The Social Secretary (1916) A Silent Film Review

Mayme (Norma Talmadge) can’t keep a job. She’s far too pretty, you see, and the bosses won’t leave her alone. Meanwhile, the de Puyster family can’t keep a secretary. They’re far too pretty and get married. You can see where this one is going. Erich von Stroheim supports as a paparazzo. Light-hearted fun but questionable gender politics.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD by Grapevine.

Don’t you just hate it when you’re too pretty?

In 1916, job opportunities for women were growing but there were certain problems for girls entering the working world. For Mayme (Norma Talmadge), she has a lot to worry about because she is much too pretty.

Now looking like Norma Talmadge is hardly a reason to commit hara-kiri but when employed as a secretary, plainness is a protection. Mayme’s bosses view her as a potential wife or mistress and she has to beat off a series of repulsive suitors. She has been fired from or been forced to quit every job she has been employed at.

Fed up with being treated like a sex object, Mayme must either leave the city or find a way to make herself less attractive to her employers. Meanwhile, rich Mrs. de Puyster (Kate Lester) has lost yet another social secretary to marriage. She asks her son Jimmie (Gladden James) to place an ad in the newspaper for a new one. Jimmie archly advertises for a rather plain woman.

Adopting protective coloring…
Adopting protective coloring…

Mayme sees Jimmie’s ad and decides to try her luck at being homely. With her hair slicked down, some unflattering glasses and a dress that resembles a nun’s habit, Mayme applies for the position and is hired on the spot. Mrs. de Puyster and her daughter Elsie (Helen Weir) love Mayme and Jimmie is confident that his mother will not lose this secretary to marriage. Then Mayme’s cover is blown.

Jimmie returns from a late night bender and is so drunk that he crashes around the house. Mayme thinks he’s a burglar and, not bothering to put on her ugly disguise, hurries downstairs to catch the intruder. Jimmie and Mayme recognize each other and Jimmie makes a grab for her. If Mayme is an expert on anything, it’s evading lechers. She slips away and hides in her bedroom.

The next morning, Mayme packs her belongings and goes downstairs to give notice. Jimmie doesn’t want her to go so he pretends that he does not remember what happened the night before. After that, he makes it his ambition to win Mayme’s heart. Two obstacles stand in their way. The first is the Buzzard (Erich von Stroheim), a paparazzo determined to publish the tale of Jimmie de Puyster’s affair with his mother’s secretary.

Mom! Eric von Stroheim's hiding in the bushes again!
Mom! Eric von Stroheim’s hiding in the bushes again!

The second is the Count (Herbert French), a European nobleman and one of Mayme’s former employers. He has targeted Elsie and means to marry her for her fortune. Mayme can’t expose him without exposing her own deception. Mayme must find a way to evade the Buzzard, foil the Count and still keep Jimmie.

Of the Talmadge sisters, Norma was known as the dramatic actress and Constance was the comedienne. Norma’s comedic turn in The Social Secretary is a rare treat. Largely forgotten today, Norma Talmadge was one of the first ladies of the silent screen, ranked with Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish and Gloria Swanson. Few of her films are available for modern viewers and we are fortunate that The Social Secretary survived to showcase her versatile charm.

Mayme as she really is.
Mayme as she really is.

The Social Secretary focuses on the very real problem of workplace harassment. Nowadays, victims have some (often just a small amount of) legal recourse but in 1916, it was a man’s world. You can see this attitude plainly on display in the film. Mayme is the one who must change jobs, the men are not forced to change their behavior. Similarly, Jimmie’s mother blames the secretaries’ beauty for her son’s tomcat ways. With such loveliness, how can he be expected the keep his hands to himself? Heaven forbid she actually control her workplace. And don’t even think about the son managing to control himself! This blame-the-victim attitude is sadly still alive and well today.

Mayme is a strongly independent character who refuses to allow herself to be victimized by the unfair workplace practices of her time. With that in mind, it is a little disappointing that she enters into a love affair with Jimmie. A shallow young man who had no interest in her until he realized she was pretty, Jimmie is as bad as the other bosses who pursued Mayme. He’s just younger and more attractive. But, then again, the script was co-written by the Anita Loos, who could scribble some real doozies of sexism.

Erich von Stroheim: “Cackle, cackle!”
Erich von Stroheim: “Cackle, cackle!”

Erich von Stroheim shows up in yet another of his early villain roles. During WWI, von Stroheim was the ultimate Hun, cartoonishly wicked.The Social Secretary does not ask him to attack Red Cross nurses or throw babies out a second-story window (both of which he does in The Heart of Humanity) but he does practically salivate at the prospect of ruining reputations and spreading slander. Only von Stroheim could pull off such a hammy performance. But imagine how much more fun it would have been if he had played the debauched Count instead?

The Social Secretary is an okay introduction to the talents of Norma Talmadge, the biggest forgotten star of the silent era. While its attitudes can make modern viewers a little queasy, the film does give Talmadge a chance to show her versatility.

social secretary image (4)

Where can I see it?

Grapevine Video released The Social Secretary on DVD as a double feature with The Forbidden City. The film is also available as a budget release from Alpha. I have not viewed this version but, like all Alpha titles, it is dirt cheap.