Sunday, August 2, 2009

Secrets of a Secretary (1931)

Claudette Colbert and Herbert Marshall in Secrets of a Secretary. Thanks to Trouble in Paradise for the image.

Claudette Colbert plays, Helen Blake, the secretary in question, whose secrets include: an ill-advised marriage to an fortune-hunter who left her to become a gigolo the moment he found out her father was broke, the fact that her employer is cheating on her fiancee, that she is in love with said fiancee and he is in love with her. It gets even more complicated when its revealed that her employer's lover is none other than her not-quite ex. Herbert Marshall plays the fiancee, an English Lord Danforth who gets stood up so much that he falls in love with the secretary whose job it is to continually inform him that her boss has been detained by some mysterious engagement or another. The film is unusually frank, even for pre-code and one sequence inter-cut Lord Danforth and Helen enjoying an innocent dinner while Helen's boss, Sylvia Merritt visits her lover's seedy hotel room.

Later that night, Helen and Lord Danforth decide to go dancing at the club where her ex now works. There's a great moment when Helen realizes the cheesy crooner in the floor show is her husband. Lord Danforth sneers at the gigolo, laughing about the kind of man who would do such things and the kind of woman who would be taken in by him. The irony is that his fiancee was with the guy hours earlier and of course, Helen, looks particularly miserable as she reveals that he's her husband. I have a perverse love of these kinds of scenes in movies and especially when they happen to Herbert Marshall. He always underplays, and its wonderful to watch him squirm quietly as he processes this plot complication and attempts to find something to say to Helen that will make him seem less of an ass.

Mary Boland plays Sylvia Merritt's socially obsessed mother and though she gets little screen time, as always, she makes it count, providing the film's only comic relief. It's a sad commentary on the lack of longevity for female actresses, that though she was only ten years older than the romantic lead in this film, she ends up playing his mother-in-law to be.

Secrets of a Secretary depicts a woman working, earning her living and freeing herself of relationship mistakes. Her job is somewhat humiliating given that a few years earlier she was herself attending the types of parties for which she now sends out RSVPs on behalf of someone else. She describes herself as "an upper servant" and it reminds me of the fact that the boss falling for his secretary is merely an updating of the old "master of the house falls for his governess" plot. Though there is that fairytale aspect to the story, there isn't the feeling that the heroine can't manage by herself. Indeed, it is only after she deliberately makes herself prime suspect in her husband's murder in order to preserve Lord Danforth from scandal, that she really needs the guy's help.

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