TWO (OR 3) HOT BLONDES

DOROTHY MACKAILL and JOAN BLONDELL:  “THE OFFICE WIFE”

Having gotten a promotion to Secretary to the CEO purely on merit, Anne Murdock (Dorothy Mackaill) nevertheless practices poses that emphasis her feminine attributes. "The Office Wife," Warner Brothers, 1930, directed by Lloyd Bacon.

Anne's sister, Kathy, can't believe Anne got a promotion without following her path to success with her boss: "I let the little frog kiss my ear once in a while!"

A tale of office romance of the boss/secretary variety, “The Office Wife” (Warner Brothers, 1930, dir. Lloyd Bacon) doesn’t qualify as a groundbreaking film of the early sound period.  However, it was made in the first half of 1930, placing it at the beginning of the American film industry’s full committment to sound.  By 1930, the vast majority of movie theaters in the U. S. had converted to sound, and those who did not would be forced to close soon — 1930 was the first full production year in American film history in which no silent feature-length films were made.

Opening without music score, but with incessant clacking of typewriters, the credits for "The Office Wife" appear over a series of "office girls" dissolving into each other, each indistinguishable from the next, common and replaceable as the paper in their office machines. "The Office Wife," (Warner Brothers, 1930, directed by Lloyd Bacon).

“The Office Wife” opens with an instant attention-grabbing device in early sound movies: not music, but noise.  The incessant clacking of manual typewriters (an unfamiliar sound to anyone who grew up with computer keyboards or even electric typewriters), followed immediately with the shot of a typewriter and a typist’s hands floating above the keys, then the title credits, and an interesting visual motif that continues underneath the remainder of the credits:  fast dissolves of female clerks one merging into the next, each hardly distinguishable from the one preceding.

Setting the stage for a melodrama of business, is (from left above), the "tower" (an exterior of the then Bell Telephone Building in lower Manhattan; the marble lobby; the workplace -- rows of desks at which the clerical employees crank out paper that keeps the business moving, including Anne Murdock (Dorothy Mackaill) -- the camera in traveling shot does not even pause to distinguish her from the rest of the anonymous employees. "The Office Wife," (WB, 1930).

Following the credits, the film’s opening image is what appears at first to be a stock shot panning up to the top of a huge skyscraper.  It is not the Empire State Building, construction of which had just begun, nor the Chrysler Building completed just prior to the film’s release in August of 1930.   It is the Barclay-Vesey Building (named for the two narrow streets over which it towers), but better known as the Bell Telephone (and later A. T. and T., then Verizon) Building.  Except for one fact, its use in the film might not be noteworthy.  Although a relatively modest 31 stories tall, at the time of its construction in 1926 it was one of the two largest buildings in the world in terms of total office space, exceeded only by the earlier Equitable Building just a few blocks away.   So it does have some symbolic value for a film taking place in an office environment of 1930, a film about very personal entanglements in an impersonal business world.

[The building still stands — as it did for thirty years in the shadow of the WTC North Tower and next door to 7 WTC, the collapse of which caused serious damage to the then 75-year-old structure which has since been restored.  It is quite visible in the numerous documentaries about 9/11, before, during and after the tragedy, and in the rebuilding of the WTC site, a hulking red-brick-colored mass topped with light terra-cotta ornamentation on the many spires of its wide “crown.”]

The businessman and his office "wife." The President of Fellowes Publishing, Fellowes (Lewis Stone), and personal secretary, Miss Andrews (Dale Fuller), work late into early evening; as does the anonymous typist, Anne Murdock (Dorothy Mackaill), business lives ruled by the clock.

Above, Anne sees that it is past quitting time; Below, her boyfriend Ted (Walter Merrill) is likewise keeping track of time -- her lateness in meeting him after work.

As Anne and Ted leave for the evening, Mr. Fellowes' secretary Miss Andrews wearily works with him late into the evening. So devoted is she to him that when he mentions that during his coming vacation to Europe he is getting married . . .

Miss Andrews faints at the news, and drops to the floor.

As he revives her, he fans her with pages from a publishing contract for a new novel to be written by a prestigious author of unknown gender. The prospective book, "The Office Wife," is to be a literary satire of the relationship between the modern business executive and his "real" wife, his office secretary. The "book" turns out to be not much more than a Hitchcock "Maguffin," a plot device that misdirects attention without having a bearing on the outcome of the story.

Early sound films were shot with cameras contained within sound proof enclosures to minimize camera noise.  Naturally this limited camera mobility, resulting in very static movie-making.  But this problem could be overcome by using additional cameras to shoot the scene from different angles, then editing the results as desired and keeping sound continuity and volume level the same for each cut within the scene.  Of course more cameras meant higher costs for additional materials (film stock, lab work) and labor (camera operators, grips), but could give (with imaginative filmmaking) a better product.  That doesn’t appear to be the case with “The Office Wife.”  The dialog scenes are static — and all of the scenes involve dialog, with minimal physical action.

Compounding the problem is that there are rarely more than two characters in any single scene in the film.  Perhaps that explains why Blondell’s character is inserted in scenes more than once in the form of a “phone call” to a character in the scene.  This apparently is done (or was added after the scenes were initially shot and found lacking) to provide clarity to the scene and to almost literally push the characters on the other end of her phone call into action.  This is in my mind an example of bad direction making excellent actors appear somewhat less than excellent.  Actors are often blamed for giving bad or inadequate performances, when viewers forget who ultimately has control over that performance, before, during and even (though to a lesser degree) after it is shot.  Fortunately, the native talent of the cast, with Blondell making several big assists, eventually overcomes the misdirection.

The next day, Anne is summoned by Mr. McGowan (Hobart Bosworth), the Office Manager, to his office . . .

Anne is dumbfounded . . . she is not used to being singled out from among the mass of clerks. Has she done something wrong?

Mr. McGowan, however, informs her that she has been promoted: "Miss Andrews resigned last night, you're to be Mr. Fellows new Secretary."

Anne is speechless . . . except to squeal "WHEEEEEEEE!!! . . . I'm sorry . . ."

While Mr. Fellows is off for two weeks on his honeymoon, Anne will be given the first week off, then assume her new position, during which time she can familiarize herself with the work until Mr. Fellows returns.

At their apartment the next morning, Anne’s sister Kathy (Joan Blondell) struggles to turn off the alarm clock . . .

“The Office Wife,” is saved from being a talkie curiosity primarily by the performances of Joan Blondell and Dorothy Mackaill.  Blondell has only a couple of  scenes with Mackaill (keep in mind that this is a 59 minute movie) and a couple of “telephone” scenes in which her sister, Kathy (Blondell), talks to Anne’s (Mackaill’s) boyfriend and boss, but each of these is a key scene that adds levity as well as narrative direction (i.e. telling the other characters what they ought to be doing) that is sorely needed in the film.  I wouldn’t say Blondell steals the movie — she merely keeps it from running off the rails into stage-bound banality.

Below: the mandatory gratuitous Joan Blondell bathtub scene . . .

Kathy's already in the tub and Anne has yet to budge in her bed . . . "Sis, what's the idea?"

Having gotten no reaction from her, she tries again, "SIS! Ain't you goin' to WORK?" "Huh? . . . No."

Kathy assumes that Anne doesn't fully utilize her natural feminine charms to get ahead in the workplace and that she rejects the advances of those who could benefit her: "Fired? . . . Ahh, I thought you would be. Who made a play for ya?"

"Nobody." "Ah . . . don't tell me that Anne. Honest, you oughta get wise to yourself. Take me, I'm the pet model of the Elite Shop, and you wanna know why? Cause I let that frog of a manager kiss me on the ear now and then!"

"I got my raise on brains, not looks. Mr. McGowan said so." After Anne further explains that no only did she get a promotion, she got a week's vacation and $45.00 a week, "How do you like that?" Kathy plunges beneath the suds in disbelief.

Of considerable surprise to me in this film was director Lloyd Bacon and his lack of . .,  er . . direction.  I expect more from a director of active, physical material, whether it be musical, dance,  comedy, or action.  I won’t even begin to list his film credits, except to say that the sheer amount, variety and overall consistent quality of his work is hardly reflected in “The Office Wife.”  The stage-bound feel of many of the scenes hurts this film.  It doesn’t help that all  but one scene is shot indoors, not surprising for 1930, and also common for the period are the “outdoor” beach scenes which are clearly interiors with a matte background or process photography.

Potentially interesting themes are introduced, then mysteriously dropped for no apparent reason.  The employees and managers are slaves to the clock, which is literally superimposed on several dissolves between scenes early the film, but the image and the concept dissolve not to reappear.  The impersonality of the workplace where workers sit at desks far apart in huge rooms with marble walls and columns — the opposite of the typical office environment today, is shown briefly, though effectively, only in two shots.  Bickering and jealousies between workers are suggested (as when Anne is called to Mr. McGowan’s office, a coworker makes a catty comment about “merit” versus “looks”), but we never see further interaction to put the remarks in context — it’s an isolated moment.

And most glaring is the use of a proposed novel, “The Office Wife,” at the film’s outset.  It gives one the feeling that this is the core of the film, the idea that propels the narrative.  It turns out to be nothing more than a Hitchcock “maguffin,” a term coined by the master director of suspense for a plot device , a sort of cinematic “:red-herring” that serves to divert audience attention to one direction while the real story hits them unexpectedly from another.  It may be that such a device is best suited to a suspense film rather than a melodrama.  But either way, in “The Office Wife” it occurs too early — the first scene in the film — a meeting between publisher Fellowes and the supposedly prestigious author who are negotiating a book deal.  Fellowes himself comes up with the idea for a novel about an “Office Wife,” and the author agrees that his idea has possibilities.  They agree, and a contract document for the proposed book is drawn up.  A fair amount of time is devoted to it, also.  The scene may be the single longest (I haven’t timed them all), four minutes in a 58 minute film, and gets “The Office Wife” off to a very slow and static start, as well.  But its only use in the remaining 54 minutes of the film is to have Fellowes fan the fainted Secretary Andrews with the contract pages.  The literal “Office Wife” disappears from the film from that point on.

Awaiting Mr. Fellows' return, Anne practices her stenographer's "pose," (and taking a hint from her sister Kathy) adjusts the hem of her skirt accordingly upward. A beautifully composed shot, almost from the floor, it gives the camera and the audience a better view than Anne's new boss would (or should) have.

. . . she is startled by the presence of Mr. McGowan, who unknown to Anne, has been watching her, bemused by Anne's "rehearsal."

Anne begins her new job; Mr. McGowan shows her a photo of Mr. Fellow's new bride. Anne tries to be diplomatic, "Isn't she beautiful?" Mr. McGowan responds, "Yes, I guess she's got looks enough not to worry about any 'competition'." Leaving Anne to wonder exactly what McGowan thinks of her intentions in her new position.

Overall, “The Office Wife” is a hodge-podge of ideas introduced and dropped, used experimentally.  Like many early sound films, it feels unfinished, ideas thrown about, then dissappearing– as if the film was merely a warm-up effort, part of a learning process for Bacon — and the entire film industry — in the new art of sound film.

“The Office Wife” was an adaptation of a novel by Faith Baldwin, a writer of popular novels and short stories about the trials of the then-modern woman in a man’s world, a dozen of which were adapted (by others) in screen versions, the best among them probably “Skyscraper Souls” (MGM, 1931) with Anita Page and Walter Huston, and “Beauty for Sale” (MGM, 1934) with Madge Evans and Una Merkel, but more typical (and similar to “Office Wife”) were “Weekend Marriage” (WB, 1932) starring Loretta Young and George Brent, and “Wife vs. Secretary” (MGM, 1936), featuring Jean Harlow as Clark Gable’s devoted “Secretary,” Jimmy Stewart as her neglected boyfriend and Myrna Loy as the seemingly unconcerned “Wife” of the boss, Gable.

The screenplay and dialogue for “The Office Wife” was written by Charles Kenyon, who would work on a number of above-average films for Warner Brothers in the mid-30s, writing the screenplay for “The Petrified Forest” (1936) with Leslie Howard, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart, the 1935 adaptation of “A Midsummer Nights’ Dream” starring James Cagney, “Journal of a Crime” (’34), a first-rate Ruth Chatterton soap operetta, and a slew of Kay Francis movies that were among her better efforts, including “Mandalay,”(’34) “Dr. Monica,”(’34) “I Loved a Woman,” (’33) “Man Wanted” (’32) and “Street of Women.” (’32).  He also contributed “additional dialogue” to the pre-code classic, “Night Nurse,” (WB, 1931) with Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell.

And a few final notes, relevant or nearly so:

“The Office Wife” is noteworthy not only for the performances of Blondell and Mackaill, but for Lewis Stone’s thoughtful, sympathetic portrayal of the businessman confused by love and marriage.  Stone had played leading men — heroes and villains alike — first as a Broadway matinée idol, then in literally hundreds of films from 1915 well into the 1940s.  (He is probably most famous (unfortunately) for his recurring role as Judge Hardy, Andy’s father in the Andy Hardy series of the late 30s/early 40s with Mickey Rooney.)   You can’t feel too bad for “Larry” Fellows — he essentially has the choice of two hot blondes, Mackaill and his “bride” Linda, played by Natalie Moorhead — OK, one hot and one a merely attractive older (but experienced) woman — and he ends the picture with one of them.  Even if she seems half his age, well . . . he isn’t complaining.  And neither would I.  Except to say that no one in the film gets Blondell.  And that, my friends, places this film squarely in the category of pure fiction.

[No spoilers here.  If you want to know how “The Office Wife” ends you’ll have to watch it.  But, more adventures with dynamic pre-code female duos are coming soon.  Maybe even some non-blondes you ask?   Whadda lotta hooey!!]

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About Gene Zonarich

I'm the King of the silent pictures -- I'm hidin' out 'til talkies blow over . . .
This entry was posted in Dorothy Mackaill, Film History, Joan Blondell, Pre-Code and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to TWO (OR 3) HOT BLONDES

  1. stef91 says:

    Hello,

    The movie is arrived in DVD in France right now. So I saw the movie yesterday. It’s a nice movie. Thanks for your article.,I am going to write on my french movie website about this movie.

    bye.
    Stéphane.

  2. Thank you. Your comments are much appreciated. I’ll make sure to read your review as well.

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