The Sunday Intertitle: I’m Your Secretary

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THE SOCIAL SECRETARY, from the husband-and-wife team of John Emerson and Anita Loos. Emerson is remembered almost solely for being Mr. Loos, which isn’t quite fair but is nearly fair. As director, he does a drunke scene wobblycam shot here that’s pretty damn inventive for 1916. But it’s his sole flourish.

You can’t quite make a feminist hero out of Anita. Because I say so. While the fact that she had a glittering career and was such a sharp observer of the Hollywood scene makes her a poster girl for the cause, what she wrote is informed by all sorts of prejudices of the day — she’s not trying to strike a blow for the girls, just trying to amuse herself and her audience.

In THE SOCIAL SECRETARY, Norma Talmadge can’t keep a job because her bosses are always flirting with her. Cue shots of dowdy secretaries at the secretarial rooming house she stays at, complaining that they’ve never had any problems. Meanwhile, a rich society dame is complaining her secretaries always leave to get married. Her ne’er-do-well son suggests advertising for one with the proviso “Must be extremely unattractive to men.” Norma sees this ad and sees in it the answer to her problem. Donning glasses and putting her hair in a bun and assuming a sniffy expression, she snaps up the position in a jiffy, even though none of this disguise conceals the fact that her figure is… well, “unattractive” wouldn’t be the first word I’d think of.

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This being 1916, on her days off, Norma throws off her frumpy dress to reveal, beneath it, another frumpy dress.

Should have been a nice romcom but is more straight drama. Most welcome surprise is a sleazy journalist, played by –

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Erich Von Stroheim. Trading monocle for pince-nez. Playing it for laughs, which consists of a sour expression to match Norma’s when she’s in frumpface.

Intertitles keep harping on about what a scavenger, what a vulture he is, kind of unnecessary when Loos has named him Mr. Buzzard. Intertitles generally a bit lacking in wit. “Was Anita on strike?” asked Fiona after one which read, simply, “Midnight.” “It’s no MATRIMANIAC,” I agreed. “Nothing is.”

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5 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: I’m Your Secretary”

  1. According to the biography of Loos I read, Emerson was little more than a parasite. Anita did most of the work while he was given credit as a co-creator. ‘Midnight’ might have been one of his contributions.

  2. Well, he did apparently direct the thing, though it wouldn’t be that surprising to learn Anita did that for him too. And seemingly Fairbanks liked him, at least until 1917.

  3. There’s a 1937 Marion Davies comedy, “Ever Since Eve,” that starts with the same premise. The handsome boss meets her as herself, not making the connection; thereafter Marion is doing quick changes to maintain two separate identities as farcical complications accrue. Looked it up; no credit for Anita Loos.

    There are two early 30s movies based on what seems to be a common source: “Beauty and the Boss” and “The Church Mouse.” A man, too susceptible to beautiful women, hires an impoverished and seemingly plain stenographer. She becomes confident and gorgeous with prosperity, and by the time the boss notices he has a rival.

    Then there’s the fifties musical “Bells Are Ringing,” where answering service operator Judy Holliday is both the old lady on the phone and in-person lover for Dean Martin (while anonymously meddling in other clients’ lives as well: a dentist who wants to compose show tunes and an actor who wants to be Brando, badly).

    And on secretaries in general, the stage version of “How to Succeed” has a comedy number titled “Cinderella Darling.” The heroine, fed up with the hero’s obsession with advancement, is ready to walk out. The rest of the secretaries offer a rousing anthem on why she mustn’t:
    “No, please, DON’T Cinderella darling!
    Don’t turn down the prince!
    Don’t rewrite the story —
    You’re the emblem, the symbol, the working girl’s dream of glory!
    We were RAISED on you darling,
    And we’ve loved you ever since!
    Don’t mess up our favorite fairy tale
    Don’t turn down the prince!”
    It’s a funny number, cheerfully addressing the mythology as exactly that. The lyric references New Rochelle, the station wagon, and the PTA; it ends with a reverent “Hallelujah.”

  4. Really enjoyed Beauty and the Boss, even if the role is a stretch for the capabilities of Marian Marsh. She very rarely got to stretch, so it’s nice seeing her try, even if the results are odd. Warren William of course is perfect.

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