Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees sharpens up her claws to join in this classic catfight.
"There's a name for you ladies, but it isn't used in high society—outside of a kennel."
The year is 1939. George Cukor, the brilliant "women's" director, has just been sacked from Gone with the Wind. What's next? Why, directing all the Scarlett also-rans in the film version of the runaway hit stage play by Clare Booth Luce, The Women. It's got a great gimmick—the huge cast is comprised entirely of women—and some of the snappiest dialogue this side of the Algonquin round table, thanks to the screen adaptation by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin. The result: one of the fastest, bitchiest, outright funnest films of Hollywood's golden age. Park your political correctness at the door—and get ready for a fabulous catfight.
Facts of the Case
Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) seems to have a perfect life. She has a wealthy, loving husband, a daughter (Virginia Weidler, The Philadelphia Story) who adores her, a house in town and a house in the country, and all the advantages that money, social status, and beauty can bring her. Unlike her friends, other leisured wives of wealthy men, she loves her life as wife and mother and wishes for nothing more. So it rocks her contented world to its foundations when she discovers that her husband, Stephen, is having an affair. In spite of her mother's (Lucile Watson) advice to "keep still" and wait for it to blow over, she succumbs to the malicious meddling of her gossipy cousin Sylvia (Rosalind Russell, His Girl Friday) and confronts the other woman: a cunning salesgirl named Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford, Grand Hotel), who sees in Stephen Haines a way to climb into a loftier—and richer—social sphere.
Crystal isn't going to give up her meal ticket without a fight, though, and soon Mary finds herself on the train for Reno, Nevada, accompanied by unhappy newlywed Peggy (Joan Fontaine, Rebecca), to get a divorce. En route she makes new friends who give her a different slant on men and marriage from that of her bored Park Avenue circle: the much-married Countess de Lave (Mary Boland), a hopeless romantic despite her poor track record with men, and especially the worldly-wise showgirl Miriam Aarons (Paulette Goddard, Reap the Wild Wind), who tells Mary that she should be holding her ground instead of sacrificing her marriage for the sake of pride. But is it too late for Mary to learn how to fight Crystal on her own terms?
Somewhere in the back of my mind while I watch this movie, while I laugh myself dizzy and recite my favorite lines along with the characters, I have a feeling I shouldn't enjoy it as much as I do. I shouldn't get such a kick out of a movie that portrays women as being incapable of thinking about anything but men and how to get them—away from each other, if possible. Some strong pioneer-woman ancestress of mine must be looking down on me from the ether with her arms folded in disapproval, shaking her head at me in disgust. "Really," scolds my phantom feminist, "isn't this the kind of stereotype we've fought so hard to overcome?"
"Oh, go marcel your hair," is my response. "Get a facial. Lighten up!"
So help me, I love this movie. I love hissing the villainess as she works her evil wiles and cheering when she gets her eventual comeuppance. I love it when brave, brokenhearted Mary finally learns to grow claws ("jungle red!"). I love the knock-down catfight where Rosalind Russell bites Paulette Goddard. I love it when the action stops entirely for a Technicolor fashion show that exists for absolutely no reason. Love it!
Perhaps one reason I've never been worried about any negative messages the film may send about women is that it makes clear from the get-go that it's not aiming for realism. As soon as the opening credit sequence introduces us to the main characters by showing them as animals (Mary is a deer, Sylvia a cat, Miriam a fox, and so on), it's obvious that the story is going to be drawn in broad strokes. Some have complained that presenting the characters as animals is demeaning to women, but for me it serves as a reminder that what I'm watching is a work of fiction, and one that relies on exaggeration for comedic effect. It's also worth noting that the characters we are invited to find ridiculous are the wealthy women of leisure who can find nothing better to do with their time than gossip, and who look upon a friend's marital troubles as a spectator sport. Since this is just one small stratum of women, I don't feel offended by the mocking presentation of them.
If you start trying to analyze the messages the film is sending about women's roles and how they should (and should not) react to a philandering spouse, it's easy to become uncomfortable; after all, this was a movie made during the Production Code era, so you know right away that it's going to reinforce the accepted wisdom that philandering in a man should and must be forgiven, and with as little fuss as possible. The advice that's given to Mary by her mother (ride it out) and Miriam (deploy counter-seduction measures) may seem terribly dated today. What's remarkable, though, is that the film doesn't soft-pedal the real pain that her husband's cheating causes Mary. It at least validates women's unhappiness at men's adultery before reiterating the party line.
Fortunately for purposes of entertainment, that unhappiness is more than balanced by a constant stream of snappy comedy; the film ends up being a very satisfying mixture of cathartic weepiness and gleeful, often downright snarky hilarity. Mood swing theater: the perfect women's film! The screenplay by Anita Loos (author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and Jane Murfin deserves special mention not only for its endless succession of tart, quotable lines but also because it improves considerably on the parent work. If you saw the televised broadcast of the 2001 Broadway revival of the stage play with Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Johnson, et al., you know that the play definitely had its moments…but not nearly as many as the film. In particular, the role of homewrecker Crystal Allen was much expanded for the screen, and it ended up being one of Crawford's best roles and the launching point for a whole new era in her career: From the plucky shop girl who makes good in a Cinderella plot, as in so many of her movies from the '30s, she metamorphoses into a ruthless "beazel" who's out for all she can get—and using every powerful weapon at her disposal. Crawford is pitch-perfect (or should that be "bitch-perfect"?) as she alternates between faux gentility and the tough, slangy golddigger she is at heart. The scene in which she cooingly manipulates Steven Haines over the phone while muttering threats at a nosy coworker ("So help me, I'm gonna slug you!") is a tour de force. Since this became one of Crawford's best and best-remembered roles, it's all the more surprising in retrospect that Louis B. Mayer was worried that it would ruin her. He tried to get the film's ending changed to soften Crystal and make her more sympathetic; he even attempted to replace the daring sequined dress she wears in that scene, feeling it was too vulgar. Fortunately he was overruled both times, and Crystal Allen was never watered down to court audience sympathy.
Besides Crawford's, the performance that many viewers will remember most is that of Rosalind Russell as viper-tongued Sylvia Fowler. Like Crawford, Russell was changing gears with this film; it's amazing now, considering how masterly is her mile-a-minute comic performance here and in later films like His Girl Friday, to recall how many stiffly aristocratic roles she was cast in earlier in her career. Sure, she looks elegant in earlier movies like The Suicide Club, but she doesn't really seem to come to life until she loses her cool and starts darting around like an ungainly ostrich, eyes a-goggle, all elbows and knitting needles. Even her costumes in The Women have an ungainly or askew quality, whether it's a hat or bustle flying off at an odd angle or the large glass eyes adorning one especially bizarre dress. Russell completely throws herself into the appalling Sylvia, and she just about steals the film.
Speaking of the costumes, legendary designer Adrian has outdone himself here. In The Women he set about to prove that contemporary costume designs could enhance character, and he proved it—not only with Sylvia's eccentric ensembles but with Crystal's midriff-baring sequin dress, which showed off her low-class boldness and sex appeal, and the Western-themed sportswear for the Reno scenes, which show the city-bred characters trying vainly to fit into their environment and instead looking—especially Paulette Goddard—like Reno Barbie. For Norma Shearer, he provides more tasteful, simple ensembles that heighten the contrast between her and her frivolous friends—so when she bursts forth in a blaze of lamé, we know her character has definitely evolved. Adrian particularly gets to have fun in the Technicolor fashion show sequence, since so many of his previous films (with the notable exception of The Wizard of Oz) were made in black-and-white. It's fitting that one of the vintage extras, "Hollywood: Style Center of the World" should be a featurette on Adrian's movie costumes' impact on real-life fashion, and in fact for The Women he arranged that no publicity photos of his costume designs be released before the film, lest fashion manufacturers start knocking them off even before the film hit theaters—as they usually did.
The rest of the cast, many of them famous names, are by and large excellent. I'll note the exceptions first: Virginia Weidler strikes me as being too old for the sentimental scene in which her mother explains divorce to her, and Joan Fontaine as the tremulously naïve Peggy is nearly unbearable. Norma Shearer is terrific in the lighter, comic scenes, but veers toward affectation in some of the heavier dramatic moments. Her performance can go from moving to laughable within moments—but she definitely holds her own in the triumphant final scene. Otherwise, the acting is superb all around. Paulette Goddard is a delight as the sassy, wised-up Miriam; Marjorie Main (of the Ma and Pa Kettle movies) is quite simply a hoot as Lucy, the straight-talking country woman; Mary Boland is hilarious as the lovably foolish Countess de Lave ("L'amour, l'amour!"), and on and on. Even the small parts are deftly cast: Butterfly McQueen (Gone with the Wind's Prissy) is fun as one of Crawford's put-upon coworkers, and Dennie Moore's avid, nasal manicurist Olga is priceless.
Warner Bros. has re-released their earlier DVD of The Women for their new Joan Crawford boxed set, but except for the slight change in packaging, this is the same disc that was released in 2002. The transfer is the same: a bit uneven, particularly in visual quality. At times the picture is a bit hazy and soft, and there are instances of speckling, film damage, and jitter. Yet some scenes have agreeable crispness, and the greyscale depth is good if not great. Color in the single Technicolor sequence is clear, but not exactly rich. By and large the visual quality's not bad, but I'd love to see how the film would look if it were given a full restoration. The mono soundtrack, likewise, isn't as crisp as one would like, although dialogue (the most crucial part of this highly verbal film) is largely clear. The option to play the music cues in isolation from the film seems like a false luxury; there isn't enough dynamism to make the music very satisfying.
The extras, all of which are identical to the earlier release, include some nice tidbits: the film's trailer and the trailer for the inferior musical remake, The Opposite Sex, some text notes on the making of the film, and two vintage featurettes: the costume short I mentioned previously and a more tangential piece, "From the Ends of the Earth," which shows how goods from around the world are used in the production of an MGM film. The alternate black-and-white footage of the fashion show is interesting for the different camera angles and blocking used (although the visual quality is bleary), and I could swear they even snuck in some more dresses. I would have enjoyed something more substantial among the extras on the making of the film or its legacy, but this is still an attractive, if slender, supplementary assortment. If you own the previous release, you won't be getting anything new except for the keep case, but if you don't already own this disc, it's well worth overlooking the so-so transfer and extras to have this terrific gabfest in your collection.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What in the sainted name of Irving G. Thalberg is the black-and-white photo on the back of this disc case? One look at the teased '60s hairdos proves that it's not from The Women (or even its 1956 remake), nor am I just imagining that there's a man in this picture. Since there are no men at all in The Women, it's pretty clear that someone at Warner Bros. was dozing when they okayed this photo for the cover. Honestly!
Otherwise, I have no serious beef with the packaging or this release in general. Keep case, good; omission of old chapter list from snapper case, bad—but to be expected. I do like the added watercolor images of Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine on the back, which complement the images of the three leading ladies on the front.
I should also mention, however, one of the more sobering sides of this delicious movie—the damage it did to leading lady Norma Shearer down through the decades. You can read Mick LaSalle's illuminating book Complicated Women for the full story, but basically Norma Shearer has been remembered as, quite simply, Mary Haines. Never mind all the daring, risqué roles she played before the enforcement of the Hays Code; by the time of her death in 1983, she had been ossified in public memory as a noble, suffering—and insufferable—prig. Shearer herself felt that Mary was "too noble"; this, after all, is the woman who in The Divorcee (1930) set out to defy the sexual double standard and in A Free Soul (1931) comes on to Clark Gable with the sultry line "C'mon—put 'em around me!" The actress shouldn't continue to be confused with her role as Mary Haines. If you find Shearer too virtuous to take in The Women, don't stop here—seek out some of her exciting pre-Code work. I guarantee it'll be an eye-opening experience.
For some years now, a remake of The Women has been rumored; at one point I remember hearing that it was to be a Meg Ryan vehicle, with Whoopi Goldberg in the role of Nancy, the unmarried novelist. Even now it's listed on the IMDb as being in "pre-production." Hollywood should have the wits to leave this one alone—a remake is not going to improve on this once-in-a-lifetime cast, the breathtaking MGM production values, or the inimitable touch of Cukor as director. True, it might ameliorate some of the dated attitudes toward women and marriage, but I can't imagine that it could possibly be as entertaining. This is a classic example of "you'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll cheer" filmmaking, and it holds up to endless re-viewings (in fact, you'll need to watch it more than once just to catch all the one-liners that are zinging by at such speed). It belongs in every classic film lover's library.
Not guilty—but the court recommends couples counseling.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Hollywood: Style Center of the World" Vintage Featurette
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