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.
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 —
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.”