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THE WOMEN, 1939
Movie Review

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THE WOMEN MOVIE POSTER
THE WOMEN, 1939
Movie Reviews

Directed by George Cukor
Starring: Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell
Review by Virginia De Witt



SYNOPSIS:

New York socialite, Mary Haines, discovers her husband is having an affair with Crystal Allen, an ambitious sales girl. The affair becomes the latest society scandal. Mary’s upscale friends, particularly the gossipy, spiteful Sylvia Fowler, take sides. The women help to push her into divorcing her husband. After much scheming all around, both social and emotional, Mary eventually succeeds in winning her husband back.

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REVIEW:

This is a high style exercise in skewering the leisured upper class women of the pre-war era. It was the major paradox of Depression era movies that they so rarely reflected the contemporary struggles of the audiences who went to them in droves, but had so little interest in seeing their own troubles dramatized on screen. When “The Grapes of Wrath” opened in 1940, it met with only modest success. John Ford’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s socially conscious novel was pretty much the only time one of the major studios attempted to address the painful realities of everyday life for 1930s audiences. Escape was the order of the day, and the glamourous lives of the wealthy - the beauty treatments, the lunches, the dinner parties and night clubs - were a welcome subject for movies so long as they were treated irreverently. As they were, for instance, in the screwball comedies of the day.

The Women is a wonderful example of this trend. Adapted by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin from Clare Boothe’s hit Broadway play of the same name, the movie offers wit, slapstick comedy, glossy art direction by Cedric Gibbons and the height of ‘30s fashion from the great classic Hollywood designer, Adrian.

The director, George Cukor, was renowned for his ability to work well with women. This skill was never put to a greater test than in his work with the all female cast of The Women. The actresses range from some of the great stars of the era, Norma Shearer as Mary Haines and Joan Crawford as the gold digging Crystal Allen to character and bit actresses. All of them are treated with respect and given their chance to shine. Shearer is sometimes a bit too tremulously noble, but there is a warmth to her presence that makes up for this unfortunate habit. Crawford is at her best here though, tough and unapologetic, funny, and glamourous all at once.

Cukor’s handling of the rest of the cast is equally impressive. Most notably, Rosalind Russell, in what proved to be her break out comedic performance, benefited from Cukor’s deft direction. She had originally wanted the play the character of Sylvia Fowler in a more straight forward dramatic style. However, Cukor encouraged her to go over the top with a comedic interpretation of this otherwise unlikable woman and attempt the slapstick scenes which are one of the movie’s delights.

But even one scene under Cukor is enough allow an actress to stand out. Virginia Grey plays a sales girl who works with Crystal. Cukor makes the most of her twinkling presence, and the repartee between the two women as Crystal attempts, via a phone conversation, to manipulate her lover into seeing her that night, is one of the funnier moments in the picture. But it’s hard to find a weak link in the cast overall. All the women, from a very young Joan Fontaine, to the feisty Paulette Godard, to the mature sagacity of Lucile Watson as Mary’s mother, contribute memorably.

The women are helped considerably by the glamourous sets and costumes, as well as the expertly lit black and white photography which, at one point, turns briefly to Technicolor in a scene that threatens to stop the film dead. A fashion show of Adrian designs is inserted mid-way through the picture. Although it has no real purpose in the movie, it was clearly designed for the women in the 1930s audience to vicariously engage in the high fashion elegance that the movie’s characters so take for granted. Initially the scene feels silly, but it does serve to exemplify the high style and spirit of fun of the film.

A great deal of the charm of the film is that it refuses to take the problems of these women very seriously. Indeed, the women themselves don’t take each other very seriously. The dialogue between them is sharp and witty:

“Will I find anything in that icebox of yours?”

“Yeah, cobwebs and a bottle of gin.”

Or,

“A lady always enters a room erect.”

“A lot of my friends exit horizontally.”

Amazingly, although 70 years old, the film still feels fresh. The only thing that dates it is the knowledge of how much women’s roles have changed over the decades since it was first released. The movie’s tag line, “It’s all about men!” pretty much sums up the prime motivation in the lives of all of these women. A model in the lingerie boutique where the women shop shows off foundation garments, and on overhearing a sales woman comment on men’s infatuation with young bodies, says plaintively, “But what else do we have to offer?” Mary’s mother advises her to stay with her cheating husband because “50 years ago when women couldn’t get divorced they simply made the best of these things ...” and, of course, the film ends, without irony, as Mary literally rushes headlong, without question, back into the arms of her wayward husband. Still, the movie can be watched today with a great deal of enjoyment for it’s fast paced humour, great style, and wit.

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