D: William Dieterle / 64m
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Warren William, Glenda Farrell, Grant Mitchell, Arthur Byron, Henry O’Neill, Douglass Dumbrille, Russell Hicks
Ambitious state Attorney General Robert Sheldon (William) and Ruth Vincent (Stanwyck), the daughter of the state governor (Byron), are head over heels in love and decide to get married without telling anyone. But before they can announce it, an investigator working out of Sheldon’s office, Breeden (Dumbrille), discovers evidence that implicates the Governor in a potential bribery scandal. Breeden’s evidence comes courtesy of Willis Martin (Mitchell), the private secretary to J.F. Holdstock (Hicks) who deposited money from his boss into the Governor’s private bank account. With no credible business reason for these deposits to have been made, it looks very much as if the Governor was accepting money from Holdstock, a convicted embezzler, whom he’d pardoned.
Sheldon is obliged to investigate this claim and bring it before a legislative body. He tells Ruth about it and they decide to keep their marriage a secret for fear of Sheldon being accused of having a conflict of interest. Their first course of action is to speak to Holdstock but they learn he’s committed suicide, and later they find an incriminating letter amongst Holdstock’s papers. That night, Breeden visits Martin’s apartment, and it becomes clear that the investigator is working his own angle. Later, at Sheldon’s offices, his secretary, Hazel Normandie (Farrell), leaves to meet Breeden outside the building. As he comes toward her, he is shot and killed. Ruth has seen everything from Sheldon’s inner office, and knows Hazel wasn’t the shooter, but keeps quiet to protect her marriage and Sheldon’s enquiries.
Hazel is arrested and charged with Breeden’s murder. Meanwhile, the legislature is becoming suspicious of the Governor and Sheldon, believing them to be withholding evidence surrounding Holdstock’s death from them. With Hazel’s trial for murder fast approaching, Ruth takes a desperate chance and visits Martin in his apartment. She learns that Holdstock’s death wasn’t suicide, and that her father’s main political supporter, Jim Lansdale (O’Neill), is more involved than even she, or her father, suspects.
Based on the play by Leonard Ide, The Secret Bride is, on face value, the kind of mystery thriller that Warner Bros. seemed to churn out on a weekly basis throughout the early Thirties, but a closer look reveals a movie with more going on than meets the eye. Its construction will be familiar to anyone who’s seen similar movies from the era, and the playing is as heartfelt and melodramatic as the script demands, but it’s a movie that plays well on a number of different levels, and uses its bribery and corruption storyline to make several cogent and pertinent observations on the politics of the time.
That it does so is a testament to the professionalism of the cast and crew, and in particular, Dieterle and Stanwyck. Dieterle made the movie because he was contractually obliged to; in addition he thought the script – by Tom Buckingham, F. Hugh Herbert and Mary McCall Jr – was weak. Stanwyck was in a similar position, and wanted out of her contract as soon as possible; after this she made just one more movie for Warner Bros. before returning to the studio in 1941 for Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe. With its director and star both less than enamoured of the project, it still remains an object lesson in how to mount a tightly-focused and entertaining little drama, and make it a better feature than expected. That it only played in a small number of theatres when it was released is discouraging, and perhaps reflects Warner Bros. own concerns over its commercial viability.
But it is a great little movie, with several directorial flourishes that make up for some of the more (deliberately) pedestrian scenes (Breeden’s death is a perfect case in point, shot from a high vantage point with rain falling and the horrified presence of Hazel Normandie to give it an emotional impact). Dieterle’s preference for low camera angles is a feature of the movie’s look, as is the way in which the camera is allowed to move in close when characters are panicked or anguished or frightened. A lot of this is also due to the presence of the great Ernest Haller behind the camera, and he even manages to make the movie’s static set-ups visually interesting, while Owen Marks’ assured cutting and editing provides the movie with its fast-paced rhythm.
Along with Stanwyck, William and the rest of the cast, Dieterle also teases out some of the script’s obvious subtexts, and explores them thoroughly. While the absence of trust in politics is pushed to the fore, the notion that such an absence is sometimes necessary is also given expression in the Governor’s resignation to his probable fate, as if his treatment by the press and his colleagues is to be accepted as par for the course. Sheldon and Ruth’s keeping quiet about their marriage is cleverly shown as a way of protecting themselves from associated harm and their selfish actions (while allowed to be put aside later on in the movie) go unpunished, adding to the idea that deception and falsity in politics is okay, whether it’s for the “greater good” or not.
As the embattled and battling couple, Stanwyck and William make a great team, sparking off each other in their scenes together. Stanwyck could always be called upon to be glamorous and alluring, but here she’s a muted heroine, her wardrobe reflecting Ruth’s single-mindedness and inner fortitude. William, often the charming rogue, is equally restrained, drawing the viewer in by showing the doubts Sheldon has as the mystery surrounding Holdstock’s death and his father-in-law’s involvement becomes less and less clear-cut. And they’re provided with efficient and formidable support from the likes of Dumbrille (unprincipled co-worker), Farrell (wise-cracking but vulnerable secretary), O’Neill (smoothly objectionable political fixer), Mitchell (devious and scared private secretary), and Byron (principled but naïve career politician). It’s an enviable cast, and everyone is on fine form, creating solid performances and characterisations, and adding to the pleasure to be had from watching the movie in the first place.
It’s true that the scenario is unremarkable, and the outcome entirely predictable, but then what movie from the period was ever any different? What makes this movie stand out is the attention paid to the characters, and the way in which Dieterle – against his better judgement perhaps – took what he believed to be an unpromising script, and made it as absorbing and compelling (and more so) than many other movies made in the same vein. And that’s to be rightly applauded.
Rating: 8/10 – an unappreciated gem deserving of critical reappraisal, The Secret Bride overcomes its potboiler preconceptions to provide a hour and four minutes of substantial entertainment; Stanwyck and William are on great form, and the whole mystery of the Governor’s innocence is played out with such a convincing touch of ambivalence that it helps the material immensely, and leaves the viewer wondering for quite some time, if he really is as guilty as it seems.