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
Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) believes life with her husband and daughter is idyllic. That is,until — with the unsolicited help of her less-than-true friend Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) — she learns 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. Catty comments and lurid rumors fly at Mary’s luncheon, soon making their way to the society pages. In despair, Mary chooses to divorce her husband. A trip to Reno, then the customary destination for women seeking dissolution of their marriage, brings together a new host of characters with a broad range of woes.
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.
Men play a significant role in the movie, but 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. You’re aware of the absence of men, yet you won’t find a single scene that needs one to make it realistic.
While Ernst Lubitsch was originally set to direct the film (and imagine what he could have done with this story), when director George Cukor was fired from the making of Gone With the Wind, he got the job instead. 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.
Anita Loos later said that despite that tension, or more accurately, because of it, it was Shearer’s idea to have Russell cast as Crystal Allen. She believed their well-known animosity would play well on screen, not to mention bring in curious movie-goers.
There’s a Technicolor fashion show by top couture designer Adrian that’s a bit out-of-place and unnecessary to the plot, but fascinating all the same. Like most fashion icons today, Adrian’s collection ranges from stylish to outlandish. Cukor objected to the scene, but was overruled by studio heads.
Surprisingly, The Women received no Academy Award nominations, but that was 1939, a year many consider the best for the Golden Age of Hollywood. Movies released that year included 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.