The Women (1939)

Review by Caroline Golum

Directed by

George Cukor

Starring

Joan Crawford Norma Shearer Rosalind Russell

Anticipation.

Is one of the funniest films of all time still one of the funniest films of all time?

Enjoyment.

Yes, it’s still one of the funniest films of all time.

In Retrospect.

A quietly radical treatise on female camaraderie which is much imitated and never bettered.

Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell are as sensational as ever in George Cukor’s classic Hollywood comedy.

Noted playwright, socialite and staunch conservative Clare Boothe Luce had already married and divorced one good-for-nothing man by the time she wrote her 1936 play ‘The Women’, about Manhattan society mavens and their absent mates.

One year prior, she hitched her wagon to husband number two, Henry Robinson Luce, a filthy rich publishing magnate whose properties included Time, Life, and other middlebrow periodicals targeted toward the commuter class. Sometime between these amalgamations, you can bet sister spent a little time in Reno, Nevada; one of the few places where a woman of means could shamelessly dissolve her happy home.

Per the film’s title card, ‘The Women’ ran for an auspicious 666 performances at New York’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The subsequent film, adapted for the screen by author Anita Loos and directed by woman-whisperer George Cukor, would have swept the Academy Awards had it not faced stiff competition that year.

Epic-ish in length, with more bitches than a Westminster Kennel Club show, there was nothing quite like The Women at the time of its release. Although men are the absolute nucleus of the film’s plot, one sees neither hide nor hair of them on screen. Even one-sided phone calls are devoid of those telltale, garbled baritones – instead, husbands and lovers exist merely as topics of speculation, derision and desire.

Set in the beauty salons, supper clubs and department stores that make up the characters’ natural habitat, the rules of engagement between principal players Mary (Norma Shearer’s married socialite with a straying husband) and Crystal (Joan Crawford’s conniving shopgirl who’s stolen said husband), are on a silky, but hardly soft, playing eld.

Without gender as a differentiator, it is class and status that become the key delineation: Mary and her idle, rarified milieu at the top, with Crystal and her climbing coterie underneath, waiting for one of these rare birds to slip. An ad hoc network of manicurists and maids mete out well-received gossip (and plot points!) to our heroines, who tie themselves in knots trying to relay this juicy intel to the right parties at just the right time.

Even poor, saintly Mary, the centre of this convoluted tale, discovers her husband’s indiscretions while having her nails done in Jungle Red. When his infidelity is exposed, her trip to Reno becomes a foregone conclusion, but the journey to America’s divorce capital is a bumpy one.

Cukor does some of his nest work as the rooster in this maniacal henhouse, bringing cinematic flourish to the oestrogen-soaked source material. With his signature gift for cultivating rhythmic delivery – seen later in The Philadelphia Story and Adam’s Rib – and an air for the extravagant (a Technicolor fashion show set piece midway through is particularly memorable), Cukor cultivates natural and nuanced performances from his cast of sirens; star Shearer, villainess Crawford, and a Greek chorus of gal pals that include Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine and Paulette Goddard.

Directing ensemble scenes with upwards of half a dozen divas is no easy feat – leave it to Cukor to corral this kind of star power into a two hour-plus film that never takes a break to powder its nose.

Published 16 Aug 2018

Tags: George Cukor Joan Crawford Norma Shearer Rosalind Russell

Anticipation.

Is one of the funniest films of all time still one of the funniest films of all time?

Enjoyment.

Yes, it’s still one of the funniest films of all time.

In Retrospect.

A quietly radical treatise on female camaraderie which is much imitated and never bettered.

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