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Maybe it was considered sophisticated in its day, but The Women is an almost entirely dated show. Its unintended intentions are split between (self) hatred of women and a celebration of pinheaded Park Avenue 1930s affluence that's almost nauseating. But it's an excellent soaper, as they say, and thrills generations of glamour-worshipping fans who revel in the behind-the-scenes fireworks between MGM brat Norma Shearer and MGM tramp Joan Crawford.
Back in New York, a year has passed and Mary's least faithful 'friend', Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) visits the deceitful Crystal, who's installed herself in Stephen Haines' house with the luxuries of Cleopatra, while two-timing him with some cowboy performer. Armed with this information, and her daughter Mary (Virginia Wiedler)'s insistence that Daddy Really Loves Her, Mary finally decides to go on the offensive against the husband-stealer.
First things first. MGM in 1939 was indeed a Peyton Place of rivalry among a bunch of female stars who behaved like cats in heat - for money and the best roles. Norma Shearer, the widow of Irving Thalberg, practically owned the lot, and consistently received the plum parts, whereas upstart Joan Crawford was on a popularity downswing, having established herself as a big star, but never as a great actress. When The Women came along, Crawford had to campaign heavily for the part, which was not a leading role and technically a step down for her. Showing the survival instincts of a cornered animal, she not only got the part, but used the gossip about her rivalry with Shearer to propel herself to the top of the studio again. Director George "I'm not a ladies' director" Cukor did indeed have to put up with a number of stunts, stemming directly from the hostility between the two women.
This kind of spit and spite wasn't limited to the top ... dogs ... on the lot. In the scene where Paulette Goddard and Rosalind Russell have a dude ranch catfight, it's obvious that both actresses were tapped into real resentments of some kind - those shin kicks reportedly resulted in real bruises.
So The Women does crackle with the kind of electricity that comes when rival actors face off on screen. The theatrical performances of the large cast of women can't be faulted, either. The women are differentiated into crude types, and the sensitivity of the show can be monitored from the opening credits that equate each female with a different kind of animal. There's no real respect for people on view, when the un-glamorous Marjorie Main is compared to a braying horse. For the record, the cast is both stellar and interesting, with Rosalind Russell the comedy standout, with her character being both hateful and funny. Paulette Goddard is pert and spunky, Joan Fontaine plain and simpering, Mary Boland vain and foolish. Phyllis Povah has a houseful of noisy kids and comes off as some kind of breeding cow - and one of the more vicious gossips.
Overbearingly ladylike in every gesture, Norma Shearer's Mary has a forcibly softened feminine reaction to every dark cloud and piece of bad news, always showing in her resignation a perverse strength. It's as if she were quietly competing for sainthood. Her life is as artificial as any of the others (pony riding in the morning, home movies for a hobby, domestic tranquility) but she has the inner resolve toward submissive strength, that the play seeks to honor. Joan Crawford has a field day, easily stealing the whole show by being catty and evil in just two or three scenes. Her Crystal is dangerous, and the way she baits Stephen on the phone and bullies Mary during their only meeting selfish and heartless. Frankly, when she smokes in the bubble bath and rails on about how she's not going to let her 'meal ticket' get away from her, you can't help but feel that the predatory, calculating Crystal Allen is a lot like Joan Crawford.
The Women is made with top production values that create that familiar, slightly obscene MGM fantasy where everyone has a white telephone and is separated from common life by a screen of servants. This is the second half of the film's appeal - it brought to life the fashion magazine, society-page fantasies of the time. The women of this story are what the Merry Widow killer Joseph Cotten in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt is talking about when he rants obsessively about, '... useless women, fat women, women eating the money, drinking the money.' These high-maintenance creatures live in lavish penthouses, are waited on hand and foot, and constantly go out in expensive designer clothes to beautify themselves, so as to be in top shape to go out again in fancy designer clothes. The movie stops dead at one point for a fashion show, switching to Technicolor for a half-reel of haute-couture. This is the secondary subject of the film: conspicuous consumption of luxuries, the rich celebrating their ability to live literally on a different plane of reality from common humans.
In a way, the women of The Women are the ultimate success stories in the female drive for security, the drive to make a secure nest for the chicks and to make sure the male animal plays his part, namely, Provide. The play's main gimmick, the fact that the men are never seen and almost never heard, accentuates their status as drone accessories - they only exist to provide all these female necessities - solid names, solid homes, and reams of cold cash to support life at 'the level to which we're accustomed.' Even in Mary's supposedly perfect marriage, their relationship is only a romantic one, a direct thread to a honeymoon experience. The men are off in some other dimension doing the work of industry or finance that these little female creatures have no part of. They're only there to be soft and receptive when their God-men return at night, and the idea is that even the housewife has to be Mata Hari to keep predatory shopgirls from poaching their property. It's a depressing state of affairs. You don't talk to your man, you connive to hold him with perfumes and gowns. Why any man should be interested in any of these reptiles is beyond me, as so few are capable of an honest, down-to-earth statement. Even Mary tends to think in dramatic ironies and operatic emotions instead of simple interpersonal communication.
Okay, The Women is obviously stylized and not a literal presentation - it's a satire of the operatic emotional nonsense, and we're meant to take for granted that the men aren't really that separate from the women. In 1939, there were huge sections of the cities where men really lived at work, and the women at home lived in groups during the day. But the fantasy of The Women, considered a sophisticated show in its time, comes from an elitist viewpoint that denies any realities except privilege and wealth. These are the 'let them eat cake' people. Claire Booth Luce later became an international representative for America for conservative administrations; hers was the campaign to keep films like The Blackboard Jungle from being released abroad, because it gave a 'negative' picture of America to the world. The nerve, to think herself the political watchdog for America's image!
A celebration of the petty, the catty, and the squalor of the rich, The Women ends with Mary set to prevail because she finally (and very unconvincingly) is willing to bare her jungle-red claws and fight for her man in the female trenches. None of this has anything to do with her relationship with her husband, which never foundered, even when he divorced her and took up with Crystal. All those affairs he may be having at work are none of Mary's business. Keeping your man means not talking to him, but beating up on some other woman, whose fault it always is. (spoiler) The hideous last shot of Mary walking up a carpeted stairway to the accompaniment of bells and heavenly choir, arms outstretched in rapture, looks like she's rushing to join Jesus in some kind of religious movie. Naturally you can't show the male side of this dramatic moment, because it's simply impossible. No real man can do, when the idea is to worship the ideal of marriage and male dominance so completely. 1
Warner's DVD of The Women is a solid presentation of this vintage b&w show, with the picture in particular restored to its original snap and clarity. A few scenes exhibit a bit of instability - as if the negative had shrunk - but otherwise the show is in perfect shape, even the Technicolor sequence. There is something to be said for the MGM Look, at least in the most extreme examples like this picture - the porcelain tubs and fluffy white carpets and fancy clothes do create a certain state of terminal luxury. Take a look around after turning off this show. Your place, no matter where you're living, is guaranteed to look like a dump.
Probably with the guiding hand of MGM expert George Feltenstein, the DVD is packed with some interesting extras. There's a trailer, in much better shape than I've seen it before, along with a trailer for the musical remake, The Opposite Sex. Funny, but all the coverage for the recent cable version of The Women doesn't mention the earlier remake. An MGM short subject, Romance of Celluloid - Hollywood: Style of the World tries to give the impression that girls in Des Moines are going to rush out and buy expensive fashions just like they see in those MGM movies. 2 Another short, Romance of Celluloid - From the Ends of the Earth, starts out as a docu on all the natural resources consumed by MGM every year, and turns into a cheap promo for the 1939 summer lineup of MGM movies. A special extra feature, that Turner tries to include when available, is a gallery of original surviving music cues. The Women has a very memorable score, with some playful, fun tunes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Women rates:
Supplements: Trailers, Short subjects, original music cues.
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: July 6, 2002
1. The writing and directing aren't as good, but The Opposite Sex, the later musical remake with June Allyson (the 50s equivalent of Shearer) and Joan Collins (ditto for Crawford) does show the men. Sure enough, they're a limp bunch of empty tuxedoes, with Leslie Nielsen somehow not seeming all that God-like as the hubby.
2. Actually, one of the producers of the Joan Crawford docu Savant cut, assured me that these movies, and clothes-horse stars like Joan Crawford, were a PR engine for popularizing the idea of high fashion, and helping to concentrate it in New York.