After surviving my first year as a grad student, most of this summer has been about lazing around, binge-watching shows like Veronica Mars and Love It or List It, and, best of all, catching up on the many films that have accumulated on my DVR. To be honest, I have never felt more stressed about the amount of consumable content that is out there than I have this summer. Obviously, there’s no way I can possibly see everything, but I tried my best and even managed to go to an actual movie theater now and again. There were a lot of misses, unfortunately, but looking back, there were also a few winners, both recent releases and older classics, that I could definitely claim as new favorites that I’ll be happy to return to for years to come.
Two-Faced Woman (1941)
For classic film fans, Two-Faced Woman will always live in infamy as Greta Garbo’s last movie. Many people, including its director George Cukor, believe that its critical and box-office disappointment so humiliated Garbo that she fled Hollywood forever, unable to stomach her first real failure. The problem with the film, I’ve often read, is that it tried to give the “Swedish sphinx” a new, more comedic persona after her great success with Ninotchka, but it strayed too far from the Garbo audiences loved.
Given its reputation, I expected the worst from Two-Faced Woman and not the pleasant rom-com that it turned out to be. The premise is straight-up screwball: Garbo and Melvyn Douglas meet at a ski resort where she’s an instructor; they impulsively marry only to discover how different they are; Douglas goes to New York for business and a worried Garbo pretends to be her own twin sister in an effort to test her new husband’s fidelity. This film is silly and funny and imperfect and I love it. Constance Bennett almost steals the whole thing as Douglas’s chic ex, but Garbo is a delight. As they proved in As You Desire Me and Ninotchka, her and Douglas’ chemistry is electric, resulting in some truly steamy moments and a lot of fun. I guess the moral of the story is you can’t trust what you hear about a film until you see it for yourself.
Where to watch it: In addition to being on DVD and on TCM fairly often, you can find this film, along with some other fantastic Cukor works, on the Criterion Collection’s new streaming service — but hurry! They expire on July 31.
Take a Letter, Darling (1942)
Take a Letter, Darling presents Rosalind Russell as a highly competent 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 has her secretary pose as her fiancé. The job makes MacMurray uneasy — he feels that the whole practice is dishonest, for one thing, but he is also uncomfortable with how Russell reverses the typical gender roles.
Russell is an actress well-known for her roles as strong, extremely capable career women — His Girl Friday, anyone? — and I’d argue that Take a Letter, Darling is one of her best. Its feminist sensibilities are delectable as we see things like Russell’s male advertising agency partner (Robert Benchley) respecting her superior abilities and the women in their office ogling and catcalling MacMurray, much to his confusion. When Russell is accused of being cold by MacMurray, she puts him in his place, making us realize that 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.
Take a Letter, Darling has easily become one of my new favorites. I’ve come to realize that I should start counting its director, Mitchell Leisen, as one of my favorites, too. 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 impressive works like Midnight, Hands Across the Table, Easy Living, Hold Back the Dawn, and more, I think it’s time we gave Mr. Leisen his due.
Where to watch it: This is a very tricky movie to track down. It hasn’t been released on DVD and I can’t recall it ever being shown on TCM, so digging around online is your best bet.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)
No other movie I watched this summer made me laugh harder, or more obnoxiously, than the Lonely Island’s mockumentary about Conner4Real, a fictional rapper who left his group, the Style Boyz, to become a music sensation. I’ve always loved the work of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer, so why it took three years for me to see this film, I don’t know. What I do know is that Popstar deserves all the love and recognition it can get. Filled with absurd gags, gut-busting dialogue, and a ridiculous amount of celebrity cameos (Justin Timberlake’s kills me), this is a film that guarantees you’ll notice something different with every viewing.
The best aspect of it, however, is that the craziness is propelled by the bitterness and sadness felt by the members of the Style Boyz. While Conner reaches new heights, he also becomes more isolated and delusional as his two best friends watch in anger and disbelief. There’s a tenderness to the focus the film gives to the Style Boyz, possibly because they’re played by real-life longtime friends Samberg, Taccone, and Schaffer. I think that’s part of why I’ve been such a fan of the Lonely Island — whatever they do, you can tell they’re doing it with a sincere love for the subject they’re lampooning or the musical style they’re emulating. (Don’t believe me? Just check out their fantastic, and super specific, ode to Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience.)
Where to watch it: On DVD, Blu-ray, etc. The Fox Movie Channel and FX have been showing it frequently the past couple of months as well.
Long Shot (2019)
It seems like in the last few years, the rom-com has been making a comeback of sorts, and I’m all too glad for it. If you ask me, the romantic comedy is one of the most difficult genres to crack for filmmakers. Sure, it’s easy to point out the stereotypes, but that doesn’t make the filmmakers clever. A rom-com needs sparkle and wit. It must feel genuine. It has to have actors who can embody the material with naturalness and charm. And it needs to illustrate a romance that the audience will be thrilled to cheer for.
Long Shot checked all of those boxes for me. Was it a tad raunchier than I would have liked? Maybe. Am I still thinking about it two months later? Yes. When I first heard about this film, I was excited about what the final product could be, mainly because I have a lot of faith in Charlize Theron and her choices. Rom-coms are not always kind to their female characters, but Long Shot and Theron deliver an ambitious, smart, funny, and interesting woman who isn’t defined by a relationship. Her romance with Seth Rogen’s speech writer is presented as unconventional at first until you realize that their superb chemistry allows things to develop in an organic and easy way. In hindsight, Long Shot could be considered the 2019 counterpart to Take a Letter, Darling… which might just be the highest praise I could give it.
Where to watch it: Available on DVD and Blu-ray starting July 30.
IU Cinema’s summer hiatus is almost over! You can check out the most recent round of fall programming that’s been announced here. Be sure to keep your eye on our social media accounts for the latest updates! You never know what new favorite is waiting for you in the fall…
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, she is pursuing an MA in Cinema and Media Studies and has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.