|'); document.write(''); //-->|
The Warner Archive Collection has given this reviewer a new appreciation of director William A. Wellman, and also shown how great an actress Jeanne Eagels was. A few months ago the MOD disc outlet released Wellman's Safe in Hell, introducing many pre-Code film nuts not only to another jaw-dropper of a melodrama, but an interesting 'new' personality, actress Dorothy Mackaill.
Born in England, the blonde Mackaill was a Ziegfeld Girl and had starred in films since 1924. Safe in Hell was actually the tail end of a career that more or less stopped when First National decided not to pick up her contract. Although Mackaill had no problem adjusting to the coming of sound, the Depression gave studios an excuse to clean house, exchanging old talent for new, and she became less active beyond 1934. One of her last starring vehicles was Love Affair, playing opposite a fresh-from-Broadway Humphrey Bogart.
The WAC offers a spicy pair of pre-Code dramas in one package. Each was sold as a sensational look at modern relationships at a time when gender roles in society were being challenged. Those roles were always being questioned, it seems. Books, movies, plays and women's magazines teased audiences with shocking new lifestyles, before endorsing the straight and narrow. While no Eleanora Duse in the acting department, the beautiful Ms. Mackaill has a refreshing vitality and an honest attitude. What makes her seem even more attractive is a quality that practically mystifies -- she looks and acts like someone you could meet tomorrow. Her manner and personal style doesn't seem rooted in early '30s conventions. And that slightly crooked smile!
The Office Wife is a slightly crooked morality tale. Publisher Larry Fellowes (Lewis Stone) wants to stay ahead of the curve on 'modern trends' and so assigns author Kate Halsey (Blanche Friderici) to write a book about The Office Wives, the secretaries that receive more attention from busy executives than do their own wives. Larry's Girl Friday (Dale Fuller) is in love with him, and collapses when she discovers that he's going to marry someone else. That means that hard-working, deserving stenographer Anne Murdock (Dorothy Mackaill) gets the nod to become the new executive secretary. The mutual attraction between them grows, putting Anne in a tough spot: she feels terrible watching Larry and his new wife Linda (Natalie Moorhead). Anne's own fiancé Ted (Walter Merrill) suddenly seems dull next to her rich, influential new boss.
Rushing by in just under an hour, The Office Wife is basically a justification for the breaking up of a marriage. Ann is completely innocent when she begins to accompany her boss to weekends at his house and business trips to other cities. Larry's real wife is shown chasing around with a slimy lizard named Jameson (Brooks Benedict), who gives her his hotel room key, etc. They're all quite 'sophisticated' about such philandering. Then again Lewis Stone's silly executive doesn't seem capable of using a napkin without the help of his personal secretary ... these big biz types are so distracted by their problems, you know. Anne's attraction seems almost motherly. Her boyfriend is a newspaper editor, yet he doesn't seem bright enough to spell words or understand them. Anne's affections stray to her boss because he's so refined and noble ... but all the fringe benefits must make an impression too. Larry is always sending her home in his chauffeured car when they work late. Anne comes off as a bit of a Kathy Selden type, the sweet and unassuming innocent who nevertheless goes straight for the brass ring, every time.
The movie has two major fringe benefits. The first is Blanche Friderici's author Kate Halsey, who dresses and behaves as a tough pro lesbian -- a man's suit, etc. She talks disdainfully of traditional sex roles and chides Larry over her frivolous assignments about silly marital problems. Kate tells Larry he's not immune to the Office Wife syndrome, but of course he doesn't listen. The biggest flaw in The Office Wife is that Kate's sidebar story doesn't pay off -- she returns just once and then disappears. Perhaps her final scene was cut -- we really expect Kate to return, if only to express a personal interest in Anne!
The real gem in the casting is Anne's sister Katherine, who is played by Joan Blondell in her second role for Warners (or First National). Blondell bubbles amusingly, making a good contrast with the quieter Anne. She seems to forever be changing her clothes and / or taking baths on camera, to give the customers what they paid for. Katherine also wraps up the story like a literal Blondell Ex Machina, solving Anne's romantic problems over the phone. Anne gets her Mr. Moneybags, but it doesn't seem like much of a victory as they're so mismatched in age and disposition.
We quickly realize that most of the problems in these 'social' soap-operas could be easily solved by a quick conversation -- perhaps Joan Blondell could simply ring up the leading players of Night Nurse and Baby Face and tell them what they're failing to communicate to each other. The second feature Party Husband puts temptation in the path of both a wife and her husband, so we get twice as many compromising situations.
Charles Kenyon's story tackles the idea of a 'free marriage', a shocking new arrangement that nobody except the bride and groom think will work. Both Laura (Dorothy Mackaill) and Jay (James Rennie) will be free to independently work and socialize, without the other becoming jealous or overly possessive. The newlyweds are convinced that that's what stifles ordinary marriages. Laura takes a job with Horace Purcell (Donald Cook), who quickly arranges for her to stay late and attend private business meetings in restaurants and nightclubs. The vampish Kate (Dorothy Peterson) sets her cap for Jay without delay, assuming that he'll quickly stray into her arms.
This show is a reel longer than the first one and seems much longer, despite having interesting characters like Paul Porcasi's amorous artist. The 'free marriage' idea soon turns out to be hooey, as the real problem with the arrangement is, again, communication. The newlyweds hide things from each other 'for their own good'. When Laura catches Jay with a big blot of 'indelible' (?) lipstick on his face, she not only gives him the benefit of the doubt, she doesn't even discuss the fact that smooching with fast fillies wasn't part of their domestic bargain. But Laura is also putting herself into compromised situations, if not actually doing the deed. We watch Party Husband waiting for somebody to realize that adjustments need to be made, or for someone to get caught in the act, so the situation will have to be discussed.
Plenty of pre-Codes confront matters like this directly, but Party Husband dithers. Laura and Jay mope about, each thinking that the other wants to call it quits. It falls on the MOTHER to step in and force a no-nonsense reconciliation on the couple. The curtain falls before a new deal is arranged, but I have a terrible feeling that the solution is for Laura to be a stay-at-home hausfrau. That's not a particularly progressive development.
The best parts of Party Husband are the numerous scenes where the wolfish boss makes his moves on Laura, or various hussies try to move in on Jay. Since Jay always gets drunk at night, he thinks he has an excuse!
Party Husband uses fairly obvious miniatures when the jealous Jay sees Laura leaving on an excursion boat with her boss, heh heh. A view of Jay standing on the dock employs a little model man that turns stiffly, like a wooden figurine in an animated clock!
The Warner Archive Collection double bill DVD-R of The Office Wife / Party Husband gives us a chance to see Dorothy Mackaill in action, keeping a curious pair of moral dramas in balance. Dorothy looks great in both pictures, and often seems far more natural than the actors around her.
Both transfers are quite good, with very clear sound.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Office Wife / Party Husband rates:
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.