Saturday, June 29, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #25: "His Private Secretary" (1933)

The Duke himself, John Wayne, stars in the romantic comedy His Private Secretary.

The flick: His Private Secretary (Showmen's Pictures, 1933) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.4

Director: Phil Whitman (A Strange Adventure, The Girl from Calgary, and 28 other films you haven't heard of; dropped dead at age 42 just two years after making this movie)

Actors of note:
  • John Wayne (The Searchers, The Longest Day, Rio Bravo, too many others to list; won an Oscar for True Grit; one of the top-grossing stars in Hollywood history with a box office reign lasting 25 years)
  • Evalyn Knapp (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)
  • Reginald Barlow (King Kong, The Bride of Frankenstein, the Marx Brothers' Horse Feathers)
  • Alec B. Francis (Mata Hari)
  • Mickey Rentschler (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer)
  • Natalie Kingston (made 59 obscure B-movies in ten years and then disappeared; this was the second-to-last of them)
  • Arthur Hoyt (It Happened One Night, Sullivan's Travels)

Cutie-pie Evalyn Knapp
The gist of it: Dick Wallace (Wayne) is the irresponsible, hard-partying, womanizing son of a grouchy, money-minded businessman (Barlow) who wants Dick to finally become a responsible adult. In order to make a man out of his son, wealthy Mr. Wallace gives Dick a job at the family company, collecting debts. The son's first assignment takes him on a 100-mile drive to tiny Somerville (pop. 407) to collect from kindly, hard-of-hearing Rev. Hall (Francis) who just happens to be the grandfather of Marion (Knapp), a pretty young lass Dick had been trying to put the moves on all day. Dick gives Rev. Hall an unauthorized extension on his loan, an act thAT causes Mr. Wallace to give his son the boot.

Newly unemployed, Dick buys a small garage in Somerville and tries to win Marion over through various tricks and schemes, abetted by crafty youngster Joe (Rentschler). Nothing works, until Marion learns that Dick lost his job over the loan extension. She agrees to marry him, only learning his true identity after the fact. Dick is hesitant to introduce Marion to his disapproving dad, but Marion has a plan. Posing as "Miss Boyd," she becomes Mr. Wallace's private secretary and one of the few competent, responsible employees he has. Marion promises her boss that Dick really can be a success, and Wallace agrees to give him $1 million to start his own business. But Dick temporarily falls back into his old, bad habits of drinking and partying, a relapse aided and exploited by shameless gold-digger Polly (Kingston) who desperately wants to get her lunch-hooks into the Wallace family fortune.

My take: Not long ago, I wrote about The Music Man (1964) and Groundhog Day (1993), two stories about smart-alecky, worthless guys who travel to small towns for business reasons, end up staying longer than originally planned, and find love and redemption there. For about the first two-thirds of its running time, His Private Secretary is that kind of a story. I thought John Wayne was going to stay in charming little Somerville, make a go of his garage business, and find his true purpose in life with Marion in this off-the-grid locale, perhaps working for kindly Rev. Hall in some capacity.

But the script brings Dick and Marion (whose name is uncomfortably close to John Wayne's original moniker, Marion Morrison) back to the world of high stakes and big money. It's nice to see Marion succeed at the company where her new husband has repeatedly failed, and I'm glad she brought out the softer side of crotchety Mr. Wallace, who says "You're fired!" as often as most people say "hello." But I kind of missed Somerville and wished the movie hadn't abandoned it. 

His Private Secretary is clearly a modest, small-potatoes production. Other than Wayne, none of the cast made it out of B-movies, at least not for long. The film has three credited production companies, but all of them were short-lived. Were it not for the presence of "The Duke," it's likely that this film would have been completely forgotten decades ago. But you know what? I actually liked this one more than I expected to. It moves at a brisk pace, most of the jokes land, and the cast is up to the job. Top-billed Evalyn Knapp has a warm, sunny presence, and it's conceivable that a playboy like Dick Wallace might give up his carefree, carousing ways for her. In fact, she's such a catch that his near-relapse seems implausible.

And how is John Wayne in this film? Well, at 26, he'd been a movie actor for seven years and had done about 42 films by then, though he'd only been getting screen credit for three years. He's still a little green, and his future clearly wasn't in drawing-room comedies. He looks so much more comfortable at the garage in Somerville than he does wearing a tux or working behind a desk. John Wayne's just not an "indoor" kind of actor. But he knows how to deliver a line and how to sell a joke, and he already has the imposing physical presence that would serve him so well in the Westerns and war films that made him famous.

Sam Katzman
By the way, His Private Secretary did launch another major Hollywood player. It was the first of 243 films in a 40-year career for producer Sam Katzman, whose name should be familiar to all B-movie junkies. Among many other things, he produced the sci-fi perennials It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) and Earth Vs. The Flying Saucer (1956), both with effects by the late Ray Harryhausen, plus a few of Elvis Presley's later movies (Kissin' Cousins, Harum Scarum), some quickie rock-sploitation flicks for the drive-in crowd (Rock Around the Clock), and (sigh) a bunch of East Side Kids movies, including Boys of the City.  MST3K fans will know him for The Corpse Vanishes (1942) and Teen-Age Crime Wave (1955). One of my favorites in his filmography is the nutty but compelling Hank Williams biopic Your Cheatin' Heart (1964), starring a very unlikely George Hamilton as the country music legend.

Sam Katzman is the kind of guy who probably didn't know the meaning of the word "art" but certainly knew the meaning of the word "money" and aimed to give the public what it wanted... while spending as little as possible. His picture makes him look like a mobster, and I'm sure he was a fierce negotiator when he needed to be.

Is it funny: Yes, frequently. I started laughing out loud during the film's opening sequence in which Dick comes home drunk and mistakes his irate father for the butler. When the father accuses his son of drinking like a fish, Wayne corrects him: "Fish drink water." Mr. Wallace's continual crabbiness is amusing, too. He's sort of a cross between Ebeneezer Scrooge and Monty Burns. Like Mr. Burns, Wallace has a sycophantic, Smithers-type employee, the appropriately-named Little (professional milquetoast Hoyt) who has to work overtime to avoid his boss's wrath. I won't spoil it, but there's a nice payoff to a scene in Somerville when Dick trades his car for ownership of the garage. His Private Secretary won't lower your cholesterol or take any strokes off your golf game, but it's well worth a watch.

My grade: B+

P.S. - Not a stereotype in sight.