The Women

Ring a Ding Ding

The Women (1939)

     It is possible that never a film so remarkably cast or flush with estrogen has been presented to audiences as 1939’s The Women. Based on a play of the same name and remade many times over the years, the story of a slew of gossiping, man-stealing society dames is probably too female-powered to appeal to the stronger sex, but not being a man, myself, I found it quite enjoyable.

     The stars of the picture are really the reason to watch The Women. With a lot of power-grabbing games and spats going on off-screen, it is a wonder the film got made without more than a scar on Paulette Goddard’s leg. Despite five or more big name stars occupying the majority of the screen time, the story is really about Norma Shearer as Mary Haines, wife to Stephen.

     The story starts with super gossip and outright bitch Sylvia Fowler, played by Rosalind Russell, learning from her manicurist that Mr. Haines has been “stepping out” on his wife with a perfume saleswoman Crystal Allen, embodied by Joan Crawford. She spreads word to a friend before the two head to lunch with Mary Haines, and all through the meal Sylvia drops hints about her new-found knowledge. Mary is preparing to go on a Canadian trip with her hubby, but he calls while the woman is entertaining her guests to say he cannot get away. Mary, too, starts to wonder why he has been working late so often. The following day, Mary gets her nails done by that same loud-mouthed manicurist after Sylvia’s insistence and hears some news about herself. She is set on telling her husband off, but her mother persuades the woman, who has a daughter, to keep quiet for a while.

     Meanwhile, Sylvia and Joan Fontaine‘s all-too-innocent Peggy scope out Crystal on the job where we first meet her and discover she is quite the two-faced lady –capable of speaking in a refined, flirty manner one moment and calling Sylvia Fowler “Mrs. Prowler” the next.  Mary and Crystal ultimately run into each other at a fashion show where Crystal is putting the expensive duds on Mr. Haines’ account. The very sweet and rather passive Mary opts to confront Crystal in her dressing room and the two exchange nasty words, but the papers decide –on a front page spread– that Mary in fact socked her sexual rival. Mary now has it out behind closed doors with her husband and we hear the whole affair recounted as gossip among the house servants. Mary heads for Reno, accompanied by a mixed up Peggy, to wait out a divorce. On the way she meets a countess (Mary Boland) and another woman, Miriam (Paulette Goddard) both taking the journey towards divorce.

     Jump ahead to the day Mary’s divorce decree comes through and we learn that a) Peggy is pregnant and will stay with her husband; b) Miriam is having an affair with Sylvia’s husband; and c) Sylvia’s husband has thrown her out and she too is in Reno for a divorce. Once Sylvia discovers via gossip column that the woman she just met is in line to marry her soon-to-be ex, the two get into a physical fight and the bitch bites Miriam in the leg. Miriam, whom we come to like greatly, counsels Mary and convinces her to tell her husband she will rip up the divorce papers. Receiving a call from Stephen, however, she learns he has just wed Crystal.

     A year and a half later, Crystal is conducting an affair while Stephen is miserable in the relationship and the Haines’ daughter is busy loathing “Auntie Crystal”. When Mary hears how unhappy her ex-husband is and that the new bride is anything but faithful, she hits the town out to expose the whole matter, ultimately breaking up that union and getting her man back.

      Shearer’s Mary is continuously noted throughout the movie as being an overwhelmingly kind and sweet woman, thus driving the audience’s sympathy for her. What she does in the end, however, is realize she must drop her pride and essentially become just like the horrible gossips of her friends and drive a scandal to the surface. The act is utterly out of character for the woman, but she finds she must do what is necessary to get the love of her life back. I found this role a different one for Shearer. I am accustomed to her pre-Production Code parts in which she was often the floozy more akin to Crawford’s Crystal. Shearer still offers the same bubbly personality we always see with her. She is almost nauseatingly happy in her life at the film’s start, being superbly in love with her husband 10 years into their marriage.

     For a movie with the tagline “It’s all about men!”, The Women allows none of that sex to walk in front of the camera. With something like 130 cast members, all were female including the dogs and horses also seen on screen. The tagline is not inaccurate, however, as men ultimately drive the entire plot. I am not one terribly in love with gossip, so the whole blithering mouth-running in this movie gets a bit tiring. It is amazing how quickly Russell can talk, but boy does she rock that part.

     Despite being chock full of women, I can see little in this movie that would appeal to men. All dressed in the high fashion of Adrian, the women are not really sexy, nor is there any actual romance happening on screen. Perhaps the only draw contained in The Women for male audiences is a cat fight between Russell and Goddard’s characters. That bite on the leg left a scar on Goddard but the two actresses allegedly remained friends.

      Although filmed mostly in black and white, a fashion show in the middle of the film is done in Technicolor. The start and close of that scene combines a monochrome frame around a small section in the middle of the screen in color. This was a novel technique at the time.

  • The Women is set for 2:15 a.m. ET Aug. 2 on TCM.

Source: TCM.com

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