It’s a fair bet that if a film stars Rosalind Russell it’s going to be good or at least have something going for it. A pitch perfect performer particularly skilled at comedy she is one of the most reliable of the old school stars of Hollywood. Her appearance on a cast list means that the upcoming entertainment will be instantly classier than it would be without her involvement.
Hired Wife, originally released in the same year as her better known hit His Girl Friday, is another comedy about romance between strong characters in the workplace. And it’s great fun.
Russell is Kendal Browning, assistant to the CEO of Dexter Cement Stephen Dexter (Brian Aherne). She’s a woman in control, pretty much co-running the company with the awe and respect of her male colleagues. Dexter even tells her “You’re my right hand, I don’t suppose I could run this business without you.” And Kendal jokes later “I guess I was born bossy.”
But Dexter Cement is in financial trouble because a larger company is trying to steal their business, and to protect the company from a hostile takeover Stephen is advised to enter into a marriage of convenience. You’ll never guess who he ends up tying the knot with…
It’s a weird thing when a film made in 1940 has a stronger central female character than some of the stuff being served up 76 years later, but in common with many of the fast talking witty movies of the time Kendal is a wonderfully self-assured character. The relationship between Stephen as boss and Kendal as executive assistant is already one which has all the hallmarks of a married couple – the pair are utterly at ease in each other’s company, speaking frankly and wittily and bickering good naturedly like they’d been lovers for years. Dexter utterly relies on her and he’s clearly not the only character who does – a telling scene when the advertising department deliver some artwork they clearly don’t want to do is a brilliantly understated piece of office politics. Kendal’s command of subtle manipulation, quiet management skills and unspoken power is quite marvellously presented without ever being explicit. When Aherne and Russell are on screen together the film sings. There is a very real and believable shorthand between the two performers which makes their scenes together utterly charming; as an audience you want them to get together.
Thankfully through the contrivances of the plot that inevitability is never in much doubt – Hired Wife has a predictable story but it’s also one which is told with a deft and entertaining hand.
Russell is as brilliant as you might expect and there is great support from Brian Aherne as Dexter and Robert Benchley is wonderful as the put upon company lawyer. Virginia Bruce and John Carroll are good support too, but Carroll playing Latino in swarthy make-up is probably the most unfortunate aspect of the whole film, especially as in most respects it does very little else wrong.
It is a tight, well paced and funny story, beautifully performed and charmingly told.
Hired Wife is out now on DVD and is definitely worth a look.