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Barbara Stanwyck's early 1930s contract with Warner Brothers started well enough, with the Edna Ferber adaptation So Big! (1932) and her tough-as-nails Depression babes in Ladies They Talk About (1933) and Baby Face (1933). Within a year, however, she would find herself dissatisfied with the fare the studio was throwing her way, pictures that were only slightly elevated from quickie programmers. Released just before Christmas 1934 but not getting widespread play in most theaters until the following year, The Secret Bride at least had the advantage of a mildly intriguing mystery plot, a good supporting cast that included Warren William and Glenda Farrell, and effectively fast-paced direction from William Dieterle. But Stanwyck was wasted in the role of the daughter of a governor who must conceal her marriage to a district attorney while they try to clear her father's name in a bribery scandal.
Under the working title Concealment (the name of the play it was based on), the script had plenty of melodramatic details in the form of murder, suicide, and false accusations, and the talented Dieterle works valiantly to give the picture visual and rhythmic interest by way of a restless, probing camera, fast editing, and some striking low angles. Nevertheless, he and his star were less than enthusiastic about the project. As he said later: "The work on the film...was not very pleasant. The script was bad. I could not refuse it for contractual reasons. Why Miss Stanwyck did not reject the script, as Bette Davis would have done, I can only guess. She was not happy at Warners and wanted to get out of her contract as quickly as possible. Of all the films I directed, Concealment [sic] is the picture I don't like to think about any more."
Stanwyck made one more picture under her Warners contract, The Woman in Red (1935), then happily left the studio for bigger and better things. She freelanced quite successfully for every one of the other major studios and didn't return to Warner Brothers until Meet John Doe (1941), largely for the chance to work again with one her favorite directors, Frank Capra.
With this film, Stanwyck's co-star, Warren William, began his descent from his success in pre-Code pictures, usually as a conscienceless rogue, often playing cold-hearted, shady lawyers and businessmen. Seen today, with his patrician bearing, sharp profile, and somewhat oily demeanor, William strikes us as a kind of bargain-basement John Barrymore, but his rich, mellifluous voice made him a natural for the early days of talkies. After prominent roles in the classic musical Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Frank Capra's Lady for a Day (1933), and the original Imitation of Life (1934), William slid into a series of B or nearly B pictures. In real life, we was a rather shy and unostentatious man and an inventor with multiple patents to his credit, including his design of one of the first recreational vehicles, which he reportedly developed so he could continue to sleep comfortably while being driven to the studio for work. He made his last screen appearance in 1947 and died the following year of multiple myeloma at only 53 years old.
Although she gives her usual best, Stanwyck has to be content with playing the society woman whose subdued nature only gets a workout in her efforts to defend her father ("playing a man's game with the heart of a woman" the trailer's tagline said). The role of the sharp-tongued secretary--the kind of image Stanwyck projected in her earlier Warners pictures--goes to Glenda Farrell, the perpetual second-stringer who made a name for herself in hard-boiled supporting roles and as the fast-talking (reportedly 390 words per minute) reporter Torchy Blaine in a series of films based on the character.
Another participant in this production who would rise to far greater heights is cinematographer Ernest Haller, who started with First National Pictures in 1926 and stayed on when that studio became absorbed by Warner Brothers in 1930. Although at this point Haller's work hadn't achieved much distinction, he would soon be highly sought after following his cinematography of Captain Blood (1935) and the Bette Davis costume drama Jezebel (1938). His Academy Award nomination for that epic of the Old South might have been at least in part responsible for getting him the plum assignment on Gone With the Wind (1939), which brought him an Oscar®. He was nominated five more times, including Mildred Pierce (1945) and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), one of 13 pictures in which he photographed Bette Davis. This was his third and last film with Stanwyck.
Dieterle went on to a long career distinguished by his work on several of the major historical biographies produced at Warners and starring Paul Muni or Edward G. Robinson. His most notable work, a pet project produced by his own company, was the period fantasy The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941).
Director: William Dieterle
Screenplay: Tom Buckingham, F. Hugh Herbert, and Mary McCall Jr., based on the play Concealment by Leonard Ide
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Editing: Owen Marks
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Ruth Vincent), Warren William (Robert Sheldon), Glenda Farrell (Hazel Normandie), Grant Mitchell (Willis Martin), Arthur Byron (Governor Vincent).
by Rob Nixon