Secret Lives


I don’t know what to make of Claudette Colbert in The Secret Fury.  She plays a threatened damsel here, who’s arrested for murder and then, losing her mind, is locked up in a loony bin.  She played a similarly defenseless dame in a similar film, Sleep, My Love (which I wrote about here), and my reaction, to both films, was the same:  I can’t take her seriously in such stuff.  I keep expecting her to roll her big, gorgeous eyes at those small-time villains waving tiny fists at her, and then unleash her big, throaty laugh.  It’s not that she couldn’t play such helpless parts; she more than adequately does.  But she’s always come across as so sane and savvy on screen, more than a match for any manufactured menace thrown her way.  I’d felt the same watching Katharine Hepburn trying to act fluttery and fey when imperiled by Robert Taylor in Undercurrent—the fragile feminine doesn’t suit her.  Instead, I wanted her to conk Taylor on the head with a tennis racket, then head off for a round of golf.


The Secret Fury itself, released 1950, was one of those woman’s-films-crossed-with-film-noir that studios were churning out in the post-war period, featuring helpless female protagonists encountering madness, murder, mayhem, and messy life situations.  All of which happen to Colbert’s Ellen Ewing, a ritzy-rich concert pianist who’s marrying super-hunk David (Robert Ryan) at a snooty high-society wedding.  But not quite; just when the minister asks if there’s any objection to the pair getting hitched, a stranger pops up, claiming Ellen’s already married, to his best friend, no less.  Sure enough, an investigation reveals a signed wedding license, a presiding justice of the peace, and a maid claiming the couple spent the night at the hotel where she works.  Tracking down the putative groom, Ellen confronts him with her knowledge that they’ve never met—only for a gunshot, instead of a wedding bell, to ring out and the man to fall dead at her feet.  The aftermath, after a grueling courtroom trial, has Ellen sailing over the deep end into a pricey asylum, playing manic piano when not slumped in a catatonic state.

Maybe she should’ve eloped…

The film aims for gut-churning thrills, but I couldn’t take those any more seriously than I could Colbert’s jittery-girl act.  The plot has more holes than a prairie-dog burrow.  Why, for instance, aren’t any of the supposed wedding witnesses called to testify?  Why wasn’t a gunshot residue test done?  And why was the district attorney, one of Ellen’s former beaus, allowed to prosecute her?  Shouldn’t he have recused himself?  I don’t care to do the screenwriter’s work while I’m watching a film (after all, I’m not being paid).  But I found myself here trying to fill cracks and bridge gaps to make sense of the thing, which made viewing the film a slog.  By movie’s end, I felt like Ellen’s aunt, who, after the excitement’s over, only wants to “go rest somewhere and have a glass of port.”  Damn, I deserved it.

Elsewise, I’m annoyed by the not-so-hidden assumption in these hybrid woman’s-noir films that the ladies are too dependent, too ‘emotional,’ to take care of themselves.  Colbert’s first response every time shit smacks a fan is to wrap herself round Ryan’s pecs and call for help.  The one time she claims she can handle the situation, she ends up with a corpse.  (How’s that for management?)  I’ve written about several of these films (here, here, here), and I’ve a sneaking suspicion there was an agenda at work—to persuade all those post-war Riveting Rosies they were now too weak to do anything but head back to hearth and hubby.  Colbert’s character is first presented as an independent woman, with a thriving career and a healthy income.  But we’re soon told that Ellen is “impulsive” and delicate and once suffered a nervous breakdown after a concert tour.  So maybe, the plot insinuates, maybe she had secretly been married before, and then she just…forgot.  You know, one of those fleeting details that get lost in life’s hurly-burly.  Goodness, it happens every day.


Often when viewing such gap-holed narratives, I find myself conjuring up different scenarios to what’s presented onscreen, just to make things interesting.  Like—why not have a story of a lady who’s forgotten a previous wedding ceremony and now, caught out at the second one, is her face red.  Think of the prairie-dog burrows you could dive into with that one.  A scene that had Ellen rooting in an attic trunk for a pair of gloves had me half-hoping she’d discover a body instead (what else are attic trunks for?).  Then there’s the opening, in which bridegroom Ryan, arriving at his swanky nuptials with a U-Rent-It box under his arm (a nice touch), is denied entry to his own wedding.  Aside from the incongruous situation—doesn’t anyone at the joint know who this guy is?—I found myself speculating how this could be a modern, Sisyphean allegory, of a frustrated Ryan perpetually deprived of his marital union, the myth’s rock-up-a-hill changed in this case to a leased tux.

Maybe he should’ve rented a nicer box…


There was one startling moment for me, however.  It came not with the revelation of whodunnit to Ellen (clear from the start), nor of Colbert’s courtroom wig-out, but in a scene of…Vivian Vance smoking in a laundry room.

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For those very young Millennials out there (the afterbirth still dripping from their ears), we Boomers pretty much grew up with Vivian Vance on ever-present reruns of the I Love Lucy 1950s sitcom.  In each episode Vance, as BFF Ethel Mertz, was the passive Laurel to Lucille Ball’s domineering Hardy, sucked into situations both comic and frazzling (check out the famous chocolate factory segment).  Short, chunky, costumed in what looked like Salvation Army rejects (her character’s lack of glamor was a sore point for the previously svelte actress), Vance’s frumpiness set up Ethel’s working-class character perfectly—overweight, overworked, and put upon.  You sensed how her shoes pinched her corns and how her clothes had to be let out.  As Rita DeMichiel writes, it was Vance’s “ordinary appearance” with which the show’s “female viewers connected most.”  Ball may have been the star, but Vance was the solid, modest bedrock on which the show’s zaniness rested.

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And Vance’s first appearance in The Secret Fury, as the hotel maid who ‘recognizes’ Ellen, is very Ethel-Mertzy.  Cheerfully remarking how Ellen and her Mysterious Spouse were “the prettiest-looking honeymooning couple” she’d ever seen, Ethel—I mean the maid—is earthy and pleasant, but a little too chatty for comfort—hotel maids aren’t usually this familiar.  But then Vance’s next scene, as she casually folds linen, had me transfixed.  Despite her drab appearance, Vance is weirdly slutty and sexy here.  Bantering with Ryan, who’s come to question her, her eyes are hard and cool, her voice seductive, her manner both reserved and come-hither.  I’d never noticed before the aquiline curve of her nose, nor how full her lips are.  She also puffs on a cigarette like a true femme fatale—sucking on it as if it connected to some deep, eroticized core of her being.  (“That’s just me,” she says, “the way I am.”)  In a later scene she even strips down to her slip, its fabric hugging her swelling figure like a sheath.  Vance takes a minor role and makes it compelling; you remember her character more than all of Colbert’s eye-rolling hysterics.

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Yet I ask myself:  Was Vance’s effect on me based on her performance alone?  Or on my associations with her in I Love Lucy, and how startlingly—opposite she’s here?  Her actions in this film are unsettling; it’s like watching a private, hitherto unknown film on The Secret Life of Ethel Mertz (I mean…you want to find out more).  I wonder if Ball and Arnaz could have seen Vance in this film before casting her, then deciding that in no way would Ethel act like this.  It’d be an interesting alternative history to ponder.

But then, think…what if there had been a TV series actually called The Secret Life of Ethel Mertz.  Wotta different show that would’ve been.

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Bonus Clip:  A collection of Vivian Vance’s scenes in The Secret Fury, in which she ranges from friendly and concerned, to cool, mysterious, shady, sexy, and just plain…unEthel:

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  1. Thank you for this post on a movie starring my favourite leading lady. Yes, The Secret Fury is problematic for me as well. It is a belated Gothic Romance Film with a noir sensibility grafted upon it. Seeing the heroine of films like It Happened One Night, Midnight and Palm Beach Story reduced to a ‘damsel,’ as you put it, is a distressing sign of the times in post-World War II Hollywood films. Comparing It Happened One Night to its remake-of-sorts, Without Reservations, is as instructive as it is depressing. Sleep, My Love is a better neo-Gothic film because it is not such a genre muddle. I have the ‘Exhibitors’ Campaign Book,’ the set of lobby cards and several posters for the film in my collection.

    • Thank you for commenting! I also found Without Reservations to be dismal viewing, with Colbert reduced to a dithery female. Sleep, My Love does have the advantage of Hazel Brooks in it, an amazing performance as a femme fatale. You make an interesting point about these post-WW2 movies being essentially gothic romances, with the threatened woman, the mysterious villain, and the hint of insanity. I will say, I ADORE Claudette Colbert in those 3 earlier films of hers that you mentioned; she’s utterly scintillating in Midnight and Palm Beach Story! As well as being smart, sexy, and funny!

  2. Brian Schuck

     /  February 27, 2023

    Claudette Colbert and Robert Ryan are indeed a mismatched pair in this one. The first time around I remember thinking the movie was “off,” a strange sort of mishmash, but I was still intrigued by the mystery. Kudos for pointing out Vivian Vance’s small but compelling role. The clip you include reminds me of what I liked about it: it’s almost Hitchcockian with Vance checking the clock then undressing, completely unaware of the foregrounded killer with the wire glinting in his hands.
    And then there are those breathless taglines:
    “The Stranger at her wedding was a messenger of Fear and Evil!”
    “Could she kill and kiss and not remember?”

    • Yeah, I agree, there’s something a little off about the Colbert-Ryan pairing – I think it’s because she barely reaches his breastbone when she stands next to him; plus, her physical structure is all ‘circles’ and his is all ‘squares,’ so they’re look WEIRD standing next to each other. But Ryan was a rising star then, so Colbert would probably have wanted to be seen with him.

      The scene of Vance’s murder is, as you note, Hitchcockian, with even that touch of nastiness Hitch put into his murder scenes (such as Vance undressing when she’s killed). I also like the taglines, particularly the ‘Kill/Kiss/Not Remember’ one, which could be the first line of a new hit love song! Thanks as always for commenting!


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