• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:January 15, 2018

The Women: Talking About Men


thewomen39George Cukor had been hired to direct Gone With the Wind already back in 1936, but the production became a tortured affair for him, resulting in his dismissal. Hollywood was swirling with rumors. One particularly sordid piece of gossip claimed that Clark Gable had been a male prostitute before his movie career and Cukor one of his johns, but there’s not much evidence of any real friction between the two men on set. The dismissal seems to have had more to do with the crumbling relationship between producer David O. Selznick and Cukor. In any case, it gave the director a chance to make The Women instead, which also became a classic.

Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) is living a very privileged Manhattan life as the wife of the wealthy Stephen Haines and mother of a sweet girl, Mary. But things are about to change for the worse. One of Mary’s gossipy friends, Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), hears from a chatty manicurist that Stephen is having an affair with Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford), a perfume counter girl. Not only does Sylvia tell all of her and Mary’s friends about it, but she also sets up an appointment with the manicurist for Mary to make sure that the shit hits the fan. Without knowing whom she’s talking to, the girl tells Mary all about Stephen’s indiscretion, and Mary’s world falls apart. At first, her mother (Lucile Watson) tells her to ignore the rumors and together they travel to Bermuda hoping for the whole thing to blow over. But it doesn’t…

Great energy and glamor
Two women adapted the Broadway play and the filmmakers famously made it even more feminine. There are 130 roles and not a man in sight; even the animals are allegedly female! The cast is superb down to the smallest roles. Shearer may have a somewhat thankless part as the naive Mary, but Crawford is delightfully wicked as Crystal, a role model for every Joan Collins type in later soap operas. Boland is very amusing as the colorful countess at the Reno ranch where Mary goes to get a divorce, but my favorite is Russell, hilarious as the incorrigible Sylvia who couldn’t keep a secret if her life depended on it. Cukor and his team bring great energy and glamor to the film.

The latter part is obvious in Cedric Gibbons’s art direction and Adrian’s costumes, which get their own moment in the sun in a spectacular way – after the Bermuda visit, Mary attends a fashion show and that sequence is, surprisingly, in color as the models show off the new line. The film also opens in a magnificent, technically clever way as Cukor has the camera jumping from room to room, introducing the key players and a few other supporting characters. The story is a soap opera and modern audiences might object to many of its ingredients.

For a film boasting about how it only features women, every part of the story is focused on these women’s relationships with men, which even becomes a little strange after a while, as if the men are mythical creatures we never get to see. The story also thrives on classic stereotypes about women being catty to each other, always competing and backstabbing.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie is very entertaining and was probably seen as groundbreaking in its day, but the drama isn’t on the same level as The Women’s sense of humor.

The Women 1939-U.S. 132 min. B/W-Color. Produced by Hunt Stromberg. Directed by George Cukor. Screenplay: Anita Loos, Jane Murfin. Play: Clare Boothe Luce. Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons. Costume Design: Adrian. Cast: Joan Crawford (Crystal Allen), Norma Shearer (Mary Haines), Rosalind Russell (Sylvia Fowler), Mary Boland, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard… Hedda Hopper.

Trivia: Myrna Loy and Dorothy Lamour were allegedly considered for the part of Crystal. Hopper plays a gossip columnist (naturally). Remade as The Opposite Sex (1956) and The Women (2008).

Last word: “I wrote ‘The Women’ practically on the set. They were all ready to shoot when the script came back from the censor with practically every other page blacked out. They had an all star cast that had taken a great time to assemble so they couldn’t put it off to have a rewrite done, so Irving [Thalberg] sent for me and said, ‘We’ve got to get some laughs into this.’ And they’d cut out all of what they called dirty jokes in those days. They weren’t dirty at all. So I sat on the set and wrote the scenes as Cukor shot them.” (Loos, Interview Magazine)

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