When watching George Cukor’s 1939 classic comedy The Women, I was struck by how much I found myself “examining” the film – instead of just “watching” it. There’s a lot of gender and sexual politics packed into the screenplay which was adapted by Clare Luce, Anita Loos and Jane Murfin from Luce’s stage play. There’s a definite dated bitchiness running through the film – the women hold their friendships dearly, but they also remain catty and two-faced, ready at any moment to betray one another for the sake of good gossip.
It’s telling that the movie opens with the credits – each star is given an animal that she represents: some of the characterizations are kind, but other’s not so much – there are some clichés, including cats, tigers, and child star Virginia Weidler as a lovely fawn. Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford – the film’s two villains – are represented by a hissing cat and a panther, respectively. What the viewer immediately is clued into, is what kind of personality each character posses – it’s a funny bit, but not necessary because the writing is clear – and the characters are drawn so unequivocally – that you immediately understand which woman you are meant to root for, who you are meant to scorn, and who you are meant to loath – the writers, while witty, aren’t exactly subtle, nor are they interested in complex, difficult characterizations.
The story is about Mary Hanes (Norma Shearer), who is the subject of vicious gossip, because her husband Steven is stepping out with a shop girl, Crystal Allen (Crawford). In Mary’s corner are her friends: the talkative Edith Potter (Phyllis Povah); the demure Peggy Day (Joan Fontaine); Mary’s mom, Mrs. Morehead (Lucile Watson); and Mary’s daughter, Little Mary (Weidler). Her Fairweather friend, Sylvia Fowler (Russell) flits back-and-forth forming alliances with either Mary or Crystal, depending on what suits her at the moment.
Because Mary’s so kind and level-headed, she’s the obvious saint of the picture – and Crystal gets some good shots in, lampooning the imagery of the saintly mother. The two have a confrontation in a dressing room of a fabulous boutique. Just to clue you dear readers in on what kind of social-economic world we’re dealing with, Mary seriously considers by a nightgown for $200 – and this is in 1939 money, which would be around $3000 – we’re seriously treading onto Sex and the City territory.
So back to the confrontation – Mary barges into Crystal’s dressing room, and they have it out. The viewer of course hopes that Mary will prevail, but it’s still way to early in the film, and Crystal manages to hold her own. Mary insists that Steven won’t leave her, and Crystal agrees, but is happy with the arrangement nonetheless because she benefits – she gets to shop in a boutique that society matrons patronize, when she’s merely a perfume counter shop girl. Mary snidely calls Crystal a “type” but Crystal calls Mary the same thing. This exchange is really the only moment of complexity in the film – when we’re not given the answers so easily. It’s obvious that Crystal’s the baddie, but the points that she make aren’t terrible, or so easy to dismiss – she also points out that often society matrons become lax, taking what they have for granted and Crystal also wonders why Mary is so hepped up – after all, Mary’s got the house, most of the money, the kid, the name, the prestige, etc. In Crystal’s eyes, Mary’s a dope, but a seemingly selfish dope. Shearer and especially Crawford play this scene very well. Shearer’s facade of strength that masks deep pain and humiliation is so well-done, but it’s Crawford’s sly reading of her lines, as well as, her savage comic timing (she should’ve done more comedies) is what sells the scene.
Mary’s fed up with her husband gallivanting, so she goes to Reno, Nevada for a quickie divorce. She takes Peggy in tow, who is on the outs with her domineering husband who is continually making demands on her regarding their finances. The women set up camp in a hotel for these divorcees. The hotel’s run by Lucy (Marjorie Main), a loud-mouthed, uncouth “Hollywood hillbilly” who screeches her lines in a reedy caw. At the hotel, Mary and Peggy meet the Countess de Lave (Mary Boland) and Miriam Aarons (Paulette Goddard), who are also in line for quickie divorces so that they can get hitched with their newer paramours. Once again, bitchy jokes and putdowns fly faster than you can say Designing Women! Sylvie finds her way to the ranch as well because her hubby’s leaving her, as well. During their stay, Peggy learns she’s pregnant, and all the rah-rah sisterhood stuff flies out the window as they ladies push Peggy to take her husband back, despite all evidence pointing to the fact that he’s an asshat.
And this is where I find fault with The Women – it’s a bit schizophrenic. We are led to believe that these women are strong, intelligent, witty and smart (well, some of them, anyways), and yet the onus is on them when the husband’s leave. Mrs. Moreland advises Mary that men will be men, and that cheating’s almost primal or genetic – I’m sorry, but I think that’s giving these cads a huge out. In guise of casting women as the higher sex, the women are constantly reminded that they’re more evolved and as such, should allow men these failings, because after, they’re just men. Mary insists to her mother that this outdated (even for 1939!) mode of thinking is passé because men and women are married of free will and are equals. But then Mary’s made out to look like a fool because she won’t chase after Steven or gravel. The crazy twisting, dizzying gender fucks in this movie almost made my head explode – at one point, I felt, despite all her halo-wearing, that Mary was a chump for ever wanting Steven and for shedding any tears for him.
But reading the credits, one has to give allowances for sexism – after all, the weepie women’s picture maestro, George Cukor, helmed this film. Cukor is regarded as a “woman’s” director, because he’s been able to extract brilliant performances from Vivien Leigh, Judy Garland, Katherine Hepburn, Constance Bennett, Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Judy Holliday. And for all his supposed sensitivy toward women, he’s got a heavy-handed old fashioned gay-misogyny approach when dealing with women: essentially, make them suffer and weep continuously. He loves to have his ladies suffer for his art. And boy does Mary suffer. As does little Mary. And even Sylvia (though it’s redemptive and we’re meant to cheer).
What’s also interesting is the wide range of performances that inhabit this film – some are excellent, and some are barely adequate. Let’s get the negatives out of the way: first of all, I have a very low tolerance for child actors – I find them cloying, silly and very annoying. As little Mary, Weidler is awful, awful, awful. She’s weepy and whiny; it doesn’t help that writers decide to write her to be the most sycophantic, kiss-ass on the planet – super-insipid to the point of eye-rolling nausea as she continuously sings the praises of her “mother dear.” It’s a sickly sweet performance that mars the film. Also surprisingly bad is the pretty atrocious performance of Fontaine – who’s made a weird “artistic” choice of reading her lines in a terrible daze, her eyes glazed over, and her voice affecting an unattractive throb, meant to convey emotion, but really all it does, is it makes her sound stupid.
Thankfully, aside from Weidler and Fontaine, the rest of the cast is more than up to the challenge. Shearer’s great – a solid performance that funny and touching. She’s given some doozy lines as well – especially when she starts to indulge in some self-pity, but Shearer’s careful not to push her performance into maudlin chest-thumping (I wish Fontaine and Weilder took notes – or weren’t in the movie). Crawford’s great too – her acting isn’t very natural, but that’s okay – it’s a style of Kabuki, really. She’s grande and doesn’t so much chew scenery as devour it like a Japanese movie monster. Russell is also amazing - she’s really one of the greatest film comediennes, ever. She’s got this rapid-fire delivery, she’s almost a rapper, really – she’s also very brave, allowing some pretty mean physical stunts to be inflicted upon her.
Part of the charm of this movie is its datedness. I guffawed at some of the language - men get called heels and cads. There’s also a wonderfully ridiculous fashion show featuring stylized, over-the-top drag queen creations by Adrian. The scene is great because suddenly we’re transported from black-and-white to juicy, over saturated Technicolor (kinda like The Wizard of Oz). The costumes are a mishmash of all that’s absurd and ridiculous and wonderful about haute couture - the clothes were art deco-influenced monstrosities that would be impossible to wear without gap-mouthed stares, but as works of art, they were pretty fabulous.
Because of the dated themes of the film, I’m not sure how contemporary audiences would view The Women. As a relic, perhaps? As goofy kitsch. It’s interesting that two directors tried remaking the film: once in 1956 as a musical called The Opposite of Sex, starring a pre-Dynasty Joan Collins, June Allyson and Ann Miller, and directed by so-so director David Miller; in 2008, TV scribe Diane English finally got her version of The Women made after some 15 years of development hell, assembling an all-star cast that included Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Bette Midler and English’s Murphy Brown muse Candice Bergen. Both films aren’t remembered too fondly anymore, unable to cram the dated sexual politics into more modern settings.
I could be too pointy-headed about the whole thing, and I should just shut up and enjoy the film, but I can’t help it. There’s a severe layer of artifice that makes it impossible to see this as a film and not reality that happens to be on film. The play’s script betrays its sage origins, and it feels as if each actress gets a moment to glide on screen (instead of on stage) and spout off some great one-liner. In a sense, this film reminded me a bit of Steel Magnolias, the 1988 hit weepie starring Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis and inexplicably Darryl Hannah. Like The Women, Steel Magnolias is made so that viewers can watch a raft of charismatic actresses sling punchlines at each other – though Steel Magnolias ends tragically, there are definite roots of Luce’s work in later film.
The Women is the quintessential “women’s pictures” (the mother of “chick flicks”). If you watch it through feminist-colored glasses, you’ll probably hyperventilate with some of the awful woman bashing; women cannot be true friends because they are inherently bitchy and incapable of being happy for each other. Obviously, we’re watching a cultural time capsule of attitudes and mores – but it’s a lot of fun, and you’ll definitely laugh.