Release Date(s)1987 (October 6, 2020)
Studio(s)Rastar/Universal Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
The Secret of My Success follows the journey of Brantley Foster (Michael J. Fox) from doing chores on his parents’ Kansas farm to his exploits in the big city. With a newly-minted business degree and a good job lined up at a New York City firm, he bids farewell to his parents and sets off to make his fortune.
He soon discovers that his promised job has been eliminated by a corporate takeover. Seeking other employment, he’s told repeatedly that because he lacks relevant experience, no one will hire him. Desperate, he calls on a distant uncle, Howard Prescott (Richard Jordan), head of a multinational conglomerate. Prescott does give him a job—in the mail room. Brantley has loftier goals. He starts reading interoffice memos and recognizes opportunities because of bureaucratic disorganization. He moves into an empty office, wangles a secretary, and begins to make executive decisions, all under the name “Carlton Whitfield.”
The subterfuge requires Brantley to do two jobs simultaneously, as mail room worker and as Whitfield the executive. This requires frequent changes of clothes to duck his mail room supervisor and his uncle while trying to get to know the only female executive at the firm, the attractive Christy Wills (Helen Slater). Things get even more complicated when Prescott’s wife, Vera (Margaret Whitton), decides Brantley would be a nice boy toy while, reminiscent of The Apartment, Prescott carries on an affair with Christy.
With a nod to How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, The Secret of My Success treats its protagonist as a charming, if conniving, opportunist, but adds that the opportunist does the work to learn about the company and make his value known. The farcical elements of the film threaten to derail Brantley’s hopes when his business and personal lives come crashing together in often comically harrowing ways. Through it all, he keeps trying to interest the aloof Christy.
Fox is a perfect fit for the role of Brantley. Energetic, clever, and fast- thinking, Brantley is easily one of the smartest people at the firm, but he must prove himself. His methods are not exactly those of traditional advancement, and that makes him a kind of a hero. He doesn’t play by the rules and succeeds… sort of.
If ever there was a scene stealer, it’s Margaret Whitton as the frustrated corporate wife. On a day when Vera is feeling especially vulnerable, Brantley is assigned to drive her home. Seeing that she’s upset, he compliments her on her beauty, which acts like a balm and gives her a badly needed infusion of self-confidence. She becomes sexually aggressive with Brantley, who’s hardly immune to her charms. Flaunting her body like a fine-tuned Rolls-Royce, Vera manages to put Brantley in all sorts of compromising situations, the most amusing in her mansion’s swimming pool, to the theme from Jaws.
The script makes observations about the world of big business that still resonate. Christy, a competent employee, is nonetheless harassed by her boss and pressured into doing things she knows are not ethical. This plot point underscores a pervasive problem that has come more to the forefront in recent years.
Director Herbert Ross (Steel Magnolias, Footloose) keeps the tone light and concentrates on the comic ramifications of the relationships. A sequence late in the film is pure farce. The company’s key executives, and Brantley (as his alias Carlton Whitfield), are assembled for the weekend at Prescott’s massive Connecticut home. As various characters pursue trysts by night, they slip from their rooms into other rooms, slinking about, evading one another in the darkened hallways, and winding up with strange bedfellows. Edited with precision, these scenes form one of the funniest sequences in the film.
The Secret of My Success is an old-fashioned comedy/boudoir farce in the spirit of 1930s screwball comedies. It’s not hard to imagine Jimmy Stewart as Brantley, Katharine Hepburn as Chisty, Ralph Bellamy as Prescott, and Jean Harlow as Vera. Director Ross and the actors convey a lighthearted spirit. We know that things will work out, but there are obstacles to overcome along the way—mostly comic—which makes for a pleasant romp.
Featuring 1080p resolution, the Region A Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber Studio Classics—sourced from a Universal master—is presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Overall picture quality is excellent, with no scratches, dirt specks, or other imperfections. Details such as Fox’s freckles (seen in his close-ups), water bubbling from a drinking fountain, floral patterns in Vera’s dresses, and details in Brantley’s/Carlton’s office are sharp. The color palette is lush, with Vera’s outfits, the wide green lawn at Prescott’s home, and the light-colored costumes on the guests at his estate being stand-outs. Brantley’s apartment in New York City is dark and depressing, underscoring his harsh introduction to life in the big city. Women’s hairstyles reflect 80s fashion, with the feathered look dominating. Vera, however, sports a different hairdo in nearly every scene she’s in. Carlo Di Palma’s cinematography is a love letter to New York City, with shots of South Street Seaport, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the Chrysler Building, the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, the Staten Island ferry, and the World Trade Center.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 DTS-High Definition Master Audio with optional subtitles in English SDH. Dialogue is crisp throughout, and the mixing of music and ambient sound are well balanced. In addition to David Foster’s score, the soundtrack includes songs by Pat Benatar (Sometimes the Good Guys Finish First), Bananarama (Riskin’ a Romance), Roger Daltry (The Price of Love), Night Ranger (The Secret of My Success), Yello (Oh Yeah), Taxxi (Heaven and the Heartaches), and Katrina and the Waves (Walking on Sunshine).
Bonus materials include an audio commentary, an interview with co-star Helen Slater, and several theatrical trailers.
Audio Commentary – Entertainment journalist and author Bryan Reesman discusses the New York montage that opens the film, an opening common of many films in the 1980s. Brantley’s apartment is actually three houses made to like like one. The interior was shot in a house in Hell’s Kitchen on 46th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. Back then, the street was lined with tenements. Now it is Restaurant Row. New York was a much grittier place in 1987 and doesn’t have the same edge today. The film doesn’t fully reflect how rough the city was at the time. A shoot-out outside a grocery store was filmed on the corner of 46th Street and 8th Avenue. Reesman talks about how common it is for people to live in studio apartments in Manhattan and comments on how gentrification has made living there financially impossible for most people. Brief bios are provided for the supporting cast and Margaret Whitton is singled out as “the most fun character in the film.” The song Oh Yeah, heard when Brantley drives Vera to her Connecticut home, was used a year earlier in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Sexual innuendo is treated in a playful way. Fox is short of stature, a characteristic that’s not disguised in the film. For a number of short leading men, camera angles and platforms are used to make them appear taller. Brantley finesses his way through many situations by deflecting attention away from himself. The film touches briefly on how getting older is a threat to one’s job and deals in more detail with sexual harassment on the job. Key comic moments are discussed, including Brantley’s “symphony of sex,” when he quietly conducts the sounds of neighbors having loud sex, and a scene in Prescott’s house when characters intersect but not in the ways they had hoped.
Interview with Helen Slater – Speaking from home because of COVID-19, Slater notes that when The Secret of My Success was released, it represented achieving the American Dream. Seen today, it can be viewed from a wider perspective. Slater auditioned and received a call back to run through scenes with Michael J. Fox. She was self-conscious because she was taller than him. Director Herb Ross “expected the highest from everybody.” Slater was raised among strong women so she based her performance on her upbringing. Christy is a feminist in a man’s world. She’s smart, “but her love life is a bit of a disaster.” Fox was a huge TV star at the time with Family Ties, and young women would show up by the hundreds at filming locations to see him. Fox was easygoing and warm, which fed into his star power. A natural chemistry existed among the actors. Margaret Whitton was fearless in bringing Vera to sensual comic life. Slater loved wearing her Ralph Lauren-designed costumes.
Theatrical Trailers – They include The Secret of My Success, The Hard Way, Life With Mikey, Gotcha!, and Crackers.
– Dennis Seuling