One of my latest ventures was to view a handful of romantic comedies of the ’30s and ’40s, many with screwball elements, and you could not broach this territory without eventually crossing paths with Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. They starred in 7 films together throughout the decade and also paired opposite some of the most prominent stars of the era (including Clark Gable and Carole Lombard).
Here are three of their movies, two that star both of them, and one with Fred MacMurray in the lead with another worthy romantic partner:
The Gilded Lily (1935)
It opens on a park bench with MacMurray and Colbert chewing the fat as they share a bag of popcorn. What it does is create this instant familiarity going far beyond the bounds of the film as we’re thrown into their relationship that feels more platonic than romantic.
Thus, it’s not so much about the build-up to a prototypical relationship but the chafing that comes with their differing feelings. He has the hots for her. She loves him as a friend but still seems to be looking for her prince charming.
Prince Charming comes in the form of Ray Milland, a rich British aristocrat who’s come to America incognito. You can immediately imagine the complications arising from the fact Peter (MacMurray) is a nosy newshound and the other man has a secret to hide. They’re still to be cast as true romantic rivals and there’s already a tense undercurrent between them.
Meanwhile, Marilyn finds herself having to choose between two men as Lord Charles (Milland) promises a life of cultured sophistication. But Peter is always there, her ever-faithful confidante, and he’s also not going down without a fight.
He churns up the news mills to turn her into a household celebrity and the whole world seems to know her name. Even Charles is tickled by her world-class notoriety, but this is only a paltry imitation. If it’s not evident already, she needs a man who wisecracks, buys her popcorn, and wants to love all of her, whether she’s a big shot or not.
I’m still a bit smitten by the movie’s public bench premise because it allows our stars to do what they do best: laugh at the world together. No one can break their bond, and it teases out new contours to the Colbert-MacMurray partnership.
Take a Letter Darling (1942)
Although he does have a devoted following, Mitchell Leisen still does feel like a mostly unheralded director in broader circles. Take a Letter Darling is another modest feather in his cap, and it has numerous charms.
The gender norm-bending premise was actually quite intriguing for the era and MacMurray and Russell are more than up to the task of sparring in and out of the office. She’s a high-powered businesswoman who enlists a male secretary who can help her land her deals. He has a very important job: keeping jealous wives satisfied as she trades shop talk with their husbands.
There’s an obvious level of emasculation to the part, and MacMurray is more than game for it as he becomes the laughingstock of the secretarial peanut gallery. You see, he’s MacGregor’s fourth man and she’s running out of options. Still, it’s a lucrative way to bankroll his true passion: painting.
If Claudette Colbert was in fact originally earmarked for the part, I think I’m still partial to Russell in this particular role. I just find her brand of delivery perfectly metered for any kind of antagonistic comedy. And there’s a sense it builds on the kind of workplace dynamics she stirred up with such legendary fervor with Cary Grant in His Girl Friday, between quizzical glances and whipsmart repartee.
I will admit that Take a Letter Darling loses some of its comic edge when it turns saccharine, and the inevitable romance materializes. Until this point, the movie uses its premise to mine a plethora of laughs only to peter out as it makes Russell shed her authoritative business acumen for warm, fuzzy feelings.
However, while the final act can’t quite maintain the same level of comic tenacity, it also doesn’t whimper out as much as I was expecting. Yes, MacGregor wants her man back, but in typical Russell fashion, she crosses paths with him out on the road and comes armed with pebbles. She’s not going down without a fight, and she won’t totally acquiesce. It’s against her nature.
I feel like womanhood, especially in the ’50s, is glazed with this perceived antiquated patina, but watching the likes of Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Arthur, or even Irene Dunne during the ’30s and ’40s, provides a more nuanced landscape. It wasn’t all marriage and motherhood. They managed to grapple with the lives of modern working women in numerous ways. While Take A Letter Darling is no unsung masterpiece, it’s still easy enough to extend the recommendation.
Egg and I (1947)
Egg and I is based on a popular real-life memoir by Betty MacDonald, but for anyone who doesn’t remember it, it’s easy to pitch it as the original Green Acres — a Hollywoodized version of Grant Wood’s American Gothic. The fact it began with source material explains Claudette Colbert’s conspicuous introduction to the audience.
Otherwise, much of the movie is forged through comedy of the situation much like the wacky ’60s comedy with mostly mild and goofy trifles to contend with. The long-standing screen chemistry of Fred MacMurray and Colbert anchors the movie as its most imperative asset.
They’ve bought themselves a dilapidated house that’s riddled with leaks during the first rain. And once they’ve hunkered into their new home, next come the daily rituals that come with tending to a farm, and its livestock. They have lots to get used to. However, there’s also the local anthropological element.
Before the “Rural Purge” in the early ’70s, in deference to more urban entertainment, Hollywood has long mined comedy out of eccentric country bumpkins. Egg and I was no different introducing audiences to the first incarnation of Ma and Pa Kettle who became a bit of a low-budget institution in their own right with Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbridge.
One of the representative moments involves the local hoedown where men of all shapes, sizes, and dancing styles whirl Colbert around the dance floor, leaving her feet sore and her ears talked off. However, her greatest concerns are the advances of a local beauty (Louis Albritton), who her husband must do business with. She’s worried it’s a bit more than business, but if you watch him look at her, it does feel a bit silly.
I found the movie to be a bit too long and a tad more twee than it was gripping. Especially because Green Acres had numerous episodes and seasons to engage with analogous themes and character tropes to greater effect.
However, there are a few rewarding moments. It’s easy to recall the almost deceptively moving solidarity when the whole town bands together to loan the couple resources after a devastating fire obliterates their livelihood. For all their flaws, it’s a reminder of the close ties of small communities, and it makes Egg and I easy to root for even if it is mostly light-hearted recreation.