By: Megan McGurk
A fitting room seems an unlikely backdrop to stage a display of female power, except the one in Take a Letter, Darling (1942) will blow your socks off. Rosalind Russell looks as powerful half-dressed as Louis B. Mayer was in a suit seated at his gigantic white desk at MGM. Since a changing room represents gender-divided space as much as the powder room, it serves as the perfect setting to rattle Fred MacMurray, whose character works in a subordinate position as Rosalind Russell’s secretary. Society dictates that men are not allowed, unless they wear a measuring tape around their neck and pin cushion on their arm. Perhaps the director, Mitchell Leisen, recognised the dramatic potential fitting rooms held after years of experience in fashion design. He created gowns for Gloria Swanson, Natacha Rambova and Mary Pickford to wear onscreen. He continued to design (often uncredited) throughout his tenure as director, making clothes for Marlene Dietrich in The Lady Is Willing (1942), Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark (1944), Paulette Goddard in Bride of Vengeance (1949) as well as Rosalind Russell for Take a Letter, Darling. Leisen’s proximity to women in fitting rooms behind the scenes informed his perspective behind the camera, which helped cultivate a sensitivity for what it was like for women who tried to get ahead in a man’s world. Leisen knew how women reveal themselves during intimate moments between costume changes. He also understood that an imperious woman maintains her aura, even when starkers in front of a mirror.
If men in charge repair to the steam room, golf course, or club to mix business, a lady boss unwinds as she chooses frocks to entertain clients. Rosalind Russell’s A.M. MacGregor runs a crack advertising firm while her partner (Robert Benchley) fritters away his time on novelty office games created for the man who has everything (golf putting, puzzles, ring toss, you name it). MacGregor’s concession to comfort in a hard nose pursuit of revenue falls to a pair of feathered slippers she wears around the office. When she learns of a shot at landing an account with a tobacco company giant, she rushes to Francesca’s on Fifth Avenue to equip herself with just the right sartorial lure for the CEO, a notorious woman hater.
When MacMurray enters the boutique, he initially compares with other men waiting for women to emerge from private dressing rooms in the back. Other men object when they hear MacMurray’s Tom Verney receive permission to enter number three. After all, if they’ve seen their wives change a million times, why should they be barred entry? In a whisper, the shop owner explains that he’s a secretary, which mollifies seated husbands, but Verney blanches and replies vehemently:
That’s a dirty lie!