Thursday, May 14, 2009
The Secret Bride (1934) plants Barbara Stanwyck as a governor’s daughter who elopes with the charming, square-jawed do-gooder district attorney, played by Warren William. When Papa Governor is implicated in a murder, Miss Stanwyck and Mr. William must keep their elopement a secret so as not to show conflict of interest during the investigation, until justice is served.
The film does not equal the sum total of its parts, but its parts are pretty interesting. Directed by William Dieterle and made in the first year the Code went into strict enforcement, there is no sexy exploitation of the situation. There is not even a mention that the marriage has yet to be consummated; both William and Stanwyck seem more eager to play Nancy Drew and find the murderer than they are to start their honeymoon. With films such as “Baby Face” behind her and a reputation for more daring material, clearly Barbara Stanwyck’s wings have been clipped.
That leaves it to Glenda Farrell as Warren William’s smart-mouthed secretary with the sassy name of Hazel Normandie to provide the spice. Alas, she too becomes a victim when she is fingered for the crime, and gets interrogated by the coppers. She wins for my favorite line: Asked what were her relations with Mr. Breeden, she responds, “My relations didn’t like him. Especially Uncle Charlie.”
By far, the most intriguing aspect to this film is the surprisingly terrific performance by Grant Mitchell as an aide to the murdered financier. A character actor who appeared in films in bit parts as reverends, district attorneys, bankers, senators, Mr. Mitchell also played the kindly guy in a sweater welcoming the beleaguered Joad family to the nice clean New Deal campground at the end of “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939).
Grant Mitchell had been a lawyer before he quit that profession for the bright lights of Broadway, and was about 60 years old when he appeared in “The Secret Bride.” Here he plays a man stressed out, caught between powerful forces, and treated like a gofer. Indeed, we see him as little more than a harassed minion until the end of the film when we see he has a much more pivotal role in the mystery. The tension he carries and he creates is something marvelous. His strong performance is genuine, a refreshing contrast to the somewhat stiff performances by others in the film, including by the leads. The climatic scene of the film is all his, but that he carries each scene he is in throughout the film, no matter how brief his appearance in some of those scenes, is the wonder.
Lots of fun stuff like newspaper headlines, running presses, a surly prison matron, and a shot of Miss Stanwyck typing. She is, as was mentioned in this previous blog post, the silver screen’s most prolific typist.
As for zeitgeist elements, I particularly like the way the bank teller fills out the deposit slip himself, not the customer, and he does it with pen and ink. Also, there is an interesting scene in the jury room where the jurors vote guilty or not guilty by placing either a black or white marble in the draw of a wooden box. I don’t think I’ve seen this before. If anyone can enlighten us on this custom, please do.
The film ends with the NRA logo, though we need no reminders through this thoroughly “contemporary” film that it is 1934, where there is no past and no future, only the dreary present to endure. With a little more finesse, one could imagine what kind of film noir this would make if it were made 15 years later. There are certain nourish elements, like flashbacks, close-ups from interesting angles, shadows, everything but the feeling of being trapped in the jaws of fate. The mood here remains, as it did for most Depression-era films, decidedly upbeat.