Hollywood Souffle: WIFE VS SECRETARY (MGM 1936)

Gable’s back and Harlow’s got him , but so does Myrna Loy , with Jimmy Stewart along for the ride in WIFE VS SECRETARY. MGM boasted it had “more stars than there are in Heaven”, and this film is the very definition of “star vehicle”, a harmless soufflé of comedy, drama, and romance all wrapped up in a neat little package by veteran studio director Clarence Brown.

Publicity still for ‘Wife vs Secretary’

The plot’s as thin as Gable’s moustache: He’s a hard-driven publisher, and Loy’s his trusting, faithful wife. Harlow plays his loyal secretary and trusted aide-de-camp. She’s also quite beautiful (obviously, since she’s Jean Harlow!) and Gable’s mother tells Myrna she should get rid of her. Myrna laughs it off, but the seed of doubt has been planted. Jimmy plays Jean’s fiancé, who’s not too happy about being constantly cast aside by Jean’s work demands (and who can blame him; she’s Jean Harlow!). Gable’s secret business plans cause a series of misunderstandings that culminate in Jean dumping Jimmy and Myrna seeking a divorce before order is restored and everyone is back together.

“The King”

This is all just an excuse for MGM to show off its “star power”, and Clark Gable has it in spades. There’s a reason he was called “The King of Hollywood”; he was the biggest male box office attraction at the time of making WIFE VS SECRETARY, and could do no wrong far as the public was concerned. Mostly during this period he just played “Clark Gable”, the man’s man who all the ladies loved. Here, he’s no different, just a big, fun-loving lug, and that was more than enough for filmgoers, who made the film one of MGM’s biggest hits of the year.

Two Hollywood Queens: Harlow & Loy

Jean Harlow began toning down her ‘Platinum Blonde’ sexpot image in WIFE VS SECRETARY, all the way to toning down her hair color a notch. She’s still beautiful as ever (after all, she’s STILL Jean Harlow!), only now we find her as a “nice girl” rather than her former boisterous blonde self. Myrna Loy is radiant as Gable’s wife, and proves once again both her dramatic and comedic skills are sharp as a tack. Why this woman never won an Oscar is a mystery to me! Jimmy Stewart’s little more than a fourth wheel in this, his fourth feature film. Jimmy was just getting started (he’s billed sixth) and wouldn’t hit his stride for a few more years, but he holds his own with Gable, Harlow, and Loy. Others in the cast include May Robson (as Gable’s mom), George Barbier, Tom Dugan, Gloria Holden (the future DRACULA’S DAUGHTER), and John Qualen .

‘Hey, uh, don’t… d-don’t forget… I’m in this picture too, ya know!”

The screenplay by Norman Krasna, John Lee Mahin, and Alice Duer Miller is a frothy confection that gets bogged down a bit later in the film by some soap opera melodramatics, but all in all it serves it’s purpose – to get our stars on the big screen and let them do their stuff. WIFE VS SECRETARY isn’t a great film, but it’s a good one, and the quartet of Gable, Harlow, Loy, and Stewart make it worth your time.

Four Star Fun: LIBELED LADY (MGM 1936)

Jean Harlow ! Spencer Tracy ! William Powell ! Myrna Loy ! Four top stars at the top of their game shining bright in LIBELED LADY, a screwball comedy directed by Jack Conway with that trademark MGM gloss. Despite the zany improbability of the script by Maurine Watkins, Howard Emmett Rogers, and George Oppenheimer, the crackling, witty dialog gives all four stars (and supporting actor Walter Connolly) plenty of good material.

Here’s the plot: rich heiress Connie Allenbury (Loy) is suing the New York Evening Star for printing a story about her being a husband stealer. Her price: five million! Editor Warren Haggerty (Tracy), after once again blowing off his nuptials to long-time flame Gladys Benton (Harlow), recruits ex-reporter and frenemy Bill Chandler (Powell) in a crazy scheme involving marrying him off to Gladys (and is she pissed!), hop an ocean liner to London, and return with Connie, using his “charms” to set her up on an alienation of affections rap. Bill angles his way in with the Allenburys by pretending to be a fishing expert (even though he’s no outdoorsman) and getting in Dad Allenbury’s (Connolly) good graces. Things go haywire from there as Bill and Connie fall for each other for real, then Gladys falls for Bill for real, and Warren tries to straighten the whole mess out without losing his newspaper!

Powell and Loy were riding high at the time due to the success of THE THIN MAN, and MGM wanted to keep them in the spotlight. The pair are always a joy to watch working together, and seeing the dandy Powell try to master trout fishing is a comic highlight. Powell also works well with Harlow, whom he was dating at the time, and she’s great in her role as the pawn in boyfriend Tracy’s plan. Tracy gets to show off his comedy chops too, and more than holds his own. A great bit comes when Tracy, after learning Powell and Loy have gotten hitched, tells them Harlow is wife #1, to which Jean replies “That’s arson!”.

Director Conway was a jack-of-all-genres, making everything from comedies to drama to actioners to Tarzan flicks with equal aplomb. Among his many credits are THE UNHOLY THREE , RED HEADED WOMAN, VIVA VILLA!, A TALE OF TWO CITIES, BOOM TOWN, THE HUCKSTERS, and DESIRE ME. Familiar Faces abound, including Billy Benedict (as Tracy’s office boy), E.E. Clive, George Chandler, Charley Grapewin, Selmer Jackson, Hattie McDaniel, and Cora Witherspoon. LIBELED LADY was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, but lost to another Powell/Loy vehicle, THE GREAT ZIEGFELD. It’s fast and funny and the kind of movie they don’t make anymore, but should. Then again, who could possibly fill the shoes of Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy, William Powell, and Myrna Loy?

Forgotten Horror: THIRTEEN WOMEN (RKO 1932)

I pride myself on having seem almost every horror film made during the 1930’s, though once in a while an obscure title comes along whose attention has escaped me. But how on Earth did I miss THIRTEEN WOMEN, especially with a cast headlined by Irene Dunne (of all people!) and Myrna Loy ? This fast-paced thriller involving hypnosis, astrology, and serial murder is downright nasty, and has been cited as a precursor to the “slasher” genre… not to mention a whole lot of fun!

We begin with circus performer June Raskob receiving a letter from the mysterious Swami Yogadashi with her horoscope attached, predicting impending doom in the stars for her. But it’s her sister who dies, plunging to her death during their trapeze act (shown in gruesome detail), and poor June goes hopelessly insane. The scene shifts to exotic half-caste Ursula Georgi, who has the Swami under her hypnotic spell and uses him as a pawn in her game to get revenge on her St. Alban’s sorority sisters who ostracized her because of her race. Lovely Hazel Clay is next: she stabs her hubby to death with a butcher knife and is given the chair!

Skeptical Laura Stanhope gathers the remaining girls to calm them down, but when the Swami’s prediction of his own demise comes to pass (under Ursula’s dark influence) and schoolmate Helen Frye commits suicide aboard a train, even Laura comes to believe – she’s recently received her own letter warning “something dreadful” is about to happen to her young son Bobby. Police Sgt. Clive, investigating Helen’s death, finds Laura’s address on Helen’s baggage, and begins to dig up the facts. Then the unthinkable: Bobby gets a package of candy in the mail, and worried Laura has it analyzed at police headquarters. The verdict: poison! When that fails, chauffeur Burns (also under Ursula’s power) buys the tyke a bouncy ball for his birthday, an explosive bouncy ball! This all culminates in a train ride to hell, where Laura is confronted by Ursula, with Clive and his men in hot pursuit, and the ultimate end of the she-devil  exactly the way Swami Yogadachi predicted she would die.

Myrna Loy was specializing in exotic roles at this juncture in her career, and her evil-eyed Ursula is one of her scariest – though I can’t blame her for the way she was treated because of racism among the other girls, cold-blooded murder isn’t the best way to make things right! Irene Dunne was already a star for films like CIMARRON and BACK STREET, and she makes a good woman-in-peril here, suave Ricardo Cortez pours on his usual charm as Clive, and the cast is made up of Familiar Faces like Florence Eldridge, Jill Esmond, C. Henry Gordon (The Swami), Kay Johnson , and Edward Pawley.

Peg Entwistle (1908-1932)

This was the only screen appearance of Peg Entwistle, in the small role of murderess Hazel. Miss Entwistle is better known for her tragic death than her acting: in 1932, she climbed to the top of the Hollywood sign, and jumped from the letter H, a suicide at age 24. Her death was played up all in the papers and scandalized the film community, later rehashed in Kenneth Anger’s book HOLLYWOOD BABYLON, along with a topless pic of the late actress (which I refuse to reproduce here, not because I’m prudish, but I feel it exploits a tragic situation).

THIRTEEN WOMEN draws from elements of the murder mystery, psychological thriller, and occult practices to create a horror movie begging to be rediscovered. Myrna Loy is a sultry villainess, and director George Archainbaud uses some neat camera tricks, like an animated star after some of the deaths to segue into the next scene.  If you’re a horror buff like me, you’ll definitely want to seek out this forgotten gem.

That Old, Familiar Song: MANHATTAN MELODRAMA (MGM 1934)

The plot of MANHATTAN MELODRAMA will certainly be familiar to movie lovers: there’s two kids, one rambunctious, the other studious. Rambunctious grows up to be on the shady side of the law, while Studious represents law’n’order. There’s Girl in the Middle, who loves Rambunctious but always winds up with Studious. Rambunctious perpetuates some evil deed, and Studious must now bring his old pal to justice. Girl in the Middle is torn between the two. In the end, justice prevails, and Rambunctious pays for his crimes, but not before making peace with Studious.

Sound familiar? Sure it does, having been rehashed umpteen times in countless westerns, gangster sagas, wartime dramas, and other genres. But MANHATTAN MELODRAMA was the first, even winning an Oscar for Arthur Caesar’s Best Original Story. Too bad Caesar didn’t copyright the idea; he’d have been a very rich man! The film also has that MGM shine going for it, with a stellar cast toplined by Clark Gable , William Powell , and Myrna Loy as Rambunctious, Studious, and Girl in the Middle, respectively. This was the first teaming of Powell and Loy, by the way, the beginning of a beautiful screen relationship that saw them paired in six THIN MAN movies and seven others.

Gable, Loy, & Powell

Gable’s quite the charmer as “rambunctious” Blackie Gallagher, the gangland gambler who’s never played by anyone’s rules but his own. He’s a likeable hoodlum, even though he’s also a stone-cold killer who commits murder not once, but twice during the course of the film. Powell’s “studious” Jim Wade is likeable, too… after all, how can you not like William Powell? He gets to strut his stuff in the courtroom scene that sends Blackie to the electric chair, getting himself elected governor in the process. Myrna Loy as socialite Eleanor Packer is simply divine, as always, and it’s not hard to see what attracts both men to her. The film runs along smoothly, but bogged down towards the end for me when the “melodrama” part kicked in and things got a little too sudsy. Still, I thought it was a great entry in the 30’s gangster cycle.

Nat Pendleton, Muriel Evans, & Isabel Jewell

I also loved the supporting cast, with Nat Pendleton as Blackie’s dimwitted right-hand man Spud and Isabel Jewell as his ditzy girlfriend Annabelle. Leo Carrillo plays Father Joe, who saved the two boys from drowning so they could grow up to be Gable and Powell. Speaking of which, young Mickey Rooney got a big break here playing young Blackie in the early scenes; not long after this picture, he became one of MGM’s top stars. And there are loads of Familiar Faces popping up in smaller roles: Oscar Apfel, Stanley Blystone, Muriel Evans, Donald Haines, Samuel S. Hinds , Leonid Kinskey , Noel Madison, Sam McDaniel, and Edward Van Sloan among them.

Powell says goodbye to old pal Gable

MANHATTAN MELODRAMA is historic on several other levels beside the plot and the first Powell/Loy teaming. It’s the only film to costar Gable and Powell, both of whom were married at one point to Carole Lombard. A scene set in The Cotton Club features Shirley Ross singing a Rogers & Hart composition “The Bad in Every Man”; after the film was released, Hart rewrote the lyrics and the song became the standard “Blue Moon”. And of course, the movie has become a part of American folk-lore as the film Public Enemy #1 John Dillinger watched before he was gunned down by the FBI outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater on 7/22/34. I wonder if he liked the film as much as I did?

“Other than that, Mr. Dillinger, how did you enjoy the movie?”

Pre Code Confidential #4: Boris Karloff in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (MGM 1932)

“Rooted in medieval fears of Genghis Khan and the Mongolian invasions of Europe, the Yellow Peril combines racist terror of alien cultures, sexual anxieties, and the belief that the West will be overpowered and enveloped by the irresistible, dark, occult forces of the East”- Gina Marchetti, Romance and the Yellow Peril: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (University of California Press, 1994)

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First, a brief history lesson: The Yellow Peril was a particular brand of xenophobia that spread in the late 19th/early 20th century. Named by (of all people) Kaiser Wilhelm II of  Germany, and given credibility during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, this “fear of the unknown” basically said those “inscrutable” Chinese were going to come over and slaughter all the good white Christians and rape their women. Popular culture of the times played on these fears by depicting villainous Oriental characters as barbaric, opium-smoking deviants who lusted for nothing less than racial miscegenation and total world dominance! Comic strips featured evil adversaries like The Dragon Lady (Terry and the Pirates) and Ming the Merciless (Flash Gordon) and the pulps were filled with Eastern devils such as Wu Fang and Dr. Yen Sin.  But the granddaddy of them all was Sax Rohmer’s insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, who terrorized Western Civilization in a series of novels from 1913 to 1959. Fu first came to the screen in two silent British serials with Harry Agar Lyons as the megalomaniacal doctor.  Paramount Pictures brought Fu Manchu to Hollywood in 1929 in THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU, starring Warner Oland (the future Charlie Chan). Oland returned to the role in the aptly titled THE RETURN OF DR. FU MANCHU, and later had what was pretty much a cameo in DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON, with Fu’s fiendish spawn (played by the sexy and tragic Anna May Wong) handling most of the villainy.

All of which brings us to THE MASK OF FU MANCHU. And boy, if you thought MGM laid the perversion on thick with KONGO , wait’ll you get a load of this one! Never mind the rampant racism, this movie’s chock full of  blatant sexual lust, drug use, gruesome tortures, and possibly even incest. Wow! Don’t get me wrong now, I enjoy all this stuff, I just don’t expect to see it in a film from 1932. It’s part of what makes rediscovering these Pre-Codes so much fun.

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The plot’s fairly simple: A British expedition is sent to Asia to find the tomb of Genghis Khan before Dr. Fu Manchu gets his hands on the treasures there, including Khan’s golden mask and scimitar, which Fu will use to claim he’s the rightful heir of Khan and kick off a race war. Sir Lionel Barton is sent by British Intelligence, led by Sir Nayland Smith, to lead the dig, but he’s kidnapped by Fu’s minions in the British Museum disguised as mummies! He’s strapped under a bell and tortured while Fu toys with him, eventually killing the old boy. Sheila, Barton’s daughter, and her oversized boyfriend Terry go with Sir Nayland and his crew to search for Sir Lionel, where they’re captured by Fu, along with his “ugly and insignificant daughter” Fah Lo See, and placed in various torture devices. Sheila is set to be sacrificed to Fu’s gods, as he implores his followers to “Kill the white man and take his women!” Of course, our stalwart heroes foil the “hideous yellow menace” and the British Empire makes the world safe for Caucasians everywhere. (See, fairly simple!)

The movie’s serial-like pacing keeps things zipping along. Director Charles Brabin, husband of silent screen vamp Theda Bara, was an old pro, having been in pictures since 1911. His career was mainly in the silent era, though he did do a few Pre-Codes before retiring, including the gangster flick THE BEAST OF THE CITY with Walter Huston and Jean Harlow. MGM gave this one a pretty big budget, with Cedric Gibbons providing some stunning art direction, and famed electrical wizard Kenneth Strickfaden designing Fu’s weird scientific machinery, as he did in FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

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Speaking of Frankenstein, Boris Karloff is sensational as Fu Manchu. He exaggerates his natural lisp, making Fu sound like a slithering serpent. Cecil Holland’s makeup has Karloff looking like a grotesque characture of a Chinaman, with his drooping moustache and long claws. Boris delights in punishing his enemies, gleefully torturing them by dangling Smith over a crocodile pit, shooting up Terry with spider venom, reptile organs, and dragon blood to control his will, and placing another in the old “walls closing in” device, only these walls are full of sharp silver spikes! Dear Boris has a field day as he wickedly attempts to “dispatch (them) to (their) cold, saintly Christian paradise”, and conquer the world. He’s obviously having a blast in the role, and is a depraved delight.

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That “ugly and insignificant daughter” is none other than Myrna Loy, and she’s great as the lascivious Fah Lo See. From the moment she first appears on camera, her braless headlights beaming, we know Fah Lo See’s a wanton woman. The scene where Terry’s being whipped while Fah Lo See watches, practically drooling, commanding her slaves to go “Faster, faster!” is a highlight of Pre-Code excess. Nora Charles was never this horny! The two romantic leads, Karen Morley (SCARFACE, OUR DAILY BREAD) and Charles Starrett (better known as The Durango Kid), aren’t nearly as interesting as Fu and his daughter. Lewis Stone (Andy’s dad Judge Hardy) plays Nayland Smith as a staunch, macho defender of the Crown and all things Anglo-Saxon. Jean Hersholt, Lawrence Grant, and David Torrence round out the cast, but all eyes will be on Karloff and Loy at their deranged, pain-inflicting best.

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The Yellow Peril fervor switched from Chinese madmen to Japanese war mongers in the 1940’s, and there’s plenty of filmic evidence of racist sentiments in the ultra-patriotic movies of that era. But the Chinese supervillain stereotype continued well into the 60’s, influencing everything from James Bond’s DR. NO to Marvel Comics villain The Yellow Claw to a new series of Fu Manchu films starring Christopher Lee. THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, despite its racist elements, is one of the most devilishly fun Pre-Codes around, and features yet another star turn for the great Boris Karloff. Definitely worth watching for the sheer madness of it all!