Friday, December 10, 2010

Tonight's Movie: Secrets of a Secretary (1931)

SECRETS OF A SECRETARY is a fairly disappointing pre-Code melodrama starring Claudette Colbert and Herbert Marshall.

Colbert plays Helen Blake, a socialite who impulsively marries a gigolo, Frank (Georges Metaxa), only to be abandoned by her bridegroom when he discovers her father has died and left her penniless. Destitute Helen goes to a work as a social secretary for Mrs. Merritt (Mary Boland), the wife of her father's old friend (Berton Churchill).

The Merritts' daughter Sylvia (Betty Lawford, cousin of Peter) is engaged to Lord Danforth (Herbert Marshall), but she continually skips out on their plans in order to carry on guessed it, Helen's ex, Frank the gigolo. Lord Danforth, left on his own far too often, is attracted to Helen but feels obligated for various reasons to go forward with his engagement to Sylvia. Then Frank turns up dead...

The film is a fairly compact 71 minutes, but it has a couple of major flaws. The biggest problem is that no-good Frank has way too much screen time. He's simultaneously slimy, boring, and an utter fool; it's hard to believe any woman with Helen's intelligence would give Frank the time of day, let alone marry him.

The other problem is that Colbert is hardly recognizable; initially she's under a blonde wig at a costume party, and later she's buried under an unattractive Betty Boop makeup job. The tiny, fake-looking lips painted on her face are rather ghastly.

This was only Herbert Marshall's fourth film, but he's the main reason to watch, as the man who becomes Helen's knight in shining armor. Marshall's got charisma to spare, not to mention one of the best voices ever in the movies; the film becomes much more interesting each time his character comes on the screen. Lord Danforth's longing for Helen is palpable, and when Helen becomes mixed up in Frank's murder, Lord Danforth resolves things quite satisfactorily.

It's interesting to have a glimpse of a rather different Colbert fairly early in her career. Colbert's character radiates her usual intelligence -- other than marrying Frank, that is -- but she's playing a somewhat less assured character than usual. And along with a bad makeup job, she has quite a dowdy wardrobe! The unattractive dresses might have matched Helen's circumstances, but they weren't what audiences of the '30s would soon come to expect of Colbert, who was typically exquisitely gowned, often by the great Travis Banton.

Other than Marshall and Colbert, the upstairs/downstairs storyline is of some interest. Colbert's Helen becomes an "upper servant," allowed to fill in as a guest at her employers' dinner party when Sylvia is late, yet expected to get up from the table and leave once Sylvia arrives partway through the meal. Having just the right number of guests sitting at the table appears to trump every other consideration!

The film was directed by George Abbott.

Like too many other Paramount films, this movie isn't widely available, but copies can be found from out-of-print dealers on the web. The copy I watched was fairly rough; I'd love the opportunity to view the film as it was originally meant to be seen. We can only hope that eventually more Paramount films will become widely available. Seeing a lovely print of Colbert's THE GILDED LILY (1935) on Turner Classic Movies was a real treat.

For another take on this film, visit Cinema OCD.


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