Sexy Secretary: After The Hays Code banhammer came down, MGM started toning down the unapologetic sluttiness of Jean Harlow's image from The Pre-Code Era, instead casting her as more of an all-American girl. But Whitey's still a Sexy Secretary—too sexy, as far as Linda is concerned.
  • There Are Two Kinds of People in the World: "The world is divided into two kinds of people: the ones who believe bow tie ends should be sticking out, and those who don't."
  • Versus Title: Wife vs. Secretary. The wife wins.
  • Workaholic: Van's addiction to work impacts Whitey's life, as she can't spend any time with Dave.
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