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The first two seasons of CinemaScope movies were mostly adventure films exploiting the format's ability to splash mountain vistas and foreign landmarks across ultra-wide cinema screens. Following in the successful footsteps of Fox's How to Marry a Millionaire was 1954's Woman's World, produced by Billy Wilder's former writing partner, Charles Brackett. After the Mexican locations for the C'Scope Garden of Evil, Woman's World could almost be called a budget production. The actors stayed in Hollywood while aerial stock shots and background plates established New York as the glamorous hub of high-style living.
1954's Woman's World is an unabashed women's film whose main appeal is the opportunity to plumb the attractive couples on view, with sidebar interest in fancy dresses. During this time of the studio system breakup we have one bona fide Fox contractee (Clifton Webb) and a gallery of top names formerly attached to Fox, MGM and Paramount. The appeal for this writer is the film's secondary status as a 1950s "Gray Flannel Suit" movie. That's a made-up genre name I've attached to pictures aware of the new postwar Organization Man syndrome. Companies are growing and becoming more powerful as America expands its economic forces into the global gap left by defeated enemies and exhausted allies. With business being conducted on a more scientific basis, these giant companies based in New York skyscrapers require more high-powered executive personnel. The men chosen for the task have more stressful demands placed on their private lives. Are they too busy for normal relationships with wives and families? Should a man that Wants To Rise in the System choose a wife not for love but for her social status or skill as a hostess? 1
Smoothly directed by Jean Negulesco, Woman's World was pushed into shape by five screenwriters, who make every judgmental thought in the simpleminded story crystal clear. When compared to other movies about executives climbing the company ladder the movie is fairly silly stuff. But the seven stars in the cast prevent things from becoming dull.
Millionaire owner of the Gifford Motor Company Ernest Gifford (Clifton Webb) must replace his top man, a general manager who has succumbed to job pressure and died while in harness. Gifford summons his three top regional salesmen to New York for a four-day visit, with their wives as well. His plan is to scrutinize the spouses as much as the men, for only the right combination will keep the company successful. They tour an assembly line and a design studio, but Gifford also arranges a series of encounters -- formal dinners, receptions, a boat cruise -- at which he can observe his candidate couples. Honest Bill Baxter (Cornel Wilde) has good judgment and isn't afraid to contradict the big boss when he feels he's right. He also has an open and harmonious relationship with his wife Katie (June Allyson). By most measures Katie is a real liability. Nervous under social pressure, she trips up in verbal flubs and humiliating accidents. Amazingly, Bill isn't at all dismayed. His wife comes first, even if her awkwardness forces him to interrupt Mr. Gifford to make a hasty exit. The
ambitious Sid Burns (Fred MacMurray) has worked his way up from the factory floor He desperately wants the job, even though it might jeopardize his health. Sid is more of a yes-man but has solid qualifications. Unfortunately, he's neglected his wife Elizabeth (Lauren Bacall), a classy, intelligent woman adept in all social situations and cool under fire. Elizabeth must hide her resentment of Sid. She no longer believes he loves her, and is fearful that he'll work himself to death. She's considering a divorce. Texan Jerry Talbot (Van Heflin) is sincere in his greetings to the New York people and doesn't push himself until asked to give opinions. Then he talks about an "X-plus Factor", a mysterious quality that he thinks the right man for the job needs to have. He's also eager to take on new challenges. Unfortunately for Jerry, his wife is a disaster. Carol Talbot (Arlene Dahl) is dazzlingly beautiful but terribly obvious when she tries to flatter Ernest Gifford, a playboy from way back. Her poor judgment and vanity are on display as much as her neckline. She thinks that she's helped Jerry to become a regional manager and that he needs her help to get this job. Elizabeth and Katie are shocked at Carol's behavior toward their host. As Elizabeth would rather see her husband lose the big job sweepstakes, she helps Katie secure a fancy designer dress at a Manhattan discount free-for-all store, where women fight over purchases. When they meet Ernest Gifford's friendly sister, society matron Evelyn Andrews (Margalo Gillmore), Katie learns more about the duties of being the wife of a top Man Of Industry.
Woman's World sets itself up to offer insights about the American rush toward success. Other Gray Flannel epics concentrate on internecine backstabbing and dirty tricks, or good people being held back by a bureaucracy that allows jealous vendettas. This show assumes that Big Business is a smooth-running machine that rewards the best and the brightest. Gifford Motors is a dandy place in all respects. Sid Burns hasn't left any resentful losers behind him as he rose in the ranks. Jerry Talbot and Bill Baxter aren't pulling any financial shenanigans or running their regional dealership territories like terror organizations. Ernest Gifford's motives are right out in the open - he simply wants the best so he can continue his wealthy lifestyle. The show is aware of class differences in our supposedly classless society, but it has no real political dimension.
No, the movie is only really concerned about the domestic equation. Rather than simply check for stability in his candidates, kingmaker Ernest Gifford takes it upon himself to judge them as a domestic-executive team. Considering the elevated social status of his sister, we might expect Ernest to check up on the wives' backgrounds, where they went to school, their place in the social register, etc. Although his general manager is a front-line problem solver, Gifford expects him to have an executive-class wife. This would seem to put Katie at a horrible disadvantage, as her social skills are the homey neighborhood type. As personified by the Ultimate '50s Wife June Allyson, Katie is the favored underdog for the film audience. Lauren Bacall's slick Elizabeth is in some ways Too Cool for School, while Arlene Dahl is directed to play Carol as a garish embarrassment, behaving like Rita Hayworth in heat.
The domestic scenes bring out the harmony between the Baxters, the marital disconnect in the Burns' hotel room and poor Jerry Talbot's unawareness of his wife's slummy behavior. Bill and Katie's home life must be heaven, a harmonious relationship where work and home don't conflict. Elizabeth considers leaving Sid if he takes the job, as she doesn't want to see him die. Everything is exaggerated but only the Talbots lack credibility. Carol Talbot's vamp shenanigans have been going on for a long time, and they're painfully obvious. Jerry's ignorance of them doesn't reflect well on his judgment.
When Katie and Elizabeth go to the off-the-rack designer's cast-off sale, we see the kind of guerilla spirit by which 'sophisticated' women like Elizabeth navigate a society where being glamorous is all-important. The women are introduced as 'wives', often without their first names being used. They're really meant to be Super Trophies, and the compliments they hear refer almost exclusively to their attractiveness. Only once or twice do we hear that Elizabeth and Katie have children back home. The film's title is really a terrible lie. Instead of a globe behind the main title, we ought to be seeing a golden cage.
It's a new social dynamic. What with College Aid to veterans, etc., there's been a slight leveling of the playing field after WW2, at least for educated white males. Those big new companies and corporations have exhausted the Upper Crust and must recruit from the ranks of the gifted middle class. A lot of men can figure out how to buy a suit, get a good haircut and learn some manners, but the women will find real social barriers in their path. Woman's World acts as if the winners of the Big Job will be lifted into a new level of American Royalty paved with luxuries and servants. It's literally the Town & Country / horse & polo set, which is capable of cruelly refined levels of snobbery. If old Mrs. Andrews likes Katie and wants to invite her to garden parties, a lot of education will be required. Heck, even Elizabeth would be checking her etiquette books -- what if she had to play hostess to a Royal personage like Jackie Kennedy?
Unsung director Jean Negulesco elicits good work from everyone, even if the scenes of June Allyson spilling things and knocking over tables seem better suited to a Monty Python skit. Poor Katie even burps and belches her way through a speech by Big Boss Gifford, which by all rights should be followed by a huge close-up of her name being X'd off the list of acceptable executive wives. With Negulesco's help, Arlene Dahl's cozying up to Ernest Gifford isn't as icky as it sounds. And Cornel Wilde seems quite comfortable playing against type as a softie from the Midwest. Bill Baxter must be a saint, as Katie makes Lucy Ricardo seem like Emily Post.
Lauren Bacall is smooth as silk, while Fred MacMurray comes off as a real stiff, a quality Billy Wilder would exploit in The Apartment. Clifton Webb is Clifton Webb. An unintentionally humorous scene has Gifford showing off displays of animals shot by his relatives on various safaris. When we get to his personal wall, all Ernest has is a gallery of women's photos, presumably showgirls. Webb turns around with a satisfied look on his face, but he's not fooling anybody. 2
The 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives DVD of Woman's World is pretty much everything that's objectionable about the company's branded line of library DVDs. Originally in the first bunch of CinemaScope releases, its aspect ratio should be 2.55:1 and its sound stereophonic. Fox gives us a flat-letterboxed transfer that looks pretty good --- for 1990. Slightly cropped to 2:35, if you try to fill the screen for a widescreen monitor, you'll have to enlarge the show to fit, making the image unacceptably fuzzy. Watching it flat-pillarboxed is the only way to go, as the poor resolution at least holds together. Unfortunately, that leaves the viewer with a Scope-shaped slot surrounded by black on all four sides. It's like looking at the movie on a drive-in screen ... a hundred yards away.
Early CinemaScope's uneven visual field becomes evident every time the camera pans. Objects and people distort as if reflected in a subtle funhouse mirror. Nobody gets very close to the camera and most shots alternate between wide views of a room, with characters spread across the screen, or slightly closer medium shots. Colors are just so-so and the poor resolution can't do much with such small faces in wide shots. I guess we should be grateful that the actors lean toward broader facial expressions most of the time. We have no trouble understanding June Allyson when she belches like a truck driver.
The 20th Fox Cinema Archives puts out some very good discs, and many are new transfers. But I've been wary of their C'Scope releases, many of which end up looking as bad as this. I daresay a DVR recording from a cable channel would look just as good, if not better. If the company were more selective in the technical quality of their releases, they'd have built up a loyal following by now.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Woman's World rates:
1. The films I'm talking about that I can recall at the moment are The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Patterns (Of Power), Executive Suite, The Power and the Prize, The Young Philadelphians, as well as lighter pictures like The Apartment,
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.
The movie shows us some of Gifford Motors' experimental 'concept car' designs, which are really from Ford. A model of a sedan parallel-parks by dropping a jack with four wheels, and crabbing sideways into the space. The script has Clifton Webb say that the idea will be implemented as soon as the cost comes down. We're instead thinking, if Detroit in the 1950s thought that safety glass and seat belts were too expensive to become standard equipment, gimmicks like the parking trick haven't a chance.
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T'was Ever Thus.