The Women (1939)

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  • directed by George Cukor
  • starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Virginia Weidler, Ruth Hussey, Lucille Watson, Phyllis Povah, Marjorie Main
  • A study of the lives and romantic entanglements of various interconnected women.

“Oh now listen, Peggy, do we know how the men talk about us when we’re not around?”

There are more than 100 roles and speaking parts in The Women, from the scorned wife of Park Avenue, Mary Haines, one of the leads played by Norma Shearer, to a stagecoach driver in Reno, Nevada. They are all played by women. The Haines’ household staff are all women, the train porter, the people walking down the street, the children in photographs, the figures depicted in the art hanging on the walls, the horses, cats, and dogs in the film—all female. Based on a play by a woman and screenplay by two women, the film’s only male contributors of any import are F. Scott Fitzgerald, with some uncredited script work, and the guy in the director’s chair, George Cukor. Having such a wide range of female talent involved, one might be fooled into thinking that this is something of an early feminist statement from a film industry that, even in 2012, has never had a solid reputation in terms of gender fairness or equality. This film strives for no such lofty goals, though; it’s just dated, catty, gossip-laden trash…in the best possible way.

The character with which we are meant to sympathize is the relatively unglamorous Mary Haines, who is forced to come to terms with a publicized affair between her husband and the wicked Crystal Allen, played to perfection by Joan Crawford. It’s hard to imagine what Mary was like as a person before all of the affair business began because during it she is nothing except for a victim and rightfully so, I thought. What I was left feeling at the end, though, is that what she had done to herself–wasting years of her life so ripe for self empowerment just to pathetically run back to her man at the first chance she gets by any means necessary–is far worse than anything any scheming mistress could do. And then there’s Rosalind Russell as Sylvia whose sporadic bouts of crazy eyes were amazing. They took what was a great fight with Paulette Goddard’s Miriam to the next level with a great china-smashing meltdown that sent her all the way back to New York and out of the good graces of Mary. Whether she was on one side of the battlefield or the other or however shallow she seemed, Russell’s comedic touches invited positive feelings from me even when her character’s actions repelled it the most. Throughout the film I wondered why Sylvia and particularly Crystal seem to find such a good target in Mary for not just the affair, but also the society games they play to continue crushing her. But by the end as Mary’s true face begins to come out at the party, I realized that maybe that was present under the surface all along to inspire these characters to relish such preying.

Aside from the lead performances, what I ended up admiring the most about The Women was Cukor’s ability to bombard the viewer with relentless zinger-filled dialogue—silence or pauses were rare with one’s dialogue often blending seamlessly into another’s—and dozens of characters, but still keep the main plot unmuddied. How the Countess was able to coax bits of personal history from the ragged ranch owner in Reno gave a complete picture of a woman that in other movies might have had a pratfall or at the most walked in and out without a sound. When Mary and Stephen’s marriage is going down in flames on the phone and the entire conversation is heard not through them but from one housekeeper to another, we should be more interested in the developments on the phone, but it’s the way these two women talk to each other that commands the attention. Each of these moments and a few others like them showed minor characters reacting to the main story from their individual points of view that Cukor took the time to develop.

That’s the difference between good and bad trash for me. The Women, on the surface, is not unlike Sex and the City or any of those recent holiday-inspired mega-celebrity Garry Marshall productions that take one shallow idea and have their characters live or die by it with no nuance in sight. What worked brilliantly with this film, and not those others, is that these characters spoke a great deal wiser than they acted, which had the effect of elevating this film into something more of a parody and sharp examination of these silly ideals rather than a celebration of them.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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