There’s some uncomfortable business in the 1948 comedy My Dear Secretary.
My Dear Secretary is about a celebrity author named Owen Waterbury (Douglas), who regularly hires secretaries to whom he dictates his books. He’s hired many, many secretaries through the years because he seduces, and is later dumped by, these women.
Our novelist is a busy fellow. Aside from his adventures in romance, a number of people gallop through his day, including his sharp-tongued maid (Irene Ryan), his exasperated landlady (Florence Bates), and his next-door neighbour/best friend (the aforementioned Wynn).
There’s also an ex-secretary (Gale Robbins) who muscles her way through his apartment, demanding the return of personal belongings, including her “Christmas bonus” (a mink coat).
You see, our novelist works from home, and into this chaos arrives Laraine Day, with her crisp business suit and steno pad. She intends to be Productive, and tries not to think about the ramifications of being employed by a notorious womanizer in his own apartment.
Day begins her new job with gusto. She admires our novelist and is thrilled to be working with such an acclaimed talent. She’s already half in love with him.
Here’s an overview of her first week:
Day 1: Douglas starts with a sudden, creative brainwave. “WHAT AN IDEA!” he cries. “TAKE THIS DOWN!” (Day scrambles for her steno pad and pencil.) Douglas continues, “Call this: ‘Notes on my New Novel.'” He pauses. “That’s all for now. Ten o’ clock tomorrow.”
Day 2: Douglas has another creative moment, and Day is ready with her pencil. “Chapter One,” Douglas declares, “Introduction of Characters.” Day quickly scribbles as Douglas abruptly leaves the apartment with another woman.
Day 3: Douglas and Wynn announce they’re taking Day to the horse races. When she protests, Douglas asks, incredulous, “Are you complaining about being paid to go to the races?”
Day 4: The trio flies to Las Vegas to recoup losses incurred on Day 3.
Day 5: Douglas takes Day to his beach house and starts to dictate a story, but it’s his (lame) method of seduction. He leans in to kiss her, but she puts him in a hammer lock and flips him upside down. “You’ve got the wrong girl, Mister Waterbury,” she growls. “If I ever see one of your books again, I’ll burn it!”
We revel in the built-in conflict between business-minded Day and the recreationally-inclined Douglas/Wynn duo. Day’s professional aspirations are continually stampeded over by Douglas and Wynn, who barrel through life at top speed.
This brings us to the Uncomfortable Business we mentioned earlier, namely the role of a female secretary. The film seems to define “secretary” as part-time mistress and full-time mother.
It’s really annoying, and female audiences were likely just as annoyed back in 1948.
Sadly for you, Dear Reader, this topic leads us (as in, yours truly) to rant about the portrayal of secretaries in Hollywood movies. Oftentimes, a Proper secretary is attractive, responsive to the boss’ advances and cheerfully completes any task – even laundry. If, however, a secretary is unattractive, unresponsive and unwilling to do the boss’ personal chores, then she’s nothing but a cruel punishment.
For example, when Day is interviewed for her new job, she’s asked if she knows how to cook and do laundry.
Now, you could argue the script exaggerates the secretary-boss relationship for the sake of satire. However, it’s an exaggeration that’s been Done To Death, even before the release of this 1948 film.
It’s too bad. My Dear Secretary could be a great film if it weren’t so obtuse in this area. It makes an attempt to redeem itself later on, when Day hires a male secretary, but by then, it’s Too Little Too Late.
Maybe we’re taking this more seriously than we ought. We’ll leave it to your discretion, Dear Reader: If your interpretation is satire and not sexism, then you’ll enjoy this film very much.
My Dear Secretary: starring Laraine Day, Kirk Douglas, Keenan Wynn. Written & directed by Charles Martin. A United Artists Release, 1948, B&W, 94 mins.
This is part of the WORKPLACE IN FILM & TV Blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini.