#30 Golden Age of Hollywood Series
The Women turns on a gimmick—no men appear in the film. It boasts the trio of Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell in the leading roles.
The screenplay is by Anita Loos (Red-Headed Woman), based on the popular play written by Clare Boothe. It is directed by a man, the delightful George Cukor who was known as the “women’s director,” and one we’ll meet again in future films.
And yet the joke on the poster is that the movie filled with 135 women is “all about men.”
This isn’t true. Though the main plot line is a fight over a man (the entirely offscreen Mr. Stephen Haines), the film is an exploration of women’s relationships.
The lead actresses in this comedy were in very different phases of their careers.
The wonderful Norma Shearer plays Mary Haines, the happily married wife and mother who discovers her husband is carrying on an affair with a shopgirl. Shearer was nearing the end of her career and The Women is her last significant film.
Joan Crawford is deliciously devious as Crystal Allen, the ruthless shopgirl in the husband stealing business. Crawford was in the middle of her long career, still one of MGM’s top stars and six years away from her comeback in Mildred Pierce.
And Rosalind Russell stole the show as Mary Haines’ friend and an insufferable gossip. Russell was a relative newcomer and a year away from her star making turn in His Girl Friday with Cary Grant.
(You can also get your first glimpse at a very young Joan Fontaine, whose performance here shows why she was cast as the naive and unsophisticated Mrs. DeWinter in Hitchcock’s Rebecca.)
Mary Haines is the last one to know of her husband’s infidelity, and learns of it from the woman who does her nails, rather than any of her wide circle of friends who have been gossiping about it for days. The film tracks how Mary loses Stephen to Crystal and ultimately gains him back again with the help of her friends.
But make no mistake—this is no feminist manifesto.
When Mary first discovers her husband’s infidelity, she is ready to confront him and perhaps divorce him. Yet her mother’s advice is to pretend she knows nothing about it, continue being the perfect wife, and wait until Stephen gets it out of his system.
(You don’t forget you’re in 1939 when you’re watching this film.)
She does confront Crystal, and the movie is a delightful romp of gossipy harpies, wild divorceés, and vicious catfights.
It’s a funny yet quite unflattering view of women.
I recommend it heartily.
And despite all the real progress women have made in the world since 1939, there are some uncomfortable truths about women—and men—that are as true today as they were in Clare Booth’s day. It blunts it with humor, of course, but The Women points out that sometimes your friends are thrilled by your misfortune. That though we all disavow spreading ugly rumors, most relish delivering a juicy morsel of gossip to someone not yet in the know. And that when men reach a certain age, their eyes—if not their hands—often stray to novel (and younger) flesh.
It’ll make you laugh. If you put aside 2020 values, it’ll make you laugh even more.
For people who don’t see the point in watching movies that were new when their grandmother was a child, it can be difficult to explain their appeal. As Dr. Phil says, “you either get it or you don’t.” There’s the fashion—the hats, the cigarettes, the dressing gowns. The glamour of the old Hollywood stars that have that something that still draws you in. The mystique of black and white.
All this is true. But old movies are also a treasure hunt, and sometimes they throw up a nugget that is so spectacular it reminds you these films are time capsules and history as much as entertainment. Something that hits a 2020 audience much different than a 1939 audience.
There’s such a moment in The Women—it comes near the end of the film, when Mary and her mother are discussing the benefits of living alone.
Mary’s mother says, “Heaven knows it’s marvelous to be able to spread out in bed like a swastika.”
The throwaway line is played for a minor laugh. It goes without saying that in 1939, the swastika was not yet a universally denounced symbol of hate and genocide. Adolf Hitler was in power in Germany, of course, and World War II would begin that same year. (Though U.S. involvement would not begin for several years.) It shows how quickly the world can change—and perhaps how the United States had buried its head in the sand at what it initially saw as Europe’s private affair.
It’s a moment that made me sit up straight and bark out a stunned laugh of surprise. It’s not funny, of course.
But then again, in 1939 it was. These films are a product of their time, the same as the films we see today.
It makes me wonder what we’re laughing at today that will make audiences cringe in eighty years. Not the stuff that is deliberately provocative—as I don’t believe the swastika line was in The Women. The stuff we’re not even blinking an eye at that will make the folks of 2101 happy they don’t live in the unenlightened, backward world of 2020 that we believe is so modern. They’ll marvel at how slow paced and simple our fast and crazy modern world is.
Yes, even with our contentious election and pandemic and racial unrest. Knowing how the story ends, they’ll smear over 2020 with the grease of nostalgia, just as we do with the movies of 1939. For even with their glamorous hats and dressing gowns, that generation lived through two World Wars and a Great Depression.
Perhaps this is too serious a blog for a film that is really just a rollicking good time and should be enjoyed as such. It’s a movie that highlights the talents of three major stars and a director, and is a worthy jewel in the crown of 1939.
(And please, don’t bother with the 2008 remake with Meg Ryan. Trust me on this.)