Monday, February 15, 2010


This pre-Code marital drama begins with a rather startling sight: the middle-aged Blanche Friderici in full Gertrude Stein drag, complete with hat, tie, vest, tweed jacket, pants, cigar, and hard facial expression. She's talking over a book proposal with publisher Lewis Stone and says she wants to write like Hemingway, though the topic of the planned book is what Stone calls the "office wife," the secretary who runs the business life of the executive and can be more of a "wife" than the at-home one (Friderici has total contempt for wives, calling them "fools"). She says the secretary usually reduces the wife to a mere "maker of beds and pancakes" and that the husband is usually unaware of the "bondage" he's in. Stone's secretary (Dale Fuller) runs a tight ship, but when he tells her that he's getting married, she faints dead away and resigns. The young and hard-working Dorothy Mackaill is promoted to replace Fuller and even though she's got a perfectly nice, if somewhat cocky, boyfriend (Walter Merrill) she still finds herself, almost against her will, primping and flirting for the boss. Soon she's become the "office wife" that Friderici's writing about, working constantly with Stone: at night, at poolside parties, and on business trips, and always too busy to see Merrill. Though there's no hanky-panky, she finds herself falling in love with Stone and, in a quandary, decides to pursue Merrill again. Her sister and roomie (Joan Blondell) tells her she should stick to her own kind, though Blondell also thinks that both men are "bad choices," the one wanting her for her work skills, and the other wanting her to have kids and do laundry, and she suggests that Mackaill will wind up lonely either way. Ultimately, it's Stone's wife's decision to get a divorce that pushes Stone and Mackaill together at the end, with a nice final shot the two on a beach at night.

TCM showed this during their "Screened Out" festival of gay and lesbian images in film, and though Friderici is only in the film for a few minutes, she does cut a memorable figure. She appears once in the beginning and once halfway through, as though her character was intended to be an "outsider" observer, commenting on the actions of those crazy heterosexuals, but the idea isn't developed very well. There is some clever use of doubled sequences, echoing each other thematically: Mackaill has two beach scenes, one with Merrill and the closing one with Stone, and there are two amusing fainting scenes. This was Blondell's first feature film and though her part is small, she steals the show. Stone is fine, and Merrill, who has limited screen time, does an acceptable job as the slick working-class boyfriend who we just know isn't right for our heroine. Mackaill is only so-so, especially in the presence of Blondell who could have done the part much better. Mackaill's idea of showing any emotion seems to be looking off longingly into the distance. Aside from the weak lead performance, the other problem is that no one seems to really be in love. Though we're rooting for Stone and Mackaill, their potential coupling at the end feels like a convenient arrangement rather than a love match. [TCM]

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