A screwy at times, outdated in some big ways (and still spot-on in others), and always entertaining CinemaScope parody of Executive Suite, with the women taking center stage this time. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released 1954's Woman's World, Fox's sleek, broad boardroom farce from director Jean Negulesco and a half-dozen top-flight screenwriters, and starring Clifton Webb, June Allyson, Van Heflin, Lauren Bacall, Fred MacMurray, Arlene Dahl, Cornel Wilde, Elliott Reid, and Margalo Gillmore. Aimed squarely at the ladies in the audience (with that title, the guys down to the plant weren't exactly queuing up), Woman's World makes noises like it's saying something about marriage and business and a woman's place in the world, but don't believe any of it for a second. They knew it was cartoony fantasy, then, too. No extras for this unfortunately underwhelming, flat letterboxed transfer.
1954 in New York City's jungle of concrete and steel and glass. Luxury motorcar manufacturer Gifford Motors is a "healthy, happy company" in need of a new general manager...after the old one dropped dead. The selection process for the new G.M. falls on Gifford Motors's arch, snobby owner, Ernest Gifford (Clifton Webb), who summons his three best salesmen/district managers to the Big Apple--with strict instructions to bring their wives for "minute inspection," because the choice of the right man for the job is not just dependent on his skills and ability, but equally upon whom he chose for a wife. From the Great Midwest, regular Joe family man Bill Baxter (Cornel Wilde) flies in with his golly gee whiz tomboy wife, Katie (June Allyson), who just blurts right out whatever honest goll-durned thing that comes to mind, and who's as cute as a bug...and about as polished as the barnacle-encrusted hull of the Titanic. Bill just smiles alot and makes excuses for her. Sophisticated Philadelphians Sid Burns (Fred MacMurray), a workaholic, and his fashion plate wife, Elizabeth (Lauren Bacall), are sophisticated because they're separating, with Elizabeth promising to pretend to be a good wife for the trip only...and then it's splitsville because Sid cares more about a job that's killing him (he has an ulcer) than her. Sid just grimaces a lot and whines for her to stay with him. And Lone Star state couple Jerry Talbot (Van Heflin) and his pneumatic slut of a wife, Carol (Arlene Dahl), ride the rails into town, pragmatically laying out their game plan: he's going to win the position on his machine-like abilities to motivate men and get the job done, and she's
They don't still do this in corporate America, do they? Check out the spouses as seriously as the candidates in line for high-level positions? Considering the degree of divorced reality movies have always promoted, I couldn't even say for certain such practices as illustrated in Woman's World were widespread back in 1954...but the set-up seems right for those times...or more accurately: our now-smug, "enlightened" movie-soaked perception of those times. Of course what's most dated about Woman's World is the notion of "woman as helpmate," rather than as a potential candidate for the top job herself...although a look at the top honchos of the Fortune 500 list might make you wonder just how dated that notion is. Depending on how pissed-off you are, you can also successfully mine Woman's World for blatant sexism (Webb calls the wives, "the prettiest set of tax deductions" he ever saw, before telling them that a wife always comes second to a husband's job). However, getting your panties in a twist over Woman's World's goofier politics would seem to be beside the point--then and now. This is glossy, escapist comedy melodrama, first and last, and unless you truly believe (amusingly like so many overemphatic reviewers today) in things like the Easter Bunny and the movies' so-called power to significantly alter sociology and people's behavior and the Earth's axis, you'll already know that Woman's World largely provided pretty, Sunday newspaper supplement fantasy for its mostly-aware audience--not a primer on how the sexes should interact in business and at home (I'm always amused at how the latest crop of moviegoers and reviewers--no matter what the decade--invariably describe their sorry predecessors as naive dolts who swallowed all that so-called "propaganda" whole).
Although Woman's World's ostensible story crux is which husband will become Gifford Motors's new general manager, far more screen time is paid to the wives' social and thus political (in terms of business) jockeying in service of their husbands' advancement. Broadly designed along established movie stereotypes, these three wives offer up a variety of schematics that the women viewers can like...or dislike, as they pick and choose. June Allyson, enjoying heavy box office at this time as the epitome of the wholesome, spunky, all-American wife and pal, is the viewer identification figure calculated for the widest possible sympathy and appeal (it's no coincidence that her earnest, unaffected, loving, intensely loyal character is from smack-dab in the middle of the country). She's meant to be liked by the audience--a spitfire Dorothy from Kansas caught in the dizzyingly perplexing Oz/New York City. Lynx-eyed Lauren Bacall--too, too chic in the latest couture and indignant at her workaholic husband--is at first cool and intimidating (she tells MacMurray to get lost when he wants sex) and ever-so-slightly condescending as we might imagine a wealthy Philadelphian society woman to be, before she lets her hair down and decides to help Allyson. Her sophisticated suffering is the perfectly safe romantic daydream fodder of the magazine serials of the time. As for the stupendously pneumatic Arlene Dahl, heady and overripe like a Texas yellow rose in the sweltering heat, her surreal parody of a 50s pin-up, bolstered by an avaricious desire to "make it" (in all meanings of that phrase), is at its core an amazingly apt physical representation of spiritual corruption and materialistic venality (the movie makes no bones about her admitting she whored herself to get her husband his business contracts). She's clearly the outright villain of the piece...while at the same time providing a no doubt deliciously naughty little secret fantasy for the women watching: social-climbing feminist power through sex.
By contrast, the supposed objects of Woman's World's primary suspense--the men fighting for the top job at Gifford's--are quite dull. As drawn by screenwriters Claude Binyon (Holiday Inn, North to Alaska), Mary Loos (Mr. Belvedere Goes to College, The French Line), and Richard Sale (Suddenly, Torpedo Run, Abandon Ship), with additional dialogue by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse (Life with Father, The Sound of Music)--with producer Charles Brackett (The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard) no doubt throwing in a line or two--the three male characters form a fairly recognizable (and by 1954 already trite) 50s sociological dynamic. SPOILER ALERT! Van Heflin, the consummate organizational man, has that certain "X+" factor needed to consolidate "family first" Cornel Wilde and "business first" Fred MacMurray, into a powerhouse, unbeatable American business team. Surprisingly, considering the caliber of the cast (both men and women), the men come over as distinctly muted, with an inexpressive, weirdly detached Wilde riding out his final contract commitment to Fox, normally intense Heflin uncharacteristically subdued, and MacMurray so humorless and dour and weak that you want nothing more than for Bacall to haul off and smack him one. Clearly, smooth-gliding director Jean Negulesco is more interested in the women's travails, as well as creating a super-lush approximation of tony Madison Avenue/Long Island (I doubt, though, that he was personally choosing those impressive second-unit Manhattan CinemaScope vistas), rather than seriously exploring any testosterone-fueled, proto-Man in the Gray Flannel Suit angst.
No, whatever fun comes out of Woman's World--and there's quite a lot of it--comes not from the big male stars aping the equally humorless Executive Suite, but from the bright, funny, scheming girls: Allyson, Bacall, Dahl, and Webb (oh relax; he would have laughed at that...in private). Top-lined Webb isn't believable for a second as the owner of a major automobile company (can you see him, even in a peripheral fashion, dealing with the unions and shop foremen?). However, toning down his deliciously arch bitchiness here, he comes over as a bemused ringleader, coolly pleased at how nervous he's making the men, while enjoying the spectacle of the women maneuvering for pole position (talented, imperious Webb knows just the right amount of sardonic sneer to add to lines like, "[Gifford's latest automobile] has been designed to convert your bank account into our dividends," or "Mama had a deadly aim," when showing off a wall of stuffed and mounted wildlife). Bacall's performance suggests real layers (she's believably repulsed/conflicted whenever MacMurray comes begging), while Dahl's scheming vixen is perfectly--if superficially--drawn (watch something like Slightly Scarlet to see how much more effective her rather startling physical presence could be utilized). Most of Woman's World's outright comedy is supplied by June Allyson. It's quite broad and coarse for such an otherwise sophisticated outing, with Juney Pie hiccupping and growling in that hoarse voice about the simple things in life that she so much more prefers, contrasted by Webb's smooth incredulity at the grotesquerie of her manners. It's not subtle by any means, and that "love me because I'm a clumsy bourgeoisie dolt" can get irritating quick, but you have to give her credit for sticking to it and pushing right through without let up. The biggest joke of all in Woman's World, though, may be that ending. One might be tempted to see the final resolution as screwily perverse in terms of perceived 50s movie morality: divorce is offered up as the only option for a successful corporate leader to show commitment to his company. However, the remaining two couples' "happy to be losers" clinches, with love triumphing over ambition, commerce, and personal satisfaction from individual striving, are straight out of Reader's Digest, cannily pre-digested for all the women in the audience looking for Woman's World's expected happy ending.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.