Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Barbara's Secret Marriage

Ruth Vincent (Barbara Stanwyck) and State Attorney General Robert Sheldon (Warren William) elope. When the ceremony ends, they look for a phone - he to call his office; she to contact her father, Governor W. H. Vincent (Arthur Byron) with their good news.  But Robert's call results in a roadblock to their happiness; Ruth's father has been accused of taking a bribe, and the only way for Robert to investigate the charges is for Ruth to remain The Secret Bride (1934).

Audiences at the time of release would have known from the trailer the serious nature of the film, though the title really makes one believe this is a romantic comedy. Based on an unproduced play, Concealment, by Leonard Ide, this was not really a movie anyone wanted to make (except producer Hal Wallis) - William Dieterle later said "the script was bad..." (TCM article).  Both director Dieterle and Ms. Stanwyck were under contract to Warner Brothers, however and neither could afford to be suspended  - Ms. Stanwyck was supporting herself, her son, and her then husband Frank Fay, and the Fays were having financial issues with the Internal Revenue Service [A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: True Steel 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson]. So, rather than go on suspension, Ms. Stanwyck apparently grit her teeth and took on a role that was certainly beneath her talents.

The role of Ruth is really not one of Ms. Stanwyck's best - the part is under-written and she has little to do except be morose about her hidden marriage. She's only given one really good scene - Ruth goes to confront her father with evidence that his personal typewriter was used to write a letter demanding bribe money. Ruth, who has a close and loving relationship with her father, is distraught and feels betrayed by her suspicions about her father's actions. His denial of the charges, and her reactions to his protestations of innocence are strong and convincing. It's interesting that Dan Callahan in his biography, Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, felt exactly the opposite. We, however, thought that Ms. Stanwyck played the scene perfectly. Stanwyck plays her as young and inexperienced, making the scene strong and appropriate for what little we know about Ruth.
Also wasted is Glenda Farrell as Robert's secretary, Hazel Normandie. She SHOULD have a pivotal role - she's romantically involved with one of the villains (she doesn't know he is a villain), and she is accused of a murder. But by the end of the film, she's all but disappeared from view. She doesn't even really figure into her own murder trial. A shame really, because Ms. Farrell is able to deliver a clever line like no one else.
Grant Mitchell's Willis Martin, the pawn in the scheme, should be a more interesting character, but that role too is poorly outlined. As a result, Martin, with his constant weeping and quivering, is merely annoying. You really want to shake him and tell him to get a grip on himself. It's a shame because, again, Grant Mitchell is a strong character actor who is given no opportunity to grow his characterization. (To see him in better form, try The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942).
The only actor who really gets to do anything in the piece is Warren William, and he runs with it. He does appear a trifle old for Ruth, but he's clearly well established in his political career, so the age difference is consistent with character. Mr. William started his acting career on Broadway (as Warren W. Krech  - he was born Warren William Krech) in 1920. The advent of sound brought hime to Hollywood and a contract with Warner Brothers. With his impressive speaking voice, he was likely a godsend to the studio, and was a leading actor in many pre-code films, including Three on a Match (1932)  and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). He also was cast in several series - Perry Mason and the Lone Wolf among them. Besides film work, he also did some radio, specifically a series entitled Strange Wills.  He died in 1948, at the age of 53; his wife of 25 years died a few months later.

There is a very nicely done scene which features 1930s criminal forensic science - an analysis of the typewriter used to type a bribery note. Of course, it helps if one knows what a typewriter is! 
The costuming by Orry-Kelly is stunning, especially a fur-trimmed dress that Ms. Stanwyck gets to wear (you can see it in the trailer). She also gets several really stunning hats. But Ms. Stanwyck deserves more than nice clothing - a script would help. We'll leave you with the trailer to the film: