Like previous Five Star Films pick Mr Smith Goes To Washington, MGM’s The Women was released in that most stellar year of filmmaking: 1939. Other 1939 releases include two of the most famous films of all time: Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. The Women’s director George Cukor actually worked on both iconic films (as a pre-production director, though uncredited) prior to commencing on The Women. Cukor would go on to directing arguably his most famous film, The Philadelphia Story, the following year (for which he received his second of five Best Director Academy Award nominations – finally winning the Oscar for 1964’s My Fair Lady).
The Women began as a hit Broadway play by Clare Boothe Luce, which was adapted into a screenplay by Jane Murfin and Anita Loos (author of the novel and play Gentleman Prefer Blondes, on which the 1953 film was based). F. Scott Fitzgerald was also said to have contributed (uncredited) to the screenplay. The wonderful resulting film was a critical and commercial success. It’s also one of my Five Star favourites – for many reasons, including these five:
1. THE OPENING CREDITS
The Women tells the story of a group of high society Manhattan womens’ relationships with their men and with each other. In the opening credits, the main and supporting characters are introduced in a novel way: they are allocated an animal that personifies their character’s personality traits, and we see (in order): the actor’s name, their respective animal, and then their real face and their character’s name.
The principal cast were not only extremely high profile stars, but in many cases ‘Scarlett O’Hara wannabes’: as just about every female star from MGM (and many other studios for that matter) had been tested for the Gone With the Wind lead.
First up we have a gentle deer, representing Norma Shearer as Mary Haines, whose husband is having an affair with the Joan Crawford’s Crystal Allen, shown as a dangerous leopard. As third lead, Rosalind Russell, who would star in Five Star Film pick His Girl Friday the following year, as Mary’s cousin Sylvia Fowler – represented as a black cat. The extensive supporting cast included Paulette Goddard (who was one of the Scarlett O’Hara serious front runners, and at the time – controversially – Charlie Chaplin’s third wife) as a fox, 22-year old Joan Fontaine (a year before her Best Actress Oscar-winning role in Rebecca) as a lamb, and Margorie Main (of ‘Ma Kettle’ fame) as a horse.
2. 100% FEMALE CAST
In a move unique for the Golden Age of Hollywood, when so many male/female romantic movie star combinations were film headliners, this film had a 100% female cast (like the original play on which it was based). This included 130-odd speaking roles, all the extras, and even all the animals in the film. The success of The Women proved that women could carry a film. The cast (especially the principals) certainly had the star power to draw audiences.
The feminist merits of the film, however, have been debated – and opinions are quite divided. It’s a complicated matter, and there are arguments for both sides: On one hand, there’s the above-mentioned full female case cast, which included so many strong women characters who know what they want, and fight for it. There are also many moments of female solidarity and women supporting and looking out for each other. On the other hand, particular lines of dialogue could certainly be perceived as anti-feminist: such as when after Fontaine’s Peggy decides to return home to her cheating husband, she exclaims (simultaneously gleefully and trance-like) to Mary, in relation to said husband: ‘When I get back, I’ll do everything John says’.
There’s also debate as to whether or not The Women passes the Bechdel Test. It definitely exceeds the requirement of having a minimum of two women, and they certainly talk to each other (actually, for over two hours), but the question of whether The Women satisfies the third requirement is divisive. The film’s tagline is in fact ‘It’s all about men’, but it can be argued that some parts of some conversations aren’t.
3. THE SNAPPY DIALOGUE
There’s so much terrific dialogue in The Women. The mix of snappy writing, Cukor’s deft direction and the wonderful timing skills of some very skilled actors makes for a delicious combination. Many large-cast scenes involve various characters either talking over each other or delivering such quick retorts that there’s hardly a microscopic pause between lines. This rapid-fire delivery gives an added kick to scenes that were already engaging and full of vitality.
Some of the best lines come from Russell. Her Sylvia is quick-witted, cheeky and irreverent. When she’s not taking an exercise session seriously and her exercise instructor chides ‘… posture. A lady always enters a room erect’, Sylvia replies ‘Most of my friends exit horizontally’.
Veteran comic actor Main is also a stand-out. There’s something about her (often deliberately dry) delivery technique and comic timing that makes every line she says hilarious. Her dialogue was already well written, but her delivery skills take all her scenes to the next level.
4. THE FASHION PARADE
Around forty-five minutes into this black-and-white film, there’s a colour fashion parade that lasts for about six minutes. Though it does admittedly interrupt the momentum of the previously advancing plot, it’s just so glorious in its own right that it does in fact add to the magnificence of the film. The gowns and other fashion pieces by acclaimed designer Adrian are simply stunning. And in vibrant Technicolor, that just pop!
[SIDE NOTE: 1939 audiences could have been forgiven for assuming that stunning colour inserts in black-and-white films would be the new norm: as the film with history’s most famous transition from black-and-white (well, actually sepia-ish) to colour (when The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy steps out into Oz for the first time) had opened only one week earlier.]
5. THE DRESSING ROOM SHOWDOWN
Near the end of the first half of The Women, there’s a fabulous showdown between Mary and Crystal. Representing the moral good/bad dichotomy, we see Crystal in a shiny and flashy leg-revealing dress, with her face lit in shadows, and Mary in a more demure long black evening gown, her face lit more brightly, appearing more open.
As the two women fight about Mary’s husband / Crystal’s lover, consummate actors Shearer and Crawford are both at their best. With less accomplished actors (and direction), Crystal could have come off as a one-note ‘bad girl’, and Mary could have been quite a bland character. Both performers bring a multi-dimensional depth to their characters – and they both pull off the perfect balance of forthrightness and restraint. If Mary and Crystal had succumbed to a catfight, the scene would have been less interesting. It’s so compelling to watch the two characters hold it together, while they’re clearly seething underneath. While making verbal digs at each other, they still keep to convention, and refer to each other as “Mrs Haines’ and ‘Miss Allen’.
The films most cutting and terrifically bitchy line is delivered by Crawford at the end of the scene. Just after Mary has looked Crystal’s outfit up and down, and said ‘May I suggest if you’re dressing to please Stephen: not that one, he doesn’t like such obvious effects’, Crystal replies ‘Thanks for the tip, but when anything I wear doesn’t please Stephen, I take it off’.
To conclude, I’d like to encourage you to see The Women if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of experiencing it. At time of writing, it’s just over a month until the 75th anniversary of the films September 1st, 1939 release. What better time to enjoy an outstanding film that’s stood the test of time so beautifully?
…. and please, I beg you: don’t bother with the 2008 remake – it’s an insult to the original, and really not worth your precious time.
Lisa Malouf – follow Lisa on Twitter here: @lisamalouf