The Films of 1939: The Women
When I heard we were doing a series looking back on the films of 1939, I knew I had to put myself down for The Women. Fortunately for me, the film was also playing in town so I was excited that my rewatch was going to be on the big screen. I wasn’t disappointed because this movie is an absolute treat and, although it’s 80 years old, it still holds up.
Directed by George Cukor, The Women is based on Clare Boothe Luce’s 1936 play of the same name. Like in the play, the cast is made up entirely of women and what a cast it is; Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, and Joan Fontaine are just some of the powerhouse actors involved. The story revolves around Mary Haines (Shearer) and her group of well-to-do friends living in New York City. The women seem to spend their time lunching, going to the beauty salon, and gossiping. It’s at the salon where Mary’s friend, Sylvia Fowler (Russell) first hears that Mary’s husband, Stephen, is having an affair with a shop girl named Crystal Allen (Crawford). Mary soon learns of her husband’s infidelity because Sylvia sent her to her manicurist knowing she would likely tell Mary the same gossip about Stephen that she heard. It’s not that Sylvia didn’t want to be the one to tell her friend her husband was cheating on her. Nope. Sylvia took great pleasure in sending Mary into the lion’s den and seeing her world crash around her. With friends like that, who needs enemies?
Mary is heartbroken but decides to not confront Stephen. She takes her mother away on holiday hoping the time away would make her husband miss her and stop him seeing the other woman. She returns to the city and things come to a head when Mary, along with her friends, attend a fashion show. Crystal is also in attendance, there to flaunt her relationship with Mary’s husband and to spend his money. The movie then shifts to Reno where we see a few of the women who have gone there to obtain a divorce. We also meet a few more women, including Paulette Goddard and Mary Boland, who further complicate the lives of the friends. The film finally returns to New York City where it concludes a few years later.
Although the film does boast a cast of all women, was scripted by women, and based on a play written by a woman, men are still front and center in the story. The focus of the women are men, whether it’s getting one, holding onto one, or splitting from one. The relationships between the women, especially that of Sylvia, is not one that is full of support for each other. There is so much cattiness, pettiness, and jealousy between them all. That does make for some great scenes, though. The ending, for me, felt wrong because what it showed me was that women are nothing without a man, that women need men in their lives. Yes, I know the movie was of “another time” but still, it just doesn’t sit right.
With a cast like this, you know the performances are going to be something. Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford are especially terrific here. Russell proves she doesn’t need Cary Grant to play off of, she is able to hold her own and then some. Crawford’s “Crystal” is mad, bad, and dangerous to know, and she excels at it. Shearer is very likeable and you want to root for her. Her relationship with her daughter, Little Mary (Virginia Weidler in a wonderful performance), is especially lovely. Everyone is in top form here.
George Cukor was only able to make The Women because he fired from directing Gone with the Wind. Although, he hated that he was called a “women’s director,” he certainly had a knack for getting the best performances from his female actors. He does a wonderful job straddling the comedy/drama line. There are genuine moments of tenderness here as well as near slapstick levels of comedy. The only questionable moment for me is the six-minute fashion show shot in Technicolor in the middle of the film. Yes, it’s a fabulous looking but, honestly, it brings the movie to a complete halt. I understand why they threw it in, they were making a movie for women and thought that’s something they’d want to see, but it doesn’t do the movie any favors.
There are a lot of amazing films released in 1939. The list of movies from that year is really an embarrassment of riches. We’ll be focusing on several of them for this series. Make sure that when you’re making your list of movies to watch on their 80th anniversary, please make sure you add The Women. You will not be disappointed.