Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Released at the end of the transitional year from Pre-Code to Code Enforcement, William Dieterle's early political thriller for Warner Bros. has an air of obsolescence about it. Barbara Stanwyck was winding up her studio contract and virtually sleepwalks through her title role, while second-billed Warren William is already a shadow of his proudly predatory Pre-Code self. Whatever interest Secret Bride has is generic; what does a political thriller look like in 1934? This one has some of the paranoid vibe of the classics of the genre, only leavened with very conventional melodrama. The title is a last minute change from the title of the original play, Concealment, to emphasize the melodramatic angle. Stanwyck plays the secret bride of William, the state attorney general. Stanwyck is the governor's daughter, and the couple doesn't want to publicize their small civil ceremony once the public starts clamoring for William to investigate the governor's ties to a corrupt businessman who'd attempted to have an apparent bribe deposited into the governor's bank account. William's crack investigator (Douglas Dumbrille) catches the businessman's nervous secretary (Grant Mitchell) in the act, and new of the businessman's suicide soon follows news of the secretary's arrest. That makes things look bad for the governor (Arthur Byron), despite his denials of financial ties to the dead man. Once the investigation gets under way, William finds in the businessman's paper a letter, signed with the governor's initials, apparently soliciting a bribe. Analysis of the letter and the governor's personal typewriter point to his authorship, despite further denials.

I don't know how typed Douglas Dumbrille had become by the end of 1934, but he was eventually typed as a heel to the point that anyone watching Secret Bride now will automatically suspect that his character is up to no good. That's when the film throws a curve: as Dumbrille picks up his girlfriend, William's secretary (Glenda Farrell, nearly as noncommital in her role as Stanwyck), a shot rings out outside William's home and Dumbrille drops dead. Watching from a window, Stanwyck sees clearly that Farrell, however quickly arrested, didn't shoot Dumbrille. But she can't testify to this effect because -- the horror! -- she'd have to admit that she was at William's house, which would require them to fess up to their politically toxic marriage or face even worse gossip. The only thing to do is find out who shot Dumbrille before Farrell gets convicted, or worse. This means tracking down Mitchell, the increasingly frantic secretary who has to have the key to the multiplying mysteries. Stanwyck convinces him to talk to William, but Mitchell faints and then flees via a fire escape. The chase is on again, but now with Farrell's jury deliberating Stanwyck has no choice but to go to court and exonerate her, however damning the testimony may be to Stanwyck herself, her father and her husband....

There's plenty still unspoilt here, and Dieterle, working from an adaptation co-written by on-camera comic F. Hugh Herbert, spins a slick yarn with an energetic plot despite the lack of enthusiasm among most of the cast. The big exception is Grant Mitchell, who rather easily steals the picture in scenery-chewing support and gives the picture much of its nervous momentum. Dumbrille also does a decent job in an effort to keep his character ambiguous, while Farrell shows some of her Pre-Code spirit in a defiant interrogation scene. But reviewers of the time noted Stanwyck's lack of emotional commitment, while William often seems to vanish before our eyes. Was there something to the story that might have kept the stars interested had the film been made a year earlier, under Pre-Code conditions? It's hard to say, but however disappointing the leads are Secret Bride is still mildly entertaining as a fast-moving conspiracy play. There are worse ways to waste 65 minutes, but later generations knew better how to use this material -- except maybe for the secret-bride part.

If it's from Warner Bros., TCM.com has a trailer.

No comments: