Friday, May 1, 2015

His Private Secretary (1933)

His Private Secretary is a 1933 romantic comedy starring John Wayne. Which is not such an outrageous idea - Wayne was always quite adept at light comedy. His Private Secretary is bright and breezy and reasonably entertaining.

Dick Wallace (John Wayne) is the son of a crusty millionaire businessman. Crusty is perhaps not quite an adequate term - Mr Wallace (Reginald Barlow) is a mean-spirited irritable cantankerous old curmudgeon. Mind you, he has plenty to be cantankerous about. Dick Wallace is lazy, pleasure-loving and an inveterate womaniser. Mr Wallace decides he’s had enough - he’ll give Dick one last chance to shape up. He puts him in charge of the debt collecting side of the business.

Dick’s first debt collecting assignment takes him to the tiny town of Somerville. Of course Dick manages to pick up a woman on the way, by persuading her that the bus to Somerville has broken down. Marion Hall (Evalyn Knapp) is not the kind of woman Dick is used to. She’s feisty but thoroughly respectable. In fact she’s the daughter of a clergyman, the Rev Hall (Alec B. Francis), and the kindly old clergyman is the man from whom Dick is supposed to collect the debt. Dick might be an irresponsible hedonist but he’s a arm-hearted guy underneath it and when he realises that the minister has spent the money helping people he gives him an unlimited extension on the loan. And promptly gets himself fired by his dad for not collecting.

Dick isn’t too worried by this since he’s fallen had over heels in love with Marion. He’s also decided to turn over a new leaf. Now he’s found the right girl he’s ready to get married and settle down. Persuading his father to accept his new bride is however going to prove quite a challenge. Marion has her own plan to win the old boy over - he gets herself a job as his private secretary.

His Private Secretary is fairly typical of pre-code comedies. It has a promising setup and it has an engaging charm but it’s rather light on gags. It’s an odd thing but Hollywood in the pe-code era never quite seemed to get the idea that comedy requires gags - lots of gags.

While it doesn’t provide too many laugh-out-loud moments it does at least manage to be gently amusing. Even with its very short running time (just 60 minutes) the pacing is a little on the slow side.

On the plus side John Wayne and Evalyn Knapp are likeable enough leads.

There are a few of the mildly risque (in his case very mildly risque) moments that pre-code fans tend to enjoy. On the other hand it’s also a movie that comes down firmly on the side of marriage, fidelity and taking responsibility. Dick is an irresponsible wastrel early on but he learns his lesson. Dick and Marion go through a few rough patches but they get through them because they realise they’re on the same side, and that that’s what marriage means. Fortunately the movie is really only interested in offering entertainment so don’t be worried that you’re going to be preached to.

Phil Whitman’s direction is workmanlike if uninspired (again fairly typical for pre-code comedies which were generally turned out rather cheaply). The script definitely needed more actual comedy but the plot is adequate enough for this type of film.

I picked this movie up as part of a two-movie public domain set. As one tends to accept with public domain releases image quality is fairly poor (although in this case quite watchable). Sound quality is more of a problem but at least the dialogue is understandable.

This movie doesn’t reach any great heights but it has a certain charm and it’s interesting to see John Wayne as a contemporary urban professional with not a horse or a six-gun in sight. His Private Secretary is harmless lightweight fluff. Worth a rental, and possibly worth a purchase if you find it in the bargain bin.

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