Secrets is Mary Pickford’s last film. She was 40, and had not met a great success with her talking films, though she had won an Oscar for Coquette in 1930. Nevertheless, she was still very popular and being the leading man in one of Mary Pickford’s films was a great opportunity for Leslie Howard’s career. As he later said, he had been hesitant about the film but then he had accepted the role “because the whole connection was so interesting” (Film Weekly, July 21, 1933). He admired Mary Pickford and Frank Borzage, whom he regarded as two protagonists of the cinema history.
The film was rather unsuccessful. Mary Pickford, in her autobiography, blamed the bad timing. Leslie Howard in the same article, blamed the story: “it is very difficult, almost impossible, to put biography on the talking screen. I, personally, find it very hard to believe in the passage of an enormous number of years when I am watching a film. It was better in the silent days- before the dialogue slowed things up to such an extent you could cover more ground– and, of course, on the stage the intervals, while people talk and walk about, help to strengthen the illusion of the passage of time”.
There is an amusing anecdote about Leslie’s ability as a cowboy reported in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle of March 12, 1933 (view the post Leslie Howard On Horseback):
Cowboys hired for the task had driven 120 steers and Texas long-horns from Los Angeles to the desert, where they were turned over to Leslie Howard and the motion picture cowboys for manoeuvring in front of the camera. At Director Frank Borzage’s command, the head electrician shouted “hit ’em,” which meant, of course, turn on the lights.
But the boys “hit ’em” a trifle too quickly, or something, for the first thing anybody knew the 120 steers and longhorns were in a man’s-sized stampede. Cameramen and behind-the-lines crews scurried for shelter. Yells filled the air and the real cowboys dashed into action.
Frightened onlookers, who expected to see Howard unhorsed and injured in the mad swirl, were startled to discover him riding easily and even taking an active hand in the round-up. And then the cavalry experience came to light.
It required two hours to round up the stampeders, and Howard was in the middle of it all the time.
The young Mary Marlowe has been promised by her father — a rich banker of New England — to Lord Hurley of England. But Mary meets John Carlton, a clerk at her father’s bank: the two fall in love with each other and decide to elope. The young couple move to California and face all kind of difficulties and hardships — they lose their first baby, Jack Houser and his gang attack their house — but in the end they are able to live a comfortable life. Many years have passed, John has become a powerful man and is running for the post of governor. During a party, Lolita Martinez appears: she tells Mary that John is in love with her and wants to marry her. John says the truth: he has been an unfaithful husband, but still loves Mary and doesn’t want to leave her. Mary, who knows everything, forgive him. John is elected and the couple leaves for Washington. Many years later, John has decided to retire: John and Mary want to go back to their house in California and live with their memories of the past– their “secrets”. When their grown-up children try to force them to stay, the old couple sneak away.
Notwithstanding the disjointed story, Leslie Howard favors it, with an excellent performance. He is admirable as the love-lorn young man, and he looks the rugged pioneer in subsequent episode. But one cannot say that he ever strikes one as a man who has clandestine appointments with fast women.
Miss Pickford is vivacious and charming in the New England phases of the picture, but her acting during the hard times in the cabin is not always convincing. She is at her best in the lighter interludes. The Western element in this pioneering outburst is not suited to her.
(Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times, March 16, 1933)
A silent film has already been made out of this play of Mr. Rudolf Besier’s and Miss May Edginton’s, and now Miss Mary Pickford and Mr. Leslie Howard come along to take part in a talking version, which is too long, too slow in tempo, too stereotyped in technique, and unfriendly to Miss Pickford in that it gives her a part she has neither the personality nor the versatility adequately to fill.[…]
Mr. Howard, too, seems to find something in the atmosphere of the film inimical to his acting. As the romantic clerk early in Secrets he finds an occasional chance of exploiting that quiet and not unsatirical humour which is so characteristic of him, but when the film moves West and John grows in years and prosperity his assurance falls away from him and there is no conviction in anything he does. The director, Mr. Frank Borzage, is much too inclined to repeat his effects, and his handling of what should have been the big scene of the film, the siege of the Carltons’ ranch by the cattle thieves, is both too slow and too obscure.
(The Times, New Films in London, June 26, 1933)
Directed by Frank Borzage
Mary Pickford (Mary Marlowe/Carlton)
Leslie Howard (John Carlton)
C. Aubrey Smith (William Marlowe)
Blanche Friderici (Martha Marlowe)
Doris Lloyd (Susan Channing)
Herbert Evans (Lord Hurley)
Ned Sparks (Sunshine)
Allan Sears (Jake Houser)
Mona Maris (Lolita Martinez)
Huntley Gordon (William Carlton)
Ethel Clayton (Audrey Carlton)
Bessie Barriscale (Susan Carlton)
Theodore von Eltz (Robert Carlton)