DOROTHY MACKAILL and JOAN BLONDELL: “THE OFFICE WIFE”
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.
“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.
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.”]
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 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 . . .
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.
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!!]