The Women is a 1939 American comedy-drama film directed by George Cukor. The film is based on Clare Boothe Luce‘s play of the same name, and was adapted for the screen by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin, who had to make the film acceptable for the Production Code for it to be released.
The film stars Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Lucile Watson, Mary Boland, Florence Nash, and Virginia Grey, as well as Marjorie Main and Phyllis Povah, the last two of whom reprised their stage roles from the play. Ruth Hussey, Virginia Weidler, Butterfly McQueen, and Hedda Hopper also appeared in smaller roles. Fontaine was the last surviving actress with a credited role in the film; she died in 2013.
The Women has one color sequence by Technicolor, a scene featuring a fashion show. When interviewed by TCM host Robert Osborne, director George Cukor stated that he did not like the sequence and that he wanted to remove it from the film.
In January 1937, producers Harry M. Goetz and Max Gordon bought the film rights to the play for $125,000 and planned on turning it into a Claudette Colbert vehicle, with Gregory LaCava as the director. In March 1938, Norma Shearer and Carole Lombard were in negotiations to star.In November 1938, it was announced Jane Murfin was busy writing the film’s screenplay at MGM. Virginia Weidler was cast on April 24, 1939
The film was commercially successful and was cited as one of the best of the year.Although it received no Academy Award nominations, many critics now describe it as one of the major films of what was a stellar year in Hollywood film production. On review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, The Women holds a 90% ‘Fresh’ rating
The claws are out, and they’re jungle red!
This movie has one of the best casts ever – Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Paulette Goddard, Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland, Joan Fontaine, Hedda Hopper and Virginia Weilder just to make a few. These women carry the movie perfectly and acting is perfection. Some people disagree and say that Norma Shearer acts in a ‘silent screen’ type of way – but I cannot agree with that. I think she did an excellent job especially when she had the crying scene on the sofa (I don’t think I have ever seen anybody cry that well before).
Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) discovers that her husband is having an affair with money-hungry perfume sales girl Chrystal Allen (Joan Crawford). Aided and abetted by her cousin Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) and her army of girlfriends, Mary sets out to win back her man…and teach Chrystal a lesson or two in the process! The movie runs at a rapid pace, and never leaves you bored. The dialog is incredibly witty, it very much surprised me. There was also physical comedy – the hilariously done (and no stunt doubles too!) cat fight between Rosalind Russell and Paulette Goddard. I found the fashion show a bit dragging and too long, but it was still fun looking at all the wonderful classy fashions of that era.
This hilarious comedy about women and their men can appeal to people who are not necessarily fans of old movies. ‘The Women’ is a wonderful catty, witty, hilarious movie that can be enjoyed by many.
There are over 130 roles in this movie, all played by women. Phyllis Povah, Marjorie Main, Mary Cecil and Marjorie Wood originated their roles in the play, which opened on 7 September 1937 and had 666 performances at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York. No doubles were used in the fight sequence where Rosalind Russell bites Paulette Goddard. Despite the permanent scar resulting from the bite, the actresses remained friends.
“Claws, I’ve Had Two Years To Grow Them”
It was fitting that MGM was the studio that brought The Women to the screen. Claire Boothe Luce’s play which ran on Broadway for 657 performances, was her view of the Republican ladies of Park Avenue, in whose society she fit in so well.
None of those studio bosses were exactly flaming liberals, but probably the most political of all was Louis B. Mayer who served on the California Republican State Committee and had his stable of stars ready to do or die for the GOP whether they wanted to or not. Mayer was very active in the campaign to defeat Upton Sinclair for Governor of California in 1934 and put all of MGM’s propaganda resources to defeat the radical Mr. Sinclair.
Claire Boothe Luce knew this world well and certainly had the satirical skills to define it. But make no mistake about it, the real villain here is Joan Crawford, shop girl, working class, and I’ve got no doubt is a Democrat.
Norma Shearer is her opposite, tasteful, refined, and unfortunately getting a little stale with age. Why would her husband now be eying Crawford at the perfume counter if not so.
Due to a lot of interference by not so well meaning friends like Rosalind Russell, who does nothing but gossip about others, Shearer’s marriage does break up and her husband goes off with Crawford. Norma’s down, but not out.
The Women has aged very well as entertainment. It’s as fresh as it was when first presented on Broadway in 1936. There’s always the complaint about no good parts for women being written for the female sex. Definitely not as good as the characters that Clare Boothe Luce created in this play.
My favorite in the cast is Rosalind Russell. Usually cast as second leads and colorless heroines, she fought hard for the part she got her as the heroine’s best friend and worst nightmare. She also fought hard to share above the title billing with Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford who had lots more seniority at MGM than Russell. In her memoirs Russell gives total credit to George Cukor for bringing out comedic talents that no one really thought she possessed. Russell had done comedy before, but had not been as well received as she was in The Women.
George Cukor always had that reputation as a women’s director and I think this film with the obvious title probably is what gave him that reputation. The Women takes a lot of its edge also from the real life situation at MGM. Norma Shearer, being the widow of Irving Thalberg, was the dowager queen of the lot and she still got the first pick of dramatic parts. Only Greta Garbo at MGM who was in a different plane of existence practically topped her. The rest got Shearer’s leavings, especially Joan Crawford. That led to a lot of resentment around MGM.
Among the supporting cast look for good performances from Joan Fontaine as the young and shy divorcée, Mary Boland as the scatterbrained Zsa Zsa Gabor of the day, Paulette Goddard who gets Russell’s goat, her man, and the best of her in a chick fight and Marjorie Main as the wisecracking owner of a Reno dude ranch where the women stay when they’re shedding their mates.
Within two years Norma Shearer would retire from the screen and Joan Crawford in four years would leave MGM. This was the last really good film either of them did at Leo the Lion’s den and it’s fabulous.
Women as Darwinian Predators
3 March 2005
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Women having cat fights over men never looked better than they did in George Cukor’s adaptation of Clare Boothe-Luce’s hit Broadway play. An all-star cast of actresses (which included the established, the Broadway vets, and the rising in one huge ensemble), THE WOMEN never once seems as if it’s aged a bit because its story could very well be placed in a modern setting.
The only shame I think is that its release coincided with the year 1939. There were too many other movies that were already vying for recognition and because of this massive competition it got lost in the shuffle. Had its release been withheld until the following year, there’s no doubt it would have gotten at least an acting nomination, or multiple nominations in different categories including best picture.
The story at the center is any woman’s nightmare: that her husband is having an affair and that everyone but her knows about it. Norma Shearer is this woman. She plays Mary Haines, happily married to Stephen Haines and mother of Little Mary. She has no idea that Stephen is having a torrid affair with perfume clerk Crystal Allen, but Sylvia does (as does everyone else) and plans to have Mary find out about it. Sylvia uses the communication skills of a manicurist to have Mary find out about her husband’s secret, and things boil up to a crescendo at a fashion show when both Mary and Crystal meet and spar. Mary decides after an argument to leave her husband in a quickie divorce signing at Reno where she meets not only the eccentric Countess deLave but Miriam Aarons, who is the other woman in the Fowler marriage. Sylvia later also arrives in tears and then finds out that Miriam is set to be the next Mrs. Fowler and a fight ensues. At the last moment, Mary gets a call from Stephen: he will marry Crystal Allen after all. Crystal, now the new Mrs. Stephen Haines, takes to his money and her new lifestyle with a vengeance and makes Stephen pretty miserable. On top of that, she is carrying on with a new guy, Buck, who was up to now the Countess deLave’s husband. Sylvia of course learns of this, and the news reaches Mary’s ears, who tries to win back her husband and re-kindle her marriage using the same viciousness used against her.
At first glance this is a pretty straightforward comedy of manners among the women who inhabit this world — who are more real than anyone would like to imagine. However, there are a lot of little elements that the script adaptation of Booth-Luce’s play tell about women and how they see not only other women in society, rich or poor, but how they see themselves in a world where the next young thing could displace them and their perfect homes. In essence, this is the first movie to tackle the issue of divorce so successfully and movies like THE FIRST WIVES’ CLUB and the TV soaps MELROSE PLACE and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES owe a lot to THE WOMEN. The use of the term ‘sister’ is an interesting one, it being at the heart of the feminist movement — female bonding is one of the film’s strongest points and serves as a counterpart to the viciousness that we see early on. Interesting that Miriam Aarons, herself an “other woman” is the first to come up with the term. She is the exact opposite of Crystal Allen. She also comes from the streets but is a well-meaning woman and Paulette Goddard plays her like she herself has been there.
Cukor definitely knows his actresses and extracts their best performances of their careers. Of the main actresses, the only one to have been past her prime is Norma Shearer but she gives here her last great performance. Restrained, at times even underplayed, vulnerable in a world of female sharks, watch for the scene when she collapses into tears at the news that her husband will marry another woman. This other woman, played by Joan Crawford at a time when she needed the boost in her career (albeit a temporary one), is vicious, made of steel, and Crawford sinks her teeth and claws into Crystal, all growls and purrs, and literally walks off with the movie. Too bad she wasn’t considered for a Best Supporting Oscar. This is her best performance on screen, multi-layered, fascinating. An interesting sequence between her and Virginia Weidler (who outdoes her admirably in a sensitive role) playing Mary’s daughter is one with future “Mommie Dearest” echoes. And needless to say the rich comedic timing that Rosalind Russell brings to pretty horrific character, Sylvia Fowler. What an actress! She pulls out all the stops in her scenes, going from plain bitchy, to conniving, to furious, to deceived, and all the time in that rapid-fire speech of hers. Marjorie Main, Mary Boland, Lucille Watson, and Joan Fontaine are all great — well written characters all directed by the equally great George Cukor who has created a timeless classic with this movie.
Author: jotix100 from New York
19 October 2003
“The Women” owes its appeal to the great George Cukor. Without him, it would certainly have been a different movie. Because of his direction this is a Hollywood classic at its best.
They certainly don’t make pictures like this anymore. Imagine what it would have cost to have a first rate cast to fill the shoes of all these women in today’s Hollywood? It would probably be so prohibitive that no one in the present climate would touch it with a ten foot pole.
“The Women”, as written by Clare Booth Luce for the stage, was a delicious comedy about New York society, as it was in the late 30s. Of course, by today’s standards, this is a very chaste take on that subject. Had it been done today, it would have been done entirely different and the excellent text by Ms. Luce would have probably been thrown away to satisfy the taste of contemporary audiences.
Norma Shearer was excellent as Mary Haines, the suffering wife, who has no clue of how her husband has fallen to the charms of Crystal Allen, beautifully played by Joan Crawford. Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine and the rest of the cast seem to be having a lot of fun while playing these women.
One thing does come clear, those women had a style and a sophistication well beyond the times they lived. It’s very clear that Claire Booth Luce was well ahead of it all, as she had an understanding for what was going on around her. What a thrill it must have been to have been around New York in that glamorous era!
Women: Love them, as we cannot live without them!