I’ve had The Women recorded for a while; more specifically it was on my TCM Top Twelve in June. After finally watching it I’m left puzzled. It’s good, but it doesn’t withstand the test of time in my opinion. The eponymous women are all fairly despicable, with the exception of benevolent Mary Haines (Norma Shearer); and while they’re all funny it’s not doing much to say that women aren’t catty, back-stabbing bitches. I wanted a few of the characters to be less black and white, particularly the other woman of the film, Crystal (Joan Crawford). Also, at over two hours, The Women feels like two separate films with the second half being a screwball comedy of sorts. It’s still a great movie, and another in an amazing slate of films from 1939 that remains unchallenged, I just didn’t love it. Mary Haines (Shearer) discovers that her husband is having an affair with perfume counter girl Crystal Allen (Crawford). As Mary struggles with how to handle the situation her meddlesome friends, led by her cousin Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell).
The film has the best definition of an all-star cast, particularly for 1939! According to IMDB, the only top-rated stars of the time who weren’t in this were Greta Garbo and Myrna Loy (although Loy was offered the part of Crystal Allen). The film is entirely all-female, something that I doubt films today could do, with a script penned by Anita Loos. Loos’ script is biting (and that’s an understatement) from the opening frames where women talk about each other, and comment on their appearance in a spa. The opening credits themselves establish a world where appearance is everything and no one is a saint as each woman’s face is juxtaposed with an animal that highlights their personality. The worst, and sadly funniest, has to be Marjorie Main face’s followed by a braying donkey. You also have Crawford being the cheetah, and Paulette Goddard as the fox.
I think what kept me from loving The Women is how exactly these women establish, and keep, their so-called “friendships.” A film like Stage Door, which I reviewed awhile back, proves that a film with an all-female cast (or almost in the case of Stage Door) can create a community of women; one where women aren’t competitors despite being in a competitive field. There’s no sense of community here in The Women. All of the women are hypocrites, and more than willing to throw over friendships for prestige and gossip. Here the worst in women are exposed and aside from the martyred Mary, all the women are either nincompoops or backstabbers. From the beginning of the film the world of the women is established as petty and conniving. The film establishes that Mary Haines’ husband Stephen is cheating on her with Crystal Allen. The reveal is told through a conversation with a manicurist to Mary’s cousin Sylvia. Sylvia blabs it to her friends, and in a phone call with another friend openly mocks Mary’s pain once she hears about it. It’s easy to see Sylvia’s jealousy at Mary. Mary has a comfortable house, prestige, and an adoring daughter named Little Mary (Virginia Weidler), and according to one woman she’s “content to be what she is…a woman.”
It’s said that Loos found Crystal to be the most sympathetic one and I’m not sure if Loos meant in the play or not because Crystal Allen is one of the worst. I did love Crawford in this, especially considering having seen her play a tough-as-nails single mother in Mildred Pierce. Here though Crawford is a brassy street girl trying to be classy. I thought maybe the script would show a balance between the wronged wife, and the other woman. Maybe emphasizing how Crystal is just as wronged, and how Stephen is the one to blame. No, Crystal is manipulative and conniving; the other girls at the perfume counter know she’s fake, and one even alludes to her being a slut. Crawford’s great at being evil, there’s no doubt about that; and she’s verbally on par with Rosalind Russell. If you YouTube scenes between Russell and Crawford the script’s witty one-liners are showcased to great effect. I just kept asking, who’s meaner: Sylvia or Crystal? In fact, the entire second half has Crystal and Sylvia coming together, and creating a backstabbing power duo; however, Sylvia is forgiven at story’s end by Mary and I guess Crystal is left to starve. The second half is Crystal’s story revolving around her cheating on Stephen, and being the wicked stepmother to Little Mary. Although, did anyone get shades of Mommie Dearest when Crystal told Little Mary to call her “Auntie Crystal?” The relationship with Little Mary could have been murderous if this was in another genre. It’s apparent that Crystal doesn’t like Little Mary so it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why the little girl doesn’t like her new stepmother. It’s obvious Crystal is meant to be the new type of woman who doesn’t like children or romance, but come on! She’s written as a cold-hearted, gold digger. I should ask though what makes Crystal any different from the other women of this film? Their all just as evil, so is Crystal’s only tip over the edge that she’s stolen another woman’s man? Or because she’s a perfume counter girl whose made good? Thus why I wish Crystal was a sympathetic character, so that you could explore class differences and other things within the film as opposed to “Women, especially poor ones, are man-stealers and tramps.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum you have Mary Haines; the scorned wife. Norma Shearer is good at playing the put-upon wife although Mary is a sufficiently weaker character than Shearer’s similar role in The Divorcee. It doesn’t help that her mother Mrs. Moorehead (Lucile Watson), tells her to stay “in your little white gilded cage” and is overall cold about the affair. To her, a man’s affair is his way of warding off getting old. A woman on the other hand “when we tire of ourselves, we change the way we do our hair, or hire a new cook, or decorate the house.” I get its 1939 but seriously! When you had pre-Code films that said a man’s cheating should be condemned, here it’s a slap in the face. Unfortunately, Mary is unable to cope with Crystal as evidenced by their tense confrontation scene. Since Shearer has to be pious the scene-stealer ends up being Crawford with her risqué one-liners, “When anything I wear doesn’t please Stephen I take it off.” The second half involves Mary being resigned to divorce, and going to Reno to wait out the probationary period. I’ll get to that segment in a second, but in all this time she never appears to feel like she’s done the right thing. When Stephen reveals that on the day their divorce is final, he married Crystal he should have been cussed out to high heaven! Instead, Mary cries about it, and receives advice that her pride got in the way of her sticking with Stephen and fighting for him. While I’m all for fighting for a man, I’ve seen infidelity ravage a family and pride has nothing to do with it. Stephen is the scumbag, and because we never see him, he’s never held responsible for his actions. The moral ultimately becomes: Women, pride is a terrible thing. Much like the similar ending of The Divorcee, Mary is resolved to fighting for Stephen (conveniently once Crystal’s out-of-the-way) with implication being we’ll get a happily ever after.
The rest of the cast is good no matter the contrivances of the plot. Joan Fontaine (who I had no clue was in this) continues to be the sweet, naïve girl as Peggy. She never knows the proper response to a situation; at one point asking what Sylvia meant about Mary being cheated on, right in front of Mary! Russell is good, even though I found her character to be contemptible. I was most surprised to finally see a Paulette Goddard movie! I’ve heard amazing things about Goddard and here she’s a firecracker. Her catfight with Russell is hilarious, and easily my favorite scene in the film. When Russell grabs Goddard’s leg, and bites into it like a Thanksgiving turkey, you knew it was on! Where Peggy never says the right thing, Goddard’s character Miriam always seems to say something hilariously snarky. My personal favorite Goddard line: “Keep your chin up…both of them.”
There’s a few head-scratching decisions the movie makes that make the serious material a tad silly. The Technicolor fashion show in the middle of the film was a sore subject for director George Cukor, who wanted it removed. It does make the film way too long and simply falls back on stereotypes that women love to see pretty clothes worn on people. You have a cameo from Hedda Hopper that is a blink and you’ll miss moment that makes little sense. I found it hardest to reconcile the first half of the film with the second. The first half establishes the Mary/Crystal dynamic, and how a woman should respond when she discovers she’s been cheated on. The second almost feels like a Stage Door throwback with the Reno community of women. It does yield some funny lines, particularly on the train between a little girl and her mother: “Where’s Daddy?” ”Will you kindly refer to him as ‘that heel?’” We see Mary learn to be on her own, only to be thrust into the third act that feels like a screwball comedy. You have Mary and her Reno friends trying to sabotage and reveal Crystal as a fake that takes on comic levels of ridiculousness. The film starts out blending the seriousness with the comedy, but by the end it’s all comedic and feels hollow.
I liked The Women, but it’s not my favorite film of 1939 by a long shot. It’s just too stereotypical and cliché. The women are either Madonnas or whores, content to hate on each other rather than band together. If you’re seeking a film about women and friendships then check out 1937′s Stage Door. I just found that to be a far kinder depiction of female communities than this film. Maybe it’s because this film deals with the rich where Stage Door didn’t? Regardless, I’m happy to cross this off my list.
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