Jean Arthur's most infamous asset (notwithstanding her skill as a comedienne) was her voice - a mash-up that blends the husky tones of Beatrice Arthur with the high-pitched squeaks of Butterfly McQueen (I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies!.). More Than A Secretary, the rewound film, takes place in the publishing offices of a health food magazine - a business setting not often seen in black and white comedies. So I spread my almond butter and conserves on rice cakes, poured a cup of sinfully delicious rice milk and lost myself in the antics of 1936.
Arthur (a stenog herself during World War I) owns a secretarial school and is tired of her (female) graduates applying for the job but, in the end, getting the boss. She then receives a phone call from the editor of a health food magazine who has fired one of her students for being a poor worker. Her reputation impugned, Arthur goes down to the office, is mistaken for a job applicant, takes the secretarial job AND a shine to her new boss. Instead of reciprocating personally, George Brent promotes Arthur to associate editor, and takes a shine to Maizie, a non matriculated blonde floozy student who takes the boss for all she can.
The interesting things in More Than A Secretary are the comparisons between yesterday and today. At one point, Arthur tries to convince Brent that a female model on the cover of the health magazine (rather than a male bodybuilder) is good marketing and not prurient. 'Blackface comics sell toothpaste,' she says as an example of good marketing. And almost fifty years before he hit supporting actor pay dirt as the old guy on the 1980s television hit Hart To Hart, Lionel Stander played the magazine's male bodybuilder model whose face is replaced in each of his pictures with that of a prettier man. The star crossed lovers even have dinner in The Eat Right, a vegetarian restaurant in which Arthur chows down on Pro-Toze, a steak made from vegetables and mashed nuts, only to spit the vegan meat into her napkin. Finally - SPOILER ALERT - Arthur sells her school and goes on the road with her girlfriend, in a car towing a camper.
Maizie, played by Dorothea Kent, is an offbeat character. In telling Brent how the older Arthur treated her at school, "More like a mother than a daughter." In fact, Maizie's role is of a secretary paramour; she is used, paid nicely and passed on by every boss in the movie. (The look on Brent's face as he tries to palm Maizie off on the next boss is priceless.) One of the more memorable scenes is when Arthur puts Maizie over her knee and gives her a good spanking.
More Than A Secretary is more than a movie; it's a bit of history not often seen (it's not on DVD) or documented. And it's Jean Arthur. And it's healthy. And I just happened to catch it on a live rewind. Thanks Max and Lucy.
2013 Update: Watch the movie on YouTube - not sure for how long though.
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- The House Of Fear starring William Powell, Florence Eldridge, Jean Arthur, Eugene Pallette 1929
- Here Comes The Bandwagon starring Charles Buddy Rogers, Jean Arthur, Paul Lukas, Helen Ware 1929
- The Red Dragon starring Warner Oland, Neil Hamilton, Jean Arthur, O. P. Heggie 1929
- Love 'Em And Leave 'Em starring Clara Bow, James Hall, Edna May Oliver, Jean Arthur 1929