The Women, 1939, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 133 minutes
This biting satire of the lives of Park Avenue women has lost none of its punch since it first was released more than 75 years ago. The movie is rich with characters, sub-plots and razor-sharp wit, and the story line itself is as old as marriage.
Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) is a devoted, trusting wife who learns, with the unsolicited help of her less-than-true friend Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), about her husband’s affair with a perfume counter clerk, Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford).
Sylvia has no problem sharing details, real or imagined, with other friends in their social circle, and soon the story has made the society pages. Despite pleas from her husband to stay, Mary chooses to divorce him. In the meantime, multiple other marriages are in trouble as well.
We’re nowhere near the end of this fine film here, but I’m leaving it to you to discover the rest. It ends in a classic screwball-comedy confrontation at a posh event that brings things to the final, melodramatic (yet satisfying) outcome.
The legendary Anita Loos and screenwriter/director Jane Murfin adapted the screenplay from the Broadway hit written by the equally renowned Clare Boothe (Luce). (Other writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, are said to have made uncredited contributions to the script.) The play was much racier, requiring re-wording of large portions of dialogue, which was heavily laden with innuendo too rich for acceptance by the Motion Picture Production Code.
While men play a significant role in the movie, you don’t see hide nor hair of them throughout (with the exception of two minor pictures in advertisements). Apparently even the animals were female. There’s nothing contrived about this, however. While you’re aware of the absence of men, you won’t find a single scene that needs a man to make it realistic.
In a lucky break, director George Cukor had been fired from the making of Gone With the Wind a month before production on The Women began. Lucky, because, in addition to his skills as a director, Cukor was adept at handling the real-life rivalries between his stars, including a fierce professional battle between Shearer and Crawford.
There’s a Technicolor fashion show by top couture designer Adrian that’s a bit out-of-place, unnecessary to the plot, but fascinating all the same with its designs that range from stylish to outlandish.
Surprisingly, The Women received no Academy Award nominations, but that was, after all, 1939, a year many consider the best for the Golden Age of Hollywood, with movies including Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Today most critics agree The Women stands its own with those other fine films.
If you saw the 2008 remake, forget it. There’s no comparison in wit or star power. Stick with the original.