The silly title of Wife vs. Secretary (dir. Clarence Brown, 1936) could easily fool you. And the plot could very well make you want to scratch your eyes out just from reading it: Linda Stanhope (Myrna Loy) believes her husband Van (Clark Gable) is about to have an affair with his secretary, ‘Whitey’ Wilson (Jean Harlow). But this obvious and stereotypical plot is anything but. Wife vs. Secretary is not what you think it’s going to be. Wife vs. Secretary is neither about a wife nor a secretary and their rivarly, not in the traditional sense anyway. We only have to look at the first moment we see Jean Harlow to understand this: dressed in proper secretary clothes, she stands on a chair fixing a portrait of Van that hangs in his office. Professional, capable and business-minded, she interacts with Van as his secretary and friend. It isn’t until Van’s mother Mimi (May Robson) takes a look at her – blonde and beautiful – that she decides that she must be a distraction to Van. She expresses her worries to Linda, who quickly dismisses them: she and Van are very obviously head over heels in love with each other and their marriage is a happy one. But Mimi insists, and so do Linda’s (female) friends… And we all know what that’s going to lead to. And that’s just the thing. There is nothing in Van and Whitey’s relationship that would make one believe that they’re more than friends, other than the fact that she’s very attractive and that he is a man, and in the words of Mimi, ‘men are like that.’. The movie’s very treatment of the Jean Harlow character goes against the stereotype: she’s a smart, ambitious woman who loves her job and her relationship with Dave (James Stewart in one of his first screen roles) ‘suffers’ because of this, as we see in the scene where he asks her to give up her job in order to become a wife and mother, which he thinks is only natural. In this moment, as the close-up on her face shows her inner turmoil, we root for her. Of course we do. And I suspect audiences in 1936 did as well. She is the hero of the picture, rather than the villain, or ‘the other woman’. In fact, all three leads are extremely sympathetic. This isn’t your typical love triangle, certainly not the kind we’re used to seeing in 1930s comedies, with regards to its characters. There are no ‘sides’ in this, at least from the point of view of the audience and, in a way, they’re all victims.
Disguised as a comedy-drama, Wife vs. Secretary is so much more than that. Alice Duer Miller, Norman Krasna and John Lee Mahin crafted a screenplay that deals with society’s double standards, stereotypes and damaging perceptions in a subversive way that is almost unprecedented. Wife vs. Secretary is an eye-opener, then and now.