#394) The Women (1939)

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#394) The Women (1939)

OR “Hollywood’s Ladies Night”

Directed by George Cukor

Written by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin. Based on the play by Clare Boothe Luce.

Class of 2007

The Plot: Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) is a Manhattan socialite content with her marriage, until she learns from her busybody cousin Sylvia (Rosalind Russell) that her husband is having an affair with counter girl Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford). After a series of catty encounters with Crystal and other society women, Mary travels to Reno for a quickie divorce, where she bonds with fellow divorcees (Mary Boland, Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine). Over the next two years, Mary grows from the experience, and learns to fight for what she truly wants. Featuring a cast of 130 speaking roles, all of them women.

Why It Matters: The NFR cites the film’s bevy of leading ladies, as well as its historical significance due to “explor[ing] the new options open to women with the possibility of divorce”. The write-up also praises George Cukor and “his reputation as a woman’s director”.

But Does It Really?: This movie is definitely a minor classic. “The Women” works as a time capsule of gender politics of the ‘30s, and boasts a legendary roster of talent (most of them put to good use), but overall the film shows its dated qualities more than its timelessness. Trapped in the male-dominated classic Hollywood studio system, “The Women” is by no means a bad movie by today’s standards, but does pale in comparison to the more liberated female-driven films that have come in the last 80 years.

Everybody Gets One: Playwright Clare Boothe Luce first gained recognition in 1931 for writing the short story anthology “Stuffed Shirts”. This led to freelance magazine work, editing Vanity Fair for a time, and a series of successful plays, including “The Women”. Her post-“Women” career focused on her conservative politics, becoming a congresswoman for Connecticut’s 4th District, and eventually the U.S. Ambassador to Italy under Dwight Eisenhower.

Wow, That’s Dated: Despite an all-female cast, the poster still exclaims, “It’s all about the men!” The film’s overall attitude towards women and their toxic friendships was considered sexist and misogynistic even in 1939!

Seriously, Oscars?: “The Women” did well with critics, but only okay with audiences, not making a profit until its 1947 re-release. Like many of the second-tier 1939 films on this list, “The Women” received zero Oscar nominations.

Other notes

  • Noted “woman’s director” George Cukor became available to helm “The Women” a month before filming began, when he was infamously fired from “Gone with the Wind” (frequent clashing with David O. Selznick, possibly Clark Gable too).
  • The film begins with a reference in the credits to the original Broadway production’s “triumphant run” of 666 performances! This is followed by each of the main characters being depicted as various animals: Mary’s a fawn, Crystal’s a leopard, Sylvia’s a cat, etc. We’re three minutes in and I’m already calling this movie’s female agenda into question.
  • Rosalind Russell is definitely auditioning for “His Girl Friday”. Her Sylvia shoots out pithy quips like a machine gun.
  • Norma Shearer was one of the few silent film stars to make the transition to sound, and “The Women” is her only sound film on the Registry. Shearer is mostly forgotten today, but was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1930s, and is a confident, engaging central figure in this ensemble.
  • Sadly, Virginia Weidler does not get to spout too many sassy one-liners as Mary’s daughter, but she’s only one year away from playing Katharine Hepburn’s feisty kid sister in “The Philadelphia Story”.
  • I don’t care for this movie’s attitude on infidelity. “It comes to most wives.” In fact, this whole movie’s attitude towards women in general is concerning. Every woman in this movie is either manipulative and catty, or virginal and defenseless. And this is coming from a female playwright and two female screenwriters!
  • Obviously Joan Crawford’s the woman Stephen’s having the affair with: she’s the only one of the perfume girls who gets a closeup.
  • This is Butterfly McQueen’s film debut! “The Women” premiered just three months before “Gone with the Wind” and McQueen’s public declaration of midwifery inexperience.
  • The fashion show sequence was originally filmed in black & white (like the rest of the movie), but MGM insisted on reshooting the sequence in color to cash in on the Technicolor craze. George Cukor hated these reshoots and successfully got the sequence removed from rereleases. The original footage has since been restored, and the change to color makes the scene more acceptable as what it is: superfluous, aesthetically pleasing spectacle.
  • It’s great seeing Joan Fontaine in a role where she’s not a victim of gaslighting. She even gets to do some physical shtick with Rosalind Russell!
  • Having no men in the cast feels very organic, except for the scene in which Mary and Stephen have their final argument and decide to divorce. There’s a clever workaround with the Haines’ domestics eavesdropping on the conversation, but it’s very much a scene in which the drama is told rather than shown.
  • Also dated: ‘30s divorce proceedings in which “children must go with their mothers”. It’s a long time until “Kramer vs. Kramer”.
  • Reno, Nevada gained notoriety in the ’30s for its very liberal divorce laws, making it the most popular “divorce mill” in the country. Eventually, the rest of the country caught up to Reno’s divorce standards, but the Biggest Little City in the World maintained its popularity thanks to its other ‘30s revolution: legalized gambling.
  • This is the movie where Paulette Goddard and Rosalind Russell catfight. That must do it for someone.
  • As we all know, Joan Crawford is great with kids.
  • Gossip columnist Dolly Drupuyster is played by Hedda Hopper, less than two years into her 30 year reign as one of Hollywood’s legendary gossip columnist.
  • Most of the film’s Production Code workarounds are harmless and par for the course, but Crystal’s final tell-off of the women packs a much appreciated punch: “There’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high society…outside of a kennel.”

Legacy

  • There have been two film remakes of “The Women”. The 1956 musical “The Opposite Sex” stars June Allyson and makes the mistake of featuring the male characters. Diane English’s 2008 remake modernizes the story, and did well with audiences, despite being a critical disaster.
  • The original play of “The Women” has returned to Broadway twice: a 1973 revival with Kim Hunter and Myrna Loy, and a 2001 production starring Cynthia Nixon. The latter was filmed for PBS.

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