'My Dear Secretary' in Classic Cool Context

This Saturday at 9:00 p.m. , KCET brings you the 1948 film "My Dear Secretary," a screwball comedy starring Kirk Douglas as a playboy novelist and Laraine Day as the aspiring writer he hires as his secretary. It's the latest entry in KCET's "Classic, Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, two newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic, Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received "My Dear Secretary" back on November 5, 1948.

Before Kirk Douglas was the go-to tough guy of Hollywood's golden age -- a status solidified by such roles as a tenacious boxer in 1949's "Champion," Doc Holiday in 1957's "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" and the rebellious titular character in Kubrick's "Spartacus" (1960) -- he was an up-and-coming actor making the transition from screen to stage. "My Dear Secretary" was film No. 6 in Douglas's six-decade career. Released just four years after Douglas and then-wife Diana Dill welcomed son Michael Douglas into the world, the film is a window into the early career of one of cinema's legends.

Just last month, the 95-year-old Douglas told The Hollywood Reporter that it wasn't until "Champion" (released one year after "Secretary") that he chose to go for tough-guy roles. "Virtue is not photogenic, so I liked playing bad guys," he said. In "Secretary," we see a different Douglas: the pretty boy protagonist, arrogant but charming. Here's Douglas as the narcissistic novelist who spends considerably more time wooing a string of unwitting secretaries than he does pleasing his publishers:

Laraine Day costars as one such secretary who is confounded her employer's lousy work ethic. Day was a B-movie star for MGM at the time. She flew under the radar throughout her career, never reaching the level of fame attained by Douglas. Her most memorable film roles, like a starring spot in Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent" (1940), came when she was loaned out to other studios. Here's the lovely Day as Stephanie Gaylord in "Secretary."

In both of the above clips (and throughout the film), it's character actor Keenan Wynn who steals the show. The man known for his expressive, mustachioed face appeared in hundreds of films and TV shows throughout his career -- including "Annie Get Your Gun," (1950) "Royal Wedding," (1951) and "Dr. Strangelove."(1963).

"Secretary" wasn't a critical success upon release, when films like John Huston's "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and George Sidney's "The Three Musketeers" ruled the box office. It's also no hallmark of Douglas's career. Watch this video to get a sampling of Douglas's most memorable film roles and his tongue-in-cheek musings on what it's like to be an actor.

Take a Closer Look Back

A lot was happening in 1948 -- perhaps most notable was the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state in May and its war to maintain independence that followed. Interestingly, some of the events of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War were put to the silver screen in 1966's "Cast a Giant Shadow," starring none other than Kirk Douglas as Colonel Mickey Marcus, a Jewish-American U.S. Army colonel who fought with the Israeli army.

In the U.S., despite objections from the State Department, the British government and envoys from Arab states, President Truman made the decision to recognize the Jewish homeland. While Middle East stability was a concern, Truman's top policy objective at the time was containing Soviet expansion. Truman's decision on Israel was the result of considerable pressure from constituents.

Just look at these photos for a snapshot of public opinion in Los Angeles at the time. In the first, thousands gathered outside City Hall to protest the Truman administration's pulled its support for the UN Partition Plan for Palestine.

Crowd of 15,000 outside Los Angeles City Hall protesting U.S. Palestine policy in a 1948 event organized by Zionist groups. Via Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive.

And here, Angelenos celebrate Israel's establishment:

A crowd of 24,000 gathered to salute the new State of Israel in the Hollywood Bowl, Calif. 1948. Via Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive.

Why did Truman listen to his constituents over his top advisors? Maybe because 1948 was an election year, and Truman boasted an approval rating of 36 percent. Just three days before the release of "Secretary," Americans unexpectedly voted to re-elect the incumbent Truman. So unexpected, in fact, that it brought us this shining example of a media misfire long before the advent of 24/7 broadcast news.

By 1948, the McCarthy era Red Scare was in full swing, and public figures were under fire. That year, State Department official Alger Hiss was accused of being a communist -- and later incarcerated for perjury. See the video below to watch Congressman Richard Nixon disclose his findings in the Hiss Case.

Check out this photo to get an idea of how anti-communist paranoia affected local politics. Los Angeles fired 17 city workers who refused to sign loyalty pledges in 1948.

200 key city executives take the first loyalty oath in Los Angeles, Calif., 1948. Via Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive.
In the summer of 1948, Hollywood was mourning the death of a fallen starlet. Up-and-coming actress Carole Landis committed suicide at the age of 29. Landis had a 10-year career as Twentieth Century-Fox contract player, starring in films like 1940's "One Million B.C." She was also the one-time girlfriend of director-choreographer Busby Berkeley.
Two Los Angeles Police detectives looking over the body of actress Carole Landis in Landis' home in Los Angeles, Calif., 1948. Via Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive.

What did Hollywood and its inhabitants look like at the time? Watch this short travelogue video to see: