Roz Russell asks Fred MacMurray to... Take a Letter, Darling (1942)

When I started this piece, I was initially going to discuss the 1945 film She Wouldn't Say Yes, a comedy starring Rosalind Russell as a no-nonsense psychiatrist and Lee Bowman as the comic strip artist who falls for her before he goes to fight in WWII. As I watched the film, though, I found myself groaning more than laughing. In many ways, it typified the character that audiences loved to see Roz Russell play. Her Susan Lane is an exceptional career woman who doesn't suffer fools lightly. While I cheered for her every time she appeared on the screen, the entire film seemed to be against her. She is barraged by sexist remarks and ideals non-stop. Before we even meet her, we hear a male psychiatrist say she is great at her job because of her "mother instinct." When she reveals to Bowman's character what she does, she anticipates his thoughts, saying, "I would have bet that you were of the breed of man who'd object to a woman having a little sense." Bowman replies, "I don't mind, if they don't overdo it." How charming.

Susan's own father never misses a chance to voice his disappointment that his daughter isn't married with kids by now. All of this Susan managed to withstand and brush off with grace and wit. Ultimately, what made She Wouldn't Say Yes unbearable to finish was its story. Despite Susan making it incredibly clear that she has no interest in him on more than one occasion, Bowman's character refuses to leave her alone. He tracks her down to her home, invites himself over for meals, and interrupts her sessions with patients, many times assisted by her father. And then comes the worst part: Bowman tricks Susan into marrying him and, by the end of the last reel, she realizes she is in love with him.

Feeling frustrated, I decided to try and find Take a Letter, Darling, another romantic comedy with Rosalind Russell that I've been dying to see for years. This particular film has been impossible for me to track down, but apparently the universe wanted to be kind to me because I finally stumbled upon it last night. And it was exactly the tonic I needed after She Wouldn't Say Yes.

Take a Letter, Darling presents our wonderful Roz as a highly competent, clever advertising executive who hires struggling painter Fred MacMurray to be her personal secretary. That's the official job title, anyway -- in truth, the term "arm candy" might be more apt. In order to win the accounts of male clients and prove harmless to their wives, Russell's character A.M. "Mac" MacGregor has her secretary pose as her fiancé. The job makes MacMurray's character Tom Verney uneasy -- he feels that the whole practice is dishonest, for one thing, but he is also uncomfortable with how MacGregor reverses the typical gender roles. She dictates how he dresses for their "dates" and then picks him up in her own car. She explicitly warns him that his predecessors have been fired because they blurred the lines and tried to make a move on her. The women in their office give Verney appraising looks and leave flowers on his desk. His family and friends start to believe he is a gigolo. But he endures it all (albeit with clenched teeth) in order to save enough money to live a meager existence in a trailer in Mexico, painting whatever he likes.

This kind of freedom is what MacGregor wants, too. After Verney tells her his plans, she admits in a moment of vulnerability that she always loved writing poetry, hinting at what their future will be after the credits roll. But in the meantime, MacGregor is having a grand time thriving as an advertising badass. We learn that before her partner Atwater's (Robert Benchley) incompetence bankrupted the firm and forced him to promote her, she was Atwater's secretary. While he spends the film playing games in his office, she is the one keeping the firm afloat and proves to be much more shrewd and successful than him. And he doesn't even seem to resent it!


The confident competence of MacGregor is just delicious. One of the best things she does is change from her high heels to a pair of fuzzy slippers whenever she is in the office. There is also a fantastic scene at a boutique where she has Verney take notes in her dressing room while she changes in and out of gowns right in front of him, completely nonplussed that he is seeing her in her underclothes. MacGregor's battles as a career woman are still relevant today, too, making her a character we can relate to, however painful that is to acknowledge in 2019. "A woman in business faces many problems that don't confront men. In particular, she faces the problem of men," she tells Verney. One exchange that actually had me applauding comes early in the film when MacGregor lays out Verney's "many and strange" duties. "You don't know what to think, do you?" she asks. "No," he admits. "Well, don't. We'll get along better," she retorts.


Although MacGregor is a strong, self-reliant woman, Verney struggles to appreciate that. One of the film's most pivotal sequences has the two of them staying at her remote cabin so they can do homework on a potential client and formulate a strategy to snag him. As their conversation becomes more personal, MacGregor feels the need to remind her employee that if he develops feelings for her, they'll have to go their separate ways. Verney assures her that won't happen: "You're a beautiful brain and beautiful clothes. No temperature, no pulse, that's all." Annoyed, she explains how he can't tell her how she feels, especially when it comes to love. "I'm a woman, Verney, more woman than you'll ever know," she finishes. When he then kisses her, she is surprised, but quickly kisses him back.

Afraid of what this new relationship means, she hurriedly goes to bed and then announces in the middle of the night that they're returning to the city. On the drive home, Verney thinks he has it all figured out: "I know what's bothering you. You've worked hard for independence and you're afraid you're going to lose it. You are. But I promise you won't regret it." What Verney doesn't see is that while this independence is indeed a hard-won triumph for MacGregor, it is not reflective of her ability to love or to be swept off her feet. What she has declared to be off-limits is not romance but irritating flirtations from men who would rather see her as a conquest than an equal.

Which brings me to Jonathan Caldwell (Macdonald Carey). A wealthy tobacco magnate who despises women, Caldwell is set up as MacGregor's biggest professional challenge yet. After Atwater fails to win his lucrative account, MacGregor creates an appointment with him, conveniently failing to mention she is a woman. When she appears and he angrily storms out, she tries to act dainty and pretends to faint. When that doesn't work, she becomes furious herself, causing her to demonstrate how well she knows his company before thrusting her ideas in his arms and leaving.


Caldwell admits she is impressive and he likes her ideas, but she needs to get the additional approval of his sister and business partner, Ethel, played by Constance Moore. With the promise of a $10,000 bonus, Verney agrees to butter Ethel up... especially when he discovers she is a gorgeous, enticing young woman. (Perhaps my favorite line in the film is when Caldwell accuses MacGregor of being envious and calls Verney "her man." Her response is priceless: "My man? He's just a bit of hamburger I brought along for your wolf.") Ethel soon invites Verney to the Caldwell estate in South Carolina, where they spend weeks having fun and ignoring MacGregor's telegrams. From there, the film gives us not one, but two delightful developments:

1) We learn that Verney and Ethel's relationship is a platonic friendship and she is helping him to make MacGregor jealous so she will finally admit her feelings for him.
2) Despite his constant complaints about his ex-wives and how terrible women are, Caldwell becomes smitten with MacGregor, confessing to her, "Maybe for the first time, I know what it is to revere and respect a woman. For the first time, and with full memory of the four women I married, I am honestly in love."





Take a Letter, Darling has easily become one of my new favorites. It made me laugh, it had me cheering for MacGregor, and it made me swoon over her and Verney's fascinating, unconventional relationship. It reminded me a lot of two other films I adore, 1940's Third Finger, Left Hand with Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas and 1943's No Time for Love with MacMurray and Claudette Colbert. All three films have similar premises, and also boast lovely wardrobes for the female leads and enthralling set designs. MacGregor's cabin was to die for, while the Caldwell estate was sheer opulence. It's no wonder that Hans Dreier, Roland Anderson, and Samuel M. Comer's art direction was Oscar-nominated. Sadly, the print I watched of the film was pretty poor, so I didn't take any screenshots.

After falling for this film, I've come to realize that I should start counting its director, Mitchell Leisen, as one of my favorites. Nobody crafted divinely sophisticated romantic comedies like Leisen did, and yet we often overlook him in favor of filmmakers like Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder. With works like Midnight, Hands Across the Table, Easy Living, No Time for Love, Hold Back the Dawn, and more, I think it's time we gave Mr. Leisen his due.

A frequent collaborator of Leisen's, Fred MacMurray is great as Verney. While at first he seems too morose and rigid, as the film unfolds, he becomes looser and funnier. He does beautifully with Rosalind Russell, too. In the end, though, it is Roz's performance that sparkles the most. Wry and subtle, yet also fierce and crafty, Roz makes Take a Letter, Darling the splendid, unforgettable comedy it is.



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This is my entry to the Rosalind Russell Blogathon, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. You can read the other posts dedicated to this brilliant actress here.

Comments

  1. Aha! It's a Claude Binyon script. The witty reporter turned screenwriter is a fave of mine. See Sing, You Sinners, Dream Boat, Woman's World, My Blue Heaven, The Gilded Lily, and Holiday Inn.

    All day I shall close my eyes, wishing that when I open them I have been transported to that cottage in the movie.

    I have not seen this movie in ages and I could not have enjoyed myself more reading your article on its fine points.

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    1. Thank you! I hadn't realized what else Binyon did, but wow, he did pen a lot of great stuff! I'll certainly be keeping an eye out for his work.

      Isn't it just awful this isn't on DVD? I couldn't even find a VHS.

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  2. What an absolutely delightful sounding film. I've never heard of it, but you have certainly piqued my interest. It reminds me a little bit of the premise behind the Kay Francis film Man Wanted. And you make a great point about Mitchell Leisen. Until you mentioned it, I didn't realize how many of his films I've seen and loved. Where did you find this movie?

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    1. I think you'd really enjoy it! I'm hesitant to include a link since copyright and streaming are such tricky areas these days. I don't think the site I used did anything illegal, but I will just say that I Googled "take a letter darling 1942 full film" and found it at the top of the second results page. Sorry to be so vague!

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  3. Hi -- I recently discovered your site and find it wonderful. I became an online friend of Esther Williams a few years prior to her death -- I am a singer/songwriter in NYC and she gave me permission to use her name in a song and her likeness in the video I made for the song. I then wrote another song where I sang about my love for the film, "Thrill Of A Romance," and recut the trailer in the video for that song. My long time love was ailing, and "Thrill Of A Romance" was his 'go-to' film no matter what shape he was in. He was also an opera fanatic, a long time member of the Metropolitan Opera Club, so the presence of Lauritz Melchior was a bonus -- not to mention, Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra. I don't know if I can put a link to this video here or not -- will try -- I actually recorded it in my boyfriend's apartment the day that Hurricane Sandy was hitting NYC, but we were 10 floors up and you can't tell how windy it was. Sadly, my long time love died a couple months later, but he was as thrilled as I was to receive emails from Esther and her husband Ed. Ed told me that Esther posted this video on her bathing suit website. I hope you will like it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxdmVLwGZAc

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Hello! What a sweet video! And how wonderful it must have been to know Esther. Of course, I'm pretty jealous that you were able to correspond with her before her passing. I'm sure she and Ed were absolutely lovely. Over the years, she has come to mean a lot to me, so I really appreciate you leaving a comment. It's always great to know that there is another person out there who cherishes Esther and her incredible work. :)

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  4. This sounds delightful - and thanks for the google clue. I’ll be watching it soon.

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    1. You're very welcome! I hope you love it. :)

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  5. Do you know very many of FRED MACMURRAYS movies? He was a very popular leading man in the DISNEY movies. One of them is CHARLEY AND THE ANGEL with HARRY MORGAN. I am a big fan of his show MY THREE SONS where he played widower STEVE DOUGLAS. I only saw the color reruns that had seven seasons. I didn't see the first five that were in black and white. Also Fred was married to the delightful and adorable JUNE HAVER best known for her musicals. She worked with BETTY GRABLE one time. They played the title characters in THE DOLLY SISTERS. Classic TV Fan

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    1. I've seen a lot of MacMurray's movies, but I'm still nowhere near finishing his filmography -- I'm always discovering new films that I never knew he did. I've never seen My Three Sons, but I've heard good things about it.

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