Friday, August 02, 2013

Tonight's Movie: The Office Wife (1930)

THE OFFICE WIFE is a briskly paced 59-minute pre-Code about the perils and the promise of being a secretary or "office wife."

Ann Murdock (Dorothy Mackaill) is promoted to serve as secretary to busy publishing magnate Larry Fellowes (Lewis Stone). Larry and his new wife (Natalie Moorhead) are just back from their honeymoon, but Ann seems to be increasingly attracted to her boss, despite his marital status, not to mention a considerable age difference.

However, when Ann has a hint that Larry feels the same way about her, she decides to do the honorable thing and announces her engagement to her annoying boyfriend Ted (Walter Merrill). Unbeknownst to Ann, Larry's wife has also fallen for someone else (Brooks Benedict) and wants a divorce. Fortunately Ann's sister Katherine (Joan Blondell) steps in and makes a key phone call to Larry...

This soapy pre-Code melodrama is a lot of fun and flies by in no time. Occasionally it verges on being a tad creaky but then it reels right back in, thanks in part to a sensitive performance by Mackaill and a very lively one by Blondell.

I confess I was initially a bit confused by Ann's character; when we first meet her, she seems all business and is told she's being promoted for her brains, yet despite this, as well as knowing her new boss has just returned from his honeymoon, she can't resist trying to lure him by showing off her legs during dictation. It was hard to understand this as her immediate default behavior.

The character may be inconsistent, but Mackaill makes her believably human, a young woman who perhaps doesn't quite know what she wants. At some point Ann seems to transition from wanting to try out exerting her womanly wiles to genuinely enjoying Larry's company and mooning over him; then when Larry kisses her, she proves she's really a nice girl by sadly hopping on the first train home from Palm Beach.

Stone was 23 years older than his leading lady, yet his character's charm, power, and regard for Ann makes their mutual attraction plausible. One of the nicest scenes is a moment when Ann says hello to a little boy (Dickie Moore) at a poolside gathering; Larry makes a brief comment which causes the viewer to realize his new wife probably has no interest in children, to Larry's regret. It's a nice, subtle piece of acting by Stone which conveys a great deal in a mere moments.

Children also come into the discussion when Blondell, as the impudent sister, pops off with one of the film's best lines, about Ann's boyfriend just wanting "a place to park a couple of babies, plus free laundry." This was Blondell's first year in films, and in her brief scenes she threatens to walk away with the movie. It's no surprise that her career continued on an upward trajectory.

One of the most unusual characters in the film, which helps tip it off as a pre-Code, is a clearly lesbian author (Blanche Frederici) who dresses like a man and smokes cigars. She's only in a couple of scenes but she's such a unique character that it's hard to forget her.

Little Dickie Moore, the boy on the beach, was already a veteran of a number of films, despite being just about four years old when this was made. Dickie has been married to Jane Powell since 1988.

THE OFFICE WIFE was directed by Lloyd Bacon and filmed by William Rees. The script by Charles Kenyon was based on a novel by Faith Baldwin.

THE OFFICE WIFE is available from the Warner Archive on a two-film Dorothy Mackaill disc with PARTY HUSBAND (1930).

It can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies, where it will next air on September 5, 2013. The trailer is on the TCM website.


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