The Women (1939)

The Women (1939)

The Women (1939). 133 minutes. Directed by George Cukor. Starring Norma Shearer (as Mary Haines), Joan Crawford (as Crystal Allen), Rosalind Russell (as Sylvia Fowler), Mary Boland (as the Countess De Lave), Paulette Goddard (as Miriam Aarons), Phyllis Povah (as Edith Potter), Joan Fontaine (as Peggy Day), Virginia Weidler (as Little Mary), Florence Nash (as Nancy Blake), Lucille Watson (as Mrs. Morehead), Marjorie Main (as Lucy), Dennie Moore (as Olga), Butterfly McQueen (as Lulu), and Hedda Hopper (as Dolly Dupuyster).

The late film critic Roger Ebert once wrote an aside on his blog that, rather than focusing on film, instead meditated on the general characteristics of the female sex. Ebert offered a perspective on women that may be familiar to you: that women are the ideal sex, that they have a natural proclivity for love and kindness, etc. “Women are better than men” is what he called his article. We have probably all heard these generalizations before, usually coming from people who claim to admire women a great deal.

I read Ebert’s post at around the same time that I recently rewatched George Cukor’s The Women, based on the play by Clare Booth Luce, and I was struck by the differences between the perspectives offered by the critic and the film, which Ebert never formally reviewed. Famously over the course of the movie’s 133 minutes, we do not see one male actor—neither leads nor extras; not even the animals are male. But the fact that the actors are all female should not lead us to believe that this movie is a modern-day celebration of female empowerment and the beauty of womanhood. On the contrary, it largely offers us female characters who are gossips, cheats, liars, and manipulators. The Women, you might say, is a barbed look at some of the worst aspects of female behavior, particularly the behavior of women in the high society of 1930s New York, and tells a story that is at odds with the mythology of the naturally gentle and nurturing female that Ebert and others espouse. Yet while The Women does not make us feel good about women per se, it is one of the sharpest comedies of the 1930s—highly daring and as amusing as can be.

The movie follows the tribulations of Mary Haines, a New York society lady with many catty acquaintances. Her friend Sylvia Fowler learns via a gossipy manicurist (who paints Sylvia’s nails “jungle red”) that Mary’s husband Stephen Haines is cheating on his wife with perfume saleswoman Crystal Allen; Sylvia sends Mary to the same manicurist so she will hear the information firsthand. Distraught, Mary confides in her mother, who tells her to ignore Stephen’s affair entirely. Mary tries to distract herself and ride out her discontent, but a face-to-face encounter with Crystal proves too much for her, and she tells Stephen she wants a divorce.

Soon Mary is headed for Reno where her divorce will be finalized. On board the train is her friend Peggy and newcomers Miriam Aarons and the Countess De Lave—all seeking divorces. The characters live on a ranch as they await their papers, although Mary is clearly still in love with Stephen and unsure if what she is doing is right. With the divorce completed, Mary returns to New York, where Crystal and Stephen are now married. However, Mary learns that Crystal is cheating on Stephen, and she stages a coup in the ladies’ room of a nightclub where all of the women are gathered that outs Crystal as a philanderer. Peggy tells Mary that Stephen is at the club and waiting for her, and Mary runs to him with open arms.

The Women is one of the wittier movies I have ever seen about female friendships. Part of this is owing to the sharp dialogue. Consider, for example, the scene where Sylvia and Phyllis interrogate Crystal at the perfume counter. They are spying, allegedly on Mary’s behalf, and they do not identify themselves to Crystal, but the two parties quickly understand each other and begin trading passive-aggressive barbs:

Crystal: Oh, I’m afraid I don’t remember [Stephen Haines]. You see, we have so many men come in here.

Sylvia: Awfully good-looking. Tall, fair, distinguished. I’m sure you wouldn’t overlook him.

Crystal: I’m sorry, but when one’s mind is on one’s own business…

Sylvia: Of course. And, as you say, you have so many men.

As indicated above, some of the dialogue is rather audacious; reportedly a great deal had to be trimmed and excised from the shooting script in order to get it to pass the Production Code censors. And yet what remains is still fairly racy. Take, for example, the scene where Mary encounters Crystal in the dressing rooms of the department store the women frequent. Mary mentions that what Crystal is trying on would never please Stephen as it looks too cheap, and Crystal retorts, “Thanks for the tip, but when anything I wear doesn’t please Stephen, I take it off.” Or there is the final scene in the ladies’ powder room, where Crystal exits, her schemes exposed, and announces to the room, “There’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high society… outside of a kennel.”

Perhaps one of the reasons the movie can get away with as much as it does is due to the prestige and professional reputation of its many powerhouse actresses. Ebert once commented that the 1939 The Women “played like a convention of Hollywood’s top female stars.” Indeed, nearly every role is occupied by someone outrageously famous from 1930s cinema, including Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Paulette Goddard, Rosalind Russell, and Joan Fontaine, among others. Shearer manages to helm the dramatic content without coming off as melodramatic (not until that last shot, at least). Rosalind Russell as Sylvia Fowler is especially delightful. I enjoy her willingness to embarrass herself: she falls over into a cart with her bottom in the air in the department store and gets into a hair-pulling fight in the Reno dust with Miriam when she learns the latter is having an affair with her husband (Miriam is stripped of her shorts and left standing in the yard in her underwear by the end). And then there is the wonderful Mary Boland as the Countess De Lave, the sentimental flibbertigibbet heiress who peppers her language in Reno with the constant exclamation, “l’amour, l’amour!” as well as the “come-ah-tie-yie-yippee” cowboy song of her new lover, Buck. She is a woman of many silly affectations, traipsing around the ranch dirt in a plaid shirt with pearls. When she shows up in New York at the end, she is dressed in still more jewelry and an outrageous feather-plumed hat. In the ladies’ powder room, when she learns Buck has cheated on her with Crystal, she falls onto a fainting couch and moans, lapsing into absurd French in her distress (“La publicité!”)—surely one of the funniest moments in the entire film.

Shearer’s performance may seem like the least spirited of the bunch, perhaps because she is not involved in physical confrontations or shrieking, but I grow more impressed with what she does on screen each time I view The Women, particularly insofar as it relates to the characterization of her mysterious husband Stephen, whom we do not see or hear. In his absence he takes on many qualities and personalities: he is a liar, he is a cheater, but he is also regretful at the movie’s conclusion. He does not deserve to have Mary return to him, but weirdly, I usually feel some pity for him by the end, even if I do not think it is fair to. Who would want to be stuck with the conniving Crystal who is so clearly no good?

The reason that I was able to perceive these characterizations of Stephen was because of Shearer’s performance as Mary, including the phone calls she takes from him and the stories she narrates about their time together, especially in conversations she has with her mother and daughter. In this way, the effectiveness of off-screen Stephen is reminiscent of other effective off-screen creations in cinema, such as the character of Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949). That is to say that while the male sex lacks a physical presence in The Women, Stephen as a character is brought to life through the skill of the actresses, so that men are still part of the screen time. In this way, The Women transforms absence into presence through the power of female agency. That, in the end, might be one of the movie’s most interesting features.

Still, there are some things that take place in The Women that might cause modern feminists to grumble. There is the abundance of cattiness and gossip, for example. Is the movie suggesting that all or most women are prone to such behavior? Perhaps, but while so many of the women behave poorly and gossip wildly, Mary and her immediate family emerge as alternatives to much of what we see. In the end, when Mary wears her nails the same absurd “jungle red” color as the other women and schemes to undo Crystal in the nightclub powder room, she is putting on their behavior like the nail polish color, as if it were a tool or device that she can opt to use but that does not change her fundamentally good nature. There are others who do not gossip: we should note that Mary’s mother abhors her daughter’s chatty friends. Mary’s daughter also does not freely share secrets. She keeps the news of Crystal’s unseemly behavior from her mother for some time, until she perceives that it is more important to be honest than to be obedient to her stepmother Crystal. Moreover, constantly prattling Sylvia Fowler is clearly meant to be a gossipy fiend, possessed by a strong desire to revel in others’ misfortunes. Even the other women in the movie who enjoy sniping about their playmates cannot come close to her delightful venom.

Still, there are other areas that may seem dinosauric to a modern audience. It is true that many, many of the conversations among the women pertain to the men in their lives, what they should do regarding their infidelities and inadequacies, and how they feel with or without them. The women do not, in other words, even after their divorces find a kind of mental space to discuss themselves without reference to men. I do not, though, consider this state of affairs to be so terribly problematic; the women are married and then are recently divorced, after all, so I am not surprised that they often speak of their partners. It seems to me that they would be shallow and unfeeling if they did not. What I find to be more troubling is the argument that develops among the characters that to be a woman in love, one has to have no pride. In the movie’s conclusion, Mary announces that at long last she has lost her pride, and in the final shot we see her rushing with open arms towards her off-camera husband. I love this movie, but even I cannot argue that this ending is anything other than corny and unnerving. In that last shot, it is as if The Women has turned into a John Waters film—emotive, over the top, and embarrassing to watch.

I can move beyond the fact that The Women is imbued with attitudes that might seem unfashionable to some audience members. After all, we should consider who this movie is about. Because the title is so general, it has the potential to apply to all women, but that is the movie’s challenge to us. Is it really about all women? The Women’s title makes a definitive move: it is about the women, those women, the ones in the movie. And those women come in many types. The movie offers us such abundance, and we quickly come to learn through the vast number of characters and their personality types that there are as many types of women as there are women. In this way the movie is too playful to really generalize, too urbane to be so monolithic. It is a shame that Ebert never included it in his Great Movies series, because it is one of the best and brightest of the 1930s.